By Jane Craigie
Huntly’s Hairst has been running for a number of years. Organised by a group of community volunteers and supported by local organisations Huntly Development Trust (HDT) and Deveron Projects, it’s a celebration of local food, farming and community. Its strapline is ‘Celebrating Rural Life Together.”
It is a great example of a Scottish town, that has a strong community behind it, but like many, has lost its heart to larger retail stalls and online shopping. The banks have gone, the iconic Cruickshanks department store has gone, and the Huntly Hotel has gone.
Gatherings like the Hairst bring people in and give a flavour of the town coming back to vibrant life. Huntly’s intent mirrors other successful towns and villages around Scotland where local people make local decisions and take local action.
This Hairst had many food stalls, entertainment for children, music and so much more. I’m sure that all the food and drink sellers attending last weekend had a bumper day. All were local people, with local businesses.
The community-initiated organisations behind the Hairst have also fuelled wider community activities and have a bold vision – to reignite the town’s square and network of shop-fronted streets.
HDT and Deveron Projects have successfully raised the funding to buy several empty shops and the former RBS building and are now encouraging the people of the town to use the premises – for business or social endeavour.
HDT also owns a farm out of the town – Greenmyres has a community-owned wind turbine on it, the income from this has funded several HDT projects, including the development of the ‘Eco Bothy’ – the converted Greenmyres farmhouse – which can be used for meetings and events. The farm backs on to Forestry Commission ground that is criss-crossed with walking and biking tracks. There are community accessible showers and toilets on site, and e-bikes for hire, 365 days a year. HDDT has also installed a path that connects the farm back to the town.
For the past 25 years Huntly’s Deveron Projects has been slowly growing ideas around art, food, walking and eating, together with the communities of Huntly. Robyn Wolsey said: “We inhabit, explore, map and activate the place through artist driven projects. Huntly’s small-town context, its 18th Century streets and the surrounding Aberdeenshire countryside offer an abundance of possibilities to work with, especially since the recent development of a new community kitchen and project space at Square Deal.”
There is a super ‘Honesty Bakehouse’ in the Square Deal building. The shop sells delicious baked goods – you leave your money in a dish as you leave. It is also home to Neep & Okra, which sells local produce with global flavours – so if you want a spice mix for a curry, or a tagine, then look no further. Neep & Okra’s profits dominantly go to funding community projects.
Neep & Okra and Honesty Bakehouse have good connections to the Gordon Schools and have been training up the next generation of growers and chefs, in collaboration with local social enterprises. They recently held their first Summer Cookery School in the Square Deal over the school holidays for children aged over 10.
They learnt kitchen skills, how to cook new flavours, collect fresh garden grown ingredients and ‘play’ with all this new knowledge.
It’s, perhaps, fitting that I write this on the day that the First Minister will be presenting her vision for the future of Scotland, following the pandemic. One of the key things that Nicola Sturgeon is sure to focus on is repopulation of working-age and young people in rural and remote places. But to achieve it, we also need to breathe life back into our communities and our towns and villages.