Bute Community Forest

by Robin McKelvie

Bute is an island that has always held a special place in my heart – we used to go over most school holidays to paint my late dad’s wee yacht out at Ardmaleish. Bute is an island itself with a real heart too, as the Bute Community Forest gloriously demonstrates. Scotland’s largest community forest buy-out has just this year added a pioneering, seriously sustainable string to its bow in the shape of its new brace of forest ‘charcoal huts’, which let everyone share this deeply special island, whether island residents or ‘temporary locals’.

The Bute Community Forest was created in 2009 when a whopping 93% of the 2,739 islanders who turned out voted in favour of purchasing 1607 hectares of forest at the north end of the island. They created both a record for the largest community vote and the largest community forest buy-out in Scotland. Shelley Gould, Project Officer at Bute Community Forest, explains their prime focus: “The goal is to manage the Community Forest in a responsible and environmentally sensitive way, to increase environmental education and to enable greater access to the Forest by residents and visitors.”

They’ve picked quite a location for their work. The main site at Moss Wood lies just north of Ardmaleish, overlooking the fabled Kyles of Bute, a part of the world so cinematic that film director Lord Attenborough once bought a house and land here. It’s a world of soaring hills and tumbling glens, swept by forest that tumbles down to the shores of the Firth of Clyde. They also own more land around Balnakailly, which they are currently working on opening up more. This is close to my heart too. Balnakailly and neighbouring Glen More once had thriving communities. I’ve explored both extensively on foot and the ramble of ruined cottages and ghostly imprints of man remind me of Scotland’s cleared lands further north.

It is all the more encouraging then to see new life emerge in this sparsely populated corner of Bute. The more I learn about the Bute Community Forest, the more I realise how much it is intertwined with the island and its community. “Our charity offers extensive community engagement work, from forest schools sessions across nursery, primary and secondary level pupils, including the John Muir Trust and DOE awards”, says Gould.

“We also host Branching Out and Moving On, through our local NHS-led mental health outreach programmes. We hold a range of educational events too, aimed at increasing engaging with nature and increasing community participation in the maintenance of the forest, such as rhododendron and ditch clearing sessions. Community drives everything that we do – come along to our events like Fungi Foray and Wildflower Wonder and you can feel the community coming together.”

Gould continues, “At present, we have 1.6 full-time local employees who plan and lead these activities. By increasing our income-generating activities, such as our eco-tourism offer/paid events, we are able to sustain staffing and maintain a high level of community engagement in addition to the ongoing woodland management and nature conservation, which preserves the value of the woodland asset for future generations.”

The Bute Community Forest’s newest creation is an ambitious eco-tourism venture, the ‘charcoal huts', which have been funded by HIE under their Provision of Community and Tourism infrastructure funding stream. They were completed in 2022 and after rigorous testing and local use, they are opening up to everyone to book from spring 2023. They are intended to generate income and contribute towards the financial self-sufficiency of the woodland.” Gould is clearly proud: “Our eco-huts have been constructed with minimal impact on the surrounding woodland and with the aim behind them to reinvest any profits made into community engagement and nature conservation activities. We have been surprised at the local response to our new eco-tourism venture before we even started taking bookings. We held a launch open day for the local community and had over 100 visitors and lots of enquiries.”

The ‘charcoal huts' have been designed to reflect the history of the community forest, which was once used extensively for charcoal making. Rather than have timber shipped in they have been made on-site using local timber to minimise the impact on the local eco-system. The huts provide an opportunity to immerse yourself in the natural landscape and really connect with nature, with the option to book a guided forest walk with a ranger - their ranger is also an ecologist so you are really getting an expert view and insight. Gould is positive about the huts – “We hope to attract local people and tourists and as a social enterprise all monies will be reinvested in our replanting and community engagement activities.”

Gould and the Bute Community Forest are firm believers in the restorative power of nature and woodland to all generations. “There is no better education than staying overnight in woodland. I’ve spent the night here with the local residents. They are otters, deer and weasels. Woodland birds too, like blue tits, wrens, ravens, and on to herons.”  What really impresses me is this is the real eco deal, not just a greenwashing project. The huts are properly low impact, connected by ground screws so that they can be whisked away and you’d never know they’d been there. And tying in with the central tenets of SCOTO all money from the ‘charcoal huts’ goes back into the forest, benefiting the community as part of a truly circular economy.

The Bute Community Forest really embraces the ‘temporary locals’ idea of SCOTO. Gould extends a warm welcome – “We welcome people to come and really experience somewhere as a local, with a local ranger. Otherwise, you miss all the gems. You can travel through our natural wonderland with someone who really knows the forest inside out, sharing the best places. With rich experiences like this visitors are more likely to return to the island.” They are clearly on to something as I learn that other community forests and groups have been in touch to find out more about the eco-huts, which delights Gould. “It’s great that we are benefiting our own community,” she smiles, “while also going on to benefit other communities around Scotland.”

Bute Community Forest’s ambitions don’t end with the eco-huts. “We are looking to buy more land to build a welcome hub in Moss Wood”, explains Gould. “We are also looking at replanting indigenous species and helping to help preserve and restore patches of Scotland’s rare Atlantic rainforest.” We talk too about their new ‘forest bathing’ experience, of research projects into Balnakailly and links with both the community-owned Anchor Tavern in Port Bannatyne and the brand new Bute Yard development in Rothesay. If you go down to the Bute woods today, you’re in for a big surprise, at not only Scotland’s largest community forest buy-out but one of the country’s most ambitious too. 

You can find more information and book your stay at Bute Forest’s ‘Charcoal Huts’ here >


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