The X factors
Long villanised as estate stooges, factors provide an essential link between landlord and tenant – and act as a vital conductor for economic change
The role of the estate factor, as explained by Emily Arbuthnott
When I became engaged to my now husband, several people remarked on how romantic it was to be betrothed to a Scottish laird. As though he was going to whisk me off on his mighty white steed (he doesn’t ride) to a midgefree, pinnacled utopia where we could gaze, windswept, across hill and glens. In fact, ever since we first became romantically involved at one of Durham University’s two nightclubs, when I was actually covertly in love with the captain of the rugby first XV, I have endured comments about me “snaring a laird”. Many of the stereotypes synonymous with Scotland have become so embedded in our cultural consciousness that we have collectively given credence to these caricatures, be it Tory toffs in tweed, warrior-like Highlanders or the villainous, ferocious factor resembling the character Colin Ray of Glenure in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped.
Above: gamekeeper Jim Miller, factor Anson Macauslan and a guest who has completed a Macnab on Braemore and Langwell estate (right)
“Praise for a factor was not a very common feature of Gaelic poetry,” commented historian Leah Lenemen, with some understatement. Just as Sir Walter Scott’s invention of tartanry, defined by RC Thomsen as “the idea of a glorious, romantic past in the wild Scottish Highlands”, is a myth, so, too, is the figure of the tyrannical factor. As paid estate managers, working on behalf of an often absent landowner, Scottish factors trump all other contenders for the role of corrupt and callous baddie. Rural rent-collectors who make the Sheriff of Nottingham look reasonable. Professor Eric Richards describes factors as being an “entire profession across many generations, consigned to the hatebox of history”.
discretion and loyalty
It is little wonder, then, that the majority of factors I spoke with for this article were loathe to say anything on record for fear of being misconstrued, especially in the current political climate. Factors tend to be the epitome of discretion and loyalty, unwilling to attract any ire against the estate they work on or towards the people they work for.
The majority of estate factors have carried on a paternalistic tradition
A factor in Aberdeenshire described what happened when he had a biomass boiler installed in the grieve’s house, to heat the home and a swimming pool.
He goes on to say, “The boiler company asked for my endorsement in a promotional video, detailing how the constant heat generated by biomass systems was ideal for heating swimming pools. The video was taken by a Sunday tabloid, which ran with a story about how public money was heating an aristocrat’s swimming pool.”
I can honestly attest that the perception of factors as a threat to tenant farmers in Scotland could not be further from the truth. Every factor I spoke to possessed a seemingly infinite knowledge, a passion for rural Scotland and had a reasonable and consular approach. Throughout history, the vast majority of estate factors, though primarily concerned with raising revenue for their bosses, have carried on a paternalist tradition of responsibility and duty of care for the land and those who live on it.
There was a fundamental shift in Scotland, in the 17th and 18th centuries, from a landowner who was usually at home and involved in local affairs to a landowner who was largely absent. Correspondence of the time reveals that this absenteeism did not seem to have affected estate tenants as factors tended to be local men who managed estates efficiently and conscientiously. Where factors were inefficient they were soon replaced, as they are to this day.
Around the same time, Scotland was undergoing an accelerated form of agricultural improvement. Crop rotation, road building, diversification, growing village populations, rent increases and administration of forfeited estates after Culloden all meant that the factor’s small, specialised area of responsibility had grown into deep and varied commercial entanglements.
Predominantly, it was factors who were responsible for the managerial aspect of the Highland Clearances, following instructions from above. They were continually dealing with delays, bankruptcies and new owners, which meant that the resettling and relocating of tenants was done suddenly, dramatically and, in some cases, brutally, causing large-scale trauma. Records from the period reveal factors with divided loyalties were sacked for failing to follow orders, resigned or had nervous breakdowns.
“A definite challenge of the job is the ongoing berating of something that happened more than 200 years ago,” remarks Anson Macauslan, who for the past 11 years has been factor of the 50,000-acre-plus Braemore and Langwell estate in Caithness. Macauslan is employed directly by the owner, William Parente, on a full-time basis and is independent of any land-agency firms. “I feel incredibly lucky as I speak to my boss regularly and although he is not here for a big portion of the year, he absolutely adores the place and he knows everyone and knows everything about the estate. I see that my role is not to replace him but be his ever presence here,” he affirms.
Macauslan was brought up in Caithness and had a keen interest and involvement in fishing and “keepering”. After a stint as an agricultural consultant for Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC), he returned to manage the estate. “I absolutely adore the place,” he says.
“I love my job because of the variety and the passion of the people around me, from the gamekeepers to the gardeners to the farm managers. I am surrounded by passionate people who care and want to do a really good job on this land, which is very special.”
Faced with the prospect of land reforms, he is focusing on the medium to long term. “The legislation comes from a lack of understanding about what the rural sector is about. Most of the Scottish population lives in the central belt, which is urban in contrast to the sparsely populated Highlands. However, whatever the challenges we face I want to be part of the solution”.
