From Ft Wm, Inv & Tor CC

See also: FW2027

"Long is the way, and hard, that out of hell leads up to light" -John Milton

The 'Annotated Angus' is a document record, with commentary, of a presentation given by Angus MacDonald (hereafter: AMD) to FITCC in late 2021. EMD hoped to finish it by New Year's Eve 2021 but, due to COVID and a bereavement, didn't.

The 'Annotated Angus'

AMD introduced himself briefly as having had a "very good career" [esp. abroad in Hong Kong -EMD] but with local roots dating back something like 1000 years(!), and therefore having both the means and the motivation to help Fort William "flourish." Strictly speaking, AMD's family seat is closer to Spean Bridge than Ft Wm, but he was very clear that our town needs to thrive if the area is to "work," for which reason AMD has already opened two businesses in the High Street: a bookshop and a two-screen cinema.

These were not accidental choices; AMD had come across some American research indicating that these two business types were strong predictors for a town centre's adaptive ability to fill the "retail gap" created by modern shopping trends (which favour both out-of-town and online vendors over High Street stores). AMD emphasised that, therefore, successful town centres are increasingly "about socialising and activities," and he expressed satisfaction that there are far fewer empty shopfronts now than there were in the aftermath of the financial crisis a decade ago.

As well as the bookshop and cinema, an 'Escape Room' has also opened next to the Granite House. -EMD

Nevertheless, AMD warned that, too often, many residents of the surrounding area only frequent the larger supermarkets here and rarely if ever walk into the High Street, not least because of the unkempt ("really shocking") state of the underpass and some equally shabby empty shopfronts at the five-unit 'Aird's Crossing' building between M&Co and Boots, about which the owner is notably more sanguine than AMD who called it a "real blight" on the town. M&Co itself was the target of further criticism thanks to the perennial graffiti adorning the rear of the building which, unfortunately, is all too conspicuous from the lochfront section of the A82. AMD cited this as merely the worst section of a generally very unattractive rear facade visible along pretty much the whole length of the A82 from the 'West End' roundabout to the Old Fort, and proposed planting Holm Oak (aka Holly Oak, see below) trees to obscure the view while acknowledging that the view from the bypass is "likely to be a problem for years" and that in any case we couldn't plant the same tree everywhere.

"Holm oak is a native to the Eastern Mediterranean but has been naturalised in the UK. It lends itself well to shaping and is found in parks and gardens. Trees are resistant to salt-spray from the sea, and are often planted as a windbreak in coastal areas. However, they can’t stand freezing conditions and during severe winters they are prone to dying or losing their leaves, so are more common in the south of the UK."  -Woodland Trust
Holm Oak (=Holly Oak) is one of the twelve trees identified at <https://www.portland.gov/trees/get-involved/news/2021/3/30/12-broadleaf-evergreen-street-trees-you-should-plant> as being suitable for planting in Portland (Oregon, USA) which has a somewhat comparable climate. Incidentally, the 'comment' section of 27th December's 'The Times' featured an article by Clare Foges ("Beautifying Britain [..]") that proposed a blend of painting and planting to achieve the eponymous objective. -EMD

AMD said an extended season would be a "fantastic win" for the hospitality and leisure industries: it would be "transformational" for youth employment and would provide our more talented youngsters with a good reason to stay in the area. Achieving this would mean attracting wealthier visitors in the 'shoulder months' (presumably, late autumn and early spring). To this end, AMD proposed expanding the annual event calendar with more eg festivals aimed at attracting more affluent visitors, citing book conventions and music festivals as well as outdoor activities like mountain-biking and mountaineering.

