Military chiefs have paved the way for Inverness Caledonian Thistle FC to be evicted from their training ground, it can be revealed.
The Scottish Championship club could face a search for a new base after the pitches they lease at Fort George were put forward for development by the Ministry of Defence (MoD).
The UK Government department has asked for almost 100 hectares at the site to be earmarked for a “mixed use” scheme in an update to Highland Council’s Inner Moray Firth Local Development Plan.
It is understood that the MoD has made the move ahead of an attempt to find a buyer for the land, near Ardersier.
The site boundary is thought to include the 250-year-old barracks, currently home to The Black Watch battalion, and the playing fields used by the Caley Jags, but not the live firing ranges, which it is believed could be retained by the MoD.
Local MSP David Stewart, who is chairman of the Inverness Caledonian Thistle Trust, a charity that is the largest shareholder at the club, said it would be “really regrettable if the team lost such a first class facility”.
Built after the Battle of Culloden, the MoD confirmed in November 2016 that Fort George would cease to be an operational Army barracks, but its closure was postponed until 2032 to enable the local economy to prepare for the expected £16 million hit.
The area of land at Fort George was put forward for a potential “mixed use” scheme after Highland Council issued a recent “call for sites” ahead of an update to its Inner Moray Firth Local Development Plan.
Emails released under freedom of information laws show that defence chiefs have previously discussed ways to “safeguard the heritage interest” while also to “enable the use of surplus land for housing” and “identify sports uses”.
Asked about the development proposals and the future of the training pitches, an MoD spokeswoman said: “We are committed to the sale of Fort George and will continue to engage and update all stakeholders as plans develop.
“The future use of the site has not yet been decided and is a matter for the potential buyer in conjunction with the local planning authority.”
Private memos released earlier this year showed that one MoD official speculated that Fort George would “probably lend itself to being subdivided into a hotel and serviced apartments aimed at the American/Asian market which could link in very easily to Inverness Airport and the Castle Stuart golf course plus other local attractions such as Brodie Castle and the distillery trail”.
Caley Thistle manager John Robertson has previously spoken about the club’s “fantastic relationship” with 3 Scots, as The Black Watch unit is known, with Army physical training instructors even working with the club’s sports science team at one stage.
It is understood that the club’s current lease of the pitches is due to expire before 2032.
They had been planning to spend thousands of pounds upgrading the facility this summer but that investment had already been put on hold due to the pandemic.
Many Caley Thistle staff are currently furloughed and the club has endured a turbulent period after a series of controversies recently rocked Scottish football over the early ending of the previous season and a proposal for league reconstruction.
A source at the club said: “With everything that is going on in the football world at the moment, something that is projected to happen in 2032 is not on our radar.”
Mr Stewart, a long-standing fan and chairman of the trust, said: “I know that Caley Thistle have had a tremendous relationship with the Army out at Fort George.
“It is an excellent training facility, and it would be really sad if the team were to lose that relationship with the Army, and that fantastic facility.
“Nothing looks like it is going to happen any time soon, and my overall wish is that I still think that there is a role for the Armed Forces at that facility.
“But on the football front, I think it would be really regrettable if the team lost such a first class facility.”