When I once descended hungrily into Sanquhar after an exhausting stretch of the Southern Upland Way I just wanted food, a beer and a bed. I left the next day on the next stretch without discovering the UNACCI A' the Airts, a quite brilliant community arts centre. However enjoyable the hike was I really know now that I missed out, and you are too until you discover this unique community hub.
The UNACCI is a handy anacronym for Upper Nithsdale’s Arts and Crafts Community Centre, an oasis in the Dumfries and Galloway hills. Sanquhar itself is a lovely wee village I have spent more time in years ago, enjoying its grand main street, elegant buildings, welcoming cafes and the sublime food of the Blackaddie. I’ve also stayed over there and when the old station master’s house was a self-catering escape. I sensed a real feeling of community and at that community’s beating heart is this centre, better known to locals as the ‘Airts’ or ‘A' the Airts’.
Rooted in the Community
Yvonne Anne Barber is the Centre Manager, one of an impressive team of ten employees (nine full-time), with volunteers from the community also active in this vibrant project. It is rooted in the community, with the nine people on the board all local. It grew out of the community too, the brainchild of two local ladies who had the idea as far back as 2004, when they set up a steering group to try and take it forward with community support. It was not, though, until 2010 that the centre finally opened. It came from community and it is today still community-owned.
Barber explains what they are about: “We are a small community arts centre that has won awards for what we do, with a craft shop, with crafts from local crafters, a cafe and a cinema on site too. We welcome in everyone, whether they are a lifelong local or a ‘temporary local’ just passing through.”
“We’re really at the heart of the community, with lots of community groups, from Tai Chi classes through to crafts, a community choir and knitting groups,” continues Barber. “It doesn’t end there as we are also heavily involved in local festivals. In May we have the Sanquhar Arts Festival, which we help plan and fund along with other local groups. Then in September, we have a Festival of Folklore. We run this in conjunction with a company called ‘Mostly Ghostly’, and like the spring festival, it’s held over a single weekend. We’ve got folklore galore for kids and big kids alike.”
Joining the all the Dots
Talking to Barber I’m impressed not just at how much they work with the community and welcome in ‘temporary locals’. It is also striking how much they liaise with other local groups and bodies. Examples include the Tolbooth Museum and the Town Hall – they have used both of their spaces for events. They have also reached out to the village’s Nithsdale Hotel. There is a commitment to joining all the dots, working with community groups, business and other bodies.”
They are also passionate about bringing on younger members of the community. Barber says, “We have a couple of young people who volunteer - one helps with the craft clubs. It ties into the Duke of Edinburgh Award. We had one young man who did a weekly administration placement. He discovered an interest in photography so he ran workshops for younger children. Now he has gone on to work as a professional photographer working for a local estate agent. We also ran a photography group as part of the ‘What We Do Now Project in partnership with the Stove. Two professional photographers, Saskia Coulson and Colin Tennant of CT Productions worked with seven young people - four of the people from this group have now gone on to take a film studies courses at college.”
The centre also runs craft sessions in schools, as well as employability sessions at Sanquhar Academy. Then there are crafting and art clubs after school and a youth theatre. The latter perform a couple of times a year. There is a popular summer school for music, crafts, performance and dance too. Barber sees their work with young people as key – “It’s important to give young people opportunities via placements with us, and we are very responsive to what schools want. During Covid we did lot of competitions online to keep them engaged. Our film and photography groups are geared towards those aged 14-25.”
Such has been the success of their work with young people that the centre has secured funding from the Holywood Trust for a revamp of their home. This alongside funding from Dumfries and Galloway Council and Scottish Government has secured the new extension. The Airts is clearly a deeply ambitious and dynamic centre, so it comes as no surprise to learn that they are expanding and upgrading. Massively. “We are undergoing extensive renovation work and will be open to the public from March 2023,” says Barber. “We have been working from a local hall whilst the work has been carried out. Our organisation is diverse and the offer was too large for such a small centre so we are adding a three-storey extension that will double the space we have. It will be transformational, both for the community and for the visitor experience.”
Sanquar Knitting - A Historical Phenomenon
And we’ve not even mentioned Sanquhar Knitting yet. “Our unique selling point is the Sanquhar Knitting, which is produced by us and sold in the shop, “ explains Barber. “There are tours that offer a 'Visitors Experience' to see the knitting and have a demonstration. We are dedicated to conserving the tradition, the special historic phenomenon of Sanquhar Knitting. Local people knit the products and are paid for them. On tour days, additional staff are brought in. We are also part of a knitting tour of Scotland people where people come here for a half day. Anyone in fact can come for an independent experience and we have created a website for Sanquhar knits.”
I delve into Sanquhar Knitting and it really is impressive. It started as a small cottage industry, which grew so renowned it was on the curriculum at local schools until the 1960s. It’s quite an art, with quality not quantity guiding it today. It takes for example around thirty hours to knit one pair of – individually initialised - gloves. The jumpers they also take commissions for are popular too, as they strive to keep the local knitting culture alive.
Looking to the future Barber is positive: “ In the medium to long term we aim to keep what we are doing interesting and engaging. We will keep doing what works and look to tweak other aspects, reacting to what the community and other visitors tell us. There is a strong local demand for us to stay open seven days a week, so that is something we are looking at. After all, we rely as much on the community as much as they rely on us.”