£250,000 plans brewing to create new visitor experience at John O’Groats
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Ambitious plans are being drawn up to transform a landmark building at John O’Groats into a new tourist attraction based on locally brewed craft ale.
John O’Groats Brewery is proposing to create a brewery, tasting room and visitor centre at the Last House, which has been unoccupied for almost a year.
A planning application for change of use has been lodged with Highland Council and, if approval is granted, the venture could be under way by Easter 2020.
The development – costing around £250,000 – would add to the existing brewery operation at the village’s old fire station and would be a new experience on the North Coast 500 touring route.
The plan has the full backing of Heritage Great Britain, the company that owns the Last House. The building is thought to be more than 100 years old and has previously been used as a shop, as well as a small museum.
Andrew Mowat, one of the directors of John O’Groats Brewery, believes the development will further enhance the village’s tourism appeal if it gets the go-ahead.
“It’ll be a brewery and visitor experience with a tasting room and shop along with an audiovisual display and information about the area and how the beer is made, with a little tour at the end where people can go round,” Mr Mowat said.
“The beer will be the mainstay of it, but we’ll try to incorporate a bit of local interest where we can. One of the things we might look at is extracts from some of the old visitors’ books from the John O’Groats hotel from way back in the late 1800s or early 1900s.
“We’ll keep the existing brewery where it is, in situ, and we’ll put a new, smaller kit into the new building so we’ll have the capability of two areas where we can brew in.
“The emphasis will be more on the visitor experience – people coming in to taste it, and to get the tour. Where it is just now in the old fire station is just like a small factory, really – it’s not set up to look nice for tourists.
“It gives John O’Groats another attraction and it’s not competing against anybody else, and it’ll hold people for a bit longer. If people can spend an hour to an hour-and-a-half doing the tour, sitting having a taste, that’s an hour-and-a-half longer they’re in Groats.
“They might then go on and have a cup of coffee somewhere else, or something to eat, and maybe stay. That’s the idea, and we can expand our business as well.”
John O’Groats Brewery was set up in 2015, with the first batch of beer ready by early 2016. At present it produces three bottled beers, four main cask ales and some specials.
The plan for the Last House comes at a time when micro-breweries and craft ales are on the rise generally across the country.
Mr Mowat, who is treasurer of John O’Groats Development Trust and proprietor of the Seaview Hotel, said: “More and more people are asking for it. I know that from the hotel – they want to try the local thing wherever they are.”
Allan Leech, CEO of Heritage Great Britain, said: "To find the right venture for the Last House was absolutely critical, not just for us as a business but for the visitor experience and the success of John O’Groats.
“It sits right in the heart of John O’Groats, next to the signpost which gets 100 per cent of all visitors.
“I’ve known Andrew for many years and we have worked together on other projects at John O’Groats. When he said the brewery boys would like to have a chat it seemed a bit of a perfect match.
“This is also going to showcase the history of John O’Groats, the visitor experience at John O’Groats, and it’s going to be really high quality.
“As we’re finding more and more now, people want a true experience and a true sense of place.
“It was probably one of our most important decisions to find the right people to go in. That’s why it has sat empty for nearly a year.
“When the brewery chaps came along with this concept, that they were going to take their brewing skills and place them into a visitor experience with retail attached to it, but also showcasing the history of John O’Groats, it was a no-brainer.
This is also going to showcase the history of John O’Groats, and it’s going to be really high quality.
“They’re going to be the custodians of the Last House.
“They’re really good chaps, local guys, and we’re really looking forward to seeing it coming to fruition. We’re fully behind them.”
John O’Groats and the wider area is benefiting from the growth in popularity of the North Coast 500, according to Mr Mowat.
“There’s more and more people visiting these days. There are people moving about in the quieter times,” he said.
“It [the NC500] is definitely helping. I dare say people not going abroad on holiday and Brexit and the pound plays a part too, but in general terms the whole area seems to be busier.”
Mr Mowat believes the Last House dates back more than a century. The traditional low-lying croft house featured in countless souvenir snapshots over the years as visitors reached the “end of the road”.
“The last person to live in it was called Maggie Mowat,” he said. “She was a fairly far-out relation of mine, and I do remember her when I was young. After that it became a shop for a time.
“It’s just lying empty now. It has not been looking very good for the last year or two, so it’ll spruce up that whole area.”
Earlier this year John O’Groats Brewery was awarded a bronze medal for its oatmeal stout in the London Beer Competition, the first event of its kind the company had entered.
The other three directors are Simon Cottam, Allan Farquhar and John Mainprize.
Meanwhile, there are unrelated plans for a micro whisky distillery at John O'Groats. The couple behind the venture, Kerry and Derek Campbell, from Thurso, hope it will create local employment and attract visitors.