As a travel writer, I encounter many community groups and resources around the world, but seldom do I come across a set-up that delivers as well for both the breadth of a diverse community and for those ‘temporary locals’, the visitors whose relationships with our local communities burn at the heart of SCOTO (Scottish Community Tourism Network). Welcome to Gairloch and Loch Ewe Action Forum (GALE), and their glorious GALE Centre.
GALE is a community owned and managed Development Trust forged in the glorious landscapes and seascapes of mid-Wester Ross. This impressive organisation has its origins back in the formation of LEAF (Loch Ewe Action Forum), which focused on Loch Ewe. The emphasis was on the community from day one for both groups, as GALE Managing Director Janet Miles explains, “I was involved in LEAF in my 20s before it morphed into GALE, and community has always been at our heart. When the local school was threatened with closure, and the garage was lost, the community was suffering, but we came together to do something about it.”
Craig Law, GALE Communications & Engagement Coordinator, explains the ethos behind the Trust, “The purpose is to socially, environmentally and economically regenerate the area through participatory community action and community-owned social enterprise. We have developed a strong track record of successfully running community projects that bring social, economic and environmental benefits to the residents of our local area and also benefit visitors too.”
Law is a man who has always loved Gairloch: “My wife and I holidayed here for over 20 years. It was the one place in the world I found this sinking feeling when it came time to leave, making it harder and harder every year. So I stayed and threw myself into the community, as did my wife, who also works with GALE. There is a real emphasis on developing people, so in my 50s, I found myself doing a modern apprenticeship, a diploma in digital marketing, that I would never have done without GALE. We help people of all ages.”
The focus today is very much on the GALE Centre, which opened in 2011. This independent visitor information centre, café, gift shop and community hub grew out of the ashes of the old tourist information centre, which the community took over. They have created a deeply impressive oasis that is no mere tourist information centre, as you can buy local handicrafts and artwork here from 50 local talents and tuck into cakes from over 20 bakers in the local community.
Live, Work and Thrive
The GALE Centre joins so many dots between tourism and community and has been a roaring success. Between May 2022 and March 2023, they welcomed almost 24,000 visitors to a community of just 1,000 people, providing them with free information and advice to help them get the most out of their holiday, working with over 100 local businesses in the Gairloch and Loch Ewe area, promoting their holiday accommodation, eateries and activities.
This dynamic operating model, as Miles says, is based on, “maximising the benefits of tourism for our community by involving as many local people as possible in servicing the needs of visitors and spreading visitor spend around as many local individuals and businesses as possible. Nowadays, this is called ‘Community Wealth Building’. We generate income for the local economy towards our aim of everyone having the opportunity to live, work and thrive.”
GALE don’t just talk the talk. They walk the walk in the shape of 25 paid employees, making them a substantial local employer, with a web of volunteers swirling around that, too, not to mention those local bakers, plus the arts and craftspeople.
A Model for Others
The GALE Centre itself is a model for others. It was Scotland’s first public building to achieve Passivhaus accreditation, built using untreated native Scottish Larch and Douglas Fir with low carbon, low energy operation. It doesn’t end there with a swathe of creative solutions, as Miles explains, “Our café serves local produce, some grown behind us and waste is composted here including vegetable peelings from the kitchen and cardboard and paper from our offices. Coffee grounds from the café mulch the vegetable beds, keeping slugs at bay without chemical killers. We raise awareness of other issues of local concern, such as safe disposal of campervan waste, responsible barbequing and the dangers of wildfires. Issues around wild toileting, too, as we provide public toilet facilities in Poolewe, Aultbea and Gairloch.”
The list of the wonders that they work on. “Any surpluses we generate from our trading activity are reinvested directly into supporting our community,” says Law. “In 2022 we delivered a befriending project in partnership with Highland Hospice and a counselling service for local people struggling with their mental health and wellbeing.”
Pass it On
GALE has also risen to recent challenges with the cost of living crisis. In the winter of 2022/23 they set up a ‘warm bank’ and ‘pay what you can café’ for local people struggling with energy and food bills. In peak season, visitors and locals alike can ‘pay forward’ with the money used to help those in need in winter in a brilliant project that would surely benefit many other communities across Scotland.
Some community projects exist in splendid isolation, their achievements not touching on other communities. A key SCOTO aim is to share knowledge between communities. GALE excels again here, as Miles explains, “We are currently supporting a UHI research project entitled Exploring a Regenerative Tourism Approach to Rural Community Development in Scotland and Ireland. Over 5% of our community has received some form of financial benefit as a result of our work since May 2022, and we have put over £350,000 into our local economy, purchasing local supplies and services and creating local employment. We want to share our experiences and lessons to help other communities.”
There are real lessons here, as GALE really embraces the ‘temporary locals’ concept. “That is exactly what we encourage,” says Law. “We want to add to the visitor experience, giving them a genuine and warm local welcome while also engaging more local residents in the tourism industry. Visitors want to interact with local people, and they want to buy local and eat local. We provide the informal forum for that, and the rest follows. 70% of our online feedback mentions our staff, and they are key. Here, they welcome you 364 days a year; we are not closed for winter like many places. We provide a year-round resource, and the community and visitors embrace that.”
Miles thinks GALE helps the community see positives in tourism, too, essential here on the NC500: “Tourism is a resource that supports our community and many jobs and businesses. We try to help to change any negative perspectives. Tourism makes the things we do work with economies of scale that wouldn’t work otherwise, and people see that. We stay open with consistent opening hours and a warm fire, leading by example with a year-round opportunity to meet and talk to people, which is great for boosting the confidence of younger members of our community.”
Looking forward, there is a new Community Action Plan for the Gairloch and Loch Ewe area following an 18-month period of intense community consultation, with feedback from over 20% of local residents. They are also working closely with the Wester Ross Biosphere, and the local Dark Skies Festival is returning, too.
The really big project is the GALE Centre II in the building next door. Subject to funding and planning, their second building should open next year, even if it is just as a pilot year to test which of the ideas the community suggest works in practice. Miles says, “We’ve looked at what The Old Forge has done in Knoydart, and that is a real example to us all.” Whether it houses an evening restaurant, a bakery or a young person’s space – knowing these guys, it could be all three – regenerative, circular tourism will be at its heart.
As Miles concludes, “When we are doing things for tourism, we are doing it for the community. It all has to be mutually beneficial, or our cherished temporary locals won’t come back.”