THE reopening of a Ross-shire landmark this summer following a determined two-year campaign could help revive the fortunes of the county town by putting it on the radar of visitors from around the world.
Hopes are high that the 100ft Macdonald Monument in Dingwall could tap into the record-breaking cruise liner business at nearby Invergordon and finally capitalise on the remarkable global success of the North Coast 500 route which passes through a large swathe of Ross-shire.
Dingwall also now boasts a recently opened community-owned distillery set to produce whisky in the town for the first time in almost a century – and also keen to play its part in putting the town back on the map for visitors.
Dingwall Community Council believes the imposing Mitchell Hill tower, which offers unrivalled panoramic views for miles around, could be the key to grabbing a slice of the action from both of these visitor success stories.
Plans to offer supporters the chance to sponsor a step of the internal staircase leading to a viewing platform at the top have already excited interest. And volunteers have come forward to offer escorted tours for visitors.
Highland Council, which looks after the memorial to one of the county’s most famous sons, Major General Sir Hector Macdonald, had previously dragged its feet over the proposals, concerned about its health and safety liability for the structure.
However, the community council has maintained pressure by making its own health and safety assessment and getting feedback from local fire and rescue personnel.
Dingwall-based SNP MSP Kate Forbes has also thrown her weight behind the project saying she would like to see it open "sooner rather than later" and declaring it a community priority for 2018.
Community councillor Jack Shepherd, who is a health and safety consultant, said local fire chiefs were "comfortable" that the tower could be evacuated in the event of an emergency.
He said: "I was born here and I see the town starting to stagnate a bit. People tend not to stop in the town but to carry on through. There’s definitely a potential for coach tours from the Invergordon cruise liners to offer visits to the monument and I understand the new GlenWyvis Distillery is also keen to associate itself with it. There are no problems which can’t be solved."
Fellow community councillor Sara-Lynn Thain said: "We do appreciate that Highland Council doesn’t have the resources to fund any remedial works or improvements to the structure but the community council are considering other funding and have made some significant steps towards getting the monument open for the public since we were initially told it was unsafe and not fit to open by the Highland Council.
"Kate Forbes MSP is supporting this and we are hoping to get it open with a team of volunteers in the summer. We will be in touch with other groups in the town to see if we can work together to form a volunteer rota."
Ms Forbes said: "As we look ahead to the new year, I would love to see the Macdonald Monument opened to the public sooner rather than later.
"It would be a shame if the monument was still closed this time next year, considering the potential it has to draw visitors to the area and open up local history for us all to enjoy. I know that Dingwall Community Council has been working really hard to drive this project forward.
"I share their vision for the Macdonald Monument and hope that we can all make it one of the priorities for 2018."
Ward councillors have previously voiced support for the scheme.
Cllr Graham Mackenzie said: "Risk assessments are being sought for similar types of structure and Highland Council are in dialogue with the community council to agree a safe way forward. The community council have supplied a report of their own on the state of the building and this is now being assessed by the council. I am hopeful that we can secure an agreement to open later in the year when guidelines and training for volunteers have been organised."
Highland Council last year voiced concerns over its statutory responsibility for risk assessments of such properties. Ironically, a viewing platform established at another Highland landmark, Inverness Castle, has proved hugely popular with visitors and locals alike.
The local authority has been accused of too easily dismissing the project and of prioritising projects in the Highland capital.
In excess of 150,000 cruise liner passengers disembarked at Invergordon last year, many heading on whistle-stop coach trips of the Highlands. That number is expected to be exceeded this year.
The North Coast 500 road route, which includes Dingwall, was estimated to have boosted the Highland economy to the tune of £9 million last year, bringing an extra 29,000 visitors to the area.
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