Am Bratach No. 330
April 2019

Keoldale plans may be first step to farm buyout

A Durness-born businessman leading plans for a multi-purpose visitor facility at Keoldale Farm on the Kyle of Durness says that he hopes the development may be a first step towards shareholders taking ownership of the whole property.

David Morrison is a shareholder of the Keoldale sheep stock club, which has submitted a planning application to the Highland Council to develop a brewery, café and visitor centre within converted steadings on the farm. Other ideas for the site include a whisky distillery and tourist information point, to be incorporated into the development in subsequent years as part of a “rolling programme”.

The original buildings are believed to date back to the nineteenth century, although there is evidence that the tacksman of Keoldale was involved in sheepfarming at an even earlier date, going back to the late 1780s. The estate was eventually purchased by the British government as part of its “land for heroes” policy after the First World War. A sheep stock club with forty-two crofter shares was set up in 1922, an arrangement which continues to the present day.

Mr Morrison, who now lives in Broughty Ferry, Dundee, previously published plans for a whisky distillery at a site on Loch Eriboll. However, he believes that the Keoldale location is superior. “This is far and away the best place. It’s just got everything going for it,” he told us. “It’s on the Kyle; it looks over to all the hills; it’s the most beautiful view.”

Two major objectives lie behind the proposal. The first is obvious — to create lasting employment in the local area, and to capitalise on the opportunities provided by the North Coast 500, encouraging visitors to spend more time in and around Durness.

“Durness is heavily undercapacitated with things to keep people,” Mr Morrison said. “One of the fundamentals of tourism is that if you can keep somebody for another day, you’ve doubled your income. We’ve got to keep them.”

“Durness is a dying village at the moment,” he added. “People like myself and people after me had to leave. You want to create something that will stabilise the local economy. We’ll never be a market leader, but we can carve a niche that will allow us to give five or six people in Durness employment for the rest of their lives in the distillery alone. It’s really to create a future for Durness. If we don’t do it, who will do it?”

The second objective is more complex, tied into the structure of ownership at Keoldale. “Keoldale sheep stock club is trying to buy Keoldale Estate,” Mr Morrison revealed, “but we’re having a bit of a problem with the Scottish government [the landlord], because there is no precedent. What we’re trying to do is buy it on a deferred purchase, and they’re not prepared to do that. The main thing is to get the thing moving instead of spending years in fruitless discussions. We’re going to buy the steadings, which is going to cost about £25,000, and we’re going to have that decrofted and then we’re going to do this development as the first part of the diversification programme for Keoldale. It’s really the most important part, because that’s the part that will generate the most cash.”

A previous move by the shareholders to purchase the land worked by the sheep stock club foundered because government right-to-buy legislation requires involvement from the wider community to qualify for funding. “We thought it would be a good idea to buy it under this Scottish government right to buy,” Mr Morrison said. “If you were to have a community purchase, that would be okay, but the Keoldale sheep stock club is a company. It’s been a profitable company for almost one hundred years, so why would you want to bring someone else in just so the Scottish government can tick the right boxes?”

“The whole thing is a process,” he continued. “You can’t go to commercial lenders because it’s in crofting tenure in perpetuity, so although we would be buying the estate, it would still also be an extension of the holdings of fortythree crofts. It’s such a complicated thing. Banks can’t understand it. We almost got a buyout in 2014 for £261,000, but that went into the long grass for various reasons. The last valuation we got was £604,000. It’s value had trebled. It gets more and more difficult to buy. So we’re saying the only way we can afford to buy it is through something like the old crofters’ grant and loan scheme, where you have a deferred purchase.”

“It’s not so much to do with money as to do with belonging and ownership,” Mr Morrison concluded. “If we got the whole estate we could make it go.” 

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