Hillary Clinton once wrote a book with a telling title, It takes a village – and it does. The Loch Fyneside village of Furnace, with its unusual west highland history of industry sitting alongside the traditional fishing and agriculture, is as close to an exemplary community as you are likely to find.
The holiday home ratio is low. Their owners tend to come regularly throughout the year and are a familiar and integrated part of the community. Long-standing local families and incomers – local and from further afield – respect and welcome each other’s perspectives and contributions to community life.
Furnace looks after itself. It’s not driven to be entrepreneurial but to have a healthy communal life and to do, unpretentiously and organically, whatever it takes to secure that life.
So it’s not built a new village hall. It is working to refurbish and restructure, thoughtfully, tastefully and practically, the existing hall with funds it is raising by its own effort and allegiances. The Hall has the inestimable value of being the right size for the majority of events this small community runs; and of sitting in the heart of the village, beside the shop/post office, with the bus stop outside and opposite the school and the pub.
When this job is eventually finished, the village will not have a debt burden and will not continually have to work to sell the use of the hall to pay its bills.
This is, today, the alternative community life, demonstrating the sure-footed independence that is characteristic of Furnace.
As one of its Millennium projects, the community built a six mile circular walk between Furnace and the historic farm township of Auchindrain. Last year it ran a self-funded and week long programme of events to celebrate Homecoming Scotland 2009.
That was so successful that it has just run a self-funded, long weekend’s worth of fun and games – from a ceilidh, to a Pet and Garden Show, a football match, a wheelbarrow race and a barbecue at the Furnace Inn.
The ceilidh ran into the small hours, courtesy of Alan Macintosh and other live musicians. The pet show saw Alastair MacKellar’s most unusual pet (above) somehow fail to win the prize for Most Unusual Pet – which was Eva Patterson’s hen from Goatfield farm. Lynda Syed’s Keira (below) won Best Dog in Show and the Dog with the Waggiest tail – with the sublime self-confidence that says ‘I’d have won anyway’, in the face of being the only dog in the hall. A gerbil and a chinchilla rabbit were fellow stars, the rabbit taking Best in Show.
Flowers and vegetables were hotly contested – as is the norm. Village gardens provided stock for several of the entries in cut flower arrangement and some of the vegetable combos. A vast wealth of local expertise in growing things emerged into public scrutiny and gastronomic juices ran wild.
Judges Dougie Smillie and Amy Barlow awarded Edith MacKellar the cut flower arrangement win and Elaine Polanski took podium centre for four vegetables on a plate. (Other winners will be added here shortly when we are sure of the facts. Competition was fierce and we dare not get it wrong.)
There was a large entry in the photographic competition with Lynda Syed and Richard Joynson of Loch Fyne Whiskies taking the major prizes.
The heart of the matter was that the hall was full with all ages of village residents from beginning to end – kids attracted by the noise, abandoning bikes at the door and coming in below elbow level, led by curiosity and the seduction of home baking.
The Mid Argyll Pipe Band played in the village centre on Sunday afternoon – with a birthday cake presented to drummer, Bill Halliday from Slockavullin. The band then piped the braves of the barrows across the river to the start of the epic race.
Sally Hall, tenor drummer with the band, had made a willow-domed jungle wheelbarrow for the band’s young Pipe Major, David Provan. Dressed in a monkey suit and seen below with temporary pilot, Drum Sergeant George Hall, David gave the race his all, propelled up the final cruel hill to the pub by Nathan, a young martial arts supremo from the neighbouring village of Minard.
They were neck and neck at awesome speed up the hill with last year’s winner Mungo Sinclair of the local building firm, Mungo Sinclair and Sons (his grandfather), this time with Richard Polanski, manager of the Scottish Salmon Company’s local fish farm, aboard. The famous Sinclair competitive spirit won the day when near the tape, Polanski, in the barrow, shouted to his pilot They’re with us’ – at which Sinclair ‘closed the door’ on them and took the win.
This is a race with no rules – but a savvier monkey will be back next year.
In strong third place were the next generation – Mungo Sinclair’s nephew John and Richard Polanski’s stepson, Adam – who had roared good naturedly off to the start yelling ‘We are SO going to win’. Not this year.
The village heritage is a rich and varied one, with Furnace Quarry paving the streets of Glasgow; its Loch Fyne (Gun)Powderworks sending destruction to many parts of the world – and finally to itself when its stove blew up in 1883; the Iron Furnace bringing about the village’s rechristening – it had been Inverleacainn, after the River Leacainn whose gorge runs parallel to the A83 as it enters the village at the infamous ‘Furnace bends’.
In 1923 Furnace won the major national shinty competition, the Camanachd Cup, beating its longterm rival, Newtonmore by 2-0, setting a record that can never be beaten and has not yet been equalled – going through the competition from start to finish without dropping a goal.
Interestingly, it was analysis that led to their final overthrow of Newtonmore. The quarry workers who made up most of the Furnace team had great upper body strength but were low on leg stamina. They eventually realised that the Newtonmore players were mainly gamekeepers, constantly tramping the hills and glens – so they stayed the game better. The Furnace quarrymen started serious road training and the rest is, literally, history.
Sport remains a major focus of village life. It annually runs the now legendary Furnace Shut golf competition at the Inveraray Golf Course and of late it has staged a summer football match between the Under 30s and the Over 30s.
The 2010 showdown took place on Saturday 28th August and, while the youngsters won last year by the narrow margin of one goal, this year the honours were even in a high scoring 5-5 result. This is serious football. The village is fortunate to have a full size pitch in a scenic location above the lochshore and the match is charcterised by real skill and ferocious concentration.
The ‘Oldies’ have serious skills but time has sapped their stamina. The ‘Youngsters’ (only three can drink in the pub) haven’t yet learned how to run them into the ground but have a core of very able young players.
For the record – and this is important - the ‘Oldies’ goal-scorers were James Debnam (2), Mungo Sinclair (1), Douglas Watt (1) and Nick McCourt (1) – although the omnipresent Donald McNeil swore he touched it in. The village jury’s out but is disposed to tease Mr McNeil.
For the ‘Youngsters’ the goals came from Calum Elkin (2), Andrew Sinclair (1), Donald Sinclair (1) and Rowan Turner (1) – which ricocheted off the ‘Oldies’ goalie and counted as an own goal.
Play was physical and endlessly competitive – and we have some photographs to prove it. Natural sportsmen, father and son Mungo and Andrew Sinclair, were a case in point. We have few photographs of Andrew on the ball (in white above) without Mungo in close attendance, elbows ready for action (in red above).
Ronnie Dodd, who organised the event, was one of its founding inspirations – and is reputed to ‘have plans’ (you have been warned) for next year, is a sort of honorary member of the Furnace community (wasn’t Furnacite a combustible fuel?). He and his wife Anne live just outside the village boundary but, responding to the nature of the Furnace community, have become embedded and much valued members of it.
Villages are places you belong in, grow out of – late teens and twenties need cities – and grow back into, with the insights from experience of the alternatives.
Argyll’s topography has bred, through time, a multitude of small, self-sufficient communities that are, in effect, no less than microcultures. Furnace stands an an exemplar.
Photographs by Lynda Henderson