Who Owns the Palace of Holyroodhouse (part 2) – the Strange Case of Abbey Strand

At the foot of the Canongate is the short Abbey Strand which ends at the gates of the Palace of Holyroodhouse. On the north side is a historic set of buildings dating from 1490 which have been used for many purposes.. In the 18th century, the Abbey Strand housed around 25 families and included a brewery, a row of taverns and a brothel known as Lucky Spence’s House.

In March 2017, a planning application was lodged with the City of Edinburgh Council to convert the buildings into luxury short-term lets and a learning centre. This work is now complete and the apartments are available for rent as part of the Cheval Collection.

The application was submitted in the name of the Royal Household Property Section. In response to the statutory question, “Are you/the applicant the sole owner of ALL the land?” the answer was given as “yes”. In response to the statutory requirement for a land ownership certificate, the Applicant (Royal Household Property Section) certified that it was the owner of the land. [1]

I was interested in this application both because of my work at that time on short-term lets but also because of a long standing interest in the ownership of the Palace of Holyroodhouse (see Part 1 of this blog). Over the past year, this interest was rekindled during a collaboration with Severin Carrell of the Guardian investigating the wealth of the Royal Family in Scotland.

In 2017 I was surprised to note the claim by the Royal Household Property Section to be the owner as my understanding was that Abbey Strand was owned by Scottish Ministers. So what is the history of the site?

By the beginning of the 1900s, the tenements of the Abbey Strand belonged to Trustees for the Earl of Rosebery. On 25 May 1934, the Earl of Rosebery transferred ownership of the property to the Commissioners of His Majesty’s Works and Public Buildings, a department of the UK Government that later became the Ministry of Works before being absorbed into the Department of the Environment in 1970. Under the Scotland Act, all property owned by HM Works and its successors in Scotland became vested in Scottish Ministers. A copy of the deed is here. (2.2Mb pdf)

In fact, responsibility for the management of all such properties was transferred to the Secretary of State for Scotland in 1969 under the Transfer of Functions (Scottish Royal Parks and Ancient Monuments) Order 1969, as this Parliamentary Question from the Earl of Dalkeith MP confirms:

Ancient Monuments, Royal Parks And Palaces (Scotland) 1 May 1969 Q13.
Earl of Dalkeith MP

asked the Prime Minister whether he will now transfer the functions of the Minister of Public Building and Works within Scotland to the Secretary of State for Scotland.

The Prime Minister
Responsibility in Scotland for ancient monuments, Royal parks and palaces was transferred to the Secretary of State for Scotland from the Minister of Public Building and Works on 1st April.

Unlike the Palace of Holyroodhouse, which had no recorded title, Abbey Strand had a title and was in the ownership of the UK Government and, after 1999, Scottish Ministers.

The Ancient Monuments Division of the Scottish Development Department, which became Historic Scotland in 1991, which in turn became Historic Environment Scotland in 2015, has been the Scottish Government department responsible for the ownership and management of Abbey Strand. As part of the uncertainties in the run-up to devolution and in its immediate aftermath (where, for example, the ownership of 26 ancient properties such as Linlithgow Palace were transferred to the Secretary of State for Scotland from the Crown), a Memorandum of Understanding concerning Abbey Stran was agreed in 2002 between Historic Scotland and The Royal Collections. A copy was obtained under FoI by Severin Carrell.

In this agreement it is made clear that Historic Scotland agrees (on behalf of Scottish Ministers) to the Royal Collections using parts of the building for staff changing and rest areas in support of their retail and stewarding operations at the Palace for a period of two years from 23 September 2002 in exchange for £8000 per year in rent.

In providing the Abbey Strand MoU, Historic Environment Scotland (HES), stated that the MoU was a short-term arrangement and had not subsequently been renewed. But it was what HES said about the ownership of Abbey Strand that raises serious questions about who really owns and controls these historic buildings.

HES claims that in 2009, Historic Scotland had “accepted that the property belonged to the Monarch” and had agreed to vacate areas “in their use and ownership” and “responsibility for maintenance and use moved entirely to the Royal Collections Trust.” [2]

A Government Agency (HES) had thus gone from entering into a legal agreement to allow the Royal Household to use Scottish government property in 2002 (the MoU) to accepting that in fact they don’t own it at all in 2009. As part of the FoI release, HES provided an exchange of letters between Historic Scotland and Buckingham Palace (21 July 2009 here and 2 September 2009 here).

