The Story Of A Community Enterprise by Robin Lingard 2020
Robin Lingard, (at that time at Highlands and Islands Enterprise and then of Kinnairdie Consulting), was involved with Here We Are from its earliest days; for advice and as a strong shoulder. He kindly agreed to write an account of what we were in 1998 and what we have become.
The Founding Vision
The thinking behind “Here We Are” had its roots many thousands of miles away from Argyll. During the 1970s and 1980s, the managing director of a walking holiday company in the Western Himalayas found herself increasingly aware of the gap in understanding between the tourists and the local communities in which they found themselves. Although visitors often showed curiosity about the daily life of local people, there seemed to be no ready mechanism for explaining to them how a community had developed, why it was there and how it worked. When Christina Noble returned to the UK in the early 1990s, she began to realise that in many ways tourists here faced the same problem.
She always came back to her family home on the Ardkinglas Estate at the head of Loch Fyne and to the nearby village of Cairndow. Christina began to think how she might apply to this small community the lessons she had learned in India, by finding a way to tell and celebrate its story. As she put it at the time – “At present, visiting tourists have little or no real knowledge of the communities they visit, or access to quality information about them. Similarly, the communities in the Highlands have no forum to reflect their community, or maintain a profile among visitors.” The answer, she felt, would be to offer – “a new concept for tourism in the Highlands – a symbiotic relationship between visitor and community” and to “recreate tourism as interesting, educational and rewarding for visitor and host alike”.
Thinking back to the ‘X’ often marked on picture post-cards sent home, Christina suggested the title for this new tourism concept should be – “Here We Are” – a phrase which also conveyed a community’s pride in its place.
Beyond the Vision
And so, through a series of vicissitudes to be outlined later in this account, in September 2001 the building called “Here We Are” was opened on the Clachan site at the head of the Loch, greeting 11,000 visitors in its first year (at no charge) and run by a small staff supported by volunteers. Almost 20 year later, the building is still there, more popular than ever with tourists and still carrying out its core purpose of acting as that interface between visitor and host. However, the community organisation which bears the “Here We Are” name has developed and expanded beyond recognition. Its latest annual report, for 2018/19, shows it had a total income of over £200,000 and was employing eight people in an organisational structure with two major subsidiaries. How did such a significant community enterprise evolve from such modest roots – and what does the current organisation still owe to the founding vision?
Making it Happen
Christina Noble’s concept for “Here We Are” had three key components – a place for visitors to come to; a supply of information about the local community; and the active involvement of the community itself.
The first of these – creating a place – seemed in many ways the simplest to deal with. Since so many visitors already stopped at the Clachan site, it was logical to target it as the location for an information centre. The fact that the site (like Loch Fyne Oysters) was owned by the Ardkinglas Estate also meant that a convenient family arrangement could be made, leasing a plot of land for £1 p.a. But that was where the easy part finished. A significant amount of money would need to be sourced, for a building to go on the plot and for the fittings and display material to tell the local community’s story. That in turn implied a good deal of preparatory work – preparing drawings, putting together business plans, getting planning consents, assembling funding bids. Creating a concept can be a solo effort, but in order to make it a reality Christina needed to assemble a team. In fact, she assembled two teams. One was a Steering Group, drawn from the local community, which in due course became the legal structure for a charitable company – the formal vehicle driving the concept forward. The other was an informal Advisory Group, consisting of family, friends and contacts who came together with Christina three or four times a year to review progress and help chart a way through the problems which arose, especially in relation to bids for funding.
Creating the other two Here We Are components – information about the community, and the community’s active involvement with the project – proved to be a matter of merging them and letting one reinforce the other. An open meeting in the village pub (the Stage Coach Inn at Cairndow) generated a good deal of enthusiasm for the concept and, more importantly, provided the spark for a series of historical investigations which would form the basis of the initial visitor exhibition. Central to them was a project to write up the history of every dwelling in the community, under the title “Our Houses; Their Stories”. This proved to be a perfect example of Christina’s vision, since on the one hand it provided an easily understood point of reference for the visitor wanting to know more about the place, while on the other it involved all those living in the community in helping to tell the visitors their story.
