A taste of country estate living for the guests visiting one of North West Sutherland's finest houses is providing more than the usual tourism benefits for the local area.
This is because the owners of the 12 bedroom Glencanisp Lodge are the Assynt community itself. The Assynt Foundation, set up to manage the assets on behalf of the community, has just overseen a £1.5 million refurbishment to the house which is part of the 44,500 acre estates of Glencanisp and Drumrunie near Lochinver. Five years ago their purchase became Scotland's second largest community buy-out and the first to use the Land Reform Act - Community Right to Buy.
HIE has worked alongside the community throughout the process. The development of the Lodge attracted almost £800,000 from the Big Lottery's Growing Community Assets Fund, HIE invested a further £250,000 and there was over £230,000 from the European Regional Development Fund. Additional partners included Community Energy Scotland, Highland Council, Scottish Power Green Energy Trust, and CVS North.
Mark Lazzeri, the Foundation's Development Manager, oversees the 69 square miles of the estate, with its 200 lochs and lochans, forests, and wildlife which includes about 1000 deer, along with otters, pine marten black-throated divers and golden eagles. He is delighted that the renovation of the house, parts of which date back to the early 19th century and has stunning views of Suilven, was completed both within budget and on time.
"It was clear from the beginning that the Lodge was key in providing the income which would allow us to create a sustainable, long term plan for managing the estate. Watching its transformation into such a spectacular asset for this community is inspiring. Its success will allow the community to further develop the estate, its services and facilities for the benefit of visitors and tourists alike," he said.
In addition to fully catered and self catering accommodation for walkers and deer stalking guests, the Lodge is now available as a venue for a multiplicity of functions, including weddings, conferences, training and corporate events, retreats and community functions. Mark explained: "Along with vastly improved comfort and energy efficiency the refurbishment has given us a more versatile building that we can offer to much wider range of clients, that will in turn allow us to subsidise it use by the community."
The refurbishment to the house has been carried out sympathetically. It retains many traditional features but it has also been 'future proofed' as Mark describes it. Its environmental credentials are now bang up to date. As well as a wood fuel boiler, it has discreet solar panels on its roof, together providing all its heating and hot water requirements.
It is marketed as a high quality self catering facility, though full catering is easily arranged. A range of activities and services are available to Lodge guests and also to visitors to the Foundation's estates. These include red deer stalking, guided camera stalking, provision of fishing permits and hire of fly rods & reels. "Within reason, we will try and provide whatever our guests want whether it is locally brewed beer or a piper to rouse them in the morning, if the estate cannot provide it then we can usually find someone within the community who can. In that way we can support the community by doing more than attracting visitors to the area and managing the estate for future generations. It's all about mutual support and cooperation, which is something that Assynt has been practising for years." said Mark.
The income generated offers the Assynt Foundation the means to pursue ambitious plans for the future. Mark, an expert in agricultural research and land management, commented: "We are looking at a range of opportunities for the estate which will generate funds and improve key services for the local community. We have identified potential projects which will have a major impact on community life. These include creating a small number of affordable houses on the estate, providing workshop space for local businesses, developing hydro electric renewable energy, expanding our production methods to achieve greater returns from the 200 deer a year we supply as venison, as well as the important jobs of estate management, regeneration and environmental improvement."
Support from HIE means that the Foundation will retain a development officer post for at least a further three years to continue to deliver sustainable projects for the estate. Mark added: "The estate is developing a vibrant plan which takes a long term view of the management of its assets. Community development can't take place without due regard to sustainability. The plan also has a community conscience and combines sound financial decisions with a desire to use products and services cost effectively and locally where possible."
HIE's Neil Gerrard, who works with community groups on asset development, says the completion of the project provides a strong foundation to progress future aspirations. "The independence the refurbishment brings to Glencanisp allows it to move onto the next stage of its development. It will continue to grow its already strong role in daily community life; local potter Fergus Stewart works on the estate, there are creative retreats run by a Lochinver writer, and the Lodge's walled garden has provided a business for a local vegetable grower."
"This is a great example of the kind of work Highlands and Islands Enterprise is able to do as a result of its unique role as a community and economic development agency. We are proud to help communities develop their own plans for sustainable, viable futures. At Glencanisp there are a range of ambitious plans including the expansion of the venison business; the possibility of a commercial operation for wood chip storage and production, additional income from hydro power and even the creation of a music studio for well known Celtic band Grousebeater Sound Systems."