Who Owns the Palace of Holyroodhouse? (part 1)

This blog is the first of two to examine the ownership of the Palace of Holyroodhouse and associated buildings. Tomorrow I shall publish the even stranger story of the buildings on the north side of the Abbey Strand.

In July 1998, I and a fellow land-reformer, Robin Callander, were invited by the Keeper of the Privy Purse, Sir Michael Peat, to a meeting at the Palace of Holyroodhouse. The purpose of the meeting was to have an open and frank discussion about the potential impact of proposed land reform on the interests of the Royal Family in Scotland.

In attendance were;

Sir Michael Peat, The Keeper of the Privy Purse
Mr Stephen Lamport, Private Secretary to the Prince of Wales
Mr Vincent Julier, Assistant Keeper of the Privy Purse
Mr John Wightman, Solicitor to HM The Queen in Scotland
Lt. Col. David Anderson, Superintendent, The Palace of Holyroodhouse
Mr Peter Ord, Factor of Balmoral Estate

After a hour or so of frank and open discussion, we broke for a cup of tea and I took the opportunity to ask John Wightman a question (after establishing that we were not related). “Who owns the Palace of Holyroodhouse?” I asked. I will always remember the answer – “Well, it’s complicated,” he replied.

Twenty years later, when I was an MSP, a planning application was submitted to convert the buildings on the north side of Abbey Strand into short-term lets – an issue I had been campaigning on and my interest was rekindled. I did some digging and wrote a column for the Edinburgh Evening News.

It is worth noting that at the time of writing the above, there was no recorded title to the Palace in the Register of Sasines (established in 1617) or the Land Register (established in 1979). So what was known at that time about its ownership?

Part of my concerns in relation to the Palace was the opaque relationship between the Royal Household and Historic Scotland regarding the financial arrangements for maintenance of the buildings. From published accounts both of the Royal Collection Trust and Historic Scotland, it appeared that Scottish Ministers were paying for most of the costs of Maintenance but the Royal Collection Trust keeps all of the visitor income. As I wrote in 2017:

“In 2014-15, Historic Scotland spent £1.25 million for the upkeep and maintenance of the palace. The majority of this (£967,000) was for Historic Scotland staff and for “staff employed by the Royal Household and recharged to Historic Scotland”. The new agency, Historic Environment Scotland, published no information in its 2015-16 annual report. In other words, the Royal Collection Trust, a private charity that is not accountable to Scottish Ministers or to the Scottish Parliament, employs the visitor staff, gets the Scottish Government to reimburse their salaries and keeps all the entrance money (£3.3m in 2015-16 with a further £1m in shop sales). Meanwhile, Historic Environment Scotland is responsible for meeting the costs of maintaining the fabric of the building.”

In the lead up to, and following, the establishment of the Scottish Parliament in 1999, there had been some significant uncertainty as to how devolution would affect a number of properties in Scotland that had a connection to the Crown. The principal issue was that a number of ancient Crown properties had been managed by Historic Scotland and its predecessor bodies but title was still held (or alleged to be held) by the Crown. As part of a process of clarification, therefore, 26 properties were formally conveyed by the Crown Estate Commissioners to the Secretary of State for Scotland (and thence to Scottish Ministers under the terms of the Scotland Act) and titles registered in 1998 and 1999. They included Edinburgh Castle (registered under the Title Number MID1 (title here & plan here), the first property in the County of Midlothian to be registered in the Land Register despite Midlothian not then being an operational County (it became operational on 1 April 2001).

Other properties included Stirling Castle, Dunblane Cathedral, Glasgow Cathedral, Linlithgow Palace and Loch, and Holyrood Park (but not the Palace) in Edinburgh.

The Crown Estate Commisioners provided the following explanation about these transfers to the Crown Estate Review Working Group (CERWG) in 2006.

“The purpose of the transfers that took place in or around 1998 was to remove any possible doubt surrounding the Secretary of State’s title to ancient possession properties that had been administered by Historic Scotland for many years but in which The Crown Estate may have had a nominal historic interest.” [1]

The CERWG went on to conclude that,

“Holyrood Palace was not part of the 1999 transfer. It has been managed as government property since 1851 and its ownership and management became vested in Scottish Ministers under the Scotland Act 1998.” [2]

Holyrood Park had been managed by the Secretary of State for Scotland since the Transfer of Functions (Scottish Royal Parks and Ancient Monuments) Order 1969 under which Scottish Ministers to this day make regulations about the Park.

As part of my investigations in 2017, I learnt that there was a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) covering the Palace of Holyroodhouse. Historic Scotland released the MoU following my FoI request in 2017 (after first seeking the consent of the Royal Household).

It’s opening paragraph reads as follows.

“The Palace of Holyroodhouse is the official residence of The Sovereign in Scotland. It is owned by Her Majesty in right of the Crown; however, further to the arrangements whereby the revenue from the Crown Estate is surrendered by the Sovereign at the beginning of each reign, the Scottish Ministers, acting through Historic Scotland, have responsibility for the provision and maintenance of the Palace (which is not itself part of the Crown Estate) and an element of logistical support to functions arising directly from the Palace’s use as an official residence. The Scottish Ministers are answerable to the Scottish Parliament in this respect, including provision of funds for this purpose.”

This MoU was approved between the Lord Chamberlain and Scottish Ministers. Thus it can be taken as an agreed understanding of the legal and financial position as it stood when it was signed in 2000 by Sir Michael Peat and Graeme Munro, Director and Chief Executive of Historic Scotland.

