Bridge of Allan

by Robin McKelvie

Bridge of Allan is a place I love, an oasis on Stirling's doorstep beneath the vaulting National Wallace Monument that has a unique character all if its own. It is awash with history and literary stories – from Burns to Stevenson – and it’s reassuringly alive with great coffee shops, pubs and the sort of independent shops we all want in our hometowns. But Bridge of Allan is also somewhere I pass through or visit on a half day trip. Go-getting community-driven Discover Bridge of Allan are out to put this glorious town on more people’s radars and to encourage us all to be ‘temporary locals’ who linger on to savour its charms for longer.

Sarah Cameron, a Discover Bridge of Allan board member, lives in the town, and displays the sort of infectious positivity about Bridge of Allan that I feel from everyone I talk to: “We’ve a very mixed board of all ages and we welcome everyone in to the town no matter how long you want to stay, but why stay a night or a weekend, when you can enjoy a week or even a fortnight? We’ve got it all here – all the urbane charms of the city alongside easy access to swathes of glorious countryside. Bridge of Allan really offers the best of both worlds.”

My own first experience of Bridge of Allan was a glorious one. I hiked south from Dunblane seeking out the hideaway that inspired Ben Gunn’s Cave in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island – the writer spent many a happy childhood holiday having adventures around Bridge of Allan – and the scenery that also fired the romantic heart of Burns. I found more than great literature; I found my own inspiration walking under big skies, by gushing waters and through thick woodland, as I made my way to the town. Bridge of Allan emerged, a real life oasis ready to furnish me with a scone and cuppa at one place, a pint at the next. I filled my rucksack with foodie goodies to take home too in its seriously well-stocked shops.

Since then I’ve delved deeper and discovered more. We’re talking a remarkable historic spa town alive with independent artisanal businesses and art galleries, plus cultural and historic attractions. There are riverside walks, woodland trails and parks, including a wheelchair-accessible play park and a free to use tennis court that doubles up for basketball too. You can savour sweeping views from the golf course, bash along the challenging mountain bike trails and check out local sports clubs, which have great facilities. Facilities so good in fact that the Murray brothers have practiced here.

Bridge of Allan is also a thriving foodie hub where you don’t often find vacant business premises. Food and drink businesses are booming and one Discover Bridge of Allan board member even boasts their own microbrewery, which you can visit for a richer experience beyond the bottom of the glass.

The sense of history is strong too. You can trace out plaques around town to learn more – one tells of the night The Beatles came to play Museum Hall. I’ve learned too of Polish soldiers here during World War Two and of Jacobites in the nearby woods. Modern day Jacobites too as scenes from time travelling historical TV romance Outlander have been filmed around the town and also at nearby Stirling University, one of Discover Bridge of Allan’s partners. And did you know that the Hollywood epic Braveheart had its premiere at the university too?

Cameron points out that Bridge of Allan is also “Great for dog walking with lovely places all around here to head with your pooch. And it’s a great, safe town for families, who are also very welcome.” I can testify to the latter as I’ve brought my own girls to Bridge of Allan and they loved a wee ramble, before afternoon tea and an assault on the local shops.
Discover Bridge of Allan was set-up as a community development trust to tell the world about all of this and more, by a group of local residents and business owners determined to aid the whole community by developing and promoting community-led tourism. Cameron adds, “We’re about so much more than making Bridge of Allan one of Scotland’s leading destinations. We want to encourage development that works for the community in a sustainable, accessible and environmentally friendly way too. We want the town to be a dynamic and sustainable place to live, work, study and invest.”

Although Discover Bridge of Allan was only set up in May 2022 they have seriously hit the community ground running, quickly building a strong brand and digital presence. They have reached out to work with local businesses and organisations, and have begun to attract members.
One of the most successful projects to date wraps around the local Highland Games at Strathallan Games Park. Also known as the Strathallan Meeting it is an event that is reputed to be one of the oldest in Scotland. Cameron says: “In August we attended Bridge of Allan Highland Games to connect with visitors and locals alike. We enjoyed a hugely successful day with a free prize raffle draw that included some incredible prizes from local businesses. We gained over 90 new members in a single day. The interest in the town and around was been phenomenal, further demonstrating a need for a community anchor organisation of this kind.”

The Highland Games also made inroads far beyond Stirlingshire, as fellow board member Scott Abercrombie explains: “We had a big board at the Highland Games with a map on it, so you could mark where you were from. We were pleasantly surprised to find pins not just from Scotland and other parts of the UK, but on to continental Europe and even further to North America and Japan. Tim Peake came too, so I guess you could say it was an astronomical success!”

Abercrombie has been watching as that spirit of success and positivity has continued to ripple through the town and community. “Most locals call Bridge of Allan simply ‘The Village’, such is the community vibe. Here the independent retailers don’t have giant superstores, you don’t really find brands, and restaurants employ local young people, increasingly bringing all the community together.” He tells me too of young people who came to work in hospitality from elsewhere and loved the sense of community so much that they have stayed on to live in the town.
Abercrombie talks as well of “a fantastic past and a fantastic future.” The latter will see Discover Bridge of Allan support community regeneration, increase inclusivity and enhance environmental sustainability, putting people at the centre of the decision-making processes. They are working with the Community Council on the local plan and continuing to consult with the community, absorbing their creative ideas.

Other projects include possible asset ownership and even more opportunities for the town’s young people. Who wouldn’t want to be a ’temporary local’ in Bridge of Allan?

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