Fort Augustus Abbey closed to the public in 1998 after more than one hundred years as a Benedictine Community. This is the latter part of that story.

FORT AUGUSTUS ABBEY - THE DEMISE


Fort Augustus Abbey seen from the air above.

[This section of the site has had to be written under the constraints of a termination agreement the Webmaster signed when he left the Abbey in 1998.  Please accept his apologies for any resultant clumsy structure within this page.]

Abbot and Archbishop in the Fort Augustus cloisters

Superficially the Abbey is a collection of primarily nineteenth century buildings at the head of Loch Ness.  The Caledonian Canal and the River Oich can be seen to the right of the Abbey grounds and the mouth of the River Tarff is just visible at bottom left of the picture above.

Delving deeper into the site, however, we find a rich heritage going back at least to the early eighteenth century and perhaps even before that.  Father Abbot Mark Dilworth OSB wrote the following short piece on the area which I think helps to set the scene for those wanting to explore its heritage. The article was written while he was still living at the monastery and it adds a certain poignancy by avoiding editing the tenses and person. The picture to the left shows the Abbot with Archbishop Keith O'Brien in the cloisters during the official opening of the heritage centre on 4th July 1994.

This monastery is situated in one of the most beautiful spots in Scotland. Fort Augustus lies in the heart of the Great Glen, which runs through the Highlands from the east coast to the west. To the north and the south of us are mountain ridges, and the abbey itself is right on the western shore of Loch Ness. On a fine day we can look 23 miles down the loch to the eastern shore.

[The picture shows the monks taking coffee in the calefactory, a magnificent room. The chairs around the circular table were designed for the monastery by Pugin as were the refectory tables and study desks in the monks' quarters. The elderly monk to the right is Father Gregory Brusey who can be found in the eye-witness section of the site. Here he is in conversation with Father Benedict Seed who looked after the grounds and made honey. Sadly Fr Gregory died in the morning of 30th March 2001 aged 88. From left to right the monks are Fr Stephen, Fr Abbot, Fr Paul, Fr Bernard, two visiting monks, Fr Benedict and Fr Gregory. Morning coffee was an important community occasion and most monks tried to attend. As bursar I was invited to join them until Fr Francis took over and made it clear I was no longer welcome. Webmaster.]The monks at morning coffee in the calefactory  

This is a place that has seen a great deal of the pageant of history. St. Columba of Iona (Colum Cille in Gaelic), the apostle of the Highlands, came here on his way to visit the King of the Picts in Inverness, at the other end of the loch. The name of Loch Ness is well known since the "Monster", the great water beast, began making its appearances in the 1930s. The earliest mention of the creature is in the Life of Columba written in the 7th century by Adamnan, Columba's successor as abbot of Iona. Columba found the inhabitants of Loch Ness side afraid of this large beast and he commanded it never more to harm any human.

Another abbot of Iona, Cuimein Fionn (Cumin the Fair) must have settled here for a time, for he gave his name to the village Cill Chuimein (the church of Cumin). Only since the 18th century, and in English only, has it been called Fort Augustus. On the south side of the loch, on a mountain ridge, is Suidhe Chuimein (Cumin's seat), where the saint sat and looked towards the east.

Fort Augustus is an important strategic spot, for it is not only in the centre of the Great Glen but also at the mouth of the Corriearrack, the only pass to the south across the mountains. Consequently Fort Augustus features in a long history of wars and battles and strategic marches. In the 18th century it became the centre of a chain of three forts built by the English Hanoverian army to control the Highlands: these were, from east to west, Fort George (originally on the site of Inverness Castle), Fort Augustus and Fort William. Not long after, in the rising led by Bonnie Prince Charlie in 1745, the Jacobite army captured this central fort but had to abandon it after the decisive defeat at Culloden in April 1746.

Fort Augustus Abbey Monks' Refectory

[The picture to the right shows the monks' refectory with its Pugin designed chairs and refectory tables. The famous metamorphic Hunter-Blair table in the centre could provide an extended oval as shown or an enlarged circular table. Webmaster.]