In evidence to the Public Accounts Committee in 2009, the then Keeper of the Privy Purse, in response to questions about the Royal Collection’s investment in the Queen’s Gallery, stated that,

“I should say those buildings form part of Buckingham Palace and Holyrood and therefore the £23 million of funds was going from Royal Collection into taxpayer owned assets.” [3]

At this point it is worth noting the following points:-

Prior to 1999, the ownership of the Park and the Palace, in so far as it was established or recorded, was exactly the same. The Park was established as a royal hunting ground in the 12th century. Stone from the quarries was used to construct the Palace in the 16th century. Both were owned by the Crown.

As stated by the Crown Estate Commissioners, Holyrood Park was transferred to the Secretary of State for Scotland to “remove any doubt surrounding the Secretary of State’s title to ancient possession properties that had been administered by Historic Scotland for many years.”

Crown ownership relates to land and property that is owned “in right of the Crown”and is NOT owned by the Monarch in their personal capacity. It can be held (as much of the foreshore is) by a statutory agency such as Crown Estate Scotland, or (as with treasure trove and other Crown property rights), by the Crown Office, or, in other cases by a Government department. In all cases, the property is held on behalf of the public at large and managed for the public good which includes, in some cases, the stewardship of royal palaces.

In 1999, the Queen’s solicitor (who is the one person who should know) confirmed to me that the ownership of the Palace of Holyroodhouse was “complicated”.

As admitted by the Lord Chamberlain and Scottish Ministers in the the MoU, the Palace of Holyroodhouse is owned by the Monarch in right of the Crown (i.e. not in their personal capacity but in the same capacity as the land managed by Crown Estate Scotland).

In a letter to me, Historic Environment Scotland (the successor body to Historic Scotland), informed me that,

“We also wish to remind you that a number of areas of the MoU have been superseded since 2000. These are largely changes to arrangements referenced in the document where operational circumstances have changed. In light of these changes it is planned to review the current MoU to bring it up to date to reflect the current position.”

Given this, I asked the following Parliamentary Question

Question reference: S5W-10224
Asked by: Andy Wightman, MSP for Lothian
Date lodged: 7 July 2017
Answered by Fiona Hyslop on 4 August 2017


To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide details of the review being conducted of the memorandum of understanding between the Lord Chamberlain and the Scottish Ministers in relation to the management of the Palace of Holyroodhouse; when the review was initiated; what the terms of reference are; who is conducting the review, and when it will be completed.


Following the establishment of Historic Environment Scotland on 1 October 2015, they are reviewing the arrangements with the Lord Chamberlain in relation to the management of the Palace of Holyroodhouse. The terms of reference are to update the MOU and Historic Environment Scotland will take the lead in discussions with other parties to the MOU, reflecting their status as a new organisation. There is no current completion date.

In October 2022, Historic Environment Scotland confirmed that no new MoU had been agreed since 2000.

Following all of the publicity and questions about the ownership of the Palace of Holyroodhouse, it came as something of a surprise to discover that in April 2019, a title to Holyroodhouse had been recorded in the Land Register on behalf of “Her Majesty the Queen and Her Royal Successors”. On 21 December 2022, the ownership was amended to His Majesty King Charles III and His Royal Successors.” [title here and plan here].

This was the first ever recorded title to Holyroodhouse. There is no suggestion that ownership was being registered “in right of the Crown” as public property. The form of words used implies the personal ownership of the Sovereign despite the fact that Section 4 of the Crown Private Estates Act 1862 prohibits such personal ownership unless vested in Trustees (which is how Balmoral Estate for example is owned).

In October 2019, I wrote to the Keeper of the Registers of Scotland to ask on what basis the first registration had been accepted. I was advised that,

“The submitting agent certified that the application met the requirements of section 27 (2) of the Land Registration, etc (Scotland) Act 2012, i.e. that the applicant was the owner of the property. In addition, RoS considered the well documented history of the property and the long established boundaries surrounding it. The Keeper was satisfied that the registration conditions had been met, and accepted the application for Voluntary Registration.”

What this argument neglects to consider are the following;

  1. The Palace of Holyroodhouse has always been Crown property together with Holyrood Park and yet Holyrood Park was acknowledged to part of the Secretary of State’s title to ancient Crown possessions. If Holyrood Park was, then so was the Palace of Holyroodhouse.
  2. That the Lord Chamberlain and Scottish Ministers agreed in 2000 that the Palace was owned “in right of the Crown” and that most similar properties are registered in the name of a government department or agency to make clear that they are public property. No such clarity is provided in the title to the Palace of Holyroodhouse.

Given the significant sums spent by the public purse via the Secretary of State and Scottish Ministers, the opaque relationship between historic Environment Scotland and the Royal Household, the failure to review the MoU, and the assertion of ownership by King Charles III when all such similar Crown properties in Scotland are held by Scottish Ministers, it is long past time that the Public Audit Committee of the Scottish Parliament scrutinise these matters in a similar fashion to the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee.

Tomorrow, I will publish the even stranger story of Abbey Strand.


[1] Crown Estate Review Working Group, Annex 6 paragraph 7

[2] Crown Estate Review Working Group, Annex 6 paragraph 6

[3] House of Commons Public Accounts Committee, Evidence by Sir Alan Reid, 29 January 2009, Ev1. Maintaining the Occupied Royal Palaces, 24th report of 2008-09.