In a letter of 21 July 2009 to Historic Scotland, Sir Michael Stevens, Keeper of the Privy Purse, stated that,
We have never queried the issue that the title to Abbey Strand is held by a Minister of the Crown or the Scottish Ministers. The key to us is in what capacity is such title held. The Abbey Strand property was gifted to King George V personally,” with the title being take in the name of the Minister of Works.

It remains our firm view that Abbey Strand is an adjunct of the Palace and that it is in that capacity that title is held by Ministers of the Crown or the Scottish Ministers on behalf of the Sovereign.” The letter goes on to say that, “the pragmatic way forward is simply for Ministers and The Sovereign to agree on what use Abbey Strand is to serve.”

The Chief Executive of Historic Scotland replied on 3 September 2009. In his letter he made the remarkable (and legally meaningless) claim that, “Your stated position concurs with recent expert advice we have received and we accept that although title lies with Scottish Ministers, ownership lies with the Sovereign.”
Of course ownership is derived from title and thus ownership remains with Scottish Ministers.

The letter concluded with the rather worrying commitment that, “In the longer term and to formalise matters, we would prefer to transfer title back to the Sovereign for all those properties which no longer support the official function, but we do not see that as a matter of urgency.” No such transfers have taken place.

In June 2017, the Royal Household Property Section was granted planning consent to convert Abbey Strand into short-term lets and a learning centre. Scottish Ministers, the owners of the property, had still not been informed, contrary to both planning law and the commitment made by the Keeper of the Privy Purse in 2009 (see above). The redevelopment is now complete.

In 2017, title still rested on the 1934 disposition from the Rosebery Trustees. And so, on 15 January 2020, a title was registered to Abbey Strand and the adjoining Queen’s Gallery (whose ownership history forms another story). (MID214530 title and plan) There are two strange things about this title.

The first is that it is registered, not in the name of Scottish Ministers, but in the name of Scottish Ministers on behalf of Her Majesty The Queen and Her Royal Successors, which was updated in December 2022 to Scottish Ministers of behalf of His Majesty King Charles III and His Royal Successors.

The second is that Scottish Ministers themselves had no role in this registration and knew nothing of it taking place despite being the owners of the property. In response to an FoI asking for information relating to the registration, Scottish Ministers said that “It is our understanding that the title transfer was undertaken by Sir Michael Stevens KCVO, Keeper of the Privy Purse, who took forward voluntary land registration of properties and land at Abbey Strand.”

In a later FoI release, Scottish Ministers stated that there had been no communications about the registration of title between the Royal Household and either themselves or Historic Environment Scotland .

So the Royal Household took it upon itself to register someone’s property, took it upon themselves to use a style that suggests (with no apparent legal basis) that the property is held by Scottish Ministers on behalf of King Charles III and failed to conduct any liaison with Scottish Ministers or Historic Environment Scotland about the future use of the property (contrary to commitments made by Sir Michael Stevens in 2009). Moreover, when it came to submitting the planning application, the Royal Household Property Section provided misleading information on the ownership of the property.

Quite how land and property that was rightly acknowledged by Government for decades as belonging to a succession of public authorities has now come to be held merely as a formality on behalf of King Charles III who, through the Royal Household Property Section and Royal Collections Trust exerts complete control over the building, remains to be adequately explained. Meanwhile the Royal Collections Trust has a nice income stream from luxury short-term let apartments.


[1] The planning application of March 2017 was incorrect in claiming that the Royal Household property Section was the owner. Under Regulation 15 of The Town and Country Planning (Development Management Procedure) (Scotland) Regulations 2013, any applicant is required by law to give notice of any planning application to the owner of the land. No such notice was given to Scottish Ministers.

[2] The Royal Collection Trust is a private charity that looks after the Royal Collection and manages the public opening of the Palace of Holyroodhouse, receiving all of the visitor admission revenues (along with those at Windsor and Buckingham Palace) and sales revenue through its trading subsidiary, Royal Collection Enterprises Ltd.. King Charles III appoints all of the Trustees.