Voyaging

Lesley Walker's Blog


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Voyaging with Volunteers

This month we have had Volunteers’ Week and it seems appropriate to highlight and acknowledge the role of ordinary (extraordinary) people who labour long and hard to save, salvage, protect and preserve heritage precious to them and their local areas.

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The past few weeks I have been working with groups of volunteers in Scotland and Northern Ireland who are doing just this. In one case the heritage was threatened by local authority’s tendency to demolition by neglect, in another by careless and directionless failed private ownership, in the third case, “inevitable progress” and a blindness to the future value of remnants of past technology. In all three cases, volunteers have worked indefatigably to secure the building, the grounds, the ship and the locomotives and rolling stock for the future and then to apply to the Heritage Lottery Fund for the money to be able to share that heritage with other people. The value of the work these people do cannot be over-estimated. Without them, much of the local heritage of the UK would be lost forever.

When I first visited Whitehead, between Carrickfergus and Larne, County Antrim, three or four years ago, the site was a collection of sheds and tracks filled with rolling stock and railway paraphernalia and weed-infested backyard littered with rusting metal.

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On my recent visit, the activity in the Whitehead engineering workshops is impressive, the apprentices and volunteers readying the site for its public opening later this year.

Since the 1960s extraordinary restoration work has been carried out in the unheated, uninsulated sheds, and volunteers worked on carriages and locomotives in very primitive conditions. As the local foundries closed down all over Northern Ireland, they set up their own, as heavy engineering workshops modernised or shut, they bought machinery and equipment from clearing auctions. And perhaps most wonderful of all, this voluntary group kept steam trains running on the mainlines throughout Ireland including the Portrush Flyer. Now with funding from HLF and Europe and the Northern Irish Tourist Board and others, the Railway Preservation Society of Ireland is about to open a heritage engineering and railway centre where people can see conservation and restoration work in action: heavy machinery dating from the glory days of British engineering in use, locomotives, diesel and steam, running and static, carriages, the older timber ones built like coaches, the cranes, wheel drop, forge and foundry in action, see the locomotives being turned on the newly installed turntable, smell the grease, hear the steam, the hammer, shunting, and of course ride on the trains.

 

All of this has been achieved by dedicated teams of volunteers who would not let Ireland’s steam and railway heritage disappear and the interpretation on the site will celebrate their extraordinary achievement by featuring them and their stories.

The same commitment was responsible for saving the 1953 paddle steamer Maid of the Loch from the scrapyard when she was left to rot. Sadly many of her fittings and equipment were stripped and stolen, as her owners, a private English-based company, went into receivership. The last paddle steamer builder on the Clyde, equipped with a massive steam engine and boilers to drive her two paddles, she was first built, then dismantled and transported piece by piece overland to Loch Lomond where she was reconstructed and operated on the loch until 1981. Having rescued her from the scrapyard, the volunteers have been opening her to the public on her pier at Balloch, using her for events and functions. Now the volunteers want to get her steaming again around Loch Lomond.

First they needed to get funding to restore the steam-driven Slipway and Winch House in order to slip her to determine the condition of her riveted steel hull. With that project successfully completed, they are in the process of developing their final application to the HLF to make this dream a reality. imageIn glorious sunshine two weeks ago, we held our meeting on deck to discuss and plan the work they need to do (to conserve and restore the ship and the paddle wheels, to fit a new boiler, to engage people, schools, families, students in the project) to ensure a successful outcome.

The third project, the saving and restoration of Moat Brae, a Georgian townhouse on the River Nidd in Dumfries, is another triumph for a group of determined local people. Once a private house, then a nursing home, then derelict and threatened with demolition, part of the original garden had already been sold off for building housing.

