Its founders conversed with aliens and plants. Improbably, it thrived for nearly 40 years. But now the Findhorn Foundation, a centre for spiritual self-development in an idyllic corner of Scotland, is in trouble. And the energy surrounding the 'Vatican of the New Age' has become noticeably negative, reports MARY BRAID.

In the beginning - 1962 to be precise - Eileen Caddy's "inner voice" instructed her to move her family into a caravan. And so it came to pass, in the middle of a bleak winter, that she and her retired RAF officer husband Peter - both middle-aged, middle-class and, apparently, entirely sane - gathered up their three young sons and their friend Dorothy Maclean and moved to a windswept trailer park on the stunning Moray coast, a mile from the village of Findhorn.

Almost 40 years later, the Caddys' humble lone caravan has somehow mushroomed to become the "Vatican of the New Age". Mari Hollander, the current "focaliser" (CEO, in non-New Age speak) for the Findhorn Foundation, is showing me around.

The old caravan park was bought up by the expanding foundation in 1983 and is now home to 100 permanent members. It attracts 14,000 international New Age visitors a year, and scores of "associated" alternative groups that have sprung up around it, bringing in Raiki therapists, psychotherapists, fortune tellers and faith healers. The community has clearly come a long way from loopy beginnings. The site's sand dunes have been transformed into a green garden paradise, peppered with meditation rooms and Japanese peace poles. There is a concert and meeting hall, cafe, gift shop and a £160,000 ecologically sound and internationally lauded human waste-disposal system.

The Caddys and Dorothy Maclean are still revered by the community. Dorothy is a regular visitor. Eileen, now 83 and the image of Mrs Doubtfire, lives quietly on the site. Peter, who married twice before he met Eileen and twice after, died seven years ago in a car crash.

The foundation's tendency these days is to skip the nuttier historical details of its beginnings. So the tour includes the original 1950s Caddy caravan, preserved like a shrine in the middle of the trees and flowers, and the scattered caravans in which the majority of residents still live. But Mari Hollander, an attractive, middle-aged American who came to Findhorn in 1976 and never left, is also keen to show off more recent ecological innovations such as the cute little houses made from whisky barrels and a clutch of impressive new "breathing wall" mansions, affordable to only the richest Findhorn supporters.

Hollander says that the Caddys moved to the caravan park after being sacked as hotel managers in nearby Forres. Why were they dismissed? "Perhaps it was their stroppy attitudes," she muses. That would be a neat, non-loopy revision of Findhorn history. In fact, it was the spaceships.

In Peter Caddy's autobiography, In Perfect Time: Memoirs of a Man for the New Millennium, printed by Findhorn Press and on sale at the foundation's very own shop, Mr Caddy describes how he and Eileen, back in 1961, had all the trees cleared from behind Forres' Cluny Hill Hotel, without the owner's permission. On this occasion, it was extraterrestrials, not Eileen's "inner voice", who issued the orders. In the middle of the Cold War, the Caddys had opened up a dialogue with their "space brothers" to negotiate an evacuation of selected Earthlings in the event of nuclear disaster. The brothers wanted to land at Cluny Hill and so, naturally, the trees had to go.

Somehow the press found out about the landing pad and the paper Peter Caddy had written on UFOs and sent to the Air Ministry. Caddy recalls that the reporter who came up from Aberdeen to interview him was so sympathetic that he thought the man might have a role when the time was right for the world to know about the space brothers and their message to mankind.

The hotel owner was furious at the press coverage, and afterwards the Caddys were moved to a different hotel in the Trossachs, where they lobbied endlessly to move back to Forres and their "mission". When they were eventually dismissed, Eileen's "inner voice" told them to make for the caravan park at Findhorn. It was there that Dorothy Maclean began communicating with plants.

It was the plants that finally made the trio famous. In the late 1960s, Peter Caddy was on Scottish television showing off giant vegetables, and crediting neither fertiliser nor the Gulfstream climate, but Dorothy's chats with the plant spirits. Soon the pilgrims started arriving. Findhorn, suspicious of the Caddys and their "hippies", was never grateful to them, even when celebrities such as Burt Lancaster, Hayley Mills, Shirley Maclaine and, more recently, Mike Scott of the rock group The Waterboys arrived looking for spiritual renewal.

According to a leaked internal report, the community is in dire financial difficulties. Ms Hollander confirms that the foundation must persuade the Bank of Scotland to raise its overdraft limit or face a cashflow crisis. No tears are being shed in the tiny Findhorn village, whose population of just 650 is still openly hostile after four woolly-jumpered, open-toed decades.

