Since the beginning of recorded time, The Macpherson Clan, one of the major parties to the confederation known as Clan Chattan, occupied the lands in the upper reaches of Strathspey and the western part of Badenoch; indeed, leadership of this powerful grouping was a bone of contention with Clan Mackintosh, and the issue was not resolved–as it turned out, in the Mackintosh’s favour –until 1672. Their rights of occupation were originally based on a grant from the Bishop of Moray and, in more recent times until the middle of the 19th century, from the Duke of Gordon but, whatever the legal niceties, the Macphersons regarded the land as theirs by virtue of undisputed possession.
It was the 20th chief, Ewen Macpherson of Cluny Macpherson who, in the face of financial embarrassment, leased Benalder and Ardverikie in 1844 to James Hamilton, Marquis of Abercorn, one of the trend setters in the emerging interest in deer stalking in Scotland. A member of the Royal Household and Groom of the Stole to Prince Albert, it was as his guest that Queen Victoria and her Consort spent three weeks at Ardverikie in the late summer of 1847. Abercorn had improved and extended the original house to the extent that it provided suitable accommodation for a royal visitor but enjoyment of the estate was curtailed by other calls on his diminishing wealth; as a result, he assigned his lease in 1860 to Lord Henry Bentinck, another stalking enthusiast who remained as tenant until his death on the last day of 1871.
In the meantime, Sir John William Ramsden of Byram in the County of York, reputedly the sixth richest man in England, was learning of the attractions-not to mention the investment opportunities-of property in a newly accessible Scotland, and in 1864 he had leased the estate of Glenfeshie, some twenty miles east of Ardverikie. This was followed shortly by the purchase of The Alvie estate, near Aviemore where he began to develop his lifelong interest on forestry.
It must have been during these early years in the Highlands that he learned of Ardverikie and Benalder and their reputation as one of the finest of stalking properties; his experience in landownership and the opportunities for wealth creation in his native Yorkshire had clearly sharpened his instinct for investment and, in May 1871, he bought both forests from Cluny Macpherson for £107,500–equivalent roughly to £6.5m today. Not content with the 60,000 or so acres of these two deer forests, Sir John set about acquiring by exchange or purchase a further 90,000 acres.
Lord Henry’s unexpected death after a day’s hunting in Leicestershire gave Sir John vacant possession of his recent purchase and one of his first moves was to spend a considerable sum on upgrading and extending Abercorn’s house. In October 1873, it caught fire and although not burnt to the ground, the only remaining part of the building of any value was the section occupied by Queen Victoria, known since then as The Queen’s Wing. One of the saddest aspects of the fire was the destruction of works by Landseer which decorated many of the bare plaster walls ‘though happily, photographs of these still exist and the major works for which some of them were studies are still in private collections today.
The fashion for Scots Baronial architecture was firmly established by then and the replacement which was completed in 1877 bore, as might be expected, little resemblance to its predecessor.
Sir John now embarked of a programme of enhancement which included the establishment of thousands of acres of commercial woodlands, deer forest improvement, the construction of new lodges and staff housing, a hydro-electric scheme and, in time and probably against his will, a heavy commitment to sheep farming as his tenants were confronted by agricultural depression. At times, he had as many as 180 men on his payroll and the scale of the expenditure carried out by him and a small number of other Victorians has remained unequalled in Scotland, until the arrival of the international super-rich in the last 20 years or so.
Sir John died in August 1914 and, as was the case in the whole country, what had been a well ordered existence throughout the Edwardian era changed forever. The final piece of his jigsaw was put in place in the year of his death when he succeeded in buying Aberarder which gave him ownership of the entire shoreline of Loch Laggan from Cluny Macpherson’s executors. He was succeeded by his son, the 6th baronet, Sir John Frechville Ramsden.
Both before the war and after, there was far too much sport available on the combined estates and from 1880 or so, the outlying properties of Braeroy, Benalder, Glenshero and Sherramore had all been let either by the season or for several years; after Sir John’s death, this practice continued partly for the reason mentioned above, but it seems likely that John Frechville did not have nearly as much disposable income as his father, so a period of consolidation was necessary. It was also during the inter war years that substantial investments were made in property in Kenya and Malaya.
It was during the interwar years that property sales became inevitable. The difficult economic conditions facing the country, capital taxation and the trend towards fragmentation of large estates affected the Ramsdens no less than other families. Braeroy totalling some 20,000 acres, had been unsuccessfully offered for sale in 1920 and was then let on a long lease as was Benalder which was of similar size; the 35,000 acre estate of Glenshero and Sherramore was sold in 1932, leaving the core property of Ardverikie, Moy, Aberchalder and Strathmashie in the family’s occupation at the beginning of the war.
When Ardverikie was let with the stalking, various members of the family stayed in other lodges at Moy and Aberarder and it was Sir John’s daughter, Lady Feilden who took on the management of the estate during the war when the then factor died.
In the immediate post war years, income from the commercial woodland established by Sir John was providing the greater part of the estate income but this could not be expected to underwrite forever the deficit which was the common denominator of most estates. Prior to his death in 1958, Sir John was advised to transfer Ardverikie to family company for the benefit of his grandchildren which he did the year he died under the chairmanship of his son, Sir William Pennington-Ramsden.
This company, Ardverikie Estate Limited, still owns and manages the estate through a Board of Directors, comprised almost exclusively of family members, with the assistance of CKD Galbraith, Land Agents and Chartered Surveyors; it was one of their partners, Geordie Chalmer who was appointed resident factor in 1963 and whose blend of familiarity with Highland life and professional acumen helped to steer the estate for 30 through difficult times as income from timber sales reduced.
Aberarder farm and the small grouse moor at Dalwhinnie were sold in the early 1980s and the funds were used to establish a 1 MW hydro-electric scheme which produces power for the National Grid. Opportunities for windfall income by providing a film set for productions such as ‘Monarch of the Glen,’ ‘Queen Victoria’ and ‘Salmon Fishing on the Yemen’ have provided valuable funds to enable the directors to continue running their business and investing, perhaps not on the scale of past generations, in infrastructure.
With Sir William’s death in 1987, chairmanship of the Board passed to his eldest daughter, Phyllida Gordon-Duff-Pennington who led the family business for 20 years; whilst adjusting to the pressures of a normal commercial life, the Board never lost sight of the fact that Ardverikie is a family estate, with responsibilities to long serving loyal employees and a fragile local community. With Phyllida’s retirement in 2007, the Board decided to appoint an independent Chairman, Richard Sidgwick who, with Andrew Feilden as Chief Executive, leads the Board towards 150 years of family ownership.
Much has changed since Sir John’s day, but the guiding principles of economic stability and social responsibility are as relevant today as then, and after 145 years of involvement with the area, the family is as committed as ever to its Scottish home. With an increasing number of younger members, competition for space within the family rota is keen and, whilst sport is understandably the main focus of interest, the financial responsibilities which were perhaps more easily accommodated by previous generations and the estate’s position within the community as a business and an employer are as important as ever.