But the empty boarded-up shell of the house with what was left of its river-side garden, overgrown and impenetrable, held a special story. Here J.M. Barrie had visited as a child, played and adventured in the garden with the children of the house. Like them, he was a student at Dumfries Academy next door. IMG_7348It was at Moat Brae that he experienced the wonder and freedom that became Neverland and Peter Pan. It was this connection and this story which meant Moat Brae should not be lost. Local people got together and saved the house and what was left of its grounds, raised money to replace the roof and secure the building. Then they set out to get HLF and other funding to realize their ambition of a Centre for Children’s Literature and a place where children and their adults could dream, play and adventure again. With funding secured, they are now ready to make that happen. In the meantime they have been using the building as place for their communities to visit, and the day I was there, displaying amazing students’ work from Dumfries and Galloway College. IMG_7367

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Voyaging Far North 2

Private history or public history?
Small local museums are both repositories of local memory, artefacts and documents and community storytellers. As I wander Helmsdale, my base for the first two nights of my Caithness and Sutherland visit, I am reminded also ofIMG_4850 how inaccessible and hidden so much of this history is.

Driving up to Helmsdale on the east coast from Inverness means crossing Moray, Cromarty and Dornoch Firths, place names that resonate with anyone interested in maritime matters.

Helmsdale itself is a product of the infamous Clearances, planned to provide accommodation and employment to those evicted from their lands to make way for sheep. In the early 19th century as the Duke and Duchess of Sutherland “improved” their estates for productive and profitable sheep farming, their tenants were evicted from the straths and glens and moved to planned settlements on the coast such as Helmsdale.  Many went to Canada and other parts of the New World. Between 1813 and 1819, more than 1,500 people were forcibly moved from Strath of KIMG_6994ildonan and by 1831 there were only 257 people left.


Later Helmsdale was a herring port and the village population grew to several thousand during the herring fishing season. Local families provided crews for the herring boats and the trade supported coopers, curers, blacksmiths and labourers. Women gutted and packed the herring and sold it around the district  from creels on their backs. The earlier inner harbour and single lane stone arched bridge further upriver gave way in the later 19th century to a man-made outer Harbour and more recently, a flying modern metal span tying southern cliff top to town. This magnifies the intrusive sounds of huge trucks as they hurtle down through the town and over the bridge and changed the place and landscape for ever. Local people told me that an ancient castle ruin, shown in old black and white photographs standing on the cliff top, was destroyed to make way for the bridge.

I stay in the old Customs House at the end of the outer harbour, a generous B&B run as B&Bs used to be when I first came to UK: a shared bathroom down the hall, fresh milk brought up to the room, conversations with Mrs Macdonald and a fabulous breakfast with no irritating portion control packets. Mrs M’s father and brother were herring fishermen, owning their own boats and her house is lined with photographs and memorabilia of a lost world. She would like to see a monument or memorial of some kind to the fishermen and their fleets such as stand on other harbours up and down the coast but is not sure how to go about getting such a thing.

 

In the morning from my bed I watch the sun rising over the harbour, the snow on the far southern shore of the firth glittering in the distance. Bunillidh, the last boat to fish out of Helmsdale, stopped  in the mid 1990s. Only a few small fishing boats stacked with lobster and crab pots are against the Harbour wall. At times they head out through the narrow entrance, a few men busy with lines and pots.IMG_6991

High above the small town an impressive stone war memorial towers over the landscape, out of all proportion to the surroundings. Built in 1924, it commemorates the 38 men from the parish who died in WW1 and 16 men in WW2.

At some angles the poignant memorial to the Clearances becomes visible also above the town. The Clearances Memorial itself has a history. The 10 feet high bronze “Exiles” statue was funded by a Canadian millionaire who left Sutherland and made a fortune in South Africa.  He originally envisaged a 30 foot family of emigrants atop a 90440px-The_Higland_emigrants_monuments_Helmsdale foot plinth, towering over the landscape, complete with visitor centre but due to lack of financial support, his plans never eventuated. It was to be a response to the huge and controversial statue of the Duke of Sutherland which towers over the neighbouring town of Golspie.

