Lesley Riddoch: Pulling together for better future

Forgotten coastal communities in Scotland are becoming revitalised, empowered and having fun, writes Lesley Riddoch

A group of Edinburgh rowers demonstrate teamwork, commitment, enthusiasm and ambition. Picture: Phil Wilkinson

Can Scotland’s choppy seas, tiny communities and “frozen north” hold a candle to T in the Park? This weekend, they just did

While 85,000 music fans watched Rihanna, Snoop Dog and the Killers at Scotland’s biggest festival, the country’s newest event in Ullapool featured fewer spectators but far more active participants.

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The first World Skiff Rowing Championships – organised by the Scottish Coastal Rowing Association – featured 800 mostly Scottish rowers in 30 teams of enterprising, outgoing folk who have quite literally made their own entertainment and then towed it for hundreds, even thousands of miles to north-west Scotland. “Skiffies” are 22ft boats built to a specified plan from pre-cut plywood parts, supplied in flat-packed kits so dimensions are standard and competition fair for all-comers.

Communities must find an achievable £3,500 for the kit, glue, paint and varnish and muster a manageable basic team of four rowers plus a cox (to steer the rudder) rather than the dozen needed for a football team.

Skiff racing includes men and women of all ages and basic ingredients beyond the kit are largely free; tidal, coastal waters, a winter of construction, storage space, regular practice, patience a sense of humour and flexibility around work, personal commitments, tides and weather.

The resulting self-built boats are the pride of their creators but are not “too posh” to use, too expensive to maintain, nor too heavy to lift by just five people.

The rebirth of organised community coastal rowing in Scotland – and perhaps the world – is down to smart design by Iain Oughtred, a simple manufacturing process by Alec Jordan and a single vision by the Scottish Fisheries Museum folk in Anstruther who wanted to revive the coastal rowing regattas that took place between Fife mining villages until the 1950s. Back then, miners built boats from odd bits of timber “liberated” from collieries – now these basic but graceful and seaworthy boats allow all residents of Scotland’s coastal communities to sink differences of occupation, age, gender and class and exploit a pooled range of skills, contacts and local knowledge to get a stylish little boat in the water. A more cunning way to encourage team-building, physical activity and community empowerment has yet to be devised.

The Ullapool event saw 30 (mostly Scottish) teams compete over distances ranging from a few hundred yards to several miles and – just as importantly – banners literally hoisted again over communities disempowered by a century of centralising “local” government reform.

The secret to this low-cost rejuvenation is a skilful balancing of forces completely out of balance in the rest of our lives. In our “normal” everyday lives, “taking part” usually means paying (over the odds) to watch (and queue) while others perform.

But the skiff phenomenon has harnessed local pride and the co-operative instinct to create active citizens in coastal villages, hours away from conventional sports facilities. Almost all the skiff clubs represent communities left high and dry by the decline of fishing.

Interestingly though, it’s the spirit of competition that has really made skiffs catch on in places like my own home village of Newburgh in Fife – once a lino-making town which could (almost) rival Kirkcaldy. Villages that seemed hopelessly dormant have been spurred on to raise cash, find half a dozen regulars, and piece together coastal access and storage thanks to the discovery that the equally cash-strapped village along the coast has already done it.

Never mind all the state-funded schemes for “intergenerational bonding”, assertiveness and community building.

Skiff building refreshes the people formal projects fail to reach because it’s fun, totally controlled by locals and diverse with men and women of all ages training and learning together.

Like the women from Portsoy who built their own boat and – in response to the playful jibe “it’ll probably be pink” – painted the “Soy Quine” Dayglo pink, found pink life-jackets, oar handles and pink headbands for their rueful male support team.

Like the Dutch team Woudrichem who arrived complete with skiff and lorry containing leather sofas and a large barbecue around which other teams in the Ullapool campsite gathered for a very comfortable night of food, wine, Gaelic song and Doric storytelling. Like overall champions – and local heroes – Coigach whose team included one in ten of Achiltibuie’s tiny population.

That’s poignant as well as pleasing.

Highland Scots have had a long, mixed relationship with the sea. Many farming families were cleared from fertile inland straths in centuries past, to live at the ocean’s edge and learn the hard way about its brute strength.

Now descendants are re-connecting with Scotland’s greatest food, energy and recreational resource – that same sea which surround us all. It’s no coincidence that all the land buyouts to date have been by coastal communities and islands.

Some of the skiff teams have been put together by villagers already active in development trusts set up to manage other local assets. Others are the first to organise a community effort from which other ventures might arise.

One thing’s for sure. Community muscle can be built by fun just as it has been built by dire need and political intent. Earnest Scots too often overlook the music, sport, socialising and human connection in the business of social change. The American anarchist, Emma Goldman reputedly said: “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.” She was right. It’s no coincidence either, that the same balanced dynamic of co-operation and competition account for the domino-like spread of community land ownership along the Western Isles. Around the Sound of Harris three communities are considering buyouts along with a further three on Lewis.

Whether they follow or ignore the lead of neighbouring North Harris, Stòras Uibhist, Valtos, Aline Forest, Galson or Scalpay – change is in the air. For the first time in history, the decision will be made by communities – not distant councils, quangos or absentee landowners.

If this wind of change reaches the House of Commons later this year, proposals to expose sporting estates to fair taxation could be debated – a move that would finally end a situation where 1,000 people own 60 per cent of Scotland. This weekend’s triumph belonged to Ullapool and 30 modest skiffs. The ripples could yet spread further.