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Heritage chiefs warn huge new Highland car wheel plant could be built on historic battlefield

The Rio Tinto site
The Rio Tinto site

Plans to build the UK’s largest car wheel plant in the Highlands have been dealt a blow – after heritage chiefs said the site was a historic battlefield.

Historic Environment Scotland has warned the £120million proposals for Fort William have the potential to have “significant impacts” on the site of the two Battles of Inverlochy.

The Scottish Government agency said a study should be carried out and the developer could seek to “re-draw” the boundaries of the factory depending on the results.

Local business leaders and politicians have previously hailed the plans put forward by the GFG Alliance, which would create 400 jobs and follow the company’s £330million deal to buy the town’s historic aluminium smelter last year.

The plant would convert liquid aluminium from the nearby smelter into approximately two million alloy wheels a year – a quarter of all car wheels in Britain – sparking hopes it could play a key role in a “re-industrialisation of the Highlands”.

But any demand to relocate the factory could potentially delay the development.

The Battle of Inverlochy in 1431 was significant as one of the major 15th century struggles between the Scottish monarchy and the Lords of the Isles, and is believed to have taken place in an area adjacent to Inverlochy Castle.

Another subsequent clash in a similar location in 1645 was one of the Marquis of Montrose’s greatest victories, with a resounding victory for the Royalists destroying the Covenanter army, led by the Marquis of Argyll, and crippling their cause.

In response to a scoping application from GFG Alliance ahead of formal plans being lodged in November, Historic Environment Scotland said: “From a provisional assessment of the nature of the battlefields and the proposed development, it would appear that the main areas of battlefield activity in Inverlochy II occurred in the northern part of the proposed new development site boundary.

“Artefacts related to the Battles of Inverlochy I and II were reportedly found during the construction of the nearby aluminium works for instance.

“The proposed development would therefore be located at or near the centre of the battlefield, and there is a potential for the proposed development to impact upon the character and ability to appreciate and understand the battlefield landscape, and to impact on unknown archaeological deposits relating to the battle and/or its aftermath.”

Last night, a spokesman for the GFG Alliance said the firm had already agreed to the agency’s request for an impact assessment to be carried out.

He said: “As always, we want to develop in a sensitive manner.

“We’ve noted the comments from Historic Scotland that part of the site for the proposed wheels factory, as described in our initial scoping document, may have some potential impact on battlefield sites nearby.

“As a result we’ve taken up the recommendation of the Highland Council and commissioned a professional assessment to establish whether or not there might be any risk and, if so, to include appropriate mitigation measures in our planning application, which we hope to submit in November.

“This is a normal part of the consultation process and we will be discussing this fully will all parties involved.”

Representatives of the GFG Alliance will be on hand at the Ben Nevis Hotel, Fort William, from 2:30pm–7:30pm on Thursday, for a consultation event being held in advance of the planning application, with another due to be scheduled

Local MP and SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford said: “From my point of view I know the company has been very sensitive to local circumstances and want to work with local people, so I commend them on the action they’ve taken.

“It’s something that needs to be fully taken into account – we’re talking about the history and the heritage of the area.

“But it shouldn’t be beyond the wit of everyone concerned to come up with a solution which respects the needs to get the plant through and the jobs associated with that, and at the same time respects the heritage of the area.”