Highland battle over rights to Nessie's heritage

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Not since the Jacobites laid siege to the place in 1689 has Castle Urquhart, on the shore of Loch Ness, been surrounded by such bitter dispute. A pounds 2.7m plan for a visitor centre has divided the nearby village of Drumnadrochit. The Loch Ness Monster industry has taken the hump and Historic Scotland, custodian of the castle, has been branded a heritage vandal. Our Heritage Correspondent, Stephen Goodwin, explains.

Donald Dewar will need all his lawyer's sagacity in sorting out self- interest from public interest. The Secretary of State for Scotland has called in Historic Scotland's plan for a visitor centre and car park for a public inquiry. Castle Urquhart stands like a broken tooth on a rocky promontory jutting out into Loch Ness. Commanding a panorama of the Great Glen, it has probably been the site of fortresses since the Dark Ages. It was one of the last castles to keep alive Robert the Bruce's independence struggle in the 14th century and later was repeatedly sacked by the fearsome MacDonalds, Lords of the Isles.

The tower-house which dominates the ruins today dates from the 16th century. More might have survived had Highlanders, who successfully defended the castle against a much larger Jacobite force in 1689, not blown up many buildings when they left the garrison three years later.

Opponents of the visitor centre plan portray Historic Scotland as bent on similar desecration. "They are supposed to be the custodians of Scotland's heritage. But what they are proposing is its destruction," said Gordon Menzies, chairman of Drumnadrochit Community Council, emphasising this was his personal view.

The only point of agreement between the two camps is that something has to be done about traffic management at the castle which is below a bend on the busy A82 trunk road snaking alongside the loch. Since 1985, annual visitor numbers have risen from 70,000 to almost 250,000, making it Scotland's third most popular monument. With only space for 39 cars, thousands of visitors are turned away. Police have threatened to shut the castle if the traffic situation does not improve.

The plan - scaled down after protests - is for a visitor centre sunk into a grass slope running down from the road towards the castle. There would be parking for 120 cars and 12 coaches and a tearoom, rather than a restaurant as originally planned.

To further placate the traders of Drumnadrochit, the quango proposed a pay-on-entry system to ensure only those visiting the castle could use the tea room and toilets and promised not to sell Nessie souvenirs in the shop.

Dominating the village, two miles from the castle, are two Monster exhibitions, one calling itself "Official" and the other "Original" - but that is another story. Unfortunately the loch is not visible from either centre whereas the view from the castle is ideal for monster watching.

Traders claim they are not opposed to having a visitor centre - they just don't like the idea of this one. Ronnie Bremner, owner of the Official Loch Ness Monster Exhibition, offered Historic Scotland a plan for a centre on land he owns on the opposite side of the A82 from the castle. "That was three years ago. The plans were given in good faith but they never even had the decency to take them to Highland Council to consider," he said.

Mr Bremner's view that to develop in the field by the castle would be to "bastardise the jewel in the crown of Scottish tourism" is shared by Alastair MacPherson, chairman of the local chamber of commerce. He wants a park-and-ride scheme from a car park in the village centre, opposite his gallery - though that has nothing to do with his support for that proposal. "I've painted Urquhart Castle more times than any other artist living or dead, so I do have a vested interest in it not being spoilt," Mr MacPherson said.

Highland Council officers recommended approval of the scaled-down scheme, but members rejected this advice, precipitating the public inquiry. The delay puts in jeopardy a conditional pounds 900,000 grant from the European Union.

Councillor Pat Paterson, in whose ward the castle stands, is staunchly opposed while his Drumnadrochit neighbour, Margaret Davidson thinks the plan "the best in an imperfect world". "Historic Scotland does not desecrate monuments," Mrs Davidson said. She canvassed 200 people in the village and found two thirds in favour, suggesting many kept quiet at public meetings.

A visitor centre would enable the return to Castle Urquhart of almost 90 medieval artefacts, including decorated brooches, spurs and cross-bow bolts, unearthed early this century. But other fragments of bone, pottery and knife blades found recently during an archaeological survey for the quango are being claimed as a "technical knockout" by the antis. The archaeologist himself described the find as "not the most significant thing in the world". But as they know very well around Loch Ness, a great deal can be made from something which may not exist at all.

Photographs: John Voos