John o' Groats set for £15m transformation

A MULTI-million pound vision for the future of John o' Groats was unveiled last night in the hope of transforming its "ghost ship" image.

Two prominent tourism businesses have joined forces to lead the way with plans to revitalise the world-renowned location.

Last year, Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) commissioned consultants GVA Grimley to create a masterplan for a tourist attraction fit for the 21st century.

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Over the next 15 to 20 years, it is planned to create a quality coastal village to capitalise on the area's landscape and heritage at a cost of up to 15 million.

At the time it was said the first phase, costing up to 7m, could take three years to complete and will include a new harbour square, commercial units, self-catering lodges, a focal-point artwork, a play area, an upgrade of the Last House Museum and a refurbishment of the landmark John o' Groats Hotel, which has been closed for a decade.

Heritage Great Britain, which also owns Land's End, took over the hotel in 1996. It has now revised its plans and formed a new joint venture with luxury short break specialist Natural Retreats.

Together they have put forward plans for a refurbished and extended hotel, luxury self-catering lodges and a visitor centre.

Ian McKee, project manager with GLM Architects, who are working with Natural Retreats on the project, said the company was involved in re-developing the exclusive celebrity haunt Ackergill Tower in Wick 20 years ago.

He said: "Ackergill Tower had fabulous potential but it had fallen into disrepair. At the time the then owner John Banister described the building as a sort of 'Marie Celeste'. You could well describe John o' Groats today as something of a ghost ship but with similar potential to create a really brilliant development."

Carol Gunn, of HIE, said: "The opportunities redevelopment of this site will create will have a long-lasting impact on local people, businesses and tourists."

Public consultation regarding the proposal will take place next month before the submission of any formal planning application.

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About 112,000 people each year visit John o' Groats, spending up to 700,000. But it has been claimed they stay an average of just ten minutes and it is thought income could be trebled.

In a recent survey, only 33 per cent of people were positive about the existing facilities. But it is hoped John o' Groats could in future rival developments such as Mohamed al-Fayed's Falls of Shin visitor centre in Sutherland or the House of Bruar on the A9.

John o' Groats is named after a Dutchman, Jan de Groot. In 1496 King James IV granted him the ferry franchise between the harbour and Orkney. It is said he gave his name to the silver coin, the groat, which was the fare.

De Groot also started developing the area, building a house near where the hotel now stands. The site is marked by a flagpole.

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