 

In the early 19th century a branch of the Caledonian Canal was built here, the stretch which joins Loch Ness to Loch Oich. The canal allows boats to go from the North Sea to the Atlantic without taking the dangerous route round the north coast of Scotland. And as times became more peaceful, the British military no longer had any use for the fort and sold it to Lord Lovat, who used it as a shooting lodge. Then, in the 1870s, Lord Lovat gave the fort to the monks. The military buildings were converted into a monastery. By an irony of history, buildings intended for warlike use were taken over by Benedictines, whose motto is PAX - Peace.

Abbot Mark Dilworth, O.S.B. now titular abbot of Iona.

Fort Augustus Abbey Clock Tower

Over five years I got to know the Abbot well and always found him a wealth of knowledge on all matters Highland. My first encounter with him was at a meeting set up by a friend in June 1993.  I wrote some of the following notes over the years which followed while employed as the first non-monastic bursar of a Scottish monastery.  The Benedictine authorities have attempted legal action to prevent me writing about my period at the Abbey therefore I have had to use only previously published information and material already in the public domain below.

I first approached Fort Augustus Abbey about the possibility of some sort of exhibition back in Abbot Nicholas's times, around 1982. At the time I was the co-owner of the small Great Glen Exhibition beside the Caledonian Canal in Fort Augustus and was also the co-founding Managing Director of the Loch Ness Centre in Drumnadrochit. Fort Augustus Abbey College Block

In 1997 I attended a conference of bursars at Downside Abbey, near Bath, and met Abbot Nicholas again at his own monastery. He did not remember me at all. I had been told, however, that at the time of that first visit he viewed the Monster Centre as a rather undesirable piece of tourism and myself and Mr Bremner, whom I accompanied at the time, as some sort of Drumnadrochit Mafia. Obviously, though, we did not make a lasting impression!

In 1993 the Inverness and Nairn Enterprise Company, (a government sponsored agency), was holding a series of seminars on the development of the Loch Ness area and, at the event staged at the Inchnacardoch Lodge hotel I met an old friend by the name of Wilson Girvan who was a director of the I.N.E Company and also owns the Glen Service Station in Fort Augustus and a number of other businesses. I tested the water over the Abbey with Wilson, who, in fact, had been wanting to talk to me about his own new project, the Perthshire Visitor Centre at Bankfoot. One thing led to another and I was soon involved in coming up with a theme for his centre and designing a visitor attraction for him.  A Perthshire attraction at Bankfoot, near Dunkeld, Birnam Wood and Dunsinane ... the Macbeth Experience was the natural choice. 

Fort Augustus Abbey Hospice Gallery

However, in June 1993, I called Wilson about the Abbey again and received rather a stilted reply, for on that day, something of which I was not aware had taken place. Abbot Mark Dilworth had taken the momentous decision to close the Abbey school. This was due to a falling roll caused by changing educational patterns in Britain and the Scot abroad no longer using boarding facilities as a matter of course.

There could not have been such an extraordinary case of happening to make the right call at exactly the right instant.

Wilson did not, at that moment, tell me the news of the school's closure and so he left me puzzling over his strange demeanour and promised to ring me back the next day. This he duly did and he had also already set up a meeting between the Abbot, a senior executive from INE plus himself (as a director of INE) and the Abbey's accountant from Glasgow. He asked me to attend and the scene was set for the changes at the Abbey to begin.

Fort Augustus Abbey Conference Room

For several nights before the meeting I had been burning the midnight oil preparing an indication of how a tourist attraction could work at the Abbey and also costing a mini-attraction which I could set up in a matter of a couple of weeks if the go-ahead were given.

On the 22nd August 1993 we opened a small section of the cloisters and part of the Abbey entrance to the public and I was commissioned to carry out a feasibility study for a major business which had to address a number of problems. In order to get this work done my Loch Ness Tour had to be put to one side at considerable financial cost, but I saw the potential in the Abbey. 

There were massive problems to overcome, however.

  1. Financial Crisis - the school had been the only source of income

  2. Outreach Crisis - the monks had lost their main outreach to the world at large

  3. Crisis of Numbers - the monastic community had been dwindling in numbers for some time

The plan I produced had to address each of these problems, but could only address 2 and 3 indirectly as they were outwith my brief. Perhaps, however, some form of outreach could be created from within the business and, if so, then maybe that could assist the monks with recruitment.

