Balnakeil Craft Village

Balnakeil Craft Village lies about one mile west of Durness, within sight of Balnakeil Bay with its historic house and church. This collection of unusual buildings was built in the mid 1950's as an M.O.D. early warning station in the event of nuclear attack. However, it was never commissioned, and in 1964, the camp born of Cold War fear in the 50's, began its rebirth as a 60's cradle of creativity.

Originally, the county council acquired the buildings with the intention of establishing small scale industrial units. However, not enough interest was shown in this, and an imaginative development officer of Sutherland District Council suggested its conversion to a Craft Village.

Advertisements were placed in national newspapers offering the buildings for minimal rent to those who had skills and viable business plans. The Far North Project, as it was known, attracted applicants from all over Britain, and eventually the first pioneer residents made their way north to embark on a new experiment in living.

The buildings were empty concrete shells with no plumbing or electricity. Some had no glazing and were barely habitable. The conversion of the bleak and deserted barracks into homes and workshops was daunting. During the early years there was also help from the International Voluntary Service who erected electricity poles and ran power cables. The county councillor, Mr. Christie Campbell, offered a great deal of support to the early settlers. These first inhabitants not only had to make comfortable homes for their families, but also seek out sources of supply, organise reliable deliveries and produce work with no guarantee of an immediate income.

A coffee shop, pottery and the first commercial transport to Cape Wrath were instigated by founder members, Paul and Yvette Brown. Over the next few years, many new residents arrived, bringing with them children who greatly boosted the school roll in Durness Primary School. It was not until around 1970 that any kind of association was formed. Meetings were held to discuss such things as advertising and the improvement of the common ground. 

 

Eventually, tenants began pressing the County Council for a chance to buy their buildings, and in 1980 Highland Regional Council offered to sell the properties to the sitting tenants, and the residents took up the offer to buy. There were at that time sixteen independently owned businesses. This made Balnakeil Craft Village not only the first establishment of its kind in Britain, but also the only one to be owned by its residents, and this situation continues to the present day. In the early eighties, Balnakeil Craft Village Community Co Operative was formed. This was a social development project to provide facilities and services to residents and visitors. The co-operative ran a visitor centre with exhibition and coffee shop and a regular commercial bus service to Ullapool and Tongue. The community cooperative was an ambitious project, and although it ran successfully for several years, was eventually wound up in late 1986.

The Craft Village today is a thriving place.  Although the population is smaller and the demographic has changed, with no school age children at present, the Village is home to around twenty six permanent and several more seasonal residents. The opportunities which brought those early settlers to Balnakeil in the 1960s and seventies, still exist. The Village offers a unique way of life to people with initiative and imagination. 

 

At first sight, Balnakeil Craft Village can seem a forbidding place.  The ex-military buildings do not lend themselves easily to being prettified and require constant maintenance. However, a closer look rewards the visitor with many quirky details including decorative tiles around doorways and set into pavements, and sculptural pieces by ceramicist Lotte Glob and woodworker Alan Herman, both early residents.

The many trees which were planted in the early days, have now reached maturity, and soften the harsh lines of the ex-military buildings.  There are also flourishing gardens with vegetables and fruit trees.

 

The Residents – 2014.

The Craft Village buildings, once cold draughty barracks, are being continually upgraded by their owners, with double glazing and central heating now the norm. Occasionally, buildings become available for sale, bringing new residents with different skills and interests into the community.

The Village has no particular guiding ethos or principle, but people with imagination and energy are always welcome.

Currently, there is a diverse range of residents. Businesses include two studio galleries selling paintings and prints, a ceramic and textile artist, a mosaic artist, a boat builder, an enamel artist, a woodwind instrument repairer and wood turner, a stained glass artist, a mixed media artist, and a leather worker. Some operate premises open to the public, others work by commission and to order. Some are seasonal, some open all year round. There are self-catering holiday lets, a bookshop/gallery and restaurant, an artisan bakery and an award winning chocolatier with coffee shop. A masseur and hairdresser is our newest resident.

The operator of the Cape Wrath ferry lives with his family in the village, and a copy editor and a software designer are able to work remotely from here. There are also retired members of our community, the oldest of whom is over ninety. From the earliest days, the population of the village has tended to be multinational, and this is still the case.  Whilst the majority of residents are Scottish and English, there are individuals from Germany, Austria, South Africa and Belgium. There is no organising group or committee. Those operating businesses do so independently of each other, although there is some joint advertising. Much of the Craft Village land is held in common by the residents, and group decisions are made about its upkeep and management.