 

But there is little  information for visitors unless they can visit Timespan, the impressive heritage centre beside the river. Timespan has limited opening hours out of season and has been closed on both of my visits to the area which tend not to be in the tourist season. I am sure it tells wonderful stories but I wonder should access to the stories of place and people only be available to those who can visit a “Heritage Centre” in season?

On both my visits I wander the shore in the early morning before breakfast. Like so much of the UK coastline the beach is filled with rubbish of many materials and a lot of plastic – some obviously dumped here from the land, some washed up.

I can’t resist picking up sea glass, marbles and pottery sherds, an obsession of mine for many years. I eat in the Bannockburn Arms most nights, chatting to the landlady who moved here from Brighton 12 years ago. People talk to you here, other diners in the restaurant (all visitors from somewhere else) and drinkers in the pub. They all know the Flows Country project, the reason I am here, and are interested in its progress. With pubs and shops closed, they are hoping it will bring more trade to this quiet, somewhat forgotten town.

As I walk down to the river under the stone arched bridge, I think of Mrs Macdonald’s wish to have a memorial to the herring fishermen she remembers at the harbour. As Alex Salmond said in 2007 at a ceremony in Helmsdale to remember the Clearances, “this statue is not only a reminder of the Highland Clearances, but a great example of the skill and vision of those who remain”.  Perhaps the monuments are not only testament to the pain and poignancy of the Clearances and the Great War but also symbolic of how selective the history is that we choose to commemorate. Those who remain might well believe that their more recent history, instead of being hidden and private, is worth the public telling.

I hope Mrs Macdonald gets her monument to the generations of men and women who worked the herring. And perhaps seeing such a memorial would remind us that the herring disappeared along with jobs and a way of life. Just as with the degraded blanket bog of the Flow Country, there are lessons we can take for our own times from this.

 


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Voyaging Far North 1

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Forsinard – the Flow Country

Over the years several people have asked me to write about the projects and the places I visit as part of my freelance work. Having completed, for the time being, the posts connected with my research and the 38th Voyage in 2014, I am changing my focus to a different kind of voyaging.

Consulting for the Heritage Lottery Fund and others provides wonderful opportunities to travel to some very beautiful and sometimes remote parts of Britain as well as for engaging with the people who work with heritage as staff or volunteers and are passionate about what they do.

I have just returned from travelling in the highlands, peatlands and coastal districts of the far north of Scotland in Caithness and Sutherland. At Forsinard I explore the extraordinary world of the Flow Country, Europe’s largest blanket bog and a hugely important carbon store, with its wealth of mosses, insects, plants and wildlife. I walk out to the stunning and sculptural watch tower along the new boardwalk rippling like a pale carpet over the peat bog and its pools.

The rich warm colours of the bog astound me – an artist’s palette of russet, lime, gold, ochre, crimson, dark plum, burnt sienna. Jewel-like dragonflies hover above the dark waters and the calls of invisible meadow birds – skylarks, meadow pippets – intrude on what would otherwise be the deep silence of the place. From the tower you can appreciate the extent of the bog, its intricate patterns and colours laid out like a glorious patchwork quilt. We talk about whether the tower needs interpretation for visitors. In many ways the surroundings are so breathtaking that words seem unnecessary. Then again, opening people’s eyes to the beauty and the complexity of what they are seeing – once regarded as bleak and useless waste land – is important in the wider scheme of things. Listening to the land is a powerful experience but at times we need trained ears to hear!IMG_7007

One of the project staff is responsible for working with landowners and managers to communicate the importance of conserving the peatlands in their natural state. This often means undoing or modifying practices encouraged and funded by past governments like bog drainage and planting thousands of conifers. As we talk about his work, I become more aware of just how painstaking and challenging undoing mistakes of the past can be. Draining the peatlands to create grass and heather growth for sheep, grouse and other economic uses and planting conifer plantations means disturbing the delicate balance of the bog, drying out and degrading the peat and ultimately creating conditions where carbon will be released. He shows me the myriad of GIS mapped drains up and down the peatlands and explains the intricacies of decision-making to determine whether they can be blocked again and how and where so the bog will return to a healthy state. I am impressed by how technology can be used to both record and explain what happens and why.

