Am Bratach No. 223
May 2010

Local fishermen all take over Tongue’s Ben Loyal Hotel

As we went to press, two local businessmen, Charlie Mackay, Scullomie, and Graeme Gunn from Melness, were finalising contracts to become the new proprietors of the Ben Loyal Hotel in Tongue. Offers of 500,000 pounds sterling had been invited for the business.

The decision to purchase the eleven bedroom hotel came after Magnus Holmes, skipper and joint owner of their catamaran fishing boat, the Caspian, told them he planned to go solo by the end of next year, with a smaller boat of his own.

Re-evaluating their business plans, Messrs Mackay and Gunn, both shellfish fishermen, who have been partners for the past ten years, decided to grasp the opportunity to fulfil their ambition of developing and owning a sea food restaurant, where locally-sourced shellfish, like prawns, lobsters and crabs, will be freshly supplied by themselves, oysters from Kyle of Tongue Oysters and mussels from Loch Laxford Shellfish. Smoked produce will come from Kinloch Smokehouse.

On their new venture, Mr Mackay said: "We're looking forward to it - it's another wee challenge!"

As well as being a co-owner of the Caspian, which cost in the region of œ200,000 and will be sold next year, Graeme Gunn is a director of Kyle of Tongue Construction and the two men own a Buchaneer 21 fishing boat named The Kayleigh Ann. They also own a holding shed beside the Kyle of Tongue, enabling them to store shellfish and, until recently, owned a mussel farm on Loch Eriboll.

The men are registered buyers and sellers within the fishing trade. "So we can actually go and buy a box of fish out the market if we want," said Mr Mackay. Their holding tank is also a big plus. "If we're running short of prawns, rather than just saying they're off the menu we can go down and get some more," said Mr Gunn.

Although neither have any experience of the hotel trade they are employing a manager, Sarah Fox, former manager of Tongue Hotel, who will share her experience with them having spent eleven years in the business, seven years as assistant manager and four years as manager of Tongue Hotel respectively. Miss Fox has already devised their mission statement: "A small Highland hotel with big Highland hospitality" which will cater for any occasion, from small gatherings to weddings.

The hotel will also be responsible for issuing permits for Tongue Angling Club and also offer two boats for rent, one on Loch Hope, the other on Lochan na Cuilce ("Lily Loch"), Tongue.

Glasgow born chef, Eddie McDermott, who is leaving a job in Portree, Skye, to join the crew, has already worked in the Craggan and Ben Loyal hotels, where he made many friends. He will be permanently employed throughout the year and when business becomes quieter in winter months, "We'll just get him to pick up a paint brush!" said Charlie Mackay. Current chef, John Taylor from New Zealand, will remain for the summer season.

On staffing levels, Mr Gunn said: "We've managed to keep on everyone that was taken on already." The partners plan to extend the current opening hours, allowing meals to be available throughout the day and will be applying for an extension to their licence at weekends. "We won't really know what our staff needs are until we get going," he said.

"We're hoping that it will be a family-run place where families will be made welcome. If we get people in we'd like them to come back so we'll be doing everything in our power to make sure they do come back," said Mr Mackay, who views good food and service paramount to their new venture.

It will be all hands on deck as his whole family will be involved, from his wife, Annette, to daughters, Sarah, Carly and Chloe. Mr Gunn's wife, Tracy, will also help out, as well as the lads themselves, when they're not out catching their guests' supper. "Whether it be washing dishes or running somebody home at the end of the night, we'll be doing our bit," said Mr Mackay.

While the summer months deal mainly with tourists, walkers and passing trade, Messrs Mackay and Gunn are aware that locals will be their bread and butter and hope to entice families to sample their affordable bar menu, with the choice of a restaurant menu should they wish. They are installing a television in the pool and darts room and a juke box in the bar. Both are open to realistic and viable ideas for entertainment, especially during winter months, when they hope to "encourage people to forget about the 'X Factor' and come out of the house!"

The partners have taken into account the drink-driving issue. It was Graeme Gunn's idea to offer good customers a lift home if they have one too many. "We even thought that if there was a party from Durness or from Strathy that wanted to come out for a meal and a drink, you know, if there was sufficient numbers then we'd lay on transport, pick them up and drive them home," said Mr Gunn.

Mr Mackay said: "We know ourselves when we go out and have a drink you're always struggling to get a lift home." "We're all in the same boat," said Mr Gunn. "You're not in walking distance to anywhere!

"If people are in spending money and they want a run home at the end of the night if we can do a joint venture to drop people off on the road then it won't be a problem," said Mr Mackay. "It'll be a no-charge but if you want to give the driver something that'll be fine!"

For tourists, they want them to enjoy their stay, to sample the freshest shellfish. Mr Mackay said.
"What's landed at five o'clock here at night will be on the table from half past six. We'll be the only people that can boast it is fresh."

Talking about their competition from neighbouring establishments like the Tongue Hotel and the Craggan Hotel in Melness, Mr Mackay said, "There's always been competition. It's a good thing because it means you've got to make an effort. You've got to work at it and give people what they want. There's plenty for everyone. Hamish [Mackay, proprietor of the Craggan Hotel] gives a terrific service. I've been going to Hamish for thirty-odd years and I ain't gonna stop now! It's always been my 'local'."

Outgoing proprietors Elaine and Paul Lewis, who have run the Ben Loyal Hotel for the past twelve years, are to retire but will remain in the village.

We understand that the Lewis family will remain owners of the two houses they built in the grounds of the hotel, but that after two years the new owners will be able to purchase the houses at market value. There is separate accommodation available for staff, which was included in the deal.


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