In comparison with his job at the SRUC, Macauslan concedes the only drawback with his current role is that “it is isolated. Living in Caithness, I am probably one of the only resident factors in the county and there are very few north of Inverness. But I do like the independence and it is a good freedom. A freedom that allows me to concentrate absolutely on what is right for my boss, the land and the community.”
Sarah Roué, the dynamic chief executive of Scone Palace and estate in Perthshire, shares Anson’s belief that the factor’s role in the current climate is to deal diplomatically with everyone involved, in whatever capacity, on the estate. Roué had worked for Smiths Gore (now Savills) for seven years before taking up her role at Scone as Savills’ resident agent five years ago. “The political and legislative environment is quickly changing the way that land is managed. Everyone needs to be open minded and responsive to both the opportunities and threats that this will pose to the use of land. Sometimes not everyone you meet will have the same outlook as you and an integral part of my role is to try and work collectively so that everyone can end up with a satisfactory result,” she says.
Aside from agricultural experience, a 21st-century factor needs encyclopaedic knowledge accompanied by diplomacy, energy, entrepreneurialism, a willingness to embrace adversity and opportunity and the ability to take tough decisions for the longterm viability of the estate. Perhaps it is no surprise that many are under the employ of agencies such as Savills, Strutt & Parker and CKD Galbraith. A residential factor for
an estate in Aberdeenshire feels that in the future his position will go to a firm. “Factors of medium-sized Scottish estates will in time become a named person from an agency because the level of expertise that one needs cannot be satisfied by one person. You need a team behind you. Large estates will probably continue to have residential factors because they are big enough to have their own ‘in-house’ teams. Such as Buccleuch.”
Andrew Aitchison, who manages the Nevis estate for Sir Cameron Mackintosh, is employed by Strutt & Parker and sees the enormous benefit of agencies: “The volume and complexity of the day-to-day ‘grind’ has increased hugely since I started in the business 25 years ago and managing that baseload efficiently and effectively requires a range of systems and a technically capable support team. At the same time, the diversity of specialist expertise required has changed significantly and we now employ specialists in farming and forestry, planning and development, energy and environmental resources and spread that skill base across a range of properties. So while the image of the stereotypical, tweed-clad factor may have morphed into a rural professional wearing a branded gilet with the contents of the estate office on their laptop, the core role of the land agent, understanding what the client wants to achieve and making that happen, remains the same.”
Some owners of Scottish estates are diversifying within a traditional landowner model and the role they play in that. Ronald and Erica Munro Ferguson, of the Novar estate in Easter Ross, have, to a large extent, taken on the role of factor themselves. “We do use Nigel Fraser from Strutt and Parker as our professional advisor. We value his judgement, his ideas and he has become a friend but in a sense of the traditional factor role, we are fulfilling that,” says Erica Munro Ferguson. “The day-to-day decisions are made by us.” They employ 26 people and manage two of their three hydro-electric schemes, as well as a successful sawmill, holiday cottages, staffed-lodge and fishing and shooting. The Munro Fergusons have a modern approach to diversification while still loosely following a traditional landowner model.
Novar was the first estate in the north of Scotland to have a wind farm and in May they host the Single Speed Cycle European Title Championships. The whole community is involved in this. The couple are passionate about making Novar a better place for the community, whether it is extending woodland car parks for walkers to making tracks more accessible. “Our woodland tracks are frequently used by the endurance riding club. We want to give everyone the opportunity to enjoy and see the land,” Erica Munro Ferguson remarks.
The enthusiasm, pragmatism and passion with which modern Scottish factors appear to approach their role undermine the repeated castigation of them as being a “wall of ice between the people and the landlord”. Quite the opposite, they are the vital conductor and executor of economic change, linking the landlord to the tenancy. Factorial correspondence from the 18th and 19th centuries reveals concern for the tenants equipoised with concern for the landowners. This delicate balance could only have been maintained then and can only be maintained now with great skill.
Factors have managed to navigate successful land management through agricultural revolutions, Jacobite rebellions, controversial clearances, an ever-evolving genus of ownership and independence referendums. Far from being tectonic brutes, they are conscientious arbiters of what works in rural Scotland. No stereotype can surpass the stunning Scottish scenery, the history, the heritage and the quality of the hunting, shooting and fishing; but it is time for the hackneyed cliché of the fiendish factor to be dispelled as the myth it is. They are the caretakers and cultivators of some of the most beautiful countryside known to man.
It is time for the hackneyed cliche of the fiendish factor to be dispelled
Above: Nevis estate near Mallaig is owned by theatrical producer Sir Cameron Mackintosh
Andrew Aitchison, who manages the Nevis estate in the Highlands, is employed by Strutt & Parker
Sarah Roué (above), the dynamic chief executive of Scone Palace and estate (above right)
Nevis estate, where the factor says the volume and complexity of “the daily grind” has increased hugely
Headkeeper Roland van Oyen (left) and owner Erica Munro Ferguson (right) at Novar estate in Easter Ross