Fort Augustus Abbey Monks' LibraryAs soon as I began the lengthy process of number-crunching for the business plan it quickly became obvious that a small development would never be able to cover the costs of maintaining such huge Victorian buildings. The proposals began to polarise along the lines of a multifaceted operation which could quickly become a high-turnover business from which profits would eventually be gleaned. Any attempt to start small and grow gradually would be doomed to failure.  It is interesting that, when the project ultimately closed, "second-guessers" thought the small scale start may have succeeded, but that was patently not possible.  We had to go for a big project in order to cover the monastery and church's financial overheads.

Looking back over this period I think it was a mistake not to have a full survey done of the buildings, because it was the problems with the buildings which were to later cause us to be less profitable than anticipated. My mistake here was to not have recommended such an investigation. No one else thought of it either though and it is easy to think of such things in retrospect. To my untutored eye, the buildings looked in pretty good condition. It should be recognised, however, that such a survey would have cost around £25,000 or more than half the cost of the entire project! [Added January 2003]

    The Business Proposals were:

  1. Creating a Heritage Centre

  2. Expanding the Shop

  3. The Provision of a Restaurant/Tea Room

  4. Creating Accommodation and Conference Facilities

  5. Developing Business Franchises within the Grounds

The Heritage Centre

This would be the key to the whole venture as it would bring large numbers of people onto the grounds providing the restaurant, shop, accommodation and franchises with a customer base to whom they could sell their goods and services.

Originally it had been thought that a small religious exhibition would suffice, but not when the volume of business needed had been ascertained. Also, the monks had always wanted to do something on the site to tell tourists about the previous history of the buildings ... as a Redcoat fort during the last Jacobite uprising. Gradually I was able to create an exhibition design which covered the subjects required by the monastic community, but with additional factors which would attract the average tourist in large numbers.

Fort Augustus Abbey Heritage Centre ExhibitThe format was to tell people about the natural history of the Great Glen and the scenery surrounding the Abbey, the use of the buildings and the life and history of the monks who call Fort Augustus Abbey home today. Mention was to be made of the Jacobite sympathiser Lord Lovat whose family later gave the buildings to the monks. This was to lead on into the history of the Highlander from Roman times to the present day and an explanation of the history of monastic life from earliest times. All of this went to create the largest and most comprehensive private exhibition in Scotland. A further innovation was the use of Sony Walkmans to present the story in conjunction with computer controlled sound and light shows. The picture shows a worker in the powder magazine being surprised/i> by a shell arriving among the powder kegs. This was how one of the wings of the original fort was blown away.

Expanding the Shop

Fort Augustus Abbey ShopOn first impression this may have seemed to be the easiest part of the enterprise, but there are many, many factors involved in the stocking and staffing of a shop. Simple errors can extrapolate into huge losses and overstocking situations. The Abbey, however, was blessed, from the beginning, with a "natural" shopkeeper ... Father Paul Bonnici, who had a natural ability to sniff out a good deal, a natural ability to control stocks and a natural ability to sell the product people want to the people who want the product! Without his endeavours, the plan for the shop would have been very hard to achieve and would certainly have necessitated a franchise in order to deal with the capital costs.

Restaurant/Tea Room

It had initially been thought that a tea room could have been developed away from the main Abbey at St Columba's school, a small building beside the canal swing-bridge. Once the full extent of the financial needs of the operation became clear, however, it was  obvious that a far larger restaurant, seating over one hundred people, would be needed. This was to involve the Abbey in a huge amount of capital expenditure as alterations would be needed to the old fort building plus environmental health and safety works to Fort Augustus Abbey Monks' Refectory set for a function the Abbey kitchens ... the stakes had just been raised by tens of thousands of pounds! Hindsight critics of the project really had no idea of the escalating costs with which we were being faced.

