THE new owners of the Kilmahew estate, which includes the abandoned former St Peter’s Seminary in Cardross, have unveiled ambitious plans to achieve UNESCO World Heritage status for the site by 2030.

Husband and wife team Stuart and Ally Cotton are CEO and chair, respectively, of the Kilmahew Education Trust (KET), which struck a deal with the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Glasgow last summer for the transfer of legal ownership of the site.

The Covid-19 pandemic has delayed the pair’s progress so far but this week they revealed more detail on their proposals to restore the area to its former glory.

Ally, a historian and ex-teacher, and Stuart, a former taxman with HMRC who has also led investigations into fraud, organised crime and terrorism financing, believe the most practical model for the project is one which amalgamates education with enterprise - and has a scope which extends beyond the derelict centrepiece building.

Helensburgh Advertiser: The building has fallen into increasing dereliction since its use as a seminary ended in the early 1980s (Credit: Maddie Howard/Kilmahew Education Trust)The building has fallen into increasing dereliction since its use as a seminary ended in the early 1980s (Credit: Maddie Howard/Kilmahew Education Trust)

Stuart told the Advertiser: “The Seminary was a primary attraction to us but not the focal point of our vision.

“We feel that the previous efforts have focussed almost entirely on this building and the vast costs of bringing it back to life, at the expense of the other buildings - which are equally as important but far easier to restore and repurpose on a commercial footing.

“So we plan to fix most of the other elements of the estate before tackling the behemoth of the Seminary.

“It is a chance to take an iconic building that was designed for educational purposes and to restore it to its original use.

READ MORE: New owners for former St Peter's Seminary in Cardross as church hands over site

“This is the first chance there has been to put an educator back at the helm and to use the whole of the estate’s legacy as a proper seat of life long learning.”

The Cottons say they have identified “a vast array of tangible and intangible assets connected with the estate which other interested parties over many years seemed to have completely overlooked”.

Included in their plans is the repurposing of the former Seminary building for use as a hub for specialists in the animation industry, as well as offering the wider 140-acre estate up as a filming location for major TV and big screen productions and creating a ‘green transport hub’ providing access from Helensburgh and Lomond to Greenock.

Helensburgh Advertiser: An aerial view of the site (Credit: Maddie Howard/Kilmahew Education Trust)An aerial view of the site (Credit: Maddie Howard/Kilmahew Education Trust)

But the trust’s priority is for the estate to join the likes of New Lanark, the Forth Bridge and Edinburgh’s old and new towns in becoming just the sixth World Heritage Site in Scotland.

As part of that plan Stuart, Ally and their team of experts anticipate the Kilmahew estate generating an annual turnover of £12.5 million within 10 years, with around 375,000 visitors per annum.

They point to two sites - the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew in London, and Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire - which they say provide evidence of viable business models for similar projects, and they want to take advantage of the historical links across the Kilmahew estate.

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The couple said: “It could be argued that the St Peter’s Seminary complex of buildings represent a masterpiece of human creative genius in their own right.

“They compare well to other UNESCO sites connected with Le Corbusier and won Jack Coia, the architect, his MBE and RIBA Gold Medal.

“If we can replace the void created by the demolition of Kilmahew House with something equally as stunning, creative and provocative, as well as delivering a thoughtful restoration of the seminary which breathes new life into it, then we should satisfy this criteria.”

Helensburgh Advertiser: (Credit: Maddie Howard/Kilmahew Education Trust)(Credit: Maddie Howard/Kilmahew Education Trust)

Ally and Stuart also point to the fact that one of Scotland’s greatest horticulturalists, John Fleming, created the walled gardens within the estate, and the role of St Mahew and St Patrick at Carman Hill and Kilmahew in spreading early Christianity, as proof of fulfilling some of the 10 UNESCO World Heritage Site criteria, or ‘Outstanding Universal Values’ (OUVs).

The bold plans have been described by local councillor Richard Trail, who learned of the plans at a presentation to Cardross Community Council last week, as “astonishing” and a “staggeringly ambitious project for two individuals”.

In response, Stuart said: “It is not about rivalling Blenheim Palace and Kew Gardens who have had several centuries to perfect their public offer.

“It is more about analysing successful financial models that are based on heritage assets to provide us with an all important viability both in terms of the commercial aspects but also having a viability and value to our communities and stakeholders alike.

“Whilst at first glance the breadth of our proposals might appear to be somewhat “astonishing” in nature and “staggeringly ambitious” for a simple teacher and a taxman, we would argue that the future viability of the Kilmahew estate rests on a twin requirement to educate and to support an enterprise ecosystem.

“Together we have a combined 60 years of experience in those fields.

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“Compared to the highly specialised areas of special needs teaching and disrupting organised crime and terrorist financing, the complexities of the Kilmahew estate are, in relative terms, far simpler than what we have been used to.

“Where we differ from previous attempts over the last 40 years or so is that we are both professional researchers.

“We have been able to drill down into the vast riches of heritage connected with Kilmahew and the linked estate of Milndovan.

“The written history, narratives and cultures associated with this area go back thousands of years and create huge opportunities for us to educate the public on our ‘Outstanding Universal Values’.

“Even if we fail to achieve that in the long run, the model is viable and we are committed to it.

“The biggest challenge we face is how we integrate a green transport hub into our thinking and we hope to expand on this a little bit further into the year.”