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Historic Conon Bridge Hotel set to be rescued from decline and turned into hub 'whole community can be proud of'; Investment in landmark building a vote of confidence in Ross-shire community with potential to tap NC500 trade

By Alasdair Fraser

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Conon Bridge Hotel owner David Whiteford sees a bright future for the building and says he is prepared to put in the graft to get there.
Picture: Callum Mackay.
Conon Bridge Hotel owner David Whiteford sees a bright future for the building and says he is prepared to put in the graft to get there. Picture: Callum Mackay.

NEW life is being breathed into a once thriving historic Ross-shire hotel that fell into serious decline and disrepair.

And in a powerful vote of confidence in a community which is on the North Coast 500 route, the building's new owners have vowed to make a hub "the whole community can be proud of" under ambitious investment plans .

David Whiteford, whose parents own Navity Farm in Cromarty, took ownership of the Conon Bridge Hotel in September.

The 34-year-old and his partner Joseph want to transform the dilapidated historic building into an attractive family hotel and gastro-pub popular with visitors and locals alike.

Looking ahead to a brighter future after the coronavirus lockdown, they aim to dramatically restore its reputation which had gone downhill prior to it being put on the market last year.

The couple, who returned north from London in late 2019, have already begun tidying up the grounds and saving the 1780-built structure from further deterioration.

They are determined to lay down permanent family roots and preserve the building’s place in the heart of the village for generations to come.

With “major investment” required, they hope to open public areas - including a revamped pub-restaurant, coffee shop and garden terrace - by late summer this year.

Should listed-building consent be approved without hitch, high-quality bedroom accommodation would be offered from spring 2022.

The upper floor will be converted into the owners’ home, with the old coach house in the grounds rebuilt as wheelchair-accessible accommodation.

The existing 14 dated bedrooms will be reduced to 10 modern en-suite rooms on the ground floor.

It will be a far cry from the hotel’s past notoriety for awful social media reviews highlighting cleanliness issues, peeling wallpaper and "rude" staff.

Mr Whiteford, a store designer who previously worked in hospitality, said: “We’re currently trying to repair all the bits of the roof that are rotten. A lot of the slates have fatigue.We first saw the hotel in sunny weather but the October rains exposed a lot of unexpected problems.

“We’re happy to do the work as we know what we’re doing will make the building last for another 50 to 100 years.

“The fact the building has a lot of history means it is high on people’s minds. Everyone knows about it and cares about it, but no-one has stepped forward to actually try and save it.We know what we’re facing now in terms of the sheer size of the project, but we still have the budget to turn it into a really great community hub.

“It had quite a bad reputation latterly, but we really want to move with the times and create a venue families want to come to, rather than avoid.”

Mr Whiteford is seeking to negotiate with Highland Council to purchase identical roofing slates from the former Drouthy Duck pub across the road, where new housing is proposed, to repair the hotel roof.

The new owners have also pledged to use only small local traders for redevelopment work, while all 14 staff will be recruited locally.

“It really does feel like a community project and, by the end of it, we hope it will be a building we and the whole community can be proud of,” Mr Whiteford said.

“We want to create this amazing community hub, but we also want to create a home for ourselves. I have a niece who is two years old and we want somewhere that, potentially, in 20 years’ time, she could take over and run.

“It is not a short-term vision, it is a family investment for the long-term.”

Highland councillor Graham MacKenzie welcomed the new owners’ “energy and commitment” to revitalising what had become a local eyesore, adding: “I’ve met the people and they seem tremendously enthusiastic. They have a long-term vision and I can’t see any downsides, especially at this difficult time for the economy.”

The coincidentally-named David Whiteford, chairman of the North Highland Initiative which helps promote the north area’s economy, added: “Conon Bridge is really buzzing with new development and this is a hotel on an ideal spot on the North Coast 500 route.

“It is really heartening that it is being re-opened to create new jobs for the community.”

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