Simon Skinner: National Trust needs to evolve to survive

National Trust for Scotland chief Simon Skinner explains why the old ways won't cut it in today's world of hi-tech wizardry.

If recent events remind us of anything, it is that certainties sometimes don’t remain certain and change can be fraught. This is no less true of heritage as it is of politics.

Once upon a time, it was taken as read that the charity I lead, the National Trust for Scotland, would never stop acquiring historic buildings and precious landscapes for the nation, and that the nation would respond by supporting the Trust in huge numbers as members and visitors.

As late as the 1990s, being able to visit a grand house or walk unrestricted across outstanding countryside was still a novelty. That’s when the Trust’s visitor numbers peaked and the intrinsic value of heritage was unquestioned.

Since then some harsh realities have come into play.

Although our membership has gone past 350,000, our overall visitor numbers are down – by as much as a quarter of a million in ten years.

That’s important because the conservation of some of Scotland’s most historically and ecologically important places depends as much on commercial income from visitors as it does on membership fees.

Why is this is happening? One obvious factor is the economy.

The other factors are time and expectations. What was once a novelty is now commonplace. Where visitors were once happy to soak up the ambience of an ancient site with a guidebook in hand, expectations fed by the need to be “entertained” and digital technology that is more dazzling than reality means we have new generations who will never settle for this.

The only conclusion is that the Trust has to change. That is why we propose a comprehensive overhaul of our charity.

It’s natural and completely justified to focus on the implications for our staff. We are creating 68 new posts but 147 jobs will be at risk in some way. This is undoubtedly difficult and a bitter situation for some.

It has been suggested that we are cynically turning away from conservation to managing heritage as money-making themed attractions. This is not true.

We want to ensure that our conservation specialists are embedded at the very heart of the Trust and we have to face up to the fact that conservation costs money.

In the next three years we’ll put £17 million into improving visitor experiences at some of our key properties.

We are first and foremost a conservation charity – but we can only ensure the wellbeing of our heritage if we can convince new generations to cherish and support it.

Simon Skinner is chief executive of the National Trust for Scotland