Accommodation and Conference Facilities

We anticipated that it would be a relatively simple matter to convert the study bedrooms of the school into low-budget twin and single rooms for conference groups and tourists. Cloister Conference Room The buildings already complied with all necessary fire regulations for a boarding school, but we did not reckon with the fire regulations which would be applied once tourists were to be accommodated. While it seems to be quite acceptable to accommodate hordes of schoolchildren with the minimum of safety precautions and procedures in place, a tourist paying cash for their accommodation is a different matter and it has taken the Abbey almost four years at a cost of close to one hundred thousand pounds to bring the Abbey up to the necessary standards to run a commercial accommodation enterprise. It is fascinating that B & B's throughout the Highlands can open their doors without so much as an inspection, can sell accommodation without any tax at all and need have no fire safety standards whatsoever in place, yet the Abbey, with its huge stone-built premises has had to spend the equivalent of selling every single room for more than fourteen months to proceed. Budgets had to be rewritten once again. The goal posts had moved once more. The stakes were rising too high. [The picture at right shows the Cloister Conference Room - simple but functional.]

In addition, we had counted upon running summer schools in the old school dormitories, but while this was an acceptable activity when the Abbey was a school, it was totally unacceptable to the authorities once the Abbey was intending to run a commercial operation. Now ceilings beneath would have to be fire-proofed, new toilets and showers built and extra security added. Huge dormitories were to stand empty awaiting the time when we could afford to spend over one hundred thousand pounds on providing a facility which would be in great demand from school groups throughout Scotland and the continent.  That time never came and the Highlands is the poorer.

It should be added here that the fire and planning authorities bent over backwards to be helpful to us. Unfortunately the nature of the help provided by the fire officer was actually to cause us severe headaches later. He tried to be as lenient as possible over our initial plans, but failed to inform us that it was his intention to request tens of thousands of pounds worth of work once we were up and running. In common with many un-commercial civil servants he thought that once we had been running for a year we could then afford to spend vast sums out of our profits ... yet the plan was a five year plan and what he was actually doing was hiding a huge cost from us for years two and three. I don't think that I or anyone else could have been expected to spot that this generous and well-intended "help" actually had a huge financial sting in its tail. The fire officer, of course, knew nothing of the financial aspects of the plan so had no idea that what he was doing messed up carefully worked out three-year budgets. [Added January 2003]

Franchises

I had had experience with the operation of franchises when I was MD at the Loch Ness Centre and the biggest problem encountered had been that of selfish franchisees damaging the image of the whole centre. Building a sensible, but legally enforceable framework, to make franchises operate in a way compatible with the image required by the monks was an interesting challenge, and one that was undertaken with extraordinary care, allowing two excellent businesses to be created and to make a growingCatriona Loch Ness Cruises contribution to Abbey funds. Such franchises allow for the creation of an almost immediate income without the expenditure of vast capital sums. The ultimate return may not be quite so great, but returns are created which may otherwise have been unachievable. In addition, local jobs are quickly created and the Fort Augustus economy improved. When the Abbey closed, one of these franchises was put out of business to the owner's severe cost.

Over-riding everything was the need to ensure that all aspects of the business Enterprises fitted in with the requirements of the community of Benedictine monks. This was a considerable constraint on operations.

On 29th December 1993 the monastic community discussed the business plan in Chapter, a kind of monastic AGM, and approval was given. We now had only 120 days to get the business up and running. An intensive period of activity began.

Study bedrooms were redecorated and the students study units, comprising bunk, wardrobe and desk were dismantled and converted into simple beds and bedroom furniture. Rooms for four or eight children were re-equipped as twins or triples. Classrooms were converted into meeting rooms and the old school library transformed into a conference room capable of seating over one hundred theatre style. Corridors needed to be made less institutional in appearance and an area had to be created for guests to take coffee. Clerk of Works, Ronnie Mackay was, by now, managing a considerable squad of joiners and decorators.

The shop was revamped at very little cost, relying mainly on the ingenuity of Father Paul who managed to acquire an amazing array of used shop fittings from retailers from Inverness to Fort William.

The restaurant caused us severe heartache as it was so institutionalised as a school canteen. In addition the fire officer wanted new exits, the planners wanted new toilets, environmental health insisted on a complete overhaul of the kitchens, yet Historic Scotland didn't want any of the structure altered at all. It was like the irresistible force meeting several immovable objects.

