Everyday Changemakers: Dell, Merkinch Community Council

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Dell McCLurg of the Merkinch Community Council reflects on turning life’s challenges into local activism and the creation of the community’s Merkinch Local Nature Reserve.

The story is the final in a 5-part series of weekly interviews with a variety of grassroots organisations involved in climate, biodiversity and social justice action across Inverness.


Interview, recording and sound production: Kaska Hempel


Kaska Hempel (Narration): Hello, it’s Kaska, your Story Weaver. Today, we’re diving into Dell McCLurg’s story from the Merkinch Community Council. She’s the final of the five Everyday Changemakers I met in Inverness last September.

Dell wasn’t on my radar like the others—I actually ran into her by chance after we both attended our Northern Gathering at the Merkinch Community Centre. I was exploring local nature spots and Dell was heading home – both on our bikes. We connected over cycling and had a great chat about the community and their work at the local reserve. I knew I had to feature her on the podcast.

So we made a date to meet up the next day, during Dell’s Sunday afternoon shift at the reserve’s information point in the Old Ferry Ticket Office.

After a rainy ride along the Caledonian Canal from my previous stop at the Holm Community Garden, I arrived soaked. I was quickly greeted by Dell’s warm welcome and a cup of tea. First we explored the space, filled to the rafters with community memories. Dell shared inspiring stories about Merkinch’s involvement in Dolphin Watch, the revival of a traditional swim across the firth, Kenny’s local bird rescue operation and more. There was no doubt that she was a true Merkinch tradition bearer!

Kaska: Could you just briefly introduce yourself and the project you’re involved with, the community you live in as well?

Dell: My name is Dell McClurg. I’m the chair of the Merkinch Community Council. We lease this building.

It was an old ticket office for the ferry boat. Uh, we use it as a visitor centre for, everybody. From, visitors to locals, and also, as a resource for the community as well.

And then all the other stuff that we do in the community. Uh, you know, tackling from potholes to guttering.

We’re right on the doorstep of the Merkinch local nature reserve and on the shores of the Moray Firth, Beauly Firth and the Canal and the River Ness all come in here. So you’ve got, quite a, a diverse waters in there, you know, from fresh water that comes down from Loch Ness.

Right down to,the Moray Firth, where, you know, the salty water. And the Beauly comes in, that’s fresh water as well.

Kaska: Do you have a favourite place in, in the reserve or in your community? Could you describe it for people?

Dell: I, I mean, I think probably, this is probably my favourite place, because we meet everybody, you know, and we meet people from all over the world, you meet your next door neighbours, you know, and actually people come out of their way to come down and have a wee chat and a blether and a wee cup of tea.

I am here every Sunday.

Kaska: Obviously you get quite a lot of people coming in.

Dell: Yeah. And they just pop in, sometimes they just come to the door, How are you today?

And so on, you know, and what’s happening, you know, what are you up to?

Kaska: Yeah. It’s nice to be able to sit there and the world comes to you for a chat.

Dell: Yeah, I’d really like to, you know, spend probably more time here than I do at home, to be honest with you.

Kaska: It’s a, it’s a beautiful view from here as well.

Dell: Absolutely. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.

Kaska: Across the water and, and all that. And very sort of calm because…

Dell: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Mm-Hmm.

Kaska: This is the end. It’s the end of the road.

So how did you get involved, in terms of your personal journey into this work with Community Council and this project?

Dell: I was brought up in Beauly, which is 12 miles from here. But I have a lot of connections with here. Because we used to come through at the weekend, because Mum’s family and that was here, and her friends were here. And my early memory is playing out there in the big field where we planted all the trees.

And I think back, um, you know, I remember as a child, because I was little, the field was huge, you know, and I just, you know, I used to think, oh, brilliant, big play park could be here, you know, or whatever, do you know?

I always used to think, even way back then, what you could do with this.

But never thinking for one minute that I would be coming here to live and bring up my kids here. It just didn’t enter in my head. I never even thought that far.

But then I was one of these terribly, terribly, eh, wicked, single parents, you know, having a child at sort of 19, 18, 19 and then, uh, uh, then asking the council if I could get a wee flat or something, you know, and eventually, I did get a flat, but I was absolutely, shocked at eh, what, what they did to me. Um, the house was just in a mess, an absolute mess.