There are, of course, a number of annual activities (like the mountain festival) in that vein already. Identifying opportunities to expand them might be easier if we maintained a civic asset register locally to include both tangible and intangible assets that could be included. To take the mountain festival example, it would list Mick Tighe's museum of montaineering equipment and contact details for him and other celebrated local climbers like Dave MacLeod, Noel Williams, Mike Pescod etc. -EMD

To AMD's mind, the principle obstacle to seasonal extension here is that we have far too much "poor quality" accommodation with too big a step up to Inverlochy Castle. Changing that would obviously be expensive. Implicit (and, occasionally, explicit) in AMD's presentation was the need to attract capital investment. He identified three possible sources of funds:

  • Private Investment & Entrepreneurship
  • Private Philanthropy & Volunteering
  • Public Spending from (Local/General) Taxation

Private investment is the only plausible source of capital for the kind of "upgrade" to our visitor accomodation AMD has suggested; similarly, considerable further entrepreneurship will be necessary if the "retail gap" is to be plugged to the extent necessary to attract new, wealthier visitors to support an extended tourist season.

For certain categories of development however, there is inescapably a requirement to obtain public funds drawn from general taxation (including local authority funding from central government, which is a very substantial source of their revenue). Similarly inescapable is the political character of concentrating a distribution of public money in pursuit of local goals at, theoretically, the expense of other areas.

The other source of capital AMD identified was philanthropy - charitable giving. Voluntary contributions need not always be in money form, of course. Our local "third sector" appears to be pretty healthy. AMD cited the "200 people" who turned-out for the April spring-clean organised by the "fantastic" Town Team (FWTT). But he thought we could attract more private funds by casting a wider net, and gave several examples of local landowners with philanthropic leanings and/or established charitable trusts. He went on to propose tying all these threads together by announcing an ambition to become British Town of the Year in 2027, apparently after visiting the Welsh ex-mining town of Treorchy in the Rhondda Valley which was named the UK's High Street of the Year in 2020 (see Wikipedia).

Somewhat closer to home than South Wales, another inspiring example might be the Ayrshire 'Craft Town' of West Kilbride (see Wikipedia again). -EMD

There was a fairly long discussion about adding features to the High Street. AMD's first suggestion was to commission a suite of appropriately-themed bronzes, presumably life-size. His ideas included: a highland cow, a stag, a drover with cattle or, more realistically, sheep, and a kilted bagpiper. FITCC Secretary Patricia Jordan mentioned some very good bronzes in Perth and Dundee but lamented that permission to site a statue on the West End roundabout had been refused by the road authorities on safety grounds: it was said that it would be a distraction to drivers and therefore dangerous to traffic. Another councillor draw attention to the irony of a statue of an eagle in Inverness tagged with "Welcome to the Highlands," the Highland boundary fault being well over a hundred miles away.

The moment AMD mentioned bronzes I thought immediately of my childhood hero Ayrton Senna because of the bronze tribute at Donington Park to two of motor-racing's most outstanding South American drivers, Senna and Juan Manuel Fangio (see <https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Senna_and_Fangio_Memorial_(Donington)>). Rather more usefully, my next thought was of another outstanding pair of sportsmen separated by a generation: the twin gods of (summer) rock climbing on Ben Nevis's North Face, Harold Andrew Raeburn and Brian Pinder Kellett (see <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ben_Nevis#Climbing_on_Ben_Nevis> especially paragraphs 3-5; both men have wikipedia articles but the best picture of Raeburn is at <http://www.smc.org.uk/archives/pioneer?name=harold-andrew-raeburn>). I reckon a bronze of these two pioneers would be both appropriate and, better still, inspiring: Ben Nevis isn't just our highest mountain, its North Face is of almost unparalleled importance in the history of British climbing and as such is, perhaps surprisingly, a somewhat under-exploited asset for our town in my view. (Co-incidentally Raeburn, a brewer, shares his occupation with two of AMD's brothers.) -EMD

Bronzes aren't cheap but AMD was ready with an answer to that: philanthropy (and, ahem, tax-deductability - but let that rest). He gave four examples of possible benefactors including the Wills family in Fassfarn and the Fleming family in Blackmount and Glencoe whom he thought might perhaps commission a bronze stag - which sounds plausible enough if the heirs of the late Robin Fleming are anything like as generous as he was. AMD also cited the owners of the nearby Conaglen and, further afield, the Corrour estates, adding of the former that he was fairly sure they would be "interested in helping." He added that bronzes could either be provided on loan for, say, a quarter of a century or so, or else gifted outright (and thereby attract a 45% tax deduction).