Delays became so great at one point in March that I had work started knocking through the old fort wall before permission had been granted! If we had not started at that time then the difficulties involved in working around the general public may have meant there being no catering facility until much later in the year. As bricks nearly three centuries old fell under the pneumatic drill, we all held our breath until the letter of authority arrived. It came just as we were tidying up and decorating. Phew! All of our tactics of keeping any visiting planners or building inspectors away from the restaurant could now be relaxed. My blood pressure must have fallen ten points!  Interestingly we never received any visits regarding the listed buildings which is surprising to say the least.

Working in such old buildings has other problems too. As we knocked out part of the restaurant wall to form access to new toilets, a 1.5" (3.7cm) water main was discovered which no-one knew existed. Considerable time was spent trying to find out what the pipe supplied without success and, finally the decision was taken to cap it off to allow work to proceed. Nearly three days later, Father John the Baptist MacBride, an eighty-two year old monk came up to myself and the clerk of works in the cloister and asked, "When do you think you may have the monastery water turned back on?". Knowing the organised chaos of the conversions, the monks had stoically put up with having no water for nearly three days. Now we knew what the pipe was feeding!

The most difficult area to create from my own point of view was the exhibition. After all is said and done a restaurant is a restaurant, a kitchen is a kitchen, a shop is a shop and bedroom is a bedroom, but we were trying to do something quite extraordinary in the heritage centre and, much of the time, my heart was racing as new and crippling problems came to light. Ronnie Mackay was quite amazing in the way he took my designs and created them in timber, plaster-board and the new areas took shape. It is one thing to design an octagonal room with 20' (6 metre) ceilings, it is another to construct it and link it in with all the disabled access ramps and other needs of the regulatory bodies. In addition, as work progressed new ideas materialised and, more than once I came close to needing a doctor to help extract a set of rolled up plans!

Gradually the exhibition took shape and one of our prime objectives had been to set up an infrastructure which could be built upon in the future. The diorama was a good example of a simple presentation area which was later used for the Loch Ness Story Diorama and, if it is still intact it could continue to be useful in the future.

On 26th May, just three weeks late, the Heritage Centre was open to the public, the restaurant serving meals, the B & B in operation and the shop tills singing their song of pleasure. The first stage of the creation of the enterprises was complete. From twenty visitors on the first day, the only way forward appeared to be up. The Heritage centre received enormous acclaim and accolade from locals and monks too. In fact, the 1994 EBC Bursar's conference delegates were among the first to view the centre and gave universal approval.

Growing Pains

The creation of the new Enterprises had cost far more in time and money than we had expected (no fault of anyone this, but hidden costs arising unexpectedly owing to the nature of the buildings) and despite a huge marketing campaign, visitors were still few and far between. We now needed a professional team of managers to promote the centre. Mairi MacIver and Andy Stewart were stalwart assistants later joined by Liz Ferguson, Kate Garrad and Kathryn Gardner. These people helped to turn the marketing into solid business for both the Heritage Centre, the accommodation and restaurant. Gradually an excellent team was created.

1995 was to be an important year seeing the business grow by 100%. 1996 saw the figures rise by a further 50% and the Abbey was en-route to becoming established. With the growth though, there are increased costs and a business with the unique constraints of the Abbey needs time to develop and improve as the years pass. At the end of 1994 I was given the honour of being appointed the first lay-bursar of Fort Augustus Abbey and this, too, saw a change in the direction of the application of the monks' resources. I was no longer to be an Enterprises manager with various outside business interests, too, but was to give all of this up in order to be able to take a longer term view of the operations of St Benedict's. The drive for profit now had to be tempered with humanity and thoughtfulness.  This was made very clear to me by senior English Benedictine Congregation representatives who assured me that there would be any amount of support from other monasteries and the EBC itself.

