THE National Trust for Scotland (NTS) is, according to its chief executive Philip Long, “very much back in business”.

This week Long celebrated his first anniversary as leader of the conservation and heritage charity, which cares for places and spaces nationwide.When he joined, having previously helmed the creation and launch of the ultra-modern V&A Dundee, Long entered an organisation in crisis.

Covid had closed all of its properties, cafes and shops, cutting off ticket sales and leaving it an estimated £28 million in the hole.

An urgent appeal for donations followed as the independent charity sought government support while drawing up a 400-head redundancy list including almost 60% of staff amidst fears that some of its properties may have to be sold.

If that wasn’t enough, it was also embroiled in a row over president Neil Oliver’s positions on politics and Black Lives Matter that saw some people claim they’d cancelled their memberships.

Then there was change – Oliver stepped down on July 6, exiting the position two months early, NTS successfully secured £3.8m from the Scottish Government, its Save Our Scotland drive brought in another £3.4m and that success helped save around 200 jobs.

Long regrets the staff lost, but says NTS has turned a corner and is now moving “back up through the gears again” in its 90th year, thanks also in no small part to the success of the Covid vaccination programme that’s allowed hospitality and tourism businesses to start earning again.

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This weekend sees the reopening of Tenement House in Glasgow, while the House of Dun in Montrose reopened earlier this week after a major revamp that’s brought new elements for visitors.

NTS, Long says, is stable and looking to the future as it welcomes the public back to its “magical” sites. These include everywhere from Abertaff House – the oldest in Inverness – and Arduaine Garden by Oban to Threave Castle and Estate near Castle Douglas and the wild mountains of West Affric. A few, like Kilbarchan’s tiny Weaver’s Cottage, remain closed.

The open, outdoor spaces owned by NTS – St Abb’s Head, Mar Lodge, Glencoe – have been a salve for Scots during the pandemic, when life indoors made the need for accessible green spaces all the more vital. But all those feet have taken a toll on paths and walkways and it’s NTS staff who’ll pick the litter left behind and restore the routes visitors rely on. “These are very special places,” Long says. “They’re in people’s hearts and minds.”

Long hadn’t been looking for a move from the acclaimed V&A Dundee, he says – but then the NTS position came up. His wife had worked for the charity before and they’d been frequent enough visitors to its sites that he’d “come to love them”. “They’re an extraordinarily important part of Scottish heritage, and it’s the heritage that defines perceptions of Scotland. The opportunity of being involved in the team to care for that was very exciting.

“It’s been an amazing year.”

But that year has been, Long concedes, “challenging”.

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When it began, the NTS membership total sat between 350,000 and 360,000. Income from those memberships – which range from £3-per-month for people aged 16-24 to £9.80-per-month for couples with up to six children – is key to the organisation’s finances and, pre-pandemic, it had been hoped the total could grow to 500,000. As things stand, it’s dropped back to 320,000 – not as steep a decline as Long and colleagues had feared and one that’s starting to reverse. “We’ve noticed as we’ve been able to reopen our properties that our membership targets have been exceeded for the last month,” he says. “I think it’s in people’s minds that the Trust is charitable. We are very pleased as to the extent that people have stayed with us.”

People will only put their money into something they believe in and approve of. Long is confident that NTS has overcome the negative perceptions around its conduct and president that some held last year.

Then-Argyll and Bute MSP Michael Russell called it “imperious” over the sale of the Isle of Inch, left to the Trust in the will of David Brearley, the owner who lived in a cave there until 2003, and reportedly sold for £353,000. NTS said there was no provision for the island’s use outlined in Brearley’s will and the costs of its upkeep were part of the reason for the sale.

The mooted closure of the award-winning visitor centre at Bannockburn until 2022 also drew ire, though that facility is now open again and admitting pre-booked visitors. Scottish Government ministers also urged bosses to “think carefully” over the proposed staff cuts, and then there was Oliver.

His appointment to the voluntary role in 2017 was controversial enough after he’d called the prospect of a second independence referendum “a cancerous presence” and a “hate fest”, and last year he prompted further outcry after liking a Twitter post praising a sports team member for, unlike teammates, not taking a knee in a gesture synonymous with the Black Lives Matter movement. He also posted a public message to former Brexit campaigner Darren Grimes about David Starkey – then embroiled in a racism row of his own – saying: “Tell him I love him, by all means.”

READ MORE: Neil Oliver to step down as NTS president after David Starkey row

At the time, NTS was clear that the broadcaster (below), who rose to fame as the face of the BBC’s hit series Coast, was “stating his personal views” and “not representing the Trust” and, as he stood down, chair Sir Mark Jones said the team was “extremely grateful to him for giving up so much of his valuable time to represent the Trust”.

“Neil Oliver gave many years of service as the president of the Trust,” Long says.

