Some of the nation’s most treasured and historically important gardens are deteriorating under the stewardship of National Trust for Scotland, a leading horticulturist has claimed.
Kenneth Cox, author of Scotland for Gardeners and an authority on rhododendrons, said that he had never seen the future of the gardens in more jeopardy or the morale of the staff at such a low ebb.
Mr Cox, a former member of the trust’s gardens and designed landscapes panel, said that “short-termism” in appointing inexperienced gardeners to replace veteran employees was causing “significant and non-reversible deterioration” in Scotland’s protected gardens. “The whole gardens department appears to be under threat,” he said.
The trust, which relies on donations for its income, cares for 129 historic properties, many of them among the best known in Scotland, and 188,000 acres of countryside.
In October the charity said that it had to cut costs to claw back about £4 million a year. About 90 jobs, a sixth of the workforce, are expected to be lost, although the trust did not specify which roles were vulnerable.
In a letter addressed to the Earl of Lindsay, president of the National Trust for Scotland (NTS), and Simon Skinner, chief executive, he said: “Many of the best head gardeners in the trust have either retired or will shortly retire. These skilled employees have not been replaced with people of the same calibre or experience.
“There appears to be little succession planning in place. Retiring head gardeners should work with their successors for several months before any handover. Instead, for ‘money saving reasons’, appointments are being left until the last minute.”
Mr Cox said that gardeners with “little or no experience in a particular style of gardening” had been put in charge at the gardens at Crarae, near Inverary and Arduaine in Argyll and Bute. Brodick Castle, on Arran, he said, had been so “poorly managed by NTS for decades” that he could no longer recommend it to visitors.
“Head gardeners are being expected to manage multiple properties while having staff cut to contend with in their own gardens,” he said. “If NTS expects head gardeners to be property managers, run media and marketing, HR and health and safety, they need to be paid accordingly.”
Mr Cox said that if the crisis was not confronted soon, the present NTS regime would be “remembered as one which lost a hugely significant part of Scotland’s cultural heritage in a few short years”.
“Gardens are living entities and require constant attention and care,” he said. “One season lost in a garden can take three to five years to claw back. Three years lost and the efforts of a generation are destroyed.
“The NTS has, at its core, a duty of care towards the landscapes it manages. This is enshrined in the European Landscape Convention and the trust’s landscape policy. By downgrading the conservation of some of Scotland’s most valued heritage landscape assets, the trust is quite simply failing its key purpose, to protect Scotland’s heritage in perpetuity.”
A spokesman for the National Trust for Scotland said that gardens remained of “central importance” to Scotland’s heritage and added that it was “taking steps to ensure that major improvements are being made to those that we care for”.
“Following a lengthy period of consultation, the trust is undergoing transformative change,” the spokesman said.
He added that the trust was introducing stronger leadership and direction for gardens by appointing Ann Steele, a former trust gardens adviser, to the role of head of heritage gardening (policy). Ms Steele will report directly to the body’s chief executive. “We have also organised our properties within a new regional structure, which incorporates four new gardens and designed landscape managers, who will directly oversee, advise and support local teams at properties,” the spokesman said.
“Ann has been [given the task of] taking forward a detailed review of the trust’s gardens and coming up with a strategy which deals with many of the issues mentioned by Mr Cox.
“In particular, how we, like much of the not-for-profit sector, can find ways to overcome the difficulties faced in recruiting and retaining staff.
“In the meantime we are actively recruiting to all of our vacant positions and look forward achieving the goals that will generate the additional investment we aspire to.”