A little update from CDLT

Posted on: 3rd April 2024

Last week the castle gardens and cafe opened for another visitor season. We are optimistic about this year being one where we can focus on new growth rather than struggling with the challenges, red tape, and increased costs that have affected not only the Clan, but also many other local businesses as well.

We are excited to see the work Malcolm and his team are doing in the café. It was good to see so many of you in the gardens and café during our opening week, and we appreciate your support and your feedback. It makes a vast difference in our success; we take our role as a local employer seriously, and our role as a community resource.

With other works completed, now is a suitable time to give a little update on where we are and to share the valuable feedback from our local surveys and the Youth Council.

CDLT as a charitable trust

We know that not everyone knows what CDLT is, particularly those who have recently moved to the area.

To start with, we’d like to outline the purpose of Clan Donald Land Trust as a charity which operates a local business.

CDLT is a community heritage charity owned and run by the Clan Donald community. In 1971 the wider Clan Donald completed the buyout of what remained of the Macdonald Estate and the Clan Donald Lands Trust charity was formed, to protect and promote the heritage and culture of Clan Donald and its over four hundred associated family names.

In 2013 the original charity deed was updated with a fresh list of charitable purposes. Whether a charity is a heritage property, housing development trust, medical or animal welfare body, each registered charity has its own purposes, these being the strict legal bounds of what that body can do and spend its income on.

There are two co-existing parts to the work of the Clan Donald Lands Trust: our work on behalf of the culture and heritage of Clan Donald and our longstanding work to provide sustainable local employment in Armadale.

Our Charity Deed requires that the Trust be governed by a Board of Trustees elected from within the Clan community. Over the years some of those trustees have been local as well as international, all in some way engaged with the Clan Donald community here and overseas.

As the Trust is still an old-fashioned unincorporated charitable trust, Trustees take on unlimited personal risk, including financial. In the event of a major issue the trustees could lose everything. It is a huge ask of anyone, especially when they receive no gain or reward for the role and are simply volunteers. The trustees take on this personal risk not just for the Clan community and its heritage, but out of a deep sense of responsibility as stewards of the Clan Donald legacy towards the community of Sleat.

We are currently working towards incorporation as a Scottish Charitable Incorporated Organisation (SCIO), which would allow us to recruit trustees without the burden of unlimited personal liability. Right now, even with proper insurance policies in place, there is still significant personal risk. In the meantime, if a reader is part of Clan Donald or otherwise supports the aims and purposes of the charity and is able to shoulder the current liability risks, then do please get in touch!

The Armadale charity business

Charities are permitted to undertake commercial activities when the income from those activities contributes to the overall aims and purposes of the charity. Our own commercial activities are comprised of the Armadale visitor centre which has been going since 1976.

For decades CDLT has been funded by a combination of the Armadale visitor centre and UK and international Clan community grant funding. As Armadale has never returned a profit, the majority of the annual shortfall funding has come from the Glencoe Foundation in the USA, which was set up after an original funder, Ellice Macdonald, passed away.

Glencoe supports CDLT to this day and advises that it has funded Armadale to almost $30 million over the years. As a charity, we do not have any financial shareholders and the Trustees receive no remuneration or benefit, they are simply volunteers. The majority beneficiary of our funding, together with any revenue generated by the Castle itself, has gone directly into the maintenance and upkeep of the property and the wages of the local people who have worked tirelessly to keep us standing.

Local employment

CDLT is proud of our position as an important local employer over so many years and we feel a sense of duty to ensure this continues and grows. Last year we employed over thirty staff at the height of the season – many of them young people. And this year at the time of writing we are proud to say all our staff are local to south Skye, with the majority coming from Sleat.

Many of you reading this will have worked for the Clan, hopefully some in easier times than the endless trials we and so many other charities now face. Some of you may remember the early days of support from Ellice MacDonald and the Glencoe Foundation, when the finances were much more stable, and the Clan didn’t struggle to fill gaps in funding. Sadly, these days have passed and CDLT needs to stand on its own feet for the first time.

Recent challenges

Between 2018 and 2020, it became apparent that the previous model of funding CDLT was not sustainable. The funding available from the US Clan Donald organisations had diminished significantly over the years and our own commercial activities were insufficient to cover the costs of our operation without the American funding.

And then in March 2020, Covid hit the world and CDLT like a hammer.

As with many UK charities and businesses, Covid was a disastrous time for CDLT when we already needed larger capital grants from funders – Glencoe and others. Thankfully for the charity and our local employees, Glencoe undertook to carry the Trust through Covid and invested well over £1 million to keep the place going and local staff employed. Without the Glencoe Foundation, many locals would have lost their jobs.

In early 2022, Glencoe advised us that due to Covid support for CDLT and investment market falls there had been a large decline in their capital. Their staunch support continues, but they are heavily constrained by their own diminished funds.