“Neil and any president is free to speak their minds about what they believe in but the Trust is an organisation which doesn’t take a political stance and so it was important for us to explain that Neil’s views are his own and didn’t necessarily represent the view s of the Trust.

“He made a decision to move on. Neil was under considerable pressure at the time.”

The National: Neil Oliver - The Story of The British Isles in 100 places’

On the closures and cuts plan, Long says “nobody at the Trust wanted people to lose their jobs”.

The Scottish Government money came on the provision that they’d reconsider the redundancy programme.

“I was very sad that we had to make anybody redundant but the circumstances required that to be done,” says Long. “Cultural organisations across the country have had to consider this.”

The V&A was one of these. Its director Tristram Hunt said 2020 was “devastating for the whole cultural sector”.

NTS, Long says, operates to a “very strict cushion of reserves” set by trustees.

While re-openings are the shot in the arm visitor attractions need, daily Covid tests in Scotland this week surpassed 4000 for the first time and unease remains about the progress made in overcoming the virus that’s created a new normal that none of us want to see become a long-term reality.

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If the country was to reenter another lockdown period akin to the first, NTS’s position would be “a concern of national significance”, Long says. “It’s Scotland’s heritage,” he goes on.

“The Trust is responsible for its care but it belongs to all of us.”

That responsibility has seen NTS engage in the difficult task of trying to protect and conserve the architectural gem that is Helensburgh’s Hill House, the private residence crafted by Charles Rennie Mackintosh and wife Margaret Macdonald.

In 1904, its design and materials were cutting edge, but urgent action was commissioned due to water ingress through the external render that risked it “dissolving like a sugar cube”.

NTS is now awaiting the results of conservation analysis that’ll determine the next stages in a decade-long bid to save it.

Hill House is one of Long’s favourite places, as is Mar Lodge Estate in the Cairngorms.

He wants more of us to get to enjoy them and is working on a new plan to remove as many access barriers as possible.

“Perhaps there’s the idea that the Trust is perceived as something for a certain audience that’s older ,” he says.

“Since the 1930s the Trust has championed access to Scotland’s heritage for all. It’s not in any way an organisation which is exclusive.”

Iain Hawkins, NTS general manager for the north east, agrees.

The vision for House of Dun (below), he says is as “a true destination property for the east of the country with something different to love on each visit”.

The Georgian mansion and its Victorian gardens have been “reimagined” and there’s a new permanent home for the Angus Folk Museum.

Its collections span 400 items collected by Lady Maitland of Burnside in the first half of the 20th century from a horse-drawn Glenisla hearse to dried flowers.

Inside the house, costumed guides play aristocrat Violet Augusta Mary Frederica Kennedy-Erskine, cook Isabella Peddie and overseer William Young, all former residents.

No detail has been spared, with theatre director Al Seed brought in to create the tours and designer Zephyr Liddell on costumes, sound artist Guy Veale on audio installations and Scots advocate Alistair Heather providing Doric readings.

It’s all thanks to more than £700,000 from donors and patrons.

There’s little in the way of overseas tourism at the moment, but yesterday a mix of accents could be heard on the House’s first full day of business.

The National:

There is a “pox” over the area, explained the immaculately attired guides, explaining their anachronistic cotton masks as they slowly and carefully manoeuvred socially-distanced groups between the salon, library, gun room and red bedroom to the sounds of crackling fires, kitchen hubbub and bird song drawn from the Montrose Basin. If not for that, within House of Dun’s walls, it could be imagined that the pandemic didn’t exist.

But plans for interactive elements have had to be shelved for the moment – the replica gird and cleeks and wooden period toys it’d been hoped would delight today’s children can’t be laid out until conditions improve.

There’s hope as well that work can be done to discover more about the archaeology of one of the previous Erskine family strongholds on the estate, a medieval castle of which nothing but part of a wall remains above.

There are no known drawings or paintings, so bringing clues up from the earth is the only way to help interpret the development of this important local seat.

NTS is always thinking about its relationship to the land, Long says, and its relationships to the people who live there.

It’s engaged in work to protect and encourage native plants made more vulnerable by climate change, a subject the public should expect to hear the organisation “speak more strongly on”.

“We want to look at the projects we can do across the country,” he says, “including the islands. We have St Kilda, we have Fair Isle, we have Canna, all very special places and some that are home to people. We are responsible for a way of life in parts of Scotland. That’s a big responsibility and it’s something we take very seriously.”

Long’s main message is one of motivation and momentum. NTS, it is to be understood, isn’t just working to get back to where it was before lockdown, it’s striving to go beyond that and dig deeper into the potential of its properties to inspire and inform visitors.

To get there, it’s reaching out as widely as possible and asking people to mask-up and come back through its ticket gates or reconsidered that cancelled membership.

“We are very much back in business,” he says. “If you love our properties there are many ways to get involved and support them.”