The Scottish Mail on Sunday


Drugs, alcohol abuse... and how a Highland estate bought with YOUR cash has been plunged into scandal

- By Katherine Sutherland

IT was hailed as a triumph of ordinary people over the dominance of wealthy landowners.

But one of Scotland’s most highprofil­e community buyouts is now being torn apart by a bitter feud – amid scandalous claims of drunkennes­s and drug use.

The Assynt Foundation took over a huge Highland estate in 2005 after a multi-million-pound buyout, mostly funded by public cash.

At the time, the purchase was hailed as an opportunit­y to show what could be achieved by taking land out of private ownership and handing it over to the community.

But 14 years on, some locals fear the project is on the brink of ruin.

Members of the community have written a letter of complaint to the Foundation’s board, outlining ‘serious concerns’ that it is running the estate in a ‘casual’, ‘imperious’ and ‘unprofessi­onal’ fashion.

Separate complaints have been made about the estate being plagued by people using drugs – with claims of ‘heavy and uncontroll­ed nightly drinking’.

Meanwhile, an experience­d land manager drafted in three years ago to try to turn around the estate’s fortunes has quit in disgust.

In a damning interventi­on, Gordon Robertson – who had been hired to help run the Foundation’s business activities – has written to the Scottish Government warning that those in charge of the estate have ‘failed to find the sustainabl­e future that was hoped for’ and are ‘completely out of their depth’.

The buyout took place after the Vestey family, who had owned land in the area since the 1930s, decided to sell up.

Using Scotland’s land reform laws, the Government prevented a private sale and, instead, the residents of nearby Lochinver, in Sutherland, were given nearly £3 million of public money to buy the estate and take it into community ownership – a move which was hailed as a major political victory against wealthy landlords.

The estate is now managed by the Assynt Foundation, which is made up of a board of directors and also hundreds of local residents who are community members.

Despite various grants of public money, the estate has struggled to become economical­ly selfsuffic­ient. In 2016, Mr Robertson, who for years successful­ly managed an estate owned by former Harrods owner Mohammed AlFayed, was appointed as a factor in a bid to turn its fortunes around.

Having quit earlier this year, he hit out at the board yesterday, saying: ‘Everything that one had worked for so hard for three years was being destroyed.

‘Public money was continuing to be wasted. With the best spirit in the world, that is not acceptable.’

Glencanisp Lodge, a stunning ten-bedroom Victorian building in the heart of the Assynt landscape, was meant to be the jewel in the crown of the estate.

One of the few buildings on the land, it was renovated in 2010 using £1.5 million of public cash. Run as a luxury bed and breakfast, it was considered the estate’s most successful asset – until the couple in charge left during the spring.

Mr Robertson claims the property then became a location for wild parties among casual staff.

In an email he sent to a board member in May, he wrote: ‘Drugs are being smoked openly in the cottage and the grounds every night. The supplier from Inverness was stopped on his way up to Lochinver, fortunatel­y in Ullapool.

‘The drugs he was carrying were taken by the police. Glencanisp is now being watched by the police.’

He added that he had also received complaints about ‘heavy and uncontroll­ed nightly drinking’. Mr Robertson also hit out at perceived mismanagem­ent and waste within the Foundation.

He claimed an eco-friendly woodfired boiler had been bought using £87,000 of public money – but had not matched requiremen­ts and was not being used.

A barn had been built at a cost of £140,000 to store woodchips for the boiler, but contained only one bag. Instead, oil costing £1,000 a month was being burned as fuel. An arts project had also fallen by the wayside. Mr Robertson said: ‘The Arts

Studio had also been built for a figure in excess of £140,000, with no prospect of generating sufficient income to justify such an enormous outlay.’

Last year, £75,201 was awarded by the Scottish Government’s Climate Challenge Fund to develop Glencanisp’s walled garden and provide fresh local produce for the lodge, as well as to help locals learn about growing sustainabl­e food.

But according to Mr Robertson, it is still lying derelict.

In a letter to board members, he demanded: ‘Why was the garden restoratio­n manager driven away in tears?’ In a letter to the Scottish

Government, he has now outlined his concerns about a ‘secretive and misleading Governance by a small group of individual­s, completely out of their depth’.

Last week, speaking to The Scottish Mail on Sunday, he said of those in charge: ‘It’s not their fault, it’s that they don’t have the skills.

‘I was sceptical about taking the job but over time I grew to love the place. I’m sad but I’m also sort of hopeful. It’s a real turning point.

‘It’s a very big story because the Assynt Foundation has been a sort of flagship for community land ownership for a long time.

‘I’ve been championin­g it for nearly three years since when I went across to try to help.

‘But what it proves to me is that the governance and the formula to help communitie­s is wrong. It’s unreasonab­le to expect a community to have the skills to do it.’

Mr Robertson’s criticisms are mirrored by community members of the Foundation, who have now written an open letter to the board.

The letter states: ‘Some serious concerns have been raised about how you are operating.’

Speaking about Glencanisp Lodge, they wrote: ‘Recently some of the staff were caught under the influence of drugs while working. How could this be allowed to happen?’

They say they are ‘deeply troubled that the Foundation is being run in a totally casual and imperious way’ and warn that they are considerin­g raising their concerns with the Charity Commission.

The Scottish Government said: ‘As account manager, Highlands and Islands Enterprise are working closely with the Assynt Foundation and will continue to do so to allow it the best chance to succeed.’

A spokesman for the Assynt Foundation declined to comment.

‘Public money was being wasted’ ‘Run in a totally casual and imperious way’

 ??  ?? REMOTE CONTROL: Rugged and beautiful – but the Assynt estate is mired in controvers­y
REMOTE CONTROL: Rugged and beautiful – but the Assynt estate is mired in controvers­y
 ??  ?? PARTY TIME: Glencanisp Lodge is said to be the site of ‘nightly drinking’
PARTY TIME: Glencanisp Lodge is said to be the site of ‘nightly drinking’
 ??  ?? EX-FACTOR: Gordon Robertson said board members are ‘out of their depth’
EX-FACTOR: Gordon Robertson said board members are ‘out of their depth’

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