This challenging situation became a perfect storm when inflation spiked higher and yet higher. Costs we were already working hard to control increased markedly. Some of our biggest bills such as electric and insurances increased to crippling levels. Our main electric rates increased by 600%.

We had to consider closing down buildings and closing down much of the visitor offering. And all this at a time when we desperately needed to invest in repairs and improvements.

Steady progress

Despite these challenges, there is light and there has been steady progress. Much work behind the scenes has restructured the charitable business and, after exploring options, in 2023 the commercial part of the charity nearly returned a profit. This is all down to the hard work of our local team. We are proud of what they have achieved against the odds and at a time when each week presented new difficulties.

We are still working hard to do the best we can with extremely limited resources. Thankfully, we still have some USA funding, just at a much lower level than before. Many local businesses and charities here in Skye do not have that back-up; so we embrace our blessings as we find them.

Insurances

The trustees of any charity in the UK have clear legal obligations. The Scottish charity regulator website outlines not only the legal framework and duties, but helpfully also many best practice suggestions. There are legal ‘musts’, best practice ‘shoulds’, as well as other points for consideration.

On top of these legal obligations, as a charity with a commercial business that part-funds our existence and work, we have many other legal boundaries to work within on a daily basis. In the last 10 years the legal and liability world has changed beyond recognition. It is incredibly daunting to run a charity these days; for us we feel an even bigger responsibility to the many families who rely on CDLT for a living.

After Covid, the insurance world restructured. Things like car and home insurances were largely unaffected except by increased costs, but business, estate and farm policies were severely impacted by both massive policy price hikes, tighter conditions and underwriters leaving the riskier sectors altogether, which includes properties with mature trees and public access.

Recent major tree claims turned the insurance world upside down. Now, in so many ways, we and other similar bodies are not only run by Trustees, but by the word and robust direction of insurers. This would be the same situation and cost for any entity managing such a space with due regard to its legal obligations and liabilities.

The hard reality is that without insurance we would be forced to close the visitor business part of the charity and most of the local employment here would end. We are doing all we can to meet the demands of a changing liability world, whilst trying to fund the massive policy costs and being as open as possible. Please support and help us if you are able; with increased resources and particularly with additional volunteers, we can do better and we can do more.

Armadale Gardens

From the work of Tim Godfrey and so many others to where we are now as an acclaimed woodland garden, it has been an extraordinary journey for Armadale Castle Gardens.

Each year we invest heavily in the gardens because we love them, and we love all of you being here enjoying them. There is no point in our gardens work and investment if there is no-one to enjoy it. But the place needs constant work and lots of money and, importantly, our staff have the right to a livelihood and to be appropriately paid for their work they do on our behalf.

With the location challenges of being a small island castle ruin rather than one of the grand castles elsewhere, our visitor numbers and available support are less than many other similar estates. This challenge means that we cannot be both free access and keep this place going as a local employer. We need visitors, we need income, and we need your local support as well.

The season pass for locals is just £25 for a local household and free for children. The household pass is a small contribution to the work of our local staff. We are immensely grateful for the support of so many of you, including many words of encouragement and kindness. If you can help as a volunteer, please get in touch. More help means we can do more.

Mature trees

Each year we commit a large capital sum to a programme of professional inspections and tree surveys. This is done for public and staff safety reasons and also for the health and welfare of our beautiful trees themselves.

Some issues we expect, and others are a shock and upsetting, particularly when an older tree has become weakened by decay or disease. Often, it is as simple as dangerous branches and limbs needing to be removed, but at times an entire tree needs to be sectioned down. Please know that if we are working on trees then there will be a good reason for that, and the work is done with a deep sense of stewardship and care for these trees that we have nurtured for so many years. Happily for each tree that comes to the end of its long life, we plant many more. By joining as a volunteer you can help us plant those trees.

Community surveys and Youth Council

In the latter half of last year we undertook a local surveys and consultation exercise, which is something we promised to do in 2022 until challenges and difficulties became more apparent.

There was a short consultation with our crofting tenant stakeholders specific to their needs, a wider local community needs survey, and also an attempt to develop a Youth Council to work under our Board of Trustees, essentially looking to find a new way to engage with younger people.

In the link HERE we explain the surveys and share the feedback.

Thank you!

These have been, and continue to be, challenging years for the Trust, but we know for so many of you as well. At times it feels like each day and week offers a new obstacle to overcome or an added cost to be budgeted. We understand how difficult it is for so many local businesses at this time and, for our part, we wish for better times for all of us, more capital to invest locally, and the opportunity to work with others on exciting projects and partnerships. We look forward to simply having the time and opportunity to look forward for a change.

As things stand we are stretched, tired and yet doing our level best to keep this local employer going for the long term. But things are a bit better and there is some light.

Thank you from trustees and staff to those who have shown understanding and helped in so many ways. These years have not been easy, and we would not still be here as a local employer without your support and that of the wider Clan.