Funding the Building
In the 1990s it was a great deal easier to source funding for a good project than in more recent years of austerity, yet assembling the money for the Here We Are building proved frustratingly complicated. With the exception of the EU’s LEADER scheme (designed to support rural economies and a source of repeated assistance to Here We Are), the majority of public authority and charitable funding schemes seemed to find it difficult to fit the concept into their criteria. However, in the course of 1999 – through a great deal of effort and persuasion by many people and by sheer determination on Christina’s part – a funding package was assembled from a number of sources which was hoped to be sufficient for the construction and fitting out of the building and for a first year of running costs. It looked as if all might be ready for an opening during the holiday season of 2000.
At this point the project was nearly knocked off course for good, by tenders which turned out to be well over budget and by a wholly unexpected objection when planning permission was sought. The planners’ concern was not about the building as such but about the impact on the Clachan site of a potential increase in traffic seeking to turn off the trunk road. They required a “ghost island” to be constructed at the junction, the cost of which would have to be met by the promoters of “Here We Are”. Complaints that the requirement was disproportionate and unfair, given the volume of visitors already turning off the road without hazard, were met with deaf ears. With heavy hearts, the Here We Are team had to embark on a further round of fund-raising. Meanwhile, to salvage something for the holiday season they obtained permission for setting up a temporary exhibition for visitors in a Portakabin at Clachan – and this received an encouragingly positive response from those who passed through it. In this way, the concept had its first, modest endorsement from the visiting public. Just as importantly, the local people who had assembled the display material had the first reassurance that their lives and activities were indeed of interest and value to people who otherwise would have not have known of their existence.
Keeping it Running
The opening of the Here We Are building at Clachan in September 2001 was rightly seen as a major achievement for all those in the community and beyond who had worked so hard to make it a reality. A succession of locally produced exhibitions about life at the head of Loch Fyne, as it had been and was now, proved to be of real interest to visitors, who often responded by making modest cash donations in the box provided, as well as buying items from the small shop. However, the Here We Are team rapidly became aware that the combination of visitor donations, shop receipts, volunteer effort and residual grant support for the start-up phase was going to be insufficient to cover their operating costs for much longer.
There was no real scope for reducing those costs, in what was already a lean operation. From the start, Here We Are had relied on a loyal core of paid staff from the local community, mainly women. It was seen as vital to retain them, not least because of the growth in confidence and capability which they had demonstrated. This form of capacity building was perhaps the most important unforeseen consequence of the whole enterprise and Christina was determined not to jeopardise it.
However, grant providers, whether in the public sector or in charitable foundations, proved far less ready to subsidise continuing running costs than to fund capital projects. Like many third sector ventures, therefore, Here We Are had to find a means of generating a regular stream of income if it was to continue to serve its community. There was no realistic prospect of charging for entry to the Here We Are building, which would have gone against the founding principles of the venture – and, in practice, would have reduced the number of visitors (and the income they provided) to a trickle. Some other way forward had to be found.
Appropriately enough, the inspiration for a solution came from one of the most ambitious Here We Are exhibitions, which was displayed in 2004 and supported by grant funding of £10,000. It was entitled “Our Power” and it told the story of power generation in the locality, from water mills through to the big hydro-electric schemes of the 1950s. This led the Here We Are team to start researching the possibility of starting a community power generation project and using it to support another local business.
With professional assistance, a scheme was drawn up for Here We Are to establish a wood-chipping plant, using locally sourced timber, and to use it to supply a biomass boiler for the salmon hatchery at the head of the Loch. Again the hunt was on for capital funding, but this time the tide of public interest in renewable energy made the search rather easier. A total of £153,000 was raised, in grants and loans, and a subsidiary company was set up to run the venture (“Our Power”) and to provide Here We Are with the necessary regular income stream – which it does to this day.
Meanwhile, progress was being made on the Clachan site on increasing the range of facilities offered by Here We Are to the local community – in particular, a meeting room, an access point for Argyll College’s courses, and a Service Point for the local Council.