Scarborough-based property developer John Guthrie owns the 38,000 acre Conaglen and Rosehaugh Estate in northeast Ardnamurchan; Swedish professors Joseph and Lisbet Koerner own the 40,000-acre Corrour Estate. The last is perhaps better known as TetraPak heiress Lisbet Rausing who oversees a c. billion-pound charitable trust ('Arcadia'). -EMD

Prior to the meeting, AMD had circulated a photograph of the entranceway arch at Craig's Graveyard opposite Fort William leisure centre. During the presentation he provided some background about this feature which, improbably, had previously been located in the High Street and had been relocated at some expense by Mr MacDonald's great great grandfather who had at that time owned the distillery.

AMD unexpectedly proposed, of all things, moving the arch back into the High Street thereby returning it to, apparently, its original location between Tweedale House and what is now the Royal Bank of Scotland building where it would make a "fantastic entry to Fort William," he said. Apart from the problem of what would be substituted at the graveyard - which it ought not to be beyond the wit of man to solve - the immediate difficulty with this is that not only is the High Street location already kitted-out with benches, planters and even a largish post box, but the very same site has been chosen, arguably ill-advisedly, for one of two e-bike hubs to be installed in Fort William town centre in early 2022 (the other is outside the rail station, a location AMD (and EMD, and some other CCllors) thought and think absurdly proximate).

I would worry that the Arch itself looks a hell of a lot more impressive where it is than it would being over-looked by three- and four-story buildings and that, having paid good money to relocate it, AMD might rather come to regret not placing it at a more open location somewhere in The Parade, say, a suggestion I made at the time but to no real enthusiasm. AMD did reveal that his brother Ian-Peter, whom I know slightly, professionally, from his occupation as a brewer and who chairs the board of the West Highland Museum, had suggested instead commissioning a replica of the arch, which struck me as a good idea - apart from anything else, the replica could be larger. -EMD
There is, co-incidentally, a rock feature called 'Arch Gully' on the North Face of Ben Nevis, so called because a natural arch of unfallen rock bridges it at height. The foot of the gully is more easily accessed by a rightward (northward) traverse from Ledge Route just beyond the slightly awkward crossing of Notch Gully above the Improbable Pedestal. And on the subject of replicas, it has long been a dream of mine to figure out how to construct an accurate ground-level replica of the notorious Man-Trap rock problem on the Ben's North-East Buttress: that would make an amazing street or park feature if we could slip it past the health-and-safety mafiosi, some hope. -EMD

AMD thought we could expect very little political support for our ambition for Fort William to become a British Town of the Year. He emphasised the poor quality of our transport infrastructure and inadequacy of public spending on capital projects, describing the local ferry services provided by Caledonian MacBrayne as "a disgrace - as is the A82."

It is hardly in question that our area both needs and deserves more money from central government. Our locality was promised a new hospital two decades ago, as well as improvements to the A82, neither of which have been forthcoming (although EMD has argued strongly for several years that retaining a roadbridge crossing to Caol Spit on the local plan quite forestalls any possible progress on an A82 bypass extension through Blackparks, among other ill-consequences, and serves no purpose whatsoever because "the mooted bridge will never be built, period"). Somewhat more recently, the promised STEM centre has yet to materialise despite a number of similar assurances given over the last few years.

"If we can't claim and obtain our rightful share of funds from general taxation when our MP leads Scotland's governing party at Westminster and our MSP is the second most powerful woman in Scotland, when the hell can we?" -EMD

AMD contrasted his BToY initiative with the "grandiose" ambitions of Highland Council's longstanding FW2040 project. This was to some extent based on a misunderstanding of the origin of FW2040, which was and is an (unfunded) attempt, mandated by ScotGov, to impose a measure of coherence on local development. AMD was certainly right, though, to draw attention to the fact that FW2040 has very little to do with the development of Fort William town centre, where the most significant changes wrought by HRC in recent years have probably been the abandonment of several office buildings following the opening of the Charles Kennedy building south of the West End roundabout.

