A WARNING has again been sounded over the financial health of the Assynt Foundation.
Auditors said there was concern that the group – the first community organisation to buy land under the 2003 Land Reform Act – may not be able to continue as a "going concern".
However, estate executive officer Gordon Robertson said the future for the Foundation had never looked better since its 2005 purchase of the 44,400 acre Glencanisp and Drumrunie Estates.
It is claimed potential forestry, hydro and hutting schemes are set to transform its fortunes, making it self-sustaining and profitable in a short number of years.
Mr Robertson said: "We cannot change the past but we are very positive about the future. We are moving in the right direction and are at a point where things have never looked better."
The auditor’s warning came in a Trustees’ report and financial statements for the year ended March 31 that was filed in December with Companies House.
The papers show that the Assynt Foundation, which employs 11 staff (full-time equivalent), ended the financial year with a net deficit of £65,052.
The report said there was the "existence of a material uncertainty which may cast significant doubt about the company’s ability to continue as a going concern".
The Foundation was given a £2.2 million taxpayers’ hand-out towards the purchase of the £2.9 million estate, formerly owned by the Vestey family.
It benefited further from the public purse with £1.25 million to renovate the 12-bedroom Glencanisp Lodge. But revenue from traditional income streams, such as stalking, have not been enough to put it into profit as yet.
Warnings over its financial difficulties are not new – in 2009 then development manager Mark Lazzeri spoke of the struggle to make ends meet and called on the Scottish government to provide extra financial help for a number of years to help groups involved to develop projects to make them self-sustaining.
When the group celebrated its 10th anniversary in 2015, then group chairman Stewart Hill and director Nigel Goldie said that a "bucket of water" had long since been thrown over the "romance of community land ownership".
The current executive officer said the Foundation was putting forward a business case to secure a £250,000 loan to develop various projects.
The loan would be borrowed against the groups’s assets – the estate is thought to have doubled in value since it was bought; and also its record of repaying previous loans.
Mr Robertson said: "The foundation is putting forward its business case to a number of banks, Social Investment Scotland and charitable organisations to release working capital for inward investment into these income generating schemes.
"Each project will have to stack up financially and environmentally before the green light is given."
The Foundation is looking at cashing in on government grants to plant thousands of acres of native woodland. It is hoped a revenue stream from this would be turned on from summer 2019.
It is also investigating the potential for hydro schemes on its vast acreage.
Mr Robertson said: "There is the potential for 19 hydro schemes but we are looking at pushing forward through Local Energy Scotland with five that are viable. The feasibility studies are looking good.
"If these get the go-ahead, then we are talking about a serious income. Potentially it is game changing.
"We are very determined to make sure we can use the electricity locally for the benefit of the community."
The charity also hoped to take advantage of the surge in visitor numbers created by the NC500 tourist route.
The revamped Glencanisp Lodge was initially let out on a self-catering basis and also for weddings and other events but the Foundation has now changed tack.
Mr Robertson said: "The lodge is being run on a bed and breakfast basis by a young couple, who are both trained chefs. It is licenced and evening meals are also on offer.
"NC500 has been phenomenal and we will be fully booked this year without question – we had 70 enquiries about accommodation last Monday alone."
Another project under consideration to draw in an annual income is hutting. This would involve the Foundation leasing out sites on which people could put huts – akin to the beach huts seen in seaside towns.
Mr Robertson said: "Our history is quite brittle but we have identified a sustainable future.
"I am selling a positive line and I would not do that unless I believed it."