By Simon Ross-Gill
Over the last three years it has been a privilege to work with hundreds of people who share a common purpose: to grow more food on the Isle of Arran. Since March 2020, there has been an overwhelming response from the communities and villages of Arran to set up five new community gardens and plant food at ten different sites around the island.
It is of course no coincidence that the Arran Pioneer Project began in March 2020: the global pandemic and lockdown led people across the UK to reappraise our fragile food supply chains. On an island like Arran that was particularly acute as those chains are all the more fragile. Very quickly, those of us who had already been working to grow more food on the island, found that many more people were sympathetic to the cause. The Arran Pioneer Project CIC was formed to empower people in our island communities to grow food on disused land.
In a short space of time, hundreds of local people have shown that it can be done, no matter the obstacles. Fences have been built to protect from deer and rabbits, and to keep pigs in so that they can help to tear up bracken. Polytunnels built and protected from the wind. Raised beds created and pallets repurposed for compost heaps. Seaweed gathered, horse dung collected and chicken coops swept. WhatsApp groups started, volunteer days and watering rotas and market days and honesty boxes planned. Bracken and brambles thwarted. Seeds sown and nurtured and harvested. Dozens of fruit trees and soft fruit planted for future years.
Here is a description of the 6 community gardens that we are curently working on:
Cordon Community Garden- We have worked with local volunteers in Cordon, Lamlash since summer 2020 to bring an old tattle field back into use as a community garden. Local volunteers have built a rabbit fence to keep the rabbit population of Cordon at bay, and we’ve also helped to put up a small polytunnel which was donated to the project. Volunteers have worked to establish healthy vegetable on a space that was previously overgrown with brambles, and they have overseen a very productive first season in 2021. The field has also been resident to nine chickens in total, who have helped to keep pests at bay while adding fertility to the soil.
Cladach Community Garden- We are delighted to be working with the Cladach Community Garden near Brodick. Over the last decade local volunteers have been using this space to grow vegetables and we have helped to continue activities here, attract new volunteers and improve the space. We have helped to purchase seeds and plant new fruit trees as well as supplying peat free compost.
Corrie Community Garden- we are helping to establish a community garden at the old donkey field in Corrie. As well as working with local landowner Charles Fforde to make this site available for food production, we have helped to acquire a polytunnel frame and deer fencing for this site. The site is connected to a larger plan to bring hutting to Arran through our associated project Arran Huts.
Glen Estate Garden- Since summer 2021 we have been working with Trust Housing association to improve the growing space at the Glen Estate sheltered housing. The estate already had access to a glass greenhouse and we have helped to improve this space. In 2022 we planted six fruit trees in the garden.
Pirnmill Community Farm- Three little pigs have been tearing up a storm in the north west, and the community at Pirnmill are doing an amazing job of looking after them. We originally recommended pigs as a natural way of tearing up the bracken from the roots on this site - which was made available to the community by Jamie Gibbs of Dougarie Estate - in order to clear space for growing food. Thanks to funding from Arran Trust were able to install fencing to keep the pigs in and the deer out. Now the volunteers are making plans about what to do with the space in the future, and transforming this unused land into a community growing space. We’re very excited to see how the site develops and delighted to have been able to help make this happen.
Kilpatrick- Local farmers Ailsa and Donald Currie approached us in winter 2020 with a view to turning a small corner of Bellevue Farm into a community garden. Given that this site is away from the centre of Blackwaterfoot village, we decided the space would be best suited to a perennial design to compliment the woodland aspect of the site and require less maintenance by volunteers. We helped to plant fruit trees and bushes and put up a garden shed which was donated to the site. Volunteers also grew tatties over the 2021 season.
Our organisation has helped these things to happen, but we did not instigate them. We have built on a strong tradition of self sufficiency of the people living on our island, those pioneers who have had their own productive gardens for decades and the generations before them.
They too have played a crucial role, as advisors with wisdom on everything from what type of apple tree will succeed on Arran or to how to make the best compost from bracken. Many other Arran residents have supported our work by donating towards the gardens and eating the produce, donating sheds and sheeps wool, garden sundries, seedlings and lots of cardboard.
The landowners have shown the willingness to make it happen, whether it be either one of the two estates on the island, local farmers, the National Trust for Scotland, the Arran Medical Group, or the lady who lives in the cottage down the road who owns the old tattle field, all have shown that with collaboration and consensus, communication and dialogue, we can make more space available to grow food for our communities if there is the will to do it.
Empty supermarket shelves are no longer a vision of the future, and whether they are empty because of pandemics or ferries or political circumstance, we all know that it doesn’t have to be this way. We know that we can have Arran grown strawberries and tatties and tomatoes and kale and cabbages, and that we don’t need to ship this produce in from overseas when it tastes nowhere near as good as when it is grown locally. We can have blueberries and carrots and pumpkins and onions and garlic and leeks and carrots and asparagus and peas and beans and rainbow chard. We know it because we are demonstrating not only that it can be done, but that it will be done.
Perhaps there is still a long way to go before Arran will be self sufficient in food production, but perhaps not. If the ferry doesn’t sail tomorrow, we might not be so far away as we think. The people of Arran have grown their own food before, and they will do so again.