Tills go quiet at Al Fayed's retail outpost

Keith Nuthall on the business the boss of Harrods couldn't save
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MOHAMED Al Fayed has seen the smallest piece of his considerable retail empire crumble - the village store on the 17,000-acre Scottish estate of the owner of Harrods has closed.

The Invercassley Stores and Post Office in remote Rosehall, Sutherland, has been shut since Christmas, following a cashflow crisis. Cartons of mince pies, Jaffa Cakes and Penguin bars were abandoned by grocer Sheila Noble, along with fresh bacon and butter, now decomposing in the unplugged chiller.

The closure has upset Rosehall's pensioners, said Gladys McCulloch, a former village postmistress. "The needy ones have no transport. They need a post office to get money from the Girobank. Highland people like to use cash, not credit cards, and the post office offers that facility."

Mr Al Fayed has owned the freehold since 1996, when he bought the Inveroykel estate, deep in the heart of prime grouse-shooting, stalking and salmon- fishing country. It added to the 38,000 acres that he already owned and ran from Balnagown Castle, in Ross county.

On learning that he had also acquired a village store, the tycoon came calling, showering customers with gifts of teddy bears and Harrods beer. But he then returned to Knightsbridge, London, where his Harrods store serves 35,000 customers a day, leaving the Invercassley Stores to subsist on the rather smaller customer base of Rosehall's 200 inhabitants.

When villagers learnt this autumn that the store was in trouble, 80 of them crammed into Rosehall's village hall to hold an emergency meeting. There, estate officials heard heartfelt appeals for Mr Al Fayed to flex part of the Harrods group's pounds 750m annual turnover muscle, taken at shops including Kurt Geiger and Carvela Shoes.

He responded by waiving the shop's pounds 1,500 rent and offering to join a proposed village co-operative with a pounds 3,000 stake. But it was too little too late.

Support at the meeting was not reflected in the cash register in the following weeks and Mrs Noble ran out of money to buy stock. "I was knocked out with illness when the shop shut and a lot of the attitude of the village about finished me off," she said.

Villagers wanted Mrs Noble to be bailed out by Harrods, but this did not square with her traditions of Sutherland self-sufficiency.

"There was a strong feeling that the village shop should be subsidised by the estate, but I would never have thought of that," she said. "It was a business; it had to pay. I wasn't going to say: 'I don't have to worry about that. Mr Al Fayed will keep me going.'"

Harrods was also reluctant to operate a staffed food dispensary on the estate. Mr Al Fayed's spokesman, Michael Cole, said: "Mohamed has been aware of this situation, is concerned and has tried to do his best to work out a way for the shop to serve the local community and remain viable.

"But the shop has to earn its place in the community. You can't compel people to come into the shop. You have to make it attractive, by offering them a wide range of goods and good service."

Unfortunately, Mrs Noble found that suppliers were not always prepared to deliver food to Rosehall - a hamlet surrounded by miles of Caledonian forest and moorland. One summer, fresh bread arrived just three times a week, encouraging villagers to drive nine miles to the nearest larger shops in Lairg.

Shops in the region are so pressed that the Highland Council and the Highlands and Islands Enterprise Board spend around pounds 150,000 a year trying to keep them open.

This is the third time that Invercassley Stores has closed since they were built in 1992 by the estate's former owner, Stuart Urry, and opened by the Sutherland Lord Lieutenant, Major-General David Houston.

"It's a great pity from the social point of view. This is the third time that people's hopes have been raised, then dashed," said Mr Houston.

Meanwhile, Mrs Noble is preparing to return to work as a waitress, while the villagers continue to discuss a co-operative scheme. They have visited a successful co-op highland shop near Aviemore, whose owners recommended a capital development which could be afforded by Mr Al Fayed.

Committee member Charlie Byron recalled: "They said there was a public toilet outside their store. It's small and gets crowded, so instead of waiting, people use the shop."