THE fragile Kyle of Sutherland is in line to be given an economic boost by the new owners of Carbisdale Castle.
London based FCFM Group Limited, a privately owned investment firm, has announced it is planning a number of tourism initiatives aimed at attracting visitors to the area.
The group intends to build bothy accommodation and create a small campsite in the grounds of the castle.
FCFM is also planning an interpretation centre focused round the Battle of Carbisdale in 1650.
And the castle’s dilapidated tennis courts are to be renovated – with a pledge that local people will have access to them.
A spokesman for FCFM said: "Plans for the castle grounds focus on bringing tourists to the area and providing jobs for locals.
"That will hopefully build on other economic successes linked to the various initiative driving tourist to the Highlands."
A "stakeholders" meeting is to be held later this month to set out the plans in detail. But community leaders have already enthusiastically welcomed the plans.
It signals a continued upturn in the area’s fortunes – a new Falls of Shin Visitor Centre is set to open shortly, replacing the old centre which burned down two years after the castle closed.
FCFM Group acquired the 40,000 square foot castle from the Scottish Youth Hostel Association (SYHA) for an undisclosed sum in October.
SYHA had run it as a youth
hostel since 1945 but closed the building in 2011 following water ingress.
It was put on the market after the association was unable to meet the substantial costs of renovation.
The closure was a significant economic blow to the Kyle of Sutherland area – the castle accommodated an average 20,000 visitors a year.
And there was a degree of disappointment when FCFM announced at the time of purchase that the run-down building, built between 1907 and 1917, would not operate as a commercial enterprise with the potential for jobs locally.
Instead it was set to be returned to its former glory and become a "world-class" private residence.
The 40-bedroom structure boasts a grand hall, ballroom and billiard room.
Now FCFM has unveiled its plans for the castle in an application to Highland Council for planning and listed building consent to carry out a range of improvement works.
Agent for FCFM is Fearn architectural and design practice Lachlan Stewart Studio LLP.
The most ambitious project is the erection of a spa complete with gym, jacuzzi and swimming pool in the castle’s basement which is to be extended.
The pool will be sited underneath the castle’s substantial first-floor terrace and will enjoy spectacular views of the Kyle of Sutherland.
A range of other improvement works is also proposed.
The new owners want to take down additions erected by SYHA such as its reception area room partitions and an outside fire escape. Panel radiators are also to be removed and replaced with cast iron ones more in keeping with the historic castle.
Plaster work is to be repaired and wood panelling made good where necessary.
A spokesman said: "Plans for the castle include restoration of the main state rooms which have been extensively damaged by unsympathetic remedial works, removal of the 1970s-concrete fire escape that scars the building, creating of a small swimming pool and removal of the internal partitions that were installed by the former operations to allow for rooms to be split into bunking areas."
But it is the plans for the grounds that will be met with most enthusiasm locally.
The proposed "small and environmentally friendly bothies" are earmarked to be built around a lochan near the castle.
And the planned interpretive centre will tell the story of the Battle of Carbisdale which was fought as part of the War of the Three Kingdoms in 1650 and was the last battle for ultra-Royalsit the 1st Marquis of Montrose before his execution.
The spokesman said: "We’re very eager to actively engage local businesses and residents to understand their views and to ensure the grounds of the castle are sympathetically developed in a way that will enhance the experience for all stakeholders – whether they be local businesses which will benefit from additional trade, those working to build and renovate the bothies and camp site or local residents, who will benefit from additional local amenities."
He added: "We’re very committed to working with the local community, hence the employment of four locals directly and the firm commitment to use local suppliers and tradesmen wherever possible."
FCFM has already embarked on a renovation of the castle clock tower.
Specialist clock conservation firm Smiths of Derby has been commissioned to undertake the work, the cost of which has not been disclosed but has been estimated at tens of thousands of pounds.
The renovation work started in December and will continue until March. It will see the preservation of the existing and original JW Benson clock movement and the J Smith’s hour chiming musical mechanism.
Creich Community Council chairman Peter Campbell, Balblair, described the renovations and tourism initiatives planned by FCFM as good news for the area.
He said: "I think this will get a good deal of support from the community. It is good news on all fronts. Last year we were looking at the prospect of Carbisdale becoming a pile or rocks and we are lucky to have found someone prepared to invest in it."
North, west and central Sutherland ward councillor George Farlow said: "I have been supportive of The Thousand Hutters project (a campaign to promote huts and hutting) for some time.
"I am hoping that this is something akin to that and as far as I understand the planning department should be relatively supportive in principle. It would seem that having a few but ‘n’ bens would be helpful towards the area’s tourist industry and various local developments."