Land ownership Scotland: 'Scottish safaris' and 'a less manicured look' for Kildrummy Gardens as part of Christopher and Camille Bently's vision for Aberdeenshire estates
The US-French owners of two former traditional Scottish shooting and commercial forestry estates have a busy year ahead with putting extensive restoration plans into practice to “recover missing species” and to restore buildings “to what they once were”.
Multi-millionaires Christopher and Camille Bently, from San Francisco, bought Kildrummy in 2020 followed by Glenkindie and its previously owned Culquoich in 2023. The combined 13,000 acres sit near Alford in Aberdeenshire.
Since becoming “stewards of the land”, as they prefer to call themselves, all driven grouse and pheasant shooting ceased with immediate effect, while former commercial Sitka spruce plantations are in the process of being removed.
The inherited head keeper has been rerolled as a “project manager”, and some of the 17 full-time staff who once assisted with the shoots are now part of a wider estate management team that works across both sites, otherwise known as KGK.
A request from The Scotsman to interview the Bentlys ahead of Scotland’s new Land Reform Bill – due to be published early this year – was declined and instead passed on to their new estate manager, Alex Porter, who stepped up to the role three months ago after his predecessor left in 2022.
Mr Porter, a former Colonel in the British Army, said after three years of survey work, plans are starting to be put into practice from this year. These include beginning a riparian restoration project along the burns that feed into the River Don, planting of broadleaf and native trees across what was once a grouse moor, and ensuring the site’s 250-plus hectares of peatland is protected.
He said the plantation projects are being registered with the Woodland Carbon Code – not to sell the carbon credits, but to instead keep them to offset any of the estates’ own emissions where needed.
A herd of Luing cattle fixed with special GPS collars to avoid the need for fencing will also be introduced in spring this year to help with trampling the ground for soil health.
While driven shoots are no more, Mr Porter said the Bentlys are not against other country sports, including fishing, which he said was “booming”, and would continue to welcome the keen flow of anglers to the estates. Deer stalking, however, has ceased and been replaced by an extensive deer management plan.
Mr Porter refrained from going into detail about which species the Bentlys hope to recover, but he said there were no plans for wolves and bears. Golden eagles have already made themselves known and, with the foot of Culqouich in the Cairngorms, the KGK could see the return of beavers, which were recently reintroduced to the national park.
Once the restoration projects “start to bear fruit”, members of the public will be invited on “estate safaris” to learn about “one of the most exciting wildlife conservation projects in Scotland”.
Guests will begin their trip with a presentation on the KGK’s vision before being invited to have lunch – likely to have venison from the hill on the menu – and a tour of the estates in one of their new logo-stamped Land Rovers.
"The idea is show people around, like they were on an African safari, but in Scotland,” Mr Porter said. The estate manager, however, was careful to add the Bentlys are not simply “rewilding”.
"That would be too simplistic to say,” he said. “We are also restoring the traditional buildings here, building relations with the community, and supporting research.”
Both Kildrummy manor, where the Bentlys have taken up residence, and Glenkindie house, a 16th-century manor, are undergoing works to maintain their authentic look.
"Christopher often talks about wanting to restore the properties to exactly what they once were,” Mr Porter said. The Kildrummy Inn also recently underwent extensive refurbishment, while five holiday cottages will have “a full refresh” in the spring, including new kitchens and bedrooms.
Some of the housing on the estates is being refurbished to provide temporary homes for scientists working on projects there.
Farming will also continue on the land, Mr Porter said, with the Mains of Kildrummy being used as “a reference farm” where staff will trial regenerative farming practices. Some nine other tenant farms are still being let.
Relationship with the community
While conservation plans are well underway, some claim relations between the Bentlys and the local community have been fraught.
The closure of the Kildrummy Gardens, a popular visitor attraction, has been a particular bone of contention, with residents contacting MSPs to step in. Mr Porter, however, said they had been closed due to some rockfall, which is being repaired.
There are also plans for both the Kildrummy and Glenkindie gardens to move away from their manicured, ornamental style to a more “natural” look. An internship in partnership with Aberdeen University to make this transformation is set to start in the spring.
"We are looking at developing the gardens into a smaller snapshot of some of the ideas being introduced on the wider estate,” Mr Porter said. "The gardens will become like a mini version of the estate.”
Questions have also been raised over the limited communication between the owners and the community about future plans. But Mr Porter said 2024 will see them “turn a corner”, with the launch of a new website detailing the Bentlys’ vision. He said from this year, the couple are also set to spend less time in the US so they can be “fully estate focused”.
"People are concerned when chunks of land in Scotland are bought that they will never see them again, but that’s not going to be the case here,” he said. "Outreach is high on my agenda.”
The Bentlys have been praised for bringing back the Kildrummy vintage car rally after it ceased several years ago. Some locals also claimed relations have improved, with tenants remarking on recent renovations to their homes, including new boilers.
The Bentlys purchased Kildrummy off Kildrummy (Jersey) Ltd for £11 million. The price of Glenkindie and Culquoich, rumoured to be an off market sale, was not disclosed.
The couple is at the helm of the Bently Foundation which supports environmental, arts, animal welfare and wildlife protection projects globally.
Mr Bently, who inherited a fortune of his industrialist father about a decade ago, is a past advisory board member for the Burning Man festival, which every year draw tens of thousands of people gather to Nevada's Black Rock Desert to create the temporary metropolis of Black Rock City.
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