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Culture and Rural Development

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Promoting the Local Culture:
the Lochaber experience

The Lochaber LEADER group (Scotland) is supporting
projects which place a major emphasis on culture,
to increase the sense of belonging to the land and to develop
tourism in the most remote regions of the area.

 

Outside, the whistle of the old steam locomotive blew. Malcolm Poole interrupted the conversation to look out the window at the passengers making their way down to the train; a large number of people were making today's journey from Fort William to Mallaig, the little fishing port and railway terminus on the West coast of Scotland. They come from Edinburgh, from Glasgow, from England and the Continent to trek along the paths etched into the surrounding hills, but at some point before or after their walk, many of them will visit the new "Mallaig Heritage Centre" which has been set up in the former railwaymen's dormitory along the side of the track. "For a long time, the railway was the main link between Mallaig and the rest of the world," explains Malcolm, who is in charge of the centre. "The location of the centre, as well as being strategic, is highly symbolic: it was the first place that newcomers discovered on arrival. This was the starting-point for the village." Today the steam train is a summer tourist attraction.

Under LEADER, around 26 000 ECU have been spent on equipping the centre, which holds a collection of implements, archives and numerous photographs gleaned from the population, tracing the history of the village. All of the explanations are written in English and Gaelic, a practice which is encouraged for all the projects supported by Lochaber, the Local Action Group.

Lochaber Ltd. is one of the 10 Local Enterprise Companies set up by Highlands and Islands Enterprise, the organisation responsible for the development of this part of Scotland and answerable to the Scottish Office, the British Ministry for Scotland.

 

The Gaelic Economy. The district of Lochaber, like all the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, is a region of Gaelic tradition, despite the fact that the last census of 1991 showed that only 11% of the population, -the vast majority of them over 60 - spoke the language regularly. "Some might say that we are fighting for a lost cause", says Catherine McDonald, the head of the LEADER group. "We don't want to force everyone to revert to speaking Gaelic, but the language is nevertheless the main symbol of our identity. All of the people living here, whether they are native Highlanders or people who have settled in the country are very attached to it. Simply putting the signs in Gaelic strengthens our sense of belonging to the region and communicates a strong image, which the visitors expect".
The revitalisation of Gaelic, which is supported by the Lochaber group, forms part of a strategy common to all the Scottish LAGs. "Signposting and labelling local products in Gaelic is simply the tip of the iceberg for a process which aims to restore the regional culture as a whole: the language, the music, the cultural heritage, increase the quality of life for these communities and develop discovery tourism. Culture is an instrument for social and economic development" Catherine explains.
"We can talk of the 'Gaelic Economy', because it provides jobs", says John Storey, development agent. "Gaelic represented 55 million ECU and 1 000 jobs for Scotland in 1993. In 1993, Gaelic used to provide 2 full-time jobs here in Lochaber, in January 1994 it had risen to 7, and the lowest forecasts put the number of local jobs directly linked to the Scottish language at 30 or 40 in the year 2004."
Most of these jobs will be provided in the education sector: at the request of the parents, more and more schools have set up total immersion classes in Gaelic for primary-school children.
In the little village of Acharacle, 70% of the young pupils have been receiving primary education in Gaelic for the past 3 years. "In the beginning they lagged behind their friends who had their lessons in English, because they had to learn the language" explains Catriona McIntyre, one of the teachers. "But they caught up very quickly, and they now possess a great asset –they are bilingual; amongst other things it will mean that they will be able to learn foreign languages much more easily when they are older." Catriona went on to say that the old people of the village enjoy talking to the children involved in the programme. "They know them all. You can feel a real sense of solidarity amongst the population."
At the school in Acharacle, LEADER has financed 48% of the costs of a cartoon film in Gaelic produced by a local company. It went on to be shown at the International Celtic Film and Television Festival in Derry, Northern Ireland. In the same vein, LEADER is helping the teaching of Gaelic by contributing 40% to 60% of the costs of organising educational activities all over the area: Gaelic workshops for preschool age children, cultural activities ("feisean") involving traditional music, intensive Gaelic courses for adults, etc.

