LITTLE is totally safe from coronavirus, whether nasty or nice. Last weekend, we learned that an organisation as venerable and respectable as the National Trust for Scotland was at risk as the pandemic devastated its financial resources. It announced plans to cut more than 400 of its staff right across the country. It looks as if it might soon be going out of business altogether.

The Trust, founded in 1931, safeguards some of the finest Scottish heritage. One task is exactly the same as that of a predecessor, founded in 1919, the National Trust in England. Both preserve for future generations outstanding specimens of their country’s architecture.

In Scotland, for example, the Trust owns the former royal palace of Falkland; the great castles of Craigievar, Crathes and Culzean; even a whole ancient burgh such as Culross; as well as a modern masterpiece, Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s Hill House at Helensburgh. There are other properties not so fine and owned by the Trust simply because they were gifted in the wills of their former owners. So far as I know, the Trust has never turned down such an acquisition.

The Trust in Scotland also has, however, a broader remit than the English one, which more or less confines itself to the built environment. The Scottish one has extended its responsibilities to cover wild landscapes. It owns the islands of Canna, Fair Isle, Iona, St Kilda and Staffa; several mountains such as Ben Lawers and Ben Lomond; then the big Highland estates of Glencoe, Kintail, Mar Lodge and Torridon. In other words, whatever the high quality of the individual exhibits, it’s a rather ill-assorted collection. This is part of the present trouble. For a long time, the Trust has enjoyed an annual income of about £50 million, not enough to cover its costs. Coronavirus is obviously going to bring a further severe financial squeeze, of which the announcement last week was only a foretaste.

The Trust has a peculiar problem of its own because it does not charge visitors anything to come and see its wild landscapes. Indeed, Scots would surely object to paying a fee to get into Glencoe or Torridon. In the US it is routine to put a price on entry to national parks, particularly if they extend over more than one state, so can count as federal assets. But in democratic Scotland even this minor degree of commercialism (or financial responsibility) is thought to be beyond the moral and practical pale.

Yet it is not as if the properties cost nothing to preserve in their natural state. Kintail is probably the most rugged of all, with its golden eagles soaring over the Five Sisters. But even there it will be necessary to spend some money on maintaining the paths and providing other safety features. And then guides, based in a permanent outdoor centre, are employed to direct hikers round the most picturesque spots. All this involves expenditure, not very extravagant expenditure perhaps because no luxury holidays are on offer. Even so, it needs to be covered from somewhere.

There is a different problem with the many historic buildings the Trust owns. A year ago, it embarked on its most ambitious conservation project ever when it had the Hill House covered by the Hill House Box. The west of Scotland’s soggy weather has played havoc with this triumph of domestic modernism ever since it was finished in 1904.

The Trust’s website says: ”Mackintosh’s experimental design, combined with his trial of new materials, has meant that the house has been soaking up water like a sponge for more than 115 years. Battered by around 190 days of rain each year, the long-term survival of the building is in doubt and there’s a real danger of its priceless … interior being lost forever.”

The Box could stay in place for a decade, to let the house completely dry out. This would be followed by long-term conservation measures. Meanwhile we’ll have to do without an overview of the exterior that shows how Mackintosh, despite being in the forefront of an architectural revolution, always had a sentimental attachment to the old Scottish Baronial style, too. The cost of the project has to be met by a special appeal.

AND then a number of the castles or great houses, though formally owned by the Trust, are still lived in by the families that first put them up long ago. These no longer always have the fortunes needed to maintain such places. In fact the 20th century saw the ruin of large parts of the old landed class, and their replacement in the social hierarchy by vulgar financiers.

The problems meant it might be an advantage for the owner to donate his ancestral halls to the National Trusts on condition his family could continue to live there.

He would, however, have to admit the lower orders to come and gawk, if often not on onerous terms. The Dalyell family of The Binns in West Lothian, headed by the late Labour MP Tam, was one that followed this course. But to get in and see its treasures, members of the public would have had to make prior contact and negotiate a time to visit. This shrewd rule probably kept numbers down, no doubt to the satisfaction of the laird.

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It comes as no surprise, then, that over the years the membership of the Trust has tended to turn venerable and respectable as well. The trustees have made efforts to attract a younger clientele, with holiday cottages on the estates, tearooms in the big houses and playgrounds outside for the kiddies. But by the turn of the 21st century, it seemed obvious they would have to do something more drastic to be sure of a long-term future.

They have tried to import dynamic trouble-shooters. One was a new president, Neil Oliver, the controversial TV personality also noted as a fierce foe of Scottish nationalism. He prompted a wave of ordinary members to resign, presumably those who take a patriotic view of their country and could not square this with Oliver’s crude rhetoric. It is strange the trustees didn’t see this coming. Two of the present ones had parents who were themselves trustees or employees of the Trust so that, to quote their website blurbs, they were “brought up with the rhetoric and evolution of the Trust”. This would have been in an older Scotland, where nationalism was not yet quite decent. There has been little movement with our times.

What will happen now? It may be time just to wind the Trust up. While its model doubtless looked good enough in 1931, it is not doing the same in the 21st century. If the combination of subscriptions and investments is inadequate, and if business on the side cannot be expanded fast enough, then other methods of funding just have to be found.

It is hard to see past a takeover by the Scottish Government. It already supervises a similar body, Scottish Natural Heritage, which has the duty of looking after our natural, genetic and scenic diversity. So in fact it overlaps with the National Trust anyway. Still, it will seem a pity that the latter failed in its given purpose of enlisting ordinary citizens, and not merely bureaucrats, into the noble task of preserving and enhancing our unique heritage.