There was no glass, there was no windows. It was boarded up with chipwood. And, eh, the fireplace it was just full of rubbish. The bath, which I was all chuffed about, was full to the top of washing of some sort. And there was green mould right all across the top of. And, uh, there was an old cooker just covered in grease, like somebody had emptied a chip pan over the top of this cooker.

And it was all run down the side and you tried to pull it just slide out of your hands and there were maggots at the back. And I thought, why did they give me this house? You know, is it just because I was a single parent, these horrible single parents that they don’t want to know about?

Anyway, Mum came round and she said, go up to that toon house and go to the sanitary inspector. So that’s what I did. Well, first of all I said to him, my view of life is rather limited at the moment and he goes, oh why’s that, I said it’s because there’s no windows.

And he went, what? They put you in there with no windows? Oh, he says, I’ve got to see this, you know.

And he, the inspector himself, emptied the bath and cleaned the toilets, all the human dirt all over the toilets and that.

You know, and he was absolutely, he says, somebody’s house is going to roll for this. . So I don’t know what happened, but he did as good as his word.

He did it. But I thought, well, why were we treated like this? You know? I mean, I was always working. I was like, you know, contributing.

Well, that’s how I ended up, um, just fighting the, cause I joined everything there was to join.

Dell: I found out what was happening in the community and just joined it, you know. I met this friend, Anne, who’s involved in the community centre as well. Um, we used to go to Mums and Tods in one of the church halls in the town. And Anne had said, Oh, I heard there’s a community council, they’re trying to get people to join.

Do you fancy it? And I said, Right, put my name down. You know? So that was it. So Anne and I have still the community council, like, it’s over 40 years, you know,

Kaska: So were you involved at all in organising all the planting of trees? if you could tell me about the reserve.

How that came about.

Dell: It’s actually quite interesting because it’s all about, as I said, like, being a single parent as well. Looking for things for my kids as well. Do you know what I mean? And Anne was the same. So, we kind of got involved in a lot of things to do with youngsters.

We had the vision of doing something with the field, right? And something with the shore. And actually, if you go out there, you’ll see a bench out there. It was 1978. And that was one of the first things we did, was we put a seat there so people could watch the ferry boat go in and out.

And it’s always well used. But how could you get people interested in planting trees when their houses are falling apart? Right? I mean, I moved from that flat after three years and I got a self contained house. I was in there for eight years.

I had newspaper all along the edge of the windows to keep the rain and the wind out, the wallpaper was held up with drawing pins, you know, that sort of thing, and the heat, and you only had a coal fire in the living room, and your house was freezing, you know.

And we couldn’t afford a lot of hot water bottles. So we used to fill any plastic bottles that we have, we fill hot water, put in the beds the corner of the edge of my bed was all black mildewed, you know, it was that damp, you know.

We couldn’t get anybody to come on board with us because, oh, palm trees. Have you seen the state my house is in? Do you know what I mean? And, eh, a five year project, we worked on getting the houses renovated. Right? So we interviewed people, and we talked about, you know, like if we get the houses done, what would you like to see.

I mean, I was coming home from work and going down the street, you know, with my little pad knocking on the doors. And so we got a lot of information and we took it to the townhouse and we presented it to the townhouse. So then they decided to demolish the whole area.

Didn’t get to demolish it. Because we stopped them. they wanted to send us to the other end of the town. And we didn’t want to leave here. We loved this place

Dell: here. This was, these houses we, uh, got them all renovated. I mean, got radiators in the houses, wow!

Do you know what I mean? And, uh, new kitchens, you know.

Kaska: So now we’ve got our houses, you know, now what? Back to here. Let’s do something with this by that time the ferry boat was going off. In 1982 they opened the bridge, what happened was, all and sundry were dumping rubbish on our shore.

Dell: From washing machines, cookers, black bags of rubbish, we even found a piano in the bushes at one point. We involved everybody and you have no idea the amount of people that came out of the community to help.