 

The Road to the Isles. As far as tourism is concerned, the Lochaber Leader Project concentrates on the most isolated regions of the area –the coast and several small islands– which have not yet benefited from the full-scale tourist boom enjoyed by Fort William, situated on the road to the very popular Loch Ness and at the foot of Ben Nevis, the highest point in the British Isles (1343 m), where visitors can enjoy winter sports.
From Fort William many tourists usually head further north towards the Hebrides without really stopping in Lochaber. To encourage the tourists to remain in the area, the tourist operators along the "Road to the Isles" have recently created a marketing organisation. One of the first projects supported by LEADER involved the production of a brochure in English, French and Italian showing the interesting features along the Road. "We had to hold a good few meetings about this brochure; everyone wanted to have their say." mused Alan Broadhurst, a local restaurant owner and chairman of the association, "but as you can see, the result was not bad at all. Now I realise that this project meant a lot more than simply producing a leaflet: to make it work, all of the local operators had to sit around the same table and to share their vision of the future."

 

Discoveries. The Road to the Isles is not the only tourist route in Lochaber to be exploited; far from it: LEADER is providing support for some major projects on the Ardnamurchan peninsula. This region, which can only be reached by a very narrow road, offers a large tourist potential; discovering the remotest, wildest parts of Scotland, with their magnificent countryside, their tiny, isolated coastal villages... Here, two of the LEADER projects are attracting particular attention: enlarging a natural history centre and the construction of a hall/community centre.
Placed in an exceptional setting, the "Glenmore Natural History Centre" is a private building belonging to Michael and Karen McGregor, both of whom are passionately interested in flora and fauna. It currently consists of a converted barn and a building transported from Glasgow, where it was used as a pavilion for a botanical exhibition. Cases and models display the different ecosystems of the peninsula for the visitors, who can also eat while admiring a herd of deer outside. "We needed to change into a higher gear," says Michael McGregor, "and make this place a real living museum. The only solution was to put up another building; it was a big risk for us, but LEADER helped us to take the plunge." The new building, which is to open in April 1995, is a round structure made of wood and other local materials. Special facilities will allow visitors to observe live animals in their natural habitat; screens will show live transmissions from birds' nests, and a short stretch of stream is being diverted towards the building, where the creatures living in and around it can be observed through a window. Sheep will be able to graze on the roof, which is covered with grass in the Icelandic fashion.
"Children will be able to romp about in an artificially created badgers sett," adds Michael McGregor, "then they will emerge into a reconstructed oak forest where they will hear all the noises of a forest at night; foxes barking, owls hooting and so on."
The little village of Glenuig (140 people) can count on a dynamic local association which has been organising a festival of traditional Scottish music for 10 years. Organising the event enabled them to raise sizeable funds and set up public partnerships allowing them to build a hall and community centre which they will use for cultural activities, local events and educational purposes. The premises will also be used as a small dispensary –medical services are currently provided by a mobile unit– and showers. LEADER provided around 35 000 ECU for the project. "The village will finally have somewhere to meet," explains Alexander Carmichael, the Association's President. "All of the communities in the area will benefit from it, as well as the local economy. The number of visitors should increase considerably: due to the success of the festival, Glenuig has already become a desirable stop for Scottish musicians."
Other similar projects, converting an old church, and other parts of the local heritage, for example those linked to the Scottish hero James of the Glen, are being implemented, but the next feather in their cap, in terms of converting and exploiting a local site, could be the restoration of an XIXth century lighthouse on the most westerly point of mainland Britain. It is an exceptional site, strangely neglected, which a local association has decided to develop. Lochaber Leader group has been approached and LEADER II is starting up just at the right time...

LEADER Lochaber

Surface area: 3 200 km2
Population: 19 320 inhabitants
LEADER financing: 1 714 000 ECU
UE: 299 000 ECU
Public: 952 000 ECU
Private: 463 000 ECU

Lochaber LEADER Project

St Mary's House, Gordon Square,
Fort William (Inverness-shire), Scotland PH33 6DY
Tél: +44 397 706 232 - Fax: +44 397 705 309

source: LEADER Magazine nr.8 - Winter, 1994


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