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6th December 2013


A high-powered team from the Crown Estate visited Gills Harbour this week where it met directors of its Canisbay community-owned port and its (partial) lessee Mr Andrew Banks, managing director of Pentland Ferries Ltd.

'Preliminary discussions' on several matters of mutual interest took place, including a brief introduction to and description of the present 'Coastal Community Fund'.

Its money will come from 50% of the revenues generated by the Crown Estate's 'marine activities'.

Locally this Crown Estate income includes (a) the fees from its licensing of 4 areas of seabed to groups aiming to generate electricity from the kinetic energy contained in the fast-flowing tidal streams of the Eastern Pentland Firth, (b) the rental of adjacent Crown-owned seabed by Pentland Ferries Ltd for the 116-metre long main breakwater/berth at Gills Harbour and its consented 70 metre extension. It will be offset to allow larger 'marine reneweables vessels' to be tied-up alongside, without interrupting scheduled ferry movements.

Also included (c) are the royalties paid to the Crown Estate for the removal of bedrock during the partially-completed 'one-off' dredging of Caithness flagstone lying beneath the harbour entrance. This is to provide a deep-water 100 metres X 100 metres 'ship turning circle' in sheltered waters for Pentalina and other ships of similar size to enter and egress Gills Harbour in forward motion.

The Crown Estate's delegation to Gills on 03.12.2013 was headed by Mr John Robertson, its Edinburgh-based Senior 'Wave & Tidal' Development Manager , accompanied by the body's Coastal Manager for Scotland Mr Paul Bancks, who is also based at its Scottish h.q. in the Capital City.

Also gaining an introduction to its important Pentland Firth asset was the Crown Estate's recently-appointed regional agent Mr Alasdair Campbell, who is normally based at the Inverness office of Bidwells, the 500-employee lands and property consultancy with its headquarters in Cambridge.

Gills Harbour Ltd (GHL) was represented by its 2013-appointed director Mr Lyall Rennie, the Canisbay-based Church of Scotland cleric, fisherman-director Mr Gordon Shearer, of Seater, Canisbay and its chairman Mr Bill Mowat, who like all on GHL's annually-elected board, is unremunerated.

Gills Harbour Ltd director Richard Hunt, of West Mey-based 'renewables' company Energy Hunt Ltd, is a former engineering work colleague of Mr Robertson in the 1990s at Scottish Power, but both he and GHL's secretary John Green had prior work commitments elsewhere and tendered apologies.

Introducing the party, Mr Bill Mowat commented that the Crown Estate had played a key role in the development of Gills Harbour as an important employment-generating facility locally, with jobs provided year-round at Scotland's most successful 'Mainland to Island Group' RO:RO passenger and freight ferry terminus.

He said that he knew that the help that the Crown Estate had given in the provision of the new Marina at Wick had been much appreciated by its Harbour Authority's team and wondered if it could possibly help in upgrading facilities at Gills Harbour to enhance its attractiveness to near-future marine electricity generators and vessel-operating engineering contractors, who see it as their first choice for Pentland Firth tidal stream operations.

He gave a brief outline of plans, including sketch drawings, for upgrading Gills Harbour Inner Basin, which is wholly owned & operated by the community company.

Mr Banks said that Marine Scotland's green-light for its major port improvements programme at Gills had come too late (in May 2013) to allow for it to be completed over the 2013 season, but that he expected that this would be done next year (2014).

The CE's Mr Paul Bancks briefly outlined the Fund, which aims to 'support the economic development of UK coastal communities by promoting sustainable economic growth and jobs' and fit 'with broad economic priorities of the local area's activities'. It is being administered by the 'Big Lottery' because of its expertise in disbursing 'National Lottery' grants for a wide variety of pro4ejcts throughout the UK.

He pledged to provide the Gills body with further information.

With a near-gale Nor' Westerly wind blowing at the time and a spring-tides West-flowing ebb tide-stream running, the Crown Estate visitors were able to get a graphic view of the Merry Men of Mey tide-race in winter action about 1.5 miles away, out to the West of St John's Point, the westerly 'end' of Gills Bay.

Mr Shearer contributed his experienced local creel-boat fisherman's view of the hazards that those 'confused- direction breaking seas' have for smaller boats. He said that this would 'almost certainly' include marine-energy support vessels, such as the small, but powerful, 25 metre-long 'multicat' class of multi-purpose tenders, which have been using Gills Harbour during 2013.

All of the sub-sea tidal leases lie to the East of this 'notorious' tide-race, which stretches right across the Pentland Firth in a 'corridor' up to 1.5 miles wide to just off Tor Ness. the Sou'-Westerly tip of the island of Hoy, Orkney, about 8 miles NW of St John's Point.

Andrew Banks said that his ferry never needed to transit the Merry Men, nor the flood-tide race, the Bores of Duncansby off John O'Groats, on any scheduled thrice-daily sailings from Gills Bay and the same was true of trips to the CE's seabed 'electricity-generating lease areas from its harbour.

The Gills Team provided their CE guests with a list of companies expressing interest in making further use of Gills. GHL directors also gave the Crown Estate visitors a sketch-map showing the position of its sea-bed tidal electricity leases in relation to Britain's most Northerly port and the main Pentland Firth tide-races. The latter are based on written information issued to be read in conjunction with the Admiralty's Pentland Firth navigational charts, which also have those marked by symbols. It was drafted for Gills Harbour Ltd by Mark Fresson, an architect at Archial Ltd's Inverness office, and grandson of the famous 1930s North of Scotland civilian air pioneer, Captain Edmund 'Ted' Fresson.

Afterwards Bill Mowat said : 'All of the Crown Estate seabed leases in the Pentland Firth proper lie eight miles or less from Gills Harbour entrance, with the two Caithness ones both lying off Canisbay, at one miles and for miles distant, respectively. We aimed to show the CE delegation that Gills Harbour can play an important role in the safe and economic harvesting of electricity from its tide-stream seabed leases.

'We were pleased to hear about the Crown Estate's potential support for rural areas like this and community-owned companies. All in all, we count this as having been a most constructive visit.'

'The present GHL is the modern incorporated successor to two previous Gills Pier/Harbour bodies dating back over a Century. All along, those earlier Gills associations have had employment as it cornerstone.

'Local people look forward to its full involvement in the harnessing of Caithness's most important natural resource, just off the Gills Harbour entrance'.


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