A PROBE is underway into the cause of a major blaze which destroyed a popular visitor centre in the Highlands, owned by ex-Harrod boss Mohammed Al Fayed.
Talks are also being held to discuss the future of the 18 staff employed at the Falls of Shin centre – known as the Harrods of the North – near Lairg in Sutherland.
Jonathan Henson, who is responsible for the overall management of Mr Al Fayed’s Balnagown Estates, said: “We were shocked and saddened by the news of the fire at the Falls of Shin Visitor Centre.
“Thankfully all staff and visitors were safely and quickly evacuated and no one was harmed.
“It is too early to asses the cause, however we can confirm that the building has been substantially destroyed as a result of the fire.
“Sadly, we are unable to provide any facilities for visitors for the foreseeable future.”
He added: “We are committed to securing a long term and profitable future for Balnagown Estates, an important contributor to the local economy.
“The visitor centre itself provides 18 jobs of which six are permanent and the remainder are part-time.
“A liaison officer has been appointed to look after the welfare of all employees. He is keeping them fully informed with regard to the future operation of the visitor centre.
“We would like to take this opportunity to thank the local fire service and police for their prompt response.”
More than 30 firefighters battled in vain to save the visitor centre, which consisted of a shop and restaurant housed in a wooden building.
The alarm was raised at 10.16am, with four engines from Golspie, Dornoch, Lairg and Bonar Bridge rushed to the scene in the picturesque Falls of Shin.
They arrived to find a well-developed fire in the ground floor and roof space.
A further appliance from Golspie and the water bowser from Inverness were also mobilised to the incident.
The strong variable winds and the construction of the building caused the fire to spread quickly, and crews were unable to enter the building due to impending danger of the roof which collapsed during the fire.
As well as dealing with the building fire, firefighters worked to stop the fire spreading to the woodlands and outbuildings in close proximity to the centre, which attracted 250,000 visitors a year.
Firefighters managed to being the blaze under control after five hours, and remain on scene to continue to dampen the building and check for hot spots.
Incident Commander, Group Manager Ian Smith said: “Staff at the Visitor Centre did an excellent job in safely evacuating the building and calling us.
“Firefighters worked very hard under arduous conditions and are to be commended for preventing the fire spreading to the neighbouring woodlands and outbuildings.”
A joint investigation will be carried with Police Scotland over the forthcoming days to determine the cause of the fire.
A life size statue of the ex-Harrods boss in a kilt also fell victim to the fire.
The waxwork had been assembled by experts from Madame Tussauds, with Mr Al Fayed – who also owns nearby Balnagowan Estate – saying he could always be there in spirit.