The founder of Scotland's first community owned whisky distillery says the project has been "hijacked" as he faces an "ongoing nightmare" dispute with those who run it.

John McKenzie, a commercial helicopter pilot who flew Alex Salmond during the 2014 independence referendum campaign, as well as Nicola Sturgeon when she became First Minister, was looking to breathe new life into the Dingwall area in 2013.

His idea centred around returning whisky production to the area for the first time in 90 years, with a distillery on his farm in the shadow of Ben Wyvis.

The project - dubbed GlenWyvis - was to be green, sustainable and, importantly, 100% community owned.

Mr McKenzie said at the time: "It is an opportunity for all social investors to help reinvigorate the historic town of Dingwall. GlenWyvis will be built on its whisky heritage, its community-ownership and its environmental credentials."

In 2016 a crowdfunding campaign was launched which raised £2.4m, with 60% of that coming from people in the same IV postcode, and the distillery began operations on November 30, 2017.

Mr McKenzie granted GlenWyvis a 175 year lease for a rent of £1 per year to use the land he owns, as well as the use of a water borehole to create the whisky.

He tells The Herald: “That’s the biggest mistake of my life.

“It seems the more you give, the more some people will take.

“I paid for everything from 2013 to 2016: the name, the staff, the deposit for the stills, planning permission. All the risk is all with me and I put all the money back into the project.

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“Not only do I not receive any rent, I pay for the renewable energy systems on the farm.

“I actually physically have to manage the renewable energy systems they take the energy from, it’s the most ludicrous thing.”

The lease also provides for the distillery to use the power supply, which is operated based on renewable energy, provided there is 5,000Kwh per annum for the purposes of Mr McKenzie.

On site is a 12kW hydroelectric turbine, a 30kW solar farm, an 11kW wind turbine, a 30kW log burner and a 3kW solar thermal.

Where energy is to be imported from the grid the distillery must pay for the costs, for which they were entitled to lay things such as cables on the landlord’s property.

However, Mr McKenzie says he faced having his power cut off after GlenWyvis stopped paying, leaving him with a bill of £19,953.64. The power to both his home and the distillery was to be cut off on April 8 but has been stopped ahead of a court hearing.

He said: “The distillery is connected to my renewable energy systems of wind, hydro and solar. The wind doesn’t always blow and it isn’t always raining – though it is most of the time this winter – so as well as drawing the electricity which is produced they, at times, import electricity but also have standing charges from the supplier.

“They’ve run up a large bill of electricity alongside other outstanding servicing of the systems which they’re meant to pay for.

“Why they haven’t paid these bills we don’t know, but the power to the whole place was meant to be disconnected on Monday, including my own home, because there is a £20,000 bill outstanding.

“They previously did pay the bills but they now seem not to want to.”

The distillery said: "GlenWyvis paid for the high-voltage connection to the farm and we have made regular, fixed payments to Mr McKenzie for the electricity provided ever since.  

"In Autumn 2022 Mr Mckenzie contacted us to discuss a new arrangement in light of the general increase in energy costs.  As part of this discussion, Mr McKenzie asserted that the distillery was responsible for the use of all electricity consumed via the mains connection and so should pay the full balance of all invoices received.

"It is our duty to ensure that the Society's funds are used in a responsible manner, so we requested information necessary to properly assess the situation, substantiate Mr McKenzie's assertion (or not) and establish the appropriate proportion to be paid by GlenWyvis.  To date, and despite repeated requests this information has not been provided. In the intervening period, GlenWyvis has continued to make regular payments at the same rate as previously.  

"On 21 March 2024, we were contacted by Mr McKenzie's solicitors informing us of an outstanding balance, and that if that was not paid the farm and the distillery would be disconnected.  The amount of the balance and the supporting invoice were not provided until 28 March.  Mr McKenzie did not notify us of his cessation of payments.  We discussed the matter with the electricity supplier directly and it transpires that the threatened disconnection was at Mr McKenzie's request.  We were not warned of any impending request for disconnection."

