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Old kirk's future remains unclear

By Will Clark

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That was the message from officials during a public meeting held to decide the future of who will own and run Old St Peter’s Kirk.

After the gates being locked for six years, the grounds were finally opened to the public after a campaign which saw a petition calling for the gates to be unlocked attract over 2100 signatures.

Now steps are being made to decide who will go on to run the 11th-century monument.

Highland Council organised a special meeting at Caithness Horizons on Wednesday when more than 30 people came to discuss the future of the building.

Although no decision was made, it has been decided to hold another meeting with interested parties to form a trust for St Peter’s.

Caithness ward manager David Sutherland said there were three options, which included Highland Council continuing to own and run the facility and also handing over ownership to a trust.

But the most popular option was for the council to maintain ownership of the building but for a trust to take over responsibility for its running.

Mr Sutherland said due to budget constraints at the council, together with limits on what funding it is eligible to apply for, it would be best if responsibility was taken out of council hands.

“Highland Council is not the best authority to look after this building due to the budget cuts it is making across the board,” he said.

“We are also limited to what third party funding we can attract due to being a local government organisation.

“If a trust is set up, it will be eligible to apply for a greater range of funding than a local authority is entitled to.

“This would also apply if Highland Council maintained ownership of the building, as long as a community trust were responsible for running it.

“It would be entirely up to the group to find the best way forward for how the site is run and what repair work should be done.”

Historic Scotland field officer Anne Coombs reiterated the greatest chance of finding funding was if a community trust took over responsibility.

But she also warned it would be responsible for any deliberate damage caused, which included vandalism, with possible fines up to £50,000.

“Historic Scotland grants are available but it is not keen for one government agency to give money to another such as Highland Council as the money comes from people’s taxes,” she said.

“Before any repair work can be done, conservation and architect building reports would need to be carried out and permission would also be required to remove vegetation.

“However, with a scheduled monument there is no onus on the owner to carry out any repair work at all.”

Former St Peter’s Action Group spokesman Jim Campbell said that despite not wanting to be part of a trust, he was keen to help set it up and would organise another public meeting for people to volunteer to join the group.

He said: “I don’t want to be part of the group as I was only interested in getting the gates open to the public. But I am willing to organise a meeting to get people on board and help organise the trust.”

Thurso councillor John Rosie was encouraged by the level of enthusiasm but said the council should have taken action long ago.

“St Peter’s Church belongs to the people of Thurso,” he said. “Highland Council should have shown more interest in the building.”

Fellow councillor Roger Saxon backed calls for the community to form a trust, stating there was no better example of people power.

The date for the next public meeting is yet to be arranged.

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