Neil Morrison overcame many challenges to rebuild Macgochans after devastating fire
By Gillian McKenzie
IT’S a moment Neil Morrison will never forget.
It was May 24, 2019 and he had just arrived at his Lochside hotel in Bowmore on Islay ahead of Fèis Ìle. But a phone call in the early hours changed everything. Macgochans – his bar and restaurant in Tobermory on the Isle of Mull – was on fire.
“It was awful,” he said.
“Thankfully no one was hurt.
“I just felt helpless because I wasn’t there. I think when you’re there you can deal with things and try and manage it.
“I was on the first ferry over and got back to Tobermory just after lunchtime.
“The building was in a bad way; what the fire hadn’t got the water had.”
Rebuilding, however, was never in doubt, especially given how much Macgochans means to Neil. Located in his home town, he first managed the pub back in 2007 before taking on the lease in 2012; and it became the cornerstone of his business, which now includes The Lochside in Bowmore, The Benleva in Drumnadrochit and The Ben Nevis in Fort William, which he co-owns.
With a clear vision of how a rebuilt Macgochans could look, Neil worked with Dominic Paul of IBDP Commercial Interior Design, with input from renowned Scottish artist and designer Ranald MacColl, who worked on the previous refurbishment of Macgochans as well as Neil’s other venues.
The rebuild was not without its challenges – not least of which was the coronavirus lockdown kicking in just as the venue was poised to reopen. But, after what Neil described as a “long and painful process”, the doors of the new-look Macgochans finally got to open 14 months after the fire. And, as reported in the August issue of SLTN, it is unrecognisable.
While the distinctive red and blue facades of the adjoining buildings have been reinstated – there’s a notable addition in the shape of a glass-fronted balcony overlooking Tobermory Bay.
Inside the transformation is just as impressive.
By reconfiguring the layout, utilising some former storage space and incorporating the function area on the first floor, total internal capacity has more than doubled from 270 to 580. And new interior designs have helped define Macgochans as two distinct venues.
In The Pub, much of the traditional charm of the former fisherman’s cottage has been retained; exposed original stonework and the stone fireplace have been paired with new dark wood wall panelling, dark brown leather banquette seating and copper and brass light fittings. An old sailing chart showing the Sound of Mull and Tobermory Bay is due to be added along with a few other finishing touches.
Next door, the main restaurant space has a lighter contemporary look.
A feature double-height atrium-style space, edged with glass panels in the upper restaurant area, ensures the ground floor space is filled with natural daylight from the large glass balcony doors upstairs. And in both the ground and upper-level spaces an ochre and duck egg blue colour scheme has been paired with a herringbone-design wood floor, feature light pendants, and murals painted by Ranald MacColl.
Of course, the new look wasn’t only driven by aesthetics. Many of the changes were made with the operation of the venue – and, subsequently, the coronavirus pandemic – firmly in mind.
“I wanted it to be two separate units – Macgochans restaurant with The Pub on the side so both spaces have a different feel about them,” said Neil.
“I like the old New York look with rich dark leather and wood, copper and brass on the pub side of it.
“The restaurant has a much lighter feel; it’s more slick.
“It was quite dark before and I worried that when the balcony went in it would be even darker but the void has lightened it up. It’s also a cleaner design, not like the rough wood and things before. And all the furniture is loose so it’s easy to move for things like the Mull Music Festival.
“We’re down to one metre [social distancing] at the moment and we’ve probably only lost two or three tables in each area because it’s such a big space. The overall capacity has doubled to 580 inside – it must be one of the biggest on the west coast – and I put a lot of thought into it operationally.
“It’s got four service lifts to trade upstairs and the balcony so staff aren’t up and down stairs with food; and the kitchen’s been opened up and is all new.
“I’ve invested a lot to make changes but changes that will benefit the business. It’s all designed to make everything as seamless as possible.”
Macgochans reopened with a new (currently slightly paired back) menu which majors in fresh local seafood and meat; and a broad range of premium beers, wines and spirits from suppliers Belhaven and Inverarity Morton as well as Macgochans’ neighbouring Tobermory Distillery.
And Neil said business has been strong so far.
“I didn’t know what to expect reopening it after lockdown but trade has been really good,” he said.
“We’re obviously missing out on the tourists, coach trips and cruises this year but we’ve had great local support and we’re getting a lot of the staycation market and a younger clientele. And the spend is up; I think people are enjoying being out.
“Macgochans is important to me; it’s where I’m from. And there were times when I thought ‘have I done the right thing?’ with the changes I was making because it was a great business before. But it’s going really well. It was hell going through it all but I’m really pleased with it.”