Our Story Weaver, Kaska Hempel, talks to Gina and Mike at Aultnaskiach Dell about the ways they have been taking care of their tiny, urban woodland.
The story is the 3rd 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 have a third instalment of Everyday Changemaker stories from my Inverness visit during SCCAN’s Northern Gathering last September. Last week we left Louise Marshall at Eden Court on the banks of the River Ness when I cycled to my hotel on the eastern outskirts of the city on Friday evening.
After the excitement of the Saturday’s Gathering at, the super slick, Merkinch Community Centre, I was heading out on Sunday morning to meet the last three of the local Changemakers. This time I was cycling South.
The morning was promising. There was little wind and cloud, traffic was sparse which made for a smooth ride along, thankfully, almost flat road leading into the suburbs. I momentarily got distracted by an Incredible Edible Inverness growing space in front of a GP practice – a twin to the one at Eden Court. But soon I was turning into Drummond road, keeping my eyes peeled for the sign to the Aultnaskiach Dell.
After nearly cycling past the entrance, I stopped to park my bike against a wooden fence when I spotted Mike, the trust’s chair and my host, coming down the road.
We were later joined by another group member, Gina, who bravely volunteered for the changemaker interview.
But first, Mike guided me away from the road and into this secret, urban green space.
Kaska Hempel: So can you describe what we’re seeing here?
Mike: Well, we have a burn on our left, which has got a fair bit of water in it at the moment because we’ve had quite a lot of rain. Uh, we’ve got a lot of vegetation. It’s been a very, very, uh, good year for, for growth. It’s been both warmth and moisture. But you can also see, on your left there, an example of a dead elm tree.
And that’s been one of the biggest problems we’ve had in here.
Dutch elm disease.
So there’s another one up there to your right.
Kaska Hempel: Oh right, yes.
Mike: And, as you saw, here’s another one.
Kaska Hempel: Mm.
Mike: And when we came in,there’s a big, big stump. And that’s another example. The danger is they get brittle and branches can fall, so we usually just take the tops off, like that, to get rid of the danger.
It’s expensive and it’s unfortunate because 25 percent of all the trees here were elms.
Kaska Hempel: Oh, dear. But you get lots of dead wood, which is good for biodiversity.
Mike: It’s true. It’s good for biodiversity. And we leave quite a lot of the dead wood, but also we have to pay our way. So we cut the wood up and we sell it. It’s firewood.
Kaska Hempel: Oh, good. Good, good, good. Right.
Mike: This is Gina.
Kaska Hempel: Oh, hi, Gina.
Gina: Hi, Kaska. Pleased to meet you.
Mike: This is Kaska.
Kaska Hempel: Nice to meet you.
Mike: Gina has been involved almost from the beginning of this
Gina: Yeah. So I was chair for nine or ten years and then Mike took over the chair from me.
I’m Gina O’Brien. our organization is the Aultnaskiach Dell SCIO.
I’m former chair for nine years and I’m currently a trustee of the organization. Um, I live just close by to this wood that we’re standing in.
Kaska Hempel: What’s SCIO?
Gina: It’s a Scottish Charity Incorporated Organization and it’s our legal entity and uh, we adopted that form, quite early on in our organization’s history.
The advantage of it means that we have access to funding, and we’ve had support from a great many organisations, including Highland Council, the Forestry Commission. Many other bodies, Highlands and Islands Enterprise, have contributed financially to our charity.
Kaska Hempel: Tell me about a favourite place for you in the Dell. We’re standing in the Dell right now.
Gina: I would say my favourite place is the Camp. I call it, it’s not an official name, but it’s a place at the end of the wood and it’s very peaceful down there and it feels very far away from the urban environment .And, why I like it especially is that one of the aims of our project is to help, with the education of the children of the future and for four or five years we had children coming regularly here and this was the place that they went to to listen to stories.
Kaska Hempel: Oh, that’s amazing.
And it’s um, it is quite an urban setting, isn’t it?
It is extraordinary. Many people don’t really know it’s here.
Gina: And the fact that we’re in the middle of the big bustling Inverness, and yet here there’s a place of great peace and tranquility. People can come here to reflect. We have huge numbers of birds and animals here, many of whom people don’t necessarily see, um, when they’re coming through the wood. But when you walk the wood daily, you know that there’s all this wildlife here.
So it becomes a very interesting and amazing place to walk
Mike: While Gina was saying that, there was a buzzard on that tree and it was there for a couple of seconds and then it flew off into the woods.
Gina: Um, what’s your personal journey into this community work and this space?
Gina: There have been many breakthrough moments, but the journey for me began, uh, not through any great conservation thought, though that had always been there, maybe in my background, maybe subconsciously, but it came through, um, a personal friend family connection.