In parallel, it was felt that more could be done on the site to explain the special importance of the area’s natural environment to visitors. The obvious starting point was to provide an answer to the frequent question – “What’s in the Loch?” – and this became the title for a small aquarium set up alongside the main building, displaying the biodiversity of the Loch’s estuarine waters.
From the beginning, Christina Noble had hoped that the complete Here We Are “package” might be picked up and applied in other rural communities, in Scotland and more widely. While this hope was never directly realised, the Here We Are story did indeed chime with the experiences of other rural areas and a number of positive contacts were established. The most fruitful was with Donegal in Ireland, resulting in an EU LEADER-financed project for a film to be made about the success of two communities – Cairndow in Argyll and Ballyliffin in Donegal – in tackling the social and economic challenges facing small local communities in the 21st century. The film, entitled “To See Ourselves as Others See Us”, became available as a DVD and was followed up with a seminar on rural development held at Here We Are in January 2006.
Research into the history of power generation in the area had inspired the Here We Are team to consider the feasibility of supplementing the wood-chipping plant with a small-scale hydro-electric scheme, which would both serve the community and provide an additional income stream to support the day-to- day running of “Here We Are”. The Ardkinglas Estate had taken its electricity from just such a plant early in the 20th century, which suggested that there might well be a case for revisiting the concept with modern technology. So began what proved to be Here We Are’s most ambitious project to date. From initial discussions in 2006, a partnership was formed with other local interests with the aim of installing a 1MW hydro-electric plant in the Merk Burn catchment area, up in Glen Fyne. After a long process of fund-raising, planning permissions, establishment of a formal partnership structure and a great deal of hard graft, the first sod for the project was dug in May 2013 and the whole scheme came on line in August 2015, at a total cost of £3.5 million. Here We Are’s share (£870,000) was provided largely in the form of a loan from Social Investment Scotland and a subsidiary company called Our Hydro Ltd was set up as a route for channelling a share of the operating profits into “Here We Are”. The project as a whole also achieved the wider objective of harnessing local renewable resources – and putting Argyll’s generous supply of rain to good use. Subsequently, the success of the joint venture was reflected in a decision in 2017 to increase the scheme’s storage capacity.
“Here We Are” Today
For many years, the annual reports produced by the Here We Are team reflected worries about a continuing gap between regular income and day-to-day expenditure. The two ventures into renewable energy have now largely stilled those concerns, giving a greater freedom to participate in new initiatives, both at the “Here We Are” site and in the wider community. Most recently there have included construction of a path between Cairndow village and the Clachan site (enabling walkers and cyclists to avoid the dangers of the main road) and the hosting of a Post Office in the “Here We Are” building following its closure in the village.
Looking ahead, the Here We Are team is now participating in discussions with planners and other authorities about such matters as improving road junctions, increasing the supply of affordable housing – and even introducing an electric bike scheme.
At another level, Here We Are is able to assist and support the wider community of Argyll through a trust established in memory of Christina’s brother, Johnny Noble, who founded Loch Fyne Oysters and was a great supporter of the “Here We Are” concept from its earliest days. The S. J. Noble Trust was set up in 2004 to provide grant and loan support to enterprising small businesses across Argyll. It operates from the Here We Are site, where most applicants are interviewed, and it has provided over £900,000 to Argyll businesses since its founding.
This brief historical survey has explained how, in order to maintain the financial support for a centre where visitors may learn about the local community, the focus of the Here We Are team’s activities has had to turn increasingly towards active involvement with that community. On the one hand, this has clearly been of direct benefit to those living at the head of Loch Fyne. On the other, it has not only enabled a centre for visitors to be maintained but it has also greatly enriched the story about the community and its activities which is now set out for them there.
While the details of what has happened in this corner of Argyll over the past two decades may not therefore be exactly what Christina Noble had originally envisaged, the “Here We Are” enterprise has surely achieved her key objective – building a new, symbiotic relationship between visitor and community.
Our Future Booklet Partially Funded by –
Here We Are Partially Funded by –