It was just amazing. And there was so much stuff that we gathered that we had a skip and we couldn’t get any more in the skip, so then we had to get the lorries, we even had the local Bobby helping us, you know, our community police officer, he drove one of the lorries. Just to get the stuff out of the road, you know.

So we took it all away and got it dumped. And then we stood back and said, right, what do we do with it now? You know. So then we got on and, various people said, well, what about this and what about that? And we said, right, We got on to the Forestry Commission and, uh, Scottish Wildlife Trust, people like that came on board, and it was great, and everybody helped, they all got back down, I mean, because I wouldn’t know where to start, you know, we spent the whole weekend here planting trees. Well, the whole week in fact.

And then there was a big surge on at the weekend to get everybody out of their houses. people that weren’t working and that. We spent all Saturday and all Sunday here. Um, got the, all the trees and that done. So that was quite good. But also we worked for the Beechgrove Garden, which is a BBC garden programme.

In that program they had what they called a community corner and they went out into the communities and maybe looked at people’s different projects and they decided ours one was one to go for so they came here the last Friday of the month over three months and we planted 125 trees with them. And they had, it was like a shed, but it was on Wheels.

They had the shed, like a tool shade sort of thing and all this, the gear was in there and.

They asked me if I would go with them to go and pick up the trees, and it was a place over in the Black Isle that we were going to pick up the trees.

Kaska: Oh, that’s nice, because it’s local trees as well.

Dell: Yeah, we went over to get them from the nursery over there. And we were on the Keswick Bridge, and I’m sitting there, I think they thought I was Carol Baxter from the BBC.

Yeah, that’s me.

Kaska: Anyway, then we planted the trees with them.

Dell: It all happened in the 90s, you know, and that helped to take on the Highland Council, to take on more, you know, because it’s going to be all on the telly and it was good, you know, that’s where we were at, you know, like the building was lying empty.

We, uh, we took, we got the building from the Highland Council, we had a quick meeting with them and they asked what we were going to do. We put their proposals that it would be sort of like for information and information on the wildlife and to get people interested and, and look after the place.

We want people to come in. We want people to, be sociable. Talk to people.

We even have cups. You’re not getting paper cups here.

You’re in Merkinch now, you know.

Kaska: I like it.

Dell: And it’s treating people with respect, and if you treat them with respect and give them a cup of tea, you know, and milk and sugar and whatever else, then, you know, there’s a bit more respect. Never had a cup going missing yet, in the almost 30 years that we’ve been here.

You know, that’s where we’re at.

Kaska: When I say community, uh, what’s the first thing that comes to your mind?

Dell: Well, our community. I think, you know, all the people that live in it. And I know a lot of them since they were little kiddies, you know, right? So, and a lot of them have grown up with my children and they went to school with my children.

And it’s a real community school as well. Do you know what I mean? All my children went to the same school and they, um, and they’ve still got friends since they were in nursery, they’re still friends, you know, and they’re in their fourties.

And they’re still, you know, like, and I think that’s amazing, you know.

And they were all in nursery together. So it’s really good, you know.

And I think when people do wander away, like I left the village that I was brought up in, and you do lose contact. But, um, since then, Anne and I have been friends since we went to the playgroup together, Mums and Tods.

And then with that we got involved with the community centre when they built the community centre, we were there with the bricks. And then, uh, we set up play schemes and all sorts of stuff and got Mums in to help. You know, we had a group of Mums who were just making costumes for the parade.

It’s about using the skills. You know, like, of course, people say, well, I don’t know what to do, you know.Would you like to do some painting with the bairns? Oh, I can do that. On you go.

 So that’s, that’s, that’s what makes up a community, you know.

Kaska: Yeah.

What’s the biggest challenge that you’ve had to overcome, um, in your community with this project and what’s the lessons you’d like to share with other community groups?

Dell: I think flytipping is a big bugbear, I think, in any community. It gets people wild.

I just get so angry. You’ve got a bin. Why not put it in the bin? Why don’t you throw it over the fence into the nature reserve? You know, that really wells me up. But at the moment, um, I’m really concerned about the amount of drugs that are in our area. It’s just horrendous. And it’s all these young people are out of their heads.