"Skint?" says a punter scathingly in the Crown and Anchor Inn, down on the shoreline by the calm, glassy bay. "I don't think so. The place just grows and grows." The village has been nursing negative energy ever since the alternative community "stole" its name and made Findhorn synonymous with all things weird and wacky.

The converted caravan park, full of German, American and Dutch - but not Scottish - accents, looks vibrant and busy. They come for a day or a few weeks. Some stay for years, paying for their keep with cash and labour. Despite the bustle, Mari Hollander says the foundation will almost certainly have to sell off some of its assets to pay off its debts. But she denies the crisis reflects any downturn in overseas interest in Findhorn specifically or New Age in general. And she insists there is no possibility that the foundation will fold.

Up in the pub, the tendency is still to see foundation members as work-shy, "airy fairy" and utterly useless. "If they were any good to anyone they wouldn't be at the Findhorn Foundation," concludes one local. There is still plenty for the inhabitants of a small, insular former fishing village to ridicule, and fear. "I've been to a concert there and at the end suddenly they want you to stand up and hold hands with the people on either side of you," says one woman. "They always hug and hold hands when they meet in the street. It's just not our way."

Others point to the foundation's shop, bursting with books about UFOs, mystical stone circles, and how the spirit of Diana, Princess of Wales can help you find love. Then there are the courses encouraging you to "commune with the angels", "dance with the devas" and "reconnect sex and the spirit". And there was the scandal two years ago when one of the foundation's long-term members, Verity Linn, died of dehydration during a fast on a Scottish mountain while following the teachings of the self-styled Australian guru Jasmuheen. It is Jasmuheen's view that human beings can "live on light" alone.

The village tut-tutted at the foundation's purchase of the Cluny Hill Hotel, which has been turned into a spiritual college to fulfil the prophesies made by Eileen's "inner voice". They particularly hate the preference of foundation members for village properties with breathtaking views across Findhorn Bay. About 40 of the village's 300 houses and flats have so far been purchased by foundation people. "It's going to be bigger than the village soon," complains a local oil-rig worker.

The village's war against the foundation lost some of its vigour a few years ago with the death of Sir Michael Jouguin, a wartime pilot and local businessman who devoted his retirement to attacking the foundation. He was hunting down the enemy right until the end. On the day of his fatal heart attack, he was ferreting through Roseisle Forrest looking for underground houses he believed the foundation had built, beyond their own boundaries. "It's the way he would have wanted to go," says one local sadly.

Since Sir Michael's death, no one has campaigned so openly or with such commitment. But David Morgan, editor of the Forres Gazette, says the hostility has not gone away. "It is simply in remission," he says.

But some warn that the village's attitude to the foundation is dangerously short-sighted. Gavin Ellis, owner of the Knockomie Hotel in Forres, argues that the foundation brings many international visitors to an area that badly needs the economic boost. He hopes any financial difficulties at the foundation are temporary. "If it closed it would be as bad for me as the RAF base, next to it, going," he says.

Lambert Munro, retired Findhorn businessman and a former community council chairman, agrees. In 1997 some foundation associates dismayed villagers by buying up a large stretch of beach and land between the village and the caravan park. The annexation, everyone agreed, was under way. But Mr Munro recently helped negotiate the free handover of the land to a trust set up by the villagers.

Mari Hollander says she thinks the land transfer improved relations between the two communities. But even it was marred by suspicion. One of the village negotiators resigned before the deal was done, apparently because he believed that the foundation was only giving the land because, once its "invasion" was complete, it could have it back again.

Mr Munro says the villagers' hostility to the foundation does them no favours. Jobs are scarce in the area and wages low. A village cannot afford to ostracise a major economic force. "The foundation is now the largest draw for tourism in this area," he says.

The unromantic truth about Findhorn village is that it has been full of incomers for years. And the glue that binds them is the collective loathing of the foundation. Mr Munro rejects the image of the foundation as "hippie" and "layabout". He only sees people succeeding in making a living in a remote area through their own initiative. "I don't see Swampy," he says. "I see a pool of tremendous skill that outshines anything we could put together in this divided village." He believes the village's "silent majority" is coming round to that point of view, and that people realise that a financial crisis one mile down the road is bad news.

But as the foundation appeals to supporters for donations to help it through its difficulties, and begins to look hard at what it can sell, one local barmaid, at least, is unconvinced that the well-being of one community is now inextricably linked to that of the other. Asked about the economic spin-offs from the foundation to the village, she is withering. "What?" she says. "Ten of them in here gathered round one plate of chips?"