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HIE approves £250,000 for mill transformation at John O’Groats


By Alan Hendry

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Work in progress on the mill project which is being supported by Highlands and Islands Enterprise.
Work in progress on the mill project which is being supported by Highlands and Islands Enterprise.

The transformation of the historic John O’Groats Mill has been hailed as a great example of how funding can be used to bring more investment into the region.

The category “B” listed mill complex is being brought back into use as a heritage attraction and community venue in an ambitious £4.9 million project led by John O’Groats Mill Trust.

Now, Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) has approved £250,000 for the project. The HIE contribution completes the funding package by leveraging a further £3.6m national investment from the Heritage Lottery Fund (£1.6m), Scottish Government (£1.5m) and Historic Environment Scotland (£500,000).

SSE Highland Sustainable Fund, Stroupster Wind Farm Community Benefit Fund, the Wolfson Foundation and the UK government’s Community Ownership Fund have also provided funding.

Eann Sinclair, HIE’s area manager for Caithness and Sutherland, said: “In the context of very challenging public sector budgets, we have to work extra hard to secure additional investment into the region.

“This project is a great example of where our relatively modest contribution was able to complete the funding package and attract significant additional investment from public and private sector sources.”

The mill is around a mile from John O’Groats village on the A836, part of the North Coast 500 route.

The project will create a social and heritage hub for the community as well as a tourist attraction to encourage visitors to stay longer in the area. It will support local jobs, during the renovation and then in operating the new centre.

Architect Chris Bowes (left), from McGregor Bowes, Mark O'Brien (centre), site manager for O’Brien Construction, and Rognvald Brown, chairman of John O’Groats Mill Trust, when work was getting under way towards the end of 2023.
Architect Chris Bowes (left), from McGregor Bowes, Mark O'Brien (centre), site manager for O’Brien Construction, and Rognvald Brown, chairman of John O’Groats Mill Trust, when work was getting under way towards the end of 2023.

Local contractor O’Brien Construction is carrying out the work on the mill, which will take around a year to complete. The contract, worth just under £3.2 million, was awarded in 2023.

Where possible, the firm is using natural materials and traditional construction methods.

A part of the project, the water-wheel system that powers the mill’s machinery is being repaired.

Trust chairman Rognvald Brown said: “Works on site have been continuing at a rapid pace, but that does not mean that we have skimped on quality.

“The whole project is being done to a high conservation standard in order to preserve the existing heritage while making it accessible to future generations.

“This work, which is employing a local construction company, would not be possible without the support from our funders including, Highlands and Islands Enterprise, who helped us close the final gap in our funding package.”

The mill was in operation until around 2001 when Magnus Houston last worked it. In 2020 the mill keys were presented to the trust by Sina Houston, ending the Houston family connection going back some 270 years through six generations.

It is believed to be the last water-powered grain mill in Scotland. The trust also acquired two adjacent holiday cottages and 9.5 acres of land.

After acquiring the mill, the trust installed a path between it and the John O’Groats harbour area to improve links with the village. The trust has also been generating income from the cottages.

John O’Groats Mill Trust is creating a heritage visitor attraction and community venue at the historic site. Image: Enes Pilavci for McGregor Bowes
John O’Groats Mill Trust is creating a heritage visitor attraction and community venue at the historic site. Image: Enes Pilavci for McGregor Bowes

Mr Sinclair added: “This community-led project is a vital addition to the suite of investments that over the past 15 years have transformed the area through the John O’Groats masterplan.

“When we led the regeneration of the land around the former John O’Groats House Hotel in 2009, few predicted the number of new businesses that would subsequently locate to the harbour area.

“The physical connection between the mill complex and the revitalised harbour area further enhances the John O’Groats brand and we hope it may lead to further development potential in the coming years.”

Sina Houston handing the keys to Rognvald Brown, chairman of the John O'Groats Mill Trust, with some of the trust board members looking on, in 2020.
Sina Houston handing the keys to Rognvald Brown, chairman of the John O'Groats Mill Trust, with some of the trust board members looking on, in 2020.

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