They can’t work. Oh, it’s just, it’s just so sad. And I’ve got a memorial book there, And the young people that we have lost in our community, you know, and a lot of it’s to do with drugs, drink and drugs. And why, you know, like, what we’re needing is, we need help in trying to either get them off the drugs or something, get them sort of to get them into a job and everything else and some of them have got kids as well, do you know what I mean?

And then they lose their children, there’s a whole snowball again and then their children go on to be users because they’ve had a crap life, they’ve been shunting from one foster carer to another, you know, so we need to get that stopped.

When I think back to all the things that Mum did, and sometimes, you know, when you’re a bairn and you don’t really, really appreciate but I think of all the long walks that she took us on, out into the countryside and she would point something you know, could be just a little insect or something or a different flower or something and it just, just got you there.

You know what I mean? And I reckon that’s where all, it’s all come from. It’s, all that long walks, all the way up to Kilmorack, right round the hills and down, you know, and then back, get supper and then bath and bed, you know. But, yeah, but she was interested herself, do you know? I mean, she was interested in nature herself, you know, like.

I remember going planting a tree with my mother once, and then every time we went out for a walk we’d have a look at the tree to see how it was. Because way back then, council didn’t want you to plant trees in the garden.

I suppose maybe they were worried about the roots and going into the houses and stuff like that, you know. But we had a big enough garden to have a forest in it. But Dad grew all his own vegetables as well, and I remember the corn at the top of the corner, we had the rhubarb, and then the whole side was all potatoes.

And when you came home from school, she’d hand you the enamel basin, and you’d have to go all the way out and get, lift the tatties for supper, you know.

Kaska: There you go. Oh, well, that’s no wonder that you’ve got some connection too. Yeah. to, to nature and, yeah, can appreciate what it can do for, for kids and, yeah.

Um, I was going to ask you, Because you’re on a community council, what would be your advice for people that are involved in community councils in terms of making things happen?

How do you make things happen in your community?

Dell: I think you’ve got to get a lot of like minded people behind you. You know, because, sometimes you’re a lone voice out there and I mean, I’m getting to that stage now that that’s what’s happening again, because we’re losing quite a lot of young people, but we’re also losing a lot of members, older members, you know, and, uh, or they’ve given up.

They say, oh, there’s no point in going to community council, nothing is happening.You know the likes of the roads, the usual stuff, people are feeling very, disheartened, and I think what’s the point. And the drug scene, as I said, in this community, and I suppose it’s the same in anybody else, you know, anybody else.

You just feel that, you know, like you’re beating your head against the brick wall. Is there any point in doing anything? And that’s, the apathy is set in. And what I’d like to do is try and change that. But it’s very difficult.

And we want younger people. And I keep saying that to my friend Anne.

I says, you’ve got to be conscious of not pulling the ladder up behind you. We need people coming up behind us. We need these young people. Get off drugs and come and help plant trees. Do you know what I mean?

Kaska: Exactly. I think that’s sort of the situation in a lot of people are in, uh, where they’ve got an active older generation and it’s really hard to engage.

Um, and I don’t know, I mean, is there an answer to that?

Dell: I do think maybe we should be doing a lot more stuff with younger children so that you’re building memories for these children so that when they do get to that stage they go I remember my Mum taking us out and doing this and I remember Mum and dad doing that.

Do you know what I mean? And I think that’s, I think that’s the problem. It’s because a lot of the youngsters are sitting on their iPads or whatever. Do you know what I mean? one of the Mums that’s down beside us. She’s wonderful. She’s got, four children.

There’s always a way out for a walk somewhere. Or taking the dog somewhere, or a wee out on the hill somewhere, you know, and I’m thinking yeah, we want everybody to do that. And okay, we’ve not all got cars but you take them out, you know. We were fortunate enough, we had the ferry boat, so we used to take them across the ferry and up onto the Ord.

But, you know, you’ve got that big field down there, you know.

Kaska: Well, I mean, I’ve never had a car, but. You know, I’ve had, I’ve had them all the way up the, or the Ord, I’ve had them up Kilpatrick. Mm-Hmm. the way up the very top of Kilpatrick flying down the hills on all the leaves.