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Mr McKenzie resigned from the society in 2019 following the discovery that two fellow members had set up a business together which was not disclosed.

Neither remain involved in GlenWyvis, whose current board includes American investment expert David Norcom of NorCap Investment Management.

In a little over 12 months in 2019 seven of the 12 members of the management committee stepped down.

On December 2 2020, Mr Norcom sent a letter to Mr McKenzie and his wife in which he called the pilot the most difficult person he had ever worked with and warned “John, buckle up, because you are in for the fight of your life” after promising to “aggressively pursue resolution of our differences in the courts”.

GlenWyvis said: "Mr Norcom has personally given his apologies for this letter and it was agreed with Mr McKenzie that this matter was resolved."

Interdicts were granted against him preventing him from interfering with access rights granted in the lease, preventing him from accessing the distillery, and an order preventing taking "any action which has the effect of harassing or causing alarm or distress to visitors or staff". This third interdict is currently under appeal.

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Mr McKenzie says: "They pursued me to stop me accessing any area of land I rent to them for £1, so right now I can’t move my cows, they’re stuck inside and I can’t farm.

“Those proceedings have concluded and the sheriff has said they’re entitled to enforce that.

“There’s one part where they said I was bothering people who are trying to visit and there has been an appeal put in on that."

Mr McKenzie believes the legal action is due to his refusal to sell the farm to the distillery for the creation of a visitor centre. This was included in the 2021 business plan but the 2024 version states “the acquisition of the landlord’s farm would not be an effective use of the Society’s resources” and “we cannot see a way to overcome the objections raised by the planning authority to create a visitor centre”.

In a letter from April 2023, GlenWyvis advised that it would "consider" the distillery being included as part of any sale of the farm "albeit without any commitment".

Mr McKenzie says: “It’s run by very seasoned businessmen – multiple lawyers and an American who is an investment expert.

“It’s been hijacked from its original ethos.

“The American threatened me and my wife that if we didn’t do what he said then we’d be in for ‘the fight of our lives’.

“We said back in 2022 that we just wanted to sell up and that continues to be what we want to do, this is an ongoing nightmare with these seasoned businessmen."

GlenWyvis said: "We at GlenWyvis are (we think rightly) proud of our place in the local community.  To date we have awarded £50,000 in grants to local groups and small businesses and in September 2023 we won the Highland Business Award prize for Community Engagement. 

"We continue to work with local businesses and groups such as the Dingwall Community Development Company for the benefit of the local community.

"In the matter of any sale of the farm, following receipt of the initial notice from Mr McKenzie of his intent to put the farm on the market, the possibility of purchasing the farm was considered by the Management Committee.  It was decided that such a purchase would not be a good use of the society's funds and that the matter would not be pursued."

At the end of 2022, GlenWyvis had 3,625 shareholders, of which 28% lived locally, 44% lived in other parts of Scotland, 16% lived elsewhere in the UK and 12% outside of the UK. In 2018 60% were described as coming from the local area and more than 70% from Scotland.

Since May 2017 it has raised around £6.3m, with 59% of this coming from share issues and £305,000 coming via government grants.

The distillery is looking to raise a further £2.75m through two new members' unsecured bonds as well as new public bond and share offers. This week a new round of crowdfunding launched which seeks to raise £500,000.

GlenWyvis has spent £116,000 on legal fees in 2022 and 2023.

An arbitration process initiated by Mr McKenzie relating to the lease is expected to conclude this summer.

He says: "It’s a desperate situation that we live with every day, it’s really become so unpleasant. The public needs to know what’s been going on for so many years.

“It says on the website that everything is OK between myself and the distillery but that is not the case, and hasn’t been for many years.

“To have to go to court against the business you started has been a bizarre experience.”

GlenWyvis said: "There is absolutely no intention on the part of GlenWyvis or any of its directors or employees to target Mr Mckenzie or his family.

"All that we want is to be able to operate our business without disruption or interference and in the spirit of goodwill in which it was founded."