Conjure up an image of a 'remote' community in Scotland and the chances are your mind will instantly wander to the Highlands or the islands, not straight away to the furthermost reaches of South Ayrshire. You may make some presumptions too about the missing comforts and privations of life there. You would be wrong about more than a few of them, as the village of Colmonell buzzes along at the heart of the pastoral Stinchar Valley, a community-driven oasis with the Colmonell Community Association SCIO at its helm.
In the Heart of Things
This village lies 11 miles south of Girvan and just a few miles in from the coastal village of Ballantrae; just before the border with Dumfries and Galloway. They have much of what you really need here, with a school, fire station, church, a popular pub and an active village hall. The charm of the village is backed up by a trio of castle ruins – 13th-century Craigneil Castle, plus Kirkhill Castle and Knockdolian Castle, which both date back to the 16th century.
Jim Bisset, a volunteer with the CCA, appreciates the setting of a village he is clearly delighted to call home: "There are swathes of rolling countryside. Around here, it hits the sweet spot between the drama of the Highlands and the gentler Lowlands, with a mix of both. The landscapes are attractive but not necessarily as dangerous. We are lucky to live in an attractive rural location, you could say remote, but to us, we live in the heart of things."
The Colmonell Community Association SCIO was inaugurated in 2018 as an umbrella organisation to help this remote rural river valley community of around 225 inhabitants. It was built on solid foundations as, despite the small population, there are over a dozen active local groups, everything from outdoor green bowling and craft groups through to youth groups. The CCA was a way of bringing their varied strands together and using the new charitable status to secure funding support from the SCDC (Scottish Community Development Company). Impressively the CCA is made up of volunteers from many backgrounds and – reassuringly – various age groups drawn from what is an increasing population.
Rich Web of Local Groups
One of the CCA trustees, Howard Wilkinson, explains: "We built on the rich web of local groups, trying to pull things together, focusing on developments relating to our accreditation within the UNESCO trail and the Galloway and Southern Ayrshire Biosphere. We're working on a 2020-2025 action plan building on the successes of an early 2015-18 village action plan. We have also worked on inclusive initiatives with the UNESCO Biosphere, leading to formal recognition as a vibrant proactive community; which led to our involvement in the community lottery funded SEA Visioning project. And then being invited to join SCOTO. The latter aligns a lot with our community-minded focus."One of the CCA'S key aims is to encourage and develop sustainable experiences within the Stinchar Valley and surrounding hill walking. Projects like the ancient - but newly mapped - Whithorn Way walking and cycle route, which burrows through here, with the routes supported with QR codes.
Award Winning Toilets
Another shining success story has been the award-winning community toilets, which are featured on the COIG tourist route. The council put them up for sale at £500 after they had been closed for a number of years. The CCA impressively managed to negotiate a sizeable discount. Of £499! The community asset transfer from South Ayrshire Council of the community toilets for £1 was a triumph with an unexpected bonus. After 4 more successful grant applications, over £9000 has been spent to date. Over £7,000 has been spent on upgrading, maintaining and cleaning them using hyper-local self-employed cleaners, who do a great job. But in a brilliant spin off the council now pays the CCA an annual payment to help maintain their full mobility status.
"The toilet project was a huge success using local craftspeople, tradespeople and residents, thereby creating a circular economy effect," says Wilkinson. "But, as importantly, it has acted as a catalyst and confidence builder to take on more adventurous community wellbeing projects, including the planning of a quartet of seasonal mini-festivals in 2023. Spring focuses on crafts, produce, storytelling and music, with musicians and artists from here and as far afield as Madrid; summer features the existing 'Fun Week' festivities; Autumn Halloween-based fun and then in December, the festival features our festive lights being switched on."
Myths & Legends
Not ones to rest on their hard-won laurels, the CCA's work goes on. Early in 2023, a new Mermaid structure was put in place to celebrate the Knockdolian Myth. The story goes the mermaid used to sit on a black rock and sing at night. After her singing woke a child in the house, the incumbents had the rock smashed. The mermaid retaliated by placing a curse on the whole family, ensuring tragedy for generations. In this magical part of the world, it's easy to believe in myths and legends.
A Beehive Community
Voluntary Action South Ayrshire supported 'Cosy Spaces' in the village hall in winter. This sees the hall become a haven with a cosy free meal and the chance for people to get warm and get together. Around 10 volunteers to date and 40 participants have been involved in what has proved a very valuable community resource in these troubled times. Then there are Biosphere initiatives to create beehives, flower planting and a campaign to #FindyourownBalance in Colmonell and gain a real sense of PLACE, influenced by the resilient and resourceful residents, many of whom are multi-generational families and/or the self-employed.
The most pressing current challenge is saving the village church after the Church of Scotland deemed it surplus to requirements, with too small a congregation to be sustainable. It is an absolute charmer of a building, in its current form, a 200-year-old wonder - remodelled internally in 1899 by Robert Lorimer - that features nationally recognised stained glass windows.
With the CAA doing such sterling work to date, I've faith in the future of Colmonell. This fully volunteer-led, dynamic organisation – which reflects the character of the residents of this remote rural micro-community - has already shown what can be achieved when they put their collective will and minds together. And everyone I talked to stressed that 'temporary locals" seeking to experience the joy of a 'remote' community are more than welcome to visit. What are you waiting for?
Colmonell's Community Toilet and other community-run toilets across Scotland can now be found on the new SCOTO Loo Geo Tourist Trail. Download the app here.
SCOTO (Scottish Community Tourism Network) is one of over 20 partners across Scotland that are part of an innovative project between Geotourist and the University of Dundee. The project seeks to identify and assess Geotourist's unique economic and social benefits to Scottish tourism.
As part of the project, the SCOTO Network created a Community Toilet Trail across Scotland. Geotourist is very supportive of the trail as they fully recognise the importance of toilets as a fundamental part of any visitor experience and are very interested in what is happening in Scotland with more and more communities taking these services on.