Dell: But, you know, like, when my kids were wee as well, again, the roads maybe weren’t as heavy as they are now, but we cycled everywhere as well when they were old enough.

I mean, I had Bethany in the back, and Elaine on the crossbar. And took them swimming, you know, and they were coming wee back behind us. And the way up to the ark we’re done.

Kaska: Is there anything that gives you hope for the future? And for a better, fairer, Yeah. Place that you don’t have to worry about the drugs. Yeah, people more connected to nature and to each other

Dell: I Don’t know I really don’t know it’s a hard one because we so want people to listen to us and you know come on board,

I suppose it’s just not giving up, and, I mean, at the end of the day, you know, if you look at that babies in the pram, beautiful little baby in the pram, you know, you think, oh, we’re leaving this place to a, you know, to people like this little baby, you’ve got to look at it that way, like, I’m not going to be here forever.

We have to leave it, and, and they have to come in and take over and look after it. that’s how I feel, and I think we need to be doing more with youngsters, you know, than sitting on iPads all the time.

Kaska: Now, I always ask people, to imagine the world ten years from now. so imagining, um, the world where everybody’s done as much as they. can, to make it a better place to live in.

I want you to think about the place we’re in, and you live in, and imagine what it would smell like.

What would it taste like? What would it look like? You know, you’re walking around and what do you see and feel? And then share one of the memories from that future with us.

Dell: Yeah. When you talk about smell, there would be no dope.

Because you know, that’s all around us.

And lots more flowers doesn’t have to be a big fancy flowery garden but just nice little areas with plants and flowers and seating, a lot of seating areas, and people can just sit and.

Enjoy the view and that. And this place here, you know, I’d like it to be open every day and, uh, be manned and, just a whole hub here of, of things to do and people places to go and, I think it’d be really good, you know, uh.

I, there’s so many nice areas, you know, it could be just fabulous, down there, you know, have the, football at one end and basketball at the other end, and, it just could be a real buzz in the place, people out walking and what have you, you know.

Kaska: Thank you very much for taking the time. Thank you for coming. And just thank you for sharing all that. It’s amazing stuff.

Dell: Yeah.

Kaska Hempel (Narration):

And that’s a wrap on Dell’s episode! Don’t forget, if you’re ever in Inverness, swing by the old ferry ticket office for a cozy chat and a cuppa. Huge thanks to Dell for sharing her incredible story of personal and community resilience. And a shoutout to the other Inverness Changemakers we featured in this local series —Mike, Gina, Jon, Maria, Iain, and Louise.

It was a joy to be able to weave these few of the threads from the dynamic networked tangle of community activism which underpins this Highland city. The threads coming from different networks but connecting on making a difference for the people, nature and climate. The threads which often remain invisible but in fact make up the true fabric of our communities, coming together to bring about the better and fairer future for all of us.

It goes without saying that these 5 stories are just a tiny taste of what’s happening in Inverness and beyond. Check out our show notes for networks you can join to get inspired and get involved. Join a local group and be part of the change, no matter where you are!

And next week stay tuned for our next series featuring Everyday Changemakers in Dumfries.


Friends of Merkinch Local Nature Reserve https://www.facebook.com/merkinchreserve/

Merkinch Local Nature Reserve Ticket office http://www.merkinchlnr.org.uk/htm/old_ticket_office/old_ticket_office.php

Merkinch Community Centre https://www.merkinchcommunitycentre.co.uk/about/

Networks of community organisations:

Scottish Communities Climate Action Network https://sccan.scot/

Development Trusts Association Scotland https://dtascot.org.uk/

Highlands and Islands Climate Hub https://hiclimatehub.co.uk/

Highland Good Food Partnership (also a great podcast!) https://highlandgoodfood.scot/

Highland Community Waste Partnership  https://www.keepscotlandbeautiful.org/highland-community-waste-partnership/

Circular Communities Scotland https://www.circularcommunities.scot/

Incredible Edible Network https://www.incredibleedible.org.uk/

Community Woodlands Association Scotland https://www.communitywoods.org/

Community Land Scotland https://www.communitylandscotland.org.uk/