Heading further north, the next morning I drive along single track roads from Helmsdale through Kinbrace and across the awe-inspiring landscape to Syre and up Strathnaver, the valley in which the Naver river flows. For many miles the only other signs of life are a red Royal Mail van, men filling potholes along the narrow track, and hundreds of deer and stags almost camouflaged in the red-gold landscape.

In the river valley, I keep stopping for large black shiny SUVs carrying fishing rods and men in the universal “hunting, shooting and fishing” uniform and one lone Tesco delivery van. As I turn onto the main road along the north coast from Tongue to Thurso, a vivid blue sea sparkles among the gold-black fields and green-black cliffs. There is so much beauty in this northern landscape.

Later I join a workshop in a primary school in Thurso run by the Flow to the Future project’s learning officer and volunteers, where P5/P6 students  are getting their hands dirty comparing ph levels and drainage-water holding ability in sands, potting mix, clay and peat. Relating this to their study of the causes of climate change and understanding the process of decomposition, using maps of the world, photographs and small national flags, they consider the planet’s variety of climates, wetlands, desert, peatlands. Using local to teach global is vital if today’s young people are going to make a difference for the future of the planet.

I visit a small volunteer-run local museum in a former church in a small dispersed settlement on the north coast. They need funding for repairs and refurbishment of the building and its interior and we meet with the volunteers and part time staff to discuss a way forward. Like so many small volunteer-run museums, they lack funds and resources and access to professional expertise. At the same time the museum plays an incredibly important role in their local communities, a focus for meeting people in an isolated place, a welcome for newcomers, a place to explore stories and the history of the local area, to contribute, to communicate, to learn and to share that learning. When we start exploring the variety of engagement with the community and the opportunities the museum provides, the discussion became very animated. One volunteer talks about how the museum has “saved her life”, offering her a focus, company and inspiring her interest at a very bleak time in her life. She is now undertaking a museum studies course and is a passionate advocate for what might be possible. Another who moved up from England, explains how she knew no one and the museum gave her an instant community and offered new friendships and connections. Talking about their vision for what the museum could be rather than focussing simply on the repairs and building issues hopefully will give them access to what was missing in their application for funding.

While the building has significance in connection with the Clearances, the museum is not the building! Many museums are hampered by the box they inhabit, whether it be an historic but redundant church, school, cottage, or country house. Having to fund repairs, display collections and engage with modern visitors and groups in entirely unsuitable conditions or spaces makes their job so much more challenging. Too large collection items – transport vehicles, agricultural machinery, furniture and maritime objects – shoulder display cases with small and delicate items up against walls and into corners. Poor and damp climactic conditions make paper-based and photographic items curl at the edges, or mean only scans or photocopies can be displayed, and fluorescent tubes glare down on items that shouldn’t be so exposed. Steps and narrow doorways create accessibility issues and volunteers have to make cups of tea in tiny dark sub-standard basements and protect all supplies from visiting vermin. Specific collections built up by an interest group and donated to the museum at some point in the past end up taking up valuable public space even though few visitors may share that interest.

Should a museum focus so much on the box it exists in by historical accident however well-meaning, and is now limited by, or should it re-invent itself as a community space? If it is housed in a listed building which is entirely unsuitable for housing a museum, what other options does it have? Should it reconsider its collection and make some hard decisions about the significance or otherwise of all this “stuff”? These are difficult questions and I am not proposing to answer them here but working so much with small groups of hard-working volunteers committed to conserving and communicating their past for the present and future, I can’t help but feel that some more radical solutions might be considered.

I was hoping that I might see the northern lights for the first time but it was not to be. But for my final evening in Thurso, the sunset and its reflection on Dunnet Head more than made up for the disappointment.