Just outside Stonehaven in Aberdeenshire, on the side of a steep cliff overlooking the North Sea, sits Dunnottar castle. Once a medieval fortress, the picturesque ruins are open to the public for days out but have not boasted overnight visitors since the likes of Mary Queen of Scots and her son James VI in the 16th century. Now, under new proposals to be debated at the Scottish National party conference next weekend, Dunnottar could become one of a number of Scottish castles to be transformed into high-end but affordable hotels.
The plan is based on the model of Spain’s paradores, government-run historically significant buildings such as churches, castles and stately homes, often in areas underserved by tourism. They have existed in Spain since 1928 and include iconic sites such as Parador de Santiago de Compostela, which began life in 1499 as a hospital for pilgrims travelling to Santiago and is considered to be the oldest hotel in the world. Today, Spain has nearly 100 paradores, including fortresses, convents, monasteries and even a former prison and asylum. In 2019, they generated a turnover of €261m (£230m) for the country’s economy.
Fergus Mutch, a former head of research and press for the SNP at Holyrood and now the party’s MSP candidate in Aberdeenshire West, was among a group of members who drew up the proposals as part of a 24-point Rural Stimulus Plan put together over Zoom during the first coronavirus lockdown.
“We were thinking about what rural Scotland needs and what would help attract tourism and inject money into the local economy,” Mutch says. “Someone brought up the paradores idea and it seemed both fascinating and a really cool way to make the most of our built heritage – monasteries, castles, ruins in the hills that could be turned into high-class hotels, which would generate income, bring in tourists, create jobs, and preserve that heritage for the nation.”
Aberdeenshire alone boasts more castles per square mile than any other region in the UK.
It is also home to ancestral buildings such as the 17th-century country house Leith Hall, which Mutch suggests would make a good candidate for a parador.
“It was handed over to the National Trust for Scotland and supported by a local friends group and local volunteers, but there have been doubts raised over its reopening after the pandemic and that seems a real pity,” he explains. “It and other similar sites rely so heavily on volunteers doing tours, running gift shops and tearooms, and that’s fantastic, but it’s not going to sustain them for another 100 years. We need to look seriously at what options there are.”
The National Trust for Scotland announced in May that it faced a black hole in funding as a result of the pandemic, with the charitable body predicting a £28m deficit this year. Scottish government support and an emergency appeal have since raised about £7m but, says Mutch, the situation highlights the need for fresh thinking about how to sustainably protect the nation’s heritage and generate income.
Brian McGarrigle of the Scottish Castles Association (SCA) emphasises that these are only proposals, but he says the SCA “would welcome [them] case by case”.
“We have always taken the position that for a building to have a future it must have a use – there must be an economic return,” he adds. But the parador scheme would be an ambitious undertaking, which would require wide-scale state backing to be successful, he says.
“If granted, the cost of meeting listing status might be prohibitive unless there is national funding, as there is in Spain,” McGarrigle says. “Perhaps we are looking at public private partnerships, which can be controversial.”
For Mutch, who is confident of the plan being approved at the forthcoming SNP conference, operational details can be ironed out in the months to come. “There’s the immediate coronavirus recovery and an election to get through first, but it’s something I’m keen to keep talking about and make a reality,” he says. “I think seeing the first of these paradores in Scotland within the next few years is a reasonable target.”
Scottish Labour’s culture, tourism and external affairs spokesperson, Claire Baker MSP, has given the proposal a cautious welcome. “Too many of Scotland’s historic buildings have lacked the investment, care and attention they need to survive and thrive,” she says.
Though the shutdown of hotels during recent lockdowns should remind us that revenue streams in this sector are by no means guaranteed, this proposal could create jobs and generate revenue for the public purse that could be used to maintain these sites for the public good. However, it is vital that we ensure affordable public access to our historic buildings.”