A week ago, the Convener of the Auchindrain Trust, Alison Hay, issued a statement on the Auchindrain website.
This confirmed that Scotland’s last preserved highland farm township was caught in the throes of a funding crisis. With no core funding and a series of funded projects completed, the Trust has had to use its carefully harvested reserves to keep its key staff employed.
Those reserves are now almost exhausted and, at best, will see the township – whose buildings are part of the National Collections of Scotland – to the end of July.
Ah that point its two permanent staff, Development Director Bob Clark and maintenance and groundsman, Karol Chodorowski, will be paid off. Both are pictured below in a successful inaugural Food Fair at Auchindrain in 2012, where Karol, facing the camera, demonstrated the traditional churning of butter.
The township, of enduring interest to visitors, will then be kept open until the end of the visitor season in September or October.
A permanent constraint for the Auchindrain Trust is that there are limits to the numbers of visitors the site could accept without permanent damage to its fragile authentic infrastructure.
This means that the answer to sustainability for Auchindrain is not another business plan showing how the Trust can ratchet up visitor numbers. These have been regularly hitting records as it is.
Imposed crisis management
Essentially, we keep places like Auchindrain or we let them go. There is no real value in any middle way. That simply uses money on rudimentary ‘life support’ that keeps the patient alive but dying.
Our national approach to heritage is one of unresolved philosophical conflict, failing to exercise discrimination in what is important from the past; and so creating a policy and a funding culture which the word ‘confused’ under-describes.
Our national approach to ‘heritage’ is also classist. It would be very much easier to get funding to preserve a run of the mill mansion than for a place like Auchindrain, which vividly makes present the nature of the life of the many.
Much of our heritage sector – and indeed our arts sector – is supported not through ‘core funding’, a known annual revenue grant which includes permanent staff salaries but through ‘project funding’ – grants made in response to applications for specific and time limited projects, with an element of project staffing support embedded in them.
Heritage facilities, like Auchindrain, are compelled to live from hand-to-mouth by this method, constantly trying to invent a project that will catch a funder’s eye or fit the theme of the moment; constantly working up persuasive applications; and constantly producing business plans.
This imposed management style:
- displaces core responsibilities
- makes staff permanently insecure, often leading to the loss of good staff
- pushes ‘development’ into responses to project funding on the basis of what’s available rather that what best fits the nature of the resource.
This is ‘kedgeree’ funding – throwing what you’ve got into a mix with whatever comes to hand. It actually inhibits and derails good development.
It has absolutely no intrinsic merit. It exists for political not heritage reasons.
The denial of ‘core funding’ [or revenue funding] avoids commitment into the future. Short termist politicians and governments at all levels are commitment-phobes.
The competitive availability of ‘project funding’ means that crumbs can be scattered widely around from year to year, keeping the local supporters of more resources quiet and keeping a greater heritage facilities on a distracted tick over and in essential decline.
We have to be prepared to create and execute a transparent set of criteria for the heritage resources we chose to pay to keep available down the generations. The vague criteria we have inherited are blurred by time and ‘flexibility’ [often translating as response to powerful influence] and urgently need to be rethought.
We need uniquely preserved places like Auchindrain to understand the hardship that won all of us the inheritance of the very different lives we enjoy today – and to identify the valuable elements of those other lives that we have lost by the wayside but might recover, if we chose.
A living place that really matters
There was, not long ago, a suggestion that Historic Scotland might take responsibility for the care and maintenance of Auchindrain, opening it from April to September-October with minimal volunteer staff and a non-resident supervisor who would have it added to a portfolio of responsibilities.
This offer has now been withdrawn – but would, in any case, have been terminally damaging to Auchindrain.
When Historic Scotland take properties into care, they ‘improve’ them for the visitor experience, laying paths etc. This irrevocably destroys their presence and the organic evidence of other lives that they present on a daily basis.
Look at the Historic Scotland property of the old Iron Works at Bonawe in Taynuilt. The buildings are magnificent industrial structures – with the charcoal shed unforgettable. But the place has had its intrinsic worth sanitised out of existence. You walk the place and you have no sensory awareness whatsoever of how the working lives lived there carried on.
The whole point of Auchindrain is that it remains as it was, giving as authentic as possible an experience of what survivalist living in such a place was like. The old paths and tracks are there, linking the northern and southern parts of the township – and visitors walk them.
In good weather, the paths are firm enough on the stones that over the years have been trodden into them to make them drier to walk on; and the tracks are relatively dry.
But this is Argyll, with clay soil and wet weather. When it rains, the tracks are soft and sodden and the paths less reliably firm.
In good weather, standing in the sun outside the cottages, with their bright whitewashed stone walls and red corrugated roofs – looking at the meadows, the stone walls, the sheep, cows and hens that are kept there and the hills beyond, you can feel the occasional idylls and almost hear the calls and the laughter.