HRC's FW2040 project lead is the highly competent Scott Delgano, ably assisted by HIE's equally capable Alastair Nicholson; neither gentleman can be blamed for FW2040's deficiencies which largely flow from the statutory and regulatory framework underlying the project. Entirely separate, too, is the problem of underfulfillment: if funds are rarely if ever channelled here other than via Inverness, the prevailing glacial pace of implementation is hardly likely to improve. -EMD

AMD described the admittedly sclerotic 'bureaucracy' that presides over decision-making in Fort William as "beyond imagination" - incomparably bad in his experience. Regardless of whether or not matters here are really any worse than they are in, say, Broadford, Thurso, or Ullapool, doing anything about it between now and 2027 implies, at a minimum, starting to get the better of the Inverness mafia by making the future of Fort William a principle issue in the forthcoming Highland Council elections to be held on Thursday 5th May 2022, and thereby winning popular support for a much more dynamic and accountable style of local governance. It won't be enough merely to choose the right people to serve as local representatives - they will need the weight of numbers behind them to prevail. Both of these goals would be served by our holding a primary election to select an independent candidate to fight for one of the four council seats up for grabs in May (see AV).

I know of no way to organise a postal-vote primary for less than £500 because that is the minimum spend to gain access to Royal Mail's 'Mailsort Three' (ie third-class mass-mailing) services. -EMD
Afterword: The North Face of Ben Nevis
It's long been an adage of mine that the goddamned Nessiemafiosi would steal Ben Nevis for their town if they could (I refuse to dignify a tin-pot conurbation of barely fifty thousand people with the word 'city', btw). Fortunately, the Ben's celebrated North Face is over two kilometres long and won't be going anywhere this side of a thermonuclear explosion.
I said earlier that we could and should make more of this excellent asset. An admittedly minor but potentially useful side-effect of popularising Three Peaks Three Days would be to increase demand for accommodation, albeit mainly on bank holiday Saturday nights in the first instance. However, pushing 3P3D would generate interest in the north face across the UK which could only stimulate demand year-round.
Appendix: Excerpt from (DRAFT) MINUTE OF FITCC MEETING on TUESDAY 16th NOVEMBER 2021 at 7:00pm via MS-Teams
 (DRAFT) MINUTE: Tue 16/11/21 FITCC (‘Teams’) meeting - #3: Angus MacDonald (Highland Cinema and Bookshop)
 #3. Angus MacDonald – Highland Cinema and Bookshop: Angus gave an enthusiastic presentation on a number of exciting ideas for enhancing the High St. He spoke of fewer empty shops and the High Street in a much better state than in was a few years ago but there is still a long way to go. The need to encourage business people to take on premises that will bring locals back into the town. Look at ways of extending the season – festivals, events etc. It was agreed that the Town Team has done an excellent job of rallying volunteers to improve and brighten up the town but a wider diversity of shops is needed. The Bye-pass looking onto the back of the buildings gives a really poor impression. Airds Crossing buildings are a blight on the town with owners not prepared to consider alternative use or enhance the appearance of the buildings. All were in agreement that the Underpass is a dreadful entrance to and from the town. An approach has been made by FITCC to HC to address this problem. Angus is making presentations to individual Councillors, the Lochaber Area Committee, the Chamber of Commerce, the Historical Society and the Museum in the hope that we can all work together in an effort to make the high street a better experience for both locals and visitors. Angus spoke of approaching charitable Trusts for Art projects and not always relying on public funds. The chair spoke of the FW2040 plan with some of the projects being delivered before 2040 and moves afoot to bring progress and decision making back again into local control. Angus advised of his visit to Treorchy in Wales which won the 2020 Great British High Street of the year Award. A thriving High Street with many small businesses and craft shops not just reflecting the culture and heritage of the area but providing useful and necessary services to the local community. The meetings agreed to invite Angus back early in the new year when we will hold a Public meeting to present the idea of going forward for the 2027 Great British High Street of the year Award and as part of a consultation process with wider community/stakeholder participation. The chair thanked Angus for his presentation and sharing his thoughts for the future and will get back in touch in January’22 to arrange dates for a Public meeting.