Our Land: It’s time to buy back our High Street


As part of a series of pieces on CommonSpace during the Our Land Festival, Katharine Wheeler and Matt Baker of The Stove Network in Dumfries explain how the community is trying to take control

DUMFRIES is a market town that has lost its market, and so faces similar challenges to a coal town that has lost its pit – challenges made all the harder by the fact that most properties on our High Street are owned by absentee landlords who can afford to leave them empty. 

For them, they are assets on a balance sheet waiting to increase in value; for us, they are lives being counted away in 'what ifs'. As I write this from The Stove’s office window in the High Street of Dumfries, I look out onto the numerous charity shops flanked by a few plastic chain stores and empty shop fronts (five-in-a-row currently opposite) that now make up most of our town centre. 

I am on the curatorial team at The Stove Network, a community-led organisation that runs a fully accessible public arts space/facility with the aim of breathing life back into our town by providing meaningful opportunities and embedding culture and creativity into the regeneration agenda in Dumfries.

Activity during Our Norwegian Story

We run a programme of regular events, workshops and opportunities that are hands-on and inclusive; a platform to share skills and knowledge and give people a stake in the future of the place they live and work in.

Often our events and activities enthuse me, and our level of engagement is evident through the variety of faces I see. Our progress of influence is reflected in the partnerships we have forged with local government, cultural partners and individuals, and the importance of our efforts is obvious through the ripples we create. 

But at other times I feel the weight of challenge heavy in every step we take: the refusal of permission to use a building that stands empty on our streets by its London owner despite being a significant part of Dumfries’ cultural story; rates that push our small businesses away; empty spaces above our shops while our students live a very long walk away from where they could be bringing life back into our town. 

What is constant, however, is the importance of the creative process, the desire to re-imagine our future and provide people with means and inspiration. And we have a lot to look forward to. A few such projects that have taken on a life of their own in recent months include:

Cultural Wayfinding – Our Norwegian Story: A year-long project in collaboration with Lateral North explores Dumfries' unique connection to Norway (the Norwegian Free Army was based in Dumfries during World War II, making the towns population approximately 20 per cent Norwegian during that period) and the contemporary interest in Nordic culture in Scotland today. 

A bit of chalk and attitude are proving enough to lay down a challenge to those who are holding our town to ransom. 

Our Norwegian Story looks to re-imagine our town’s identity and provide clearer navigation around our town centre. It brings another layer of richness and cultural ownership to the town centre and forges new links with other cultures for local people to use. 

During our recent Recipe Swap and Norwegian Market we have been eating waffles and trying cod roe and kransekake (not together!) with beaming smiles at shared food and memories. 

August brings our 'Rematch' event which will reclaim the streets of Dumfries through public football activities. 'Rematch' connects with the story of local football club Greystone Rovers who have played regular matches in Norway since they were the only team not to lose to the Norwegian Free Army team during World War II and a rematch affectionately demanded. 

The town square will be filled with public football activity during this two-day event and an interactive exhibition at The Stove to engage people in the larger project and rethink the town centre. 

Future Dumfries: In March 2016 #SquareGo challenged townspeople to make a giant pavement drawing of a 'Future Dumfries' – a drawing that filled the town square. 

Future Dumfries at the town square

Over the two days of #SquareGo a strong theme emerged around re-inhabiting the spaces above the shops on the High Street (the town centre population moved out in the 1960s to new housing on the outskirts of Dumfries and has never returned). 

A meeting of interested folk was convened by local resident John Dowson for a film screening at The Stove – after which a plan was hatched to explore a community share issue to 'buy back our High Street' and develop the properties with rentable accommodation on the upper storeys. 

This project is being carried forward by a partnership of The Stove, Third Sector D+G, and Loreburn Community Council; we are first staging an architectural competition for a 'town block' on the High Street to inspire local people and agencies with a vision of a contemporary live/work town centre and also working with University of West of Scotland on a specific proposal for business incubation units with student housing above.

A bit of chalk and attitude are proving enough to lay down a challenge to those who are holding our town to ransom. 

Next, we need the backing of our local and national representatives to get hold of the keys.

Pictures courtesy of The Stove Network

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