On a bad day, you dive for the minimal shelter the cottages offer, with the rain a chilling percussion on the roofs, the walls damp, the smell of it pervasive and chill draughts everywhere. Outside, the land quickly soaks. The harvests from the kail yard vegetable patches can have been no better than uncertain. Winters and short days will have been an annual test of endurance and stoicism.
When the cattle drovers came through – with their traditional stopping place at Brenchoillie, about a mile west of Auchindrain, in a valley more or less parallel to the A83, the socialising, the music, the ceilidhs and the opportunity to sell foodstuffs and artisan craftstuffs will have included Auchindrain.
But life here was never more than subsistence and survival – aggravated by the fact – now making the place historically unique – that, for whatever reason, Auchindrain remained an ‘unimproved’ farm township.
It did not adopt the new efficient farming practices as they evolved but carried on the traditional runrig collective farming, with the old lazy beds still discernible on the hillside across the A83. In the summer, the menfolk went off to live in bothys, staying with the herds grazing on land stretching to Loch Awe.
In Auchindrain today, judiciously preserved structurally but not sanitised, not made tidy, not made cosy – it is still possible to get close to understanding an authentic subsistence living on the land, with none of the modern conveniences that today make such living more bearable.
How did they survive? Why did they continue in this way of life? Auchindrain – because it is immediately authentic, forces those questions. None of us today would choose to live like that, regardless of the seduction of the days the sun shines.
Auchindrain is a crucial dispeller of myths and a testament to the slow progress of change in a world with little of what we now call ‘communications’ and where travel was slow or slower.
There would have been little real awareness of alternatives and this was a society so rigidly stratified that such communities were viewed by the well-heeled aristocracy as zoo exhibits. A special treat for Queen Victoria on a visit to the Duke of Argyll at Inveraray Castle, is recorded in her own diary as a drive out to ‘see the poor people’ at Auchindrain.
A world like this leaves scant room for ambition.
Most accepted their lot without thought or question. It was how they lived, how their folk had always lived. Auchindrain was still, just, a working township in the 1960s, when its last established family, the McCallums and its last resident, the shepherd for the Argyll Estates, William Weir and his family, moved out.
The photograph above shows Trust Convener, Alison Hay, with Eddie McCallum, who was born in Auchindrain before his family became the last township family to leave in 1964. The ‘Welcome Home’ cake was produced for a reception in the Visitor Centre for a little grey Ferguson tractor that used to work Auchindrain, which staff located elsewhere in Argyll and repatriated in 2012.
The balance of preservation and authenticity
When we say that Auchindrain is still ‘as it was’ that does not mean that it has not been subject to active conservation initiatives.
One such took place in the early part of 2012, when the succession of two unbelievably cold winters below Canadian temperatures, showed obvious evidence of structural damage to many of the cottages.
Temperatures then were so low that the ground froze to some depth – and Argyll’s prevalent clay retains water.
Rain running off the traditionally unguttered roofs in the township and snow sliding off it, both in freezing conditions of course did damage to the walls they ran down. But the main damage done in the 2011 winter’s profound cold was much more serious.
The rain running off the roofs on to the ground around the cottages soaked into the clay and was retained by it, with no warmth in the air to let it evaporate. Then came the freeze up.
When the water-soaked clay froze deep down, it expanded significantly, rising and lifting the buildings. Then, when the thaw came, it sank again. The impact on these old stone walls of this lift-and-drop sequence left, as we recorded here at the time, bellied walls, cracks, dislodged corner stones and doors that no longer worked.
Funding was secured for land drains to be dug close in around the cottages in the east township [below - and the major extant collection] , given perforated piping, backfilled with gravel and topped with soil. The purpose was to collect and conduct roof water away from the buildings.
Proof of the need for the drains came in the speed with which water drained in to them from their clay sides and started running almost at once. And then there were the springs…
So far, the conservation of Auchindrain has been judiciously and well handled. The West of Scotland Dry Stone Dykers Association have given inestimable help in rebuilding walls and Stoner’s barn, as association projects.
There is a lot more that can be done to recover the actuality of Auchindrain.
The responsible compromise would be for very basic core funding to be quickly assured, given the current predicament – to secure the continuing input of permanent staff; leaving the Trust and the staff to raise development project funding from public donations campaigning, events [as with the Crafts and Culture Fair below]and applications for appropriate grants.
Basic maintenance is more cost effective if delivered by a capable all-rounder on staff than by bringing in squads of mean and machines at intervals and by paying for for specific repairs as they occur.
Core funding could be by guaranteed percentage contributions from a range of bodies. It would allow measured management of development at Auchindrain for the first time, with continuing challenges to be faced and innovation ever-necessary – but it would remove the insane crisis management that is endemic to too much of the sector, with neither the Trust nor its staff ever sure that the resource can continue to be kept open and jobs assured.
With Auchindrain a common heritage, it needs all of us to help in this crisis, not only through personal donations - visit the Auchindrain website here and scroll down to the bottom of the page [better up top] for the Donate button – but through any interventions anyone can make with funding bodies and with potential private sector donors.
We’re talking about the real possibility of effective abandonment of part of the National Collections of Scotland.