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Dornoch hotelier plans four-star upgrade if renewed Coul Links golf course plan successful

By Caroline McMorran

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The boss of the hotel chain that operates the Dornoch Hotel has said he would increase investment in the business should a renewed bid for a golf course at Coul Links be successful.

Haydn Fentum, chairman of Bespoke Hotels, revealed the firm was prepared to spend up to £5 million to upgrade the 105-bedroom hotel from a three-star to a four-star standard, if Coul Links got the go-ahead.

Haydn Fentum is chairman of Bespoke Hotels.
Haydn Fentum is chairman of Bespoke Hotels.

Bespoke Hotels which has 20 other hotels in Scotland including at Gairloch and Grantown-on-Spey, took over the Dornoch Hotel from Shearings four years ago. It opens seasonally but has been closed since October 2019 because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Some 30 staff are employed during the season and the hotel enjoys a 85 per cent occupancy rate. More jobs are expected to be created should Coul Links become a reality.

“It was a Shearings Hotel and we still have a lot of coach parties, tours and groups,” said Mr Fentum. “They arrive in a bus, we have a dinner organised and then they are back on the coach and off first thing in the morning, so there is not a lot of money being spent locally. We are looking to reposition and encourage more independent travellers to stay for longer.”

A rolling programme of improvements introduced when Bespoke Hotels took over, has seen around a third of the bedrooms and half the bathrooms upgraded.

“Over the next couple of years we will spend the best part of £1 million on the Dornoch Hotel,” said Mr Fentum. “But while we are doing that we will be keeping an eye towards Coul Links and if that was to happen, we would accelerate and intensify the programme.

“At the moment we are planning to upgrade it to a high-end three-star, but if Coul Links comes through we will put it into a four-star category and would be looking to spend between £3.5 and £5 million.

Built in 1904 by the Highland Railway Company, the Dornoch Hotel was occupied by the army during World War II. When the railway closed in 1960, it became the Dornoch Hotel.
Built in 1904 by the Highland Railway Company, the Dornoch Hotel was occupied by the army during World War II. When the railway closed in 1960, it became the Dornoch Hotel.

He continued: “Either way we are very happy with the hotel and think there is a fantastic future for it although it would be slightly more glossy if planning went through but it is certainly not a dud if it does not.”

A keen golfer and member of Royal Dornoch Golf Club, Mr Fentum is in regular contact with other Dornoch hoteliers and says they are all “champing at the bit” for the current lockdown to lift, allowing businesses to reopen.

“If there is one bright bit out of this whole last 12 months, it is that I think a lot of UK residents have re-engaged with Britain as a whole in terms of travelling,” he said.

New group group Communities for Coul (C4C) was formed in January to launch a fresh attempt to achieve a championship golf course at Coul Links. An original planning application was turned down by Scottish Ministers last year on environmental grounds and there remains strong opposition to the scheme.

Coul Farm owner Edward Abel Smith has announced plans for an eco hotel on his land in conjunction with Coul Links.

C4C director Gordon Sutherland, a Dornoch resident, said: “Following the announcement of the proposed Coul Links Hotel, we’re delighted to see further commitment to major investment in the area should we be successful in achieving planning permission for a golf course on land at Coul Links.”

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