In the heart of the Kingdom of Fife and watched over by the Lomond hills, the forest, fields and farmlands of Falkland Estate were once the playgrounds of royal Stuart monarchs and aristocrats.
Entwined in Scottish history for centuries – from the ancient Scots who occupied its hill forts to Mary, Queen of Scots who hunted with birds of prey in its woods and rested at Falkland Palace – it can even claim to be linked to the earliest known written reference to Scotch whisky.
While in more recent times, the pretty conservation village on its fringes and historic buildings dotted across its landscape have become places of pilgrimage for fans of time-travelling drama, Outlander.
Now, however, ownership of Falkland Estate – in the hands of one family since 1887 who are themselves steeped in Scottish history – is set to change hands in a radical plan that will see generations of family ties dramatically severed.
In a move that is at odds with the struggle often experienced by some communities desperate to claw back land from years of ownership by lords and gentry, current estate owner, Ninian Stuart, who can trace his bloodline back to Robert the Bruce, has signalled his plans to step aside and hand control of the land and buildings to a charity.
Fine details have still to be ironed out, however the move is likely to lead to the Falkland Stewardship Trust, which has had a presence at the 1,900 hectares estate since 1994, taking over running Falkland Estate and Mr Stuart – whose role includes the title of Hereditary Keeper of Falkland Palace – and his descendants voluntarily stepping aside.
The transition to charity-run estate after 135 years in the hands of a single family is in its early stages and will involve discussions with the local community, businesses, estate farmers and other bodies such as Historic Environment Scotland and the National Trust for Scotland, which manages Falkland Palace, part of which is occupied by Mr Stuart.
However, it is expected the change will eventually see land that once provided a playground for royal Stuart kings become a democratically run space focused on conservation, education, rural skills, agriculture, sustainable housing and tourism.
Mr Stuart, 66, is a direct descendant of the 3rd Marquess of Bute, John Crichton Stuart. At one point regarded as the world’s richest man, he who took over the estate in 1887 in a deal that included the Keepership of Falkland Palace.
However, Mr Stuart, who inherited the estate and keeper’s title following his father’s death in 1991, has previously described his role as “an anomaly of history.”
As a teenager, he opted instead for a life in Glasgow, working with the city’s homeless and deprived.
In a recent blog, he wrote: “Deeply ambivalent about privilege, I ran away in my late teens to find myself, through living and working with homeless people in Glasgow.
“Learning to work collectively, I turned away from top-down forms of hierarchy and immersed myself in more horizontal forms of community building – whilst discovering that good leaders both hold and distribute power (of purpose) and love (that includes everyone).”
He added: “Some families have been set apart with privileges over, and a duty to serve, others.
“But a healthy forest or community can never depend on a single tree or family (however much we love it)… here at Falkland [that] shared leadership is the best way to weather the storms ahead.”
Speaking of the plans, he said charity ownership would open up fresh opportunities to develop a new estate which could focus on modern challenges such as climate change and be “a new chapter” for his family.
“I have a very deep sense of moving from one family tree into something really much more favouring the whole community; something of a common purpose with community behind it replacing one laird,” he added.
The estate’s history is intwined with the nearby Palace, which emerged from a 13th century hunting lodge and castle owned by the Earls of Fife.
It became a popular retreat for Stuart monarchs who practised falconry in its forest and brought deer from Stirling to hunt.
King James IV and his son, James V, transformed Falkland Palace into a fine example of Renaissance architecture between 1497 and 1541, and turned it into a place of relaxation and entertainment: they imported oranges, and were entertained by falconry, fiddlers, lutists, an African drummer and a seal from Pittenweem.
It was while at Falkland Palace that James IV ordered Friar John Corr, a monk at nearby Lindores Abbey, to make “eight bolls of malt”. His 1494 order would go on to be recognised as the earliest known written reference to Scotch whisky.
Later Mary, Queen of Scots retreated to Falkland to escape court life in Edinburgh, hunt with birds of prey and play Royal Tennis on its court.
At the heart of the current estate is land gifted to the Keeper of Falkland Palace and which was later added to following its purchase in the early 19th century by academic and politician John Bruce.
The estate, including House of Falkland, was taken over by the 3rd Marquis of Bute who redesign its gardens, and carried out extensive restoration to the palace, then a ruin without windows or doors.
His death in 1900 saw the estate pass to his son, Lord Ninian, who was killed in action just 15 years later.
Mr Stuart’s father, Major Michael Crichton-Stuart and his wife Barbara, moved into the Palace in the late 1940s and went on to employ top designers and architects to upgrade it, while they scoured antique shops and country house auctions to find items to furnish it.
They struck a deal with the National Trust for Scotland in 1952 which saw it become Deputy Keeper of the Palace responsible for maintenance and the gardens while the family retained rights to live in the Keeper’s Apartments.
The estate’s landscape and buildings – including House of Falkland which is now a school for children with special needs, have been looked after by the Falkland Stewardship Trust since 1994.
It has developed a range of education initiatives to help young people develop rural skills, networks of walking and cycling trails, event and visitor facilities.
Trustee Peter Burman said: “Estates in Scotland are often managed as prestigious sporting estates but this is about people and the relationship between people and the land.
“We realise we have a fantastic opportunity to do something a bit new and a special – it is very much about people.
“We want to something quite influential here which could be a beacon for others.”
Mr Stuart, whose two children would have stood to inherit his role, said he has no plans to become a trustee of the charity that takes over the estate.
He added: “But there might be a conversation over the next year over what kind of relationship I do have and what the people involved might be up for.
“We will never end our relationship with Falkland – my children will always have a relationship with Falkland, it is where they grew up. But we are preparing for a new chapter.”