We were out for a wee walk this week & we passed this playground just up the road from my house. I was reminded of the story of how the playground got built there, which was probably one of my first proper forays into community activism, beyond the usual round of nursery & school committees and such that all village parents find themselves involved with.
I had been living up the glen with my three children, where I ran Balnacra Pottery from 1993 to 2001.Things were getting difficult up there as the house fell to bits & the children got older & needed driving everywhere, but we loved it & the sudden announcement from the Railway that they were going to demolish the house stripping us of home & business was a shock. That fight however, is another story.
fast forward a year & we moved into Lochcarron, thanks to the Highland Small Communities Housing trust coming to the rescue & saving us from being homeless ( again ) . I worked with the Local Heritage Centre project which i’d been involved with since 1990 & built a news Pottery studio, nearer to the village.
This was great, I was able to design it to suit be better than the previous leaky sheds with no heating. There was room to run classes, have a shop and to produce my work. I was also able to look after the Smithy site grounds & be there to talk to Heritage centre visitors & do my community bit. Moving into the village also meant I could join the short staffed local Fire brigade crew. Back then we were ‘ Auxiliary’ volunteers, it was pretty rough & ready, we were unpaid, under trained, under equipped, but did our best with what we had. When we’d lived up the glen, there were small settlements of 2 or 3 houses. Only 3 households had children, we tended to help each other out with babysitting & transport etc. My house was on the main road, so people popped in when they were passing to Inverness, people popped into visit the pottery, it was pretty sociable and easy going. I dreaded having neighbours when I moved into the village, but that turned out to be just fine, what was a surprise was how my casual open house approach turned out to be a bit too hectic! It was summer holidays, and the next thing you know my house was the place where ALL the children came to hang out. I had to learn the hard way that feeding them and entertaining them all would not be reciprocated by other parents! We’d have fun doing crafts and creative things. but I soon had to set some boundaries and start kicking them out for when I went out to work. It became apparent immediately that all these children – of various ages, had nowhere to play. There was a ‘green’ to the east, very boggy, with signs on it ” no ball games “. There was the broken remains of a swing from the 70’s up to the east. So myself & the children thought, lets do something about this !
I got the children to write a letter to the then district council, they did some brilliant artwork to go with it about the sort of play area they’d like to have. We got some other parents on board, to get anything done we had to form a committee, raised funds via a jumble sale & collection boxes, spoke to community council & got them on board as well. We argued that the only play provision in the area was too far away for young children to walk to unsupervised. That the majority of families lived in the Kirkton area rather than near to the existing playarea the other end of the village. We did surveys, gathered data & the children went door to door gathering support. We attended presentations by patronising men in suits and we smiled nicely at photo ops.
This must have been back when community partnership projects were in their early days, the District council latched onto this as a great pilot project, they needed a community group willing to action something, & demonstrate community need so that they could access funding. After that it all got a bit odd & we found ourselves hijacked as a pet project, without being really consulted or listened to. I stood up at the site one time, talking to the then local district Councillor, who said to me ” there is no point in this, in ten years there will be no children here, all the families are growing older, there is no work, Young people all leave, the playground will be sitting empty “.
So the playground appeared one day, without anyone telling us it was happening, without the fanfare or community inclusion there should have been. But still, the children had learnt, that if you don’t ask you don’t get. I’d learnt not to let politicians hijack your ideas, or to fob you off. We’d been sort of empowered, but sort of sidelined too. The playground is still there, 14 years on. Have all the children gone? No. Right next to the play area there are 6 new affordable family starter homes and 4 (?) new flats, with babies and children living in and nearby. Things change, and I wonder if that ex-Councillor remembers his defeatist statement? Sustainability is still a massive long term problem for this remote rural community. But ignoring young people will never be the way to solve it. This was just one of many battles for community projects I’ve had since then, fighting to keep things going, to get new things off the ground, to solve problems, to realise community assets, to stop closures and erosion of amenities, to stand up to private interest over the common good, to keep rolling with change and try and bring along those who resist it. My children and those in this pottery class photo are all grown up now, so a new generation of parents are busy keeping things going in village life for the youngsters – my pottery is closed. The seeds we sew in community life are based in faith in a future beyond our own. We never quite know what will happen and what surprises are in store, but someone has to do it. I’m glad the playground is still there. I’m glad there are still children in this village.