Today I consider that I made a serious mistake in allowing my single-minded drive for profit to be diluted by the bursar aspects to the monastery. I had a problem separating the two hats and always tilted decisions towards the "monastic need" side of my responsibilities. Instead I should have pushed on for the next two years improving efficiency of the business and putting the monastic side into cold storage. I started spending money on improvements in the church and monastic cells and living areas which could have waited. Bad decision in retrospect. [Added January 2003]

It is interesting that in the early days of the Enterprises I saw myself as of vital importance to the continued existence of the Abbey, but soon began to realise that my impact on an organisation which can trace its roots directly back to the eleventh century, is really quite insignificant. All I was, in effect, was a facilitator ... someone whose responsibilities were merely to provide the monastic community with the resources needed to carry out their work. Monastic numbers swell and shrink from time to time and the cycle seems to repeat. Perhaps what we were doing in the enterprises was to provide a mechanism whereby the monks can educate tourists instead of schoolchildren and gain outreach through a professionally created conference and retreat centre. If all of that worked well then the environment would be right for people to want to join the community again. By 1997 the number of people trying the Fort Augustus monastery had leapt out of all proportion from previous years, but whether or not they were to stay had nothing to do with a commercial enterprise or successful visitor centre.

I wrote in 1997 that "One thing is sure, Benedictine monks are likely to still be at Fort Augustus long after the visitor centre and its designer are consigned to the mists of time and few, except historians, may one day know the meaning of the word "tourist".", but was to find that I had got that badly, sadly wrong! In 1997 everything began to go pear shaped and the monks were to abandon Fort Augustus within fifteen months!

Where Did It All Go Wrong?

The pound, which had been continuing to strengthen started to have a serious detrimental effect on the Highland tourist trade and '97 saw business actually fall away, whereas we had budgeted for at least two more years growth following the original marketing plan. Although 1997 showed a slight fall in the Enterprises' business this was significantly less than the overall fall for the central and western Highlands.  This at least offered some hope that we may be able to buck the trend if economies could be introduced.

A logical step would have been to close the accommodation facilities in the winter and put the visitor centre and shop staff on skeleton hours.  This scenario had been thoroughly discussed with the Abbot and all of the Abbey's professional advisers including backing monasteries in England.  It was considered important not to stop the promising development of the monastic outreach through the winter retreat programmes.  As this would be a serious retrograde step in for the monastery it was decided to run another year all-year-round and it was made very clear to me that this had the long-term support and encouragement of the monastic authorities.  Being banned from writing about the Abbey's business finances the reader must accept that support means support in all of its connotations which IS exactly what was meant.

Again, in retrospect I see that the support offered was somewhat hollow. Both myself and the abbot were being gullible. We believed there would be real financial back up to help us through the difficulties we were experiencing. Instead there were short-term loans which only added to our planning and budgeting problems. Once more I was not hard-nosed enough at the time. We should have shut down November to March and put everything into winter mothballs. [Added January 2003]

Within the monastic community, however, there was a growing impatience that the Enterprises were not living up to the original business plan. Discontent grew and pressures were mounting in various quarters.

Management had taken dreadfully unpopular decisions to cut overheads and business activities were also rationalised. Redundancies of loyal and hard-working staff occurred. To add to all of this one of the monks fell down on his responsibilities to increase retreat business, taking any opportunity to cancel retreats rather than actively go out and promote them in the way Fr Paul had done the previous year.  We saw the ludicrous situation arising that the main reason for remaining open in the winter ... the development of the monastic outreach ... was being totally squandered with the resultant drop in vital winter business. In retrospect it is difficult to believe that the monk involved did not have an ulterior motive. For such an enterprising man he showed a serious lack of enterprise during this period!

Pressures in the cloisters grew and extraordinary infighting began within the community resulting in the early retirement of the Abbot, the only person in the community with vision and a sufficiently steady nerve to see the project through.  These pressures over-spilled the monastery and resulted in a regrettable attitude towards some of the staff including abuse so serious that in any other environment it would have lead to immediate legal action. It must be understood, of course, that monks are not saints and they have all the failings of any other segment of society and this includes serious attitude problems on the negative side as well as, extreme dedication to their work by some of them on the plus side.  The mix, however, was getting out of kilter. 

The Abbot retired a year early and the community made a decision to have Fr Francis Davidson appointed as Prior Administrator at the end of December 1997.  The whole Enterprises were thrown into limbo for over three months until he eventually arrived at the Abbey to take control.

On his first meeting with me he told me that Fort Augustus was not the right place for a monastery and outlined plans to run the Abbey compliment down, leaving the business to support a new community he was intending to form somewhere between Edinburgh and Glasgow.

