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'We have tried and tried and tried': Falls of Shin restaurant in the Highlands to remain closed this season as exhaustive efforts to find operator unsuccessful due to staffing crisis hitting the county

By Caroline McMorran

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A community owned restaurant and gift shop at a Highland beauty spot visited by around 100,000 people a year will not open this season, it has emerged.

The unique Falls of Shin Visitor Centre building is based on the concept of a salmon, inspired by the fish regularly seen leaping at the falls.
The unique Falls of Shin Visitor Centre building is based on the concept of a salmon, inspired by the fish regularly seen leaping at the falls.

The Kyle of Sutherland Development Trust (KoSDT), which manages the award winning, £1.4 million Falls of Shin visitor centre, says it has been unable to find an operator to run the facility.

KoSDT manager David Watson said a preferred bidder had been identified, only for them to pull out at the last minute citing an inability to staff the restaurant and retail outlet.

“The fact of the matter is the place - against what we wish to be happening - is closed,” Mr Watson told a meeting of Creich Community Council on Tuesday night.

“We have tried and tried and tried. We have spoken to over a dozen operators and they have all not been able to provide staff. I would prefer to see it open and serving the community.”

KoSDT bought the Falls of Shin site in 2016, three years after a blaze destroyed a restaurant and gift shop previously located there and owned by former Harrods boss Mohamed Al-Fayed.

The charity received more than £1 million towards the redevelopment from the Big Lottery Fund Scotland as well as £100,000 from Highland Council’s capital discretionary fund.

The new Falls of Shin visitor attraction opened in May 2017 with Tain restaurant Platform 1864 taking over the catering operation.

However just 10 months later that contract was terminated and in 2018 Mac & Wild began running the cafe, but the firm subsequently went into liquidation.

Although the 60-cover restaurant was closed during the 2021 season, a catering van, Crofters Kitchen, provided a food service at the site.

Mr Watson said: “We lost an operator and then the last operator we had in place was not working out. The restaurant was shut down because of Covid and the operator went into liquidation.

“We had a period of unpicking the lease of someone who had gone into liquidation and it has cost us a lot of money. The Falls of Shin has done nothing but lose money for the Trust, even with an operator.”

KoSDT advertised last December for a “long-term, community focused operator” for the food and retail outlet and later said it had received a number of promising “expressions of interest”.

However Mr Watson told Tuesday’s meeting: “We have twice now got to the preferred bidder stage and both times the preferred operator has withdrawn because they felt they could not staff it.”

David Watson. Manager Kyle of Sutherland Development Trust.
David Watson. Manager Kyle of Sutherland Development Trust.

He pointed out that there were currently 35 job vacancies in Dornoch and said the Sango Sands Hotel in Durness, which had been put on the market, but had not sold, was closed due to a lack of staff. The Bridge Hotel in Bonar Bridge is also closed.

He added that the “economic environment” was not currently conducive to starting a new business with rising costs of energy, food and produce.

Mr Watson revealed the National Lottery had securities over the building and the trust was unable to sell it.

“The National Lottery has appointed an external consultant to look at options and we are going through that process at the moment,” he said.

“If anyone has any ideas, come and let us know - but some of the keyboard warriors and their assumptions about what is going on are not helping.”

River Shin ghillie Robbie Elliot, who was present at the meeting, asked if the toilets in the restaurant could be opened and said visitors to the area were forced to go relieve themselves outdoors.

But Mr Watson responded: “It is not a public toilet. It is a toilet that has to be available to the public when the restaurant is open. There are public toilets in Ardgay, Bonar and Lairg.

“I would love to have the toilets open but I just cannot with good conscience say that that is the best spending of community money.”

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