Builders eye shinty beauty spot

IT HAS been the traditional home of Fort William shinty club for years, and one of the most spectacular sporting venues in Britain, but An Aird Stadium could soon disappear if a major development near Loch Linnhe wins council approval.

The park, the venue for last year's televised Camanachd Cup final and home to the Lochaber Highland Games, has been included within the boundaries of a 92-acre Waterfront Development Plan currently lodged with Highland Council. If planning officials give the green light to the hotel, leisure and retail complex, Camanachd Cup holders Fort William may have to relinquish the park and An Aird itself could soon be engulfed by steel and concrete.

With Ben Nevis lurking above, the ground has hosted shinty/hurling internationals with Ireland and countless other major showcases. It is due to house next year's international. Lochaber Highland Games were held there last Saturday, possibly for the last time as it transpires now.

Finlay Finlayson of the development company, Fort William Waterfront Ltd, has indicated a supermarket would be the likeliest construction on the site, if it meets council planning criteria.

Council officials have now requested more information from the developer and Susan Poole, principal planner for Highland Council in Fort William, said it was impossible to prejudge what any outcome of the application might be as the project agents had not yet supplied sufficient information.

She confirmed the shinty park was within the drafted plan, but also stressed the Council had outlined its own vision for a similar development of the waterfront area which did not include An Aird stadium. The fact that the prime land on which An Aird rests would come within the radar of covetous developers at some point is no secret.

Certainly not to the shinty club, who have once before feared being moved to an unpopular site near Lochaber High School, and have now entered into an agreement with a developer to maximise their chances of a new home and suitable location.

Fort hold a lengthy lease on An Aird, but the park itself is owned and maintained by Highland Council. The club have brokered an arrangement worth 10,000 per annum with one developer to guarantee they will not negotiate with a rival company.

As part of the handshake, the developer, which also has connections with Kingussie Shinty Club, has promised to re-house Fort William in a state-of-the-art new stadium off-site, if the waterfront plan is passed.

The shinty club chairman Richard Gall told Scotland on Sunday: "It is in the hands of the relevant people . All I can say is that we are not moving unless we are shifted. If the Council decide to sell, we don't want to be moved out to somewhere outwith the boundaries of Fort William town itself, as was mentioned before with a site out near Lochaber High School." Gall stressed the matter would be for the membership of the club to decide, if planners approved the development. It could prove a prescient move by the Fort committee, however, to negotiate a 'sponsorship' with the developer.

A source close to the club revealed that, with the matter now advancing, they had at least secure its interests in the knowledge a new ground would be provided, even if the location was uncertain.

An Aird has also had its share of problems this season, although the club would find it a wrench to leave. The pitch has suffered serious deterioration, with muddy, threadbare goalmouths and rabbits overrunning parts of the ground. Back in April, Fort were forced to switch a televised MacTavish Cup clash with Lochcarron to the Dell in Kingussie after it was discovered rabbits had nibbled their way through the grass and left droppings everywhere.

Drainage on the field is poor and away teams have also complained to Fort William about the antiquated state of the showers. The tossing of cabers on the same park by contestants in the Highland Games caused team manager, Dave Stafford, to describe the pitch as a "disgrace".

He also likened the goal areas after wet weather, frequent in this part of the west Highlands, to "12 inches of mud".

Council chiefs have held regular briefings with club officials about the condition of the park but have made it clear they do not have the cash within the current budget round to improve the surface. But ultimately, it could prove beneficial to them - if there was a purpose-built sports stadium within the town which they could access for community events on a rental basis.

In another, totally unrelated, development, it has emerged that the headquarters of shinty's ruling body, the Camanachd Association, could be moved lock, stock and barrel, from Fort William to Inverness.

The association announced recently they were looking to move from their existing office at Queen Anne House. Since then, they have kept the likely new destination close to their chests. Now, in a week when Newtonmore secretary Ian Gibson has been appointed acting chief executive, it has been learned the Highland capital is the favoured location.

The sport looks set to play a key role in Highland Year of Culture 2007 and the centenary Camanachd Cup final next year is to be staged in Inverness as part of the cultural celebration. Principal financial backers, the Tulloch Group, also have their offices in the city and locating close to the construction giant could potentially lead to future co-operation with Inverness Caledonian Thistle Football Club.

Tulloch Group built Caledonian Stadium and have an influential presence on the SPL side's board. There were rumours the Camanachd Association may rent an office in the football stadium, but that has been officially denied.