I should have left there and then instead of working for this man. Shame on me for compromising my principals and staying on. A decision made, for the first time, purely on self-interest knowing that if I left I would have received no redundancy etc., so I fought on. [Added January 2003]

The events which followed and the activities of Fr Francis and others over the next six months cannot be told without my infringing my termination agreement. Although distortions I hear about my own involvement in the closure of the Abbey (not from monks, but mainly from people living in the Fort Augustus area) may just force me to find a Sunday newspaper who will underwrite any litigation so that the true story can be told.

At the end of 1998 Fr Francis decided to declare the Enterprises insolvent and by the end of December it was closed. Twenty full time staff out of work; ten monks disbursed from their home to other monasteries; one franchise business bankrupted and another two seriously disrupted; a huge refurbishment project, finance for which having already been coming into place, being consigned to the bin; Fort Augustus left without its heart.  All unnecessary and very, very painful. 

More recently Terry Nutkins has purchased the abbey and I hope all readers will wish him well in trying to revitalise the southwest end of this beautiful loch, but so far nothing has happened (as of January 2003 which is rather depressing).

It is sad that there seems to be very little actually happening at the Abbey recently and from it's 2002 tax status I can tell that the numbers of visitors have dropped to less than a quarter of those who visited the Abbey in my last year there (1998)!

Little Known On-Going Work For The Future

Having been, unjustifiably, personally criticised and blamed for the fall of the Abbey when I could not defend myself owing to my termination agreement, I do think that it should now be put on record the work which had been going on behind the scenes since early 1997.

The increase in business in 1996 still fell short of the sums which were necessary to both support the monastic community and begin the refurbishment of the buildings.  This was not just a shortfall in the original planning, but a gradual discovery that the buildings were in far worse condition than anyone had ever appreciated. It was only when I called in experts that this started to become clear.

During those first two years we had discovered an extensive amount of work which needed to be undertaken. The fifties school block had serious structural problems which would have made it potentially unsafe within twelve years. There was dry-rot in the college block, damp in the church, the Blessed Sacrament Chapel ceiling was on the verge of collapse and all of the roofs and pointing throughout the complex needed attention.

It had become clear to us in 1996 that the Enterprises in the form we had created could never generate the revenue necessary to overcome these difficulties. I approached I.N.E. for assistance ... not financial this time, but to help in planning a seven year plan to refurbish the site.  Most people except senior monks and staff had no idea that this prudent step had been taken.

One of the problems the Enterprises was encountering was geographical.  The restaurant was at the opposite end of the building from the shop and exhibition.  Reception was in yet another location. As part of the refurbishment programme it would be possible to redesign the whole layout of the Enterprises to make it more cost effective. As an example:

Once the fifties' wing was demolished a reconstruction of the original northwest bastion wall could replace it and this whole section could house an entrance area containing all of the staffed functions.  Accommodation reception, shop, exhibition and administration could all be dealt with in one area and off this could be the restaurant permitting the interchange of staff during busy times. This change alone would have reduced the operations' wages bill, the Enterprises' most crippling cost, by a massive 60% in quieter periods.

Meetings in early 1997 indicated that the project would require in the order of £5,000,000 over a period of five to seven years and it was considered that this could be obtained from several agencies: a small but significant contribution from I.N.E., around £2,000,000 from Historic Scotland, which, from discussions in 1995, was considered feasible if spread over sufficient time and matched with similar funding.  To complete the project something in the region of £2,250,000 would be required and it was thought that the Heritage Commission could be the possible source for this.  [Fr Davidson please note that figures in this paragraph have been previously published on the now defunct www.monk.co.uk and I am therefore able to quote them so don't bother having yet another solicitor's letter sent to me demanding that I withdraw material from this site!]

As 1997 progressed I.N.E. assisted the Abbey further by providing logistical support and preparation to move forward into the project was being made.

During 1998, however, with Fr Francis in charge, meetings deteriorated into farce. The architect and quantity surveyor were alienated and the management consultants provided free of charge by I.N.E. dismissed without explanation. The rest is history.

Those who live and work in Fort Augustus and listen to gossip about the demise of the abbey may have found some of the above interesting.  Whether the whole story will ever be told only time will tell, but critics should avoid talking out of ignorance and try to understand that much more was going on at the abbey than it is possible to imagine.

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