And the lady who owned this wood, my husband was very friendly with her son, and there was a time in 2010 that she felt perhaps it would be better if it wasn’t her own privately, but was owned in community, and she came to ask for help. So it was a personal response. Um, but in terms of, um, climate change and how things, have changed over the years because we’ve been on this for 13 years now.
Um, climate change is very, uh, at the front of my consciousness and I feel that the value of this project is that it should multiply biodiversity, um, and that is very strongly in my mind all the time. And, um, we’ve had recent talks with people who are very knowledgeable, and they say that because it’s a dell, um, in a fairly temperate area, that, it should be alright long into the future, but we, we definitely do things to help with climate change and the main thing that we do is try to make it more diverse by planting numerous species of trees in place of the Dutch elm trees that have come down, um, necessarily.
Kaska Hempel: Um, before you got involved in, in this project, what was your connection to nature and just personally, where did it all come from?
Gina: I’ve always felt connected to nature. I came to the Highlands in 1980. It was an active choice to come here. We came from urban Manchester and I had a great love of the hills and have walked many of them since then. I feel much more alive in nature, I have always felt a deep connection with nature.
Kaska Hempel: So there was a seed there. When I say community land ownership, what’s the first thing that comes to your mind?
Gina: I think the first thing is how much, with the problems of climate change, we all really need this connection with land. And there’s also something about social equity in there, that the land belongs with the people, and historically, and I’m going back hundreds of years, so where would have been this sense of the land belonging to the people.
And I think this is fundamentally very important. And, um, I think unless we’re connected with the land, it’s very hard for us to connect with climate change. Because climate change is about the Earth, and the air, and the soil, and the water. So I, I think there are connections in all of this. Yes. Yeah.
Kaska Hempel: What’s the most valuable lesson you think you’ve learnt, from being involved in this project that you could share with other people that might be wanting to do something similar?
Gina: Well, you might be interested to hear that it took us a very, very long time as a committee to take on the ownership of this land.
And we had a great deal of numbers, of doubts. And we sat with those doubts until around 2018, so for about 8 years, really. So we only rented the land, first of all, and we rented it from Aithne Barron, the owner, um, for a pound a year. And then there came a point where, um, Aithne really needed us to make a decision.
And she said she wasn’t prepared to rent us the land anymore, unless we decided to take it on. So at that point, we really needed to come to, uh, a consensus. And I think the thing I’ve most learned is not to worry too much. Because a lot of the things that we were very worried about have not come to pass.
They were in our imagination and actually we all jumped together, and I’m glad to say when we made the decision it was completely consent from everybody and we all jumped together. So I think the main lesson I’ve learned is what extraordinary things you can achieve when you all hold hands and jump together.
Kaska Hempel: What do you think that meant to you personally once you jumped and you’ve been with it for such a long time, what’s the benefit to yourself personally?
Gina: I think there’s been huge benefit. I think there’s benefit in personal growth when you take a risk, and it’s outside your comfort zone, and…
Kaska Hempel: Mike is, uh, giggling in the background.
Gina: And so there’s, there has to be a degree of trust here, and there had to be trust between us all.
We’ve needed to work very collaboratively, and that hasn’t always been easy. I mean, I would say, largely, we’ve been very amicable, but that isn’t always easy because quite often there are different viewpoints.
Mike: Exactly, you get different people. There’s about nine people at the moment, nine trustees on the committee, and initially there were very great diversities in their conception about risk taking and some of them felt that they couldn’t take the risk of having a huge amount of, uh, money to pay to take down elm trees or whatever it was without having a lot of money in the bank to back it up. Some of the others felt, well, We’ll just get on with it and it’ll be okay.
Kaska Hempel: Yes. And there was a compromise and a waiting period and then you jumped together which is great.
Gina: A range of different skills that’s been particularly valuable on our committee is the range of skills. So if you ask me what I’ve learnt personally, I think my biggest learning is it isn’t all up to me and the help will be there and will be available, and that different people will bring in different strengths, and how astonishing are the things that you can achieve together instead of on your own. Yeah.
Kaska Hempel: You learned quite a lot by doing this, what’s the most valuable resource you might recommend to a group that would be embarking on a similar project of buying out land or taking over a piece of land and taking care of it.
Gina: Well, we’ve drawn a lot from the, Community Woodlands Association, so we are members of this organization. And they’ve given us a great deal of support.
And whether that’s through courses to get people trained in chainsaws, or whether it’s, um, advice, because we have a big wood fuel project going on, uh, advice about how to manage that, advice in planting, um, they’ve constantly been there getting our backs, really. So to have, have that has, has been enormously helpful.
Um, but there are many, many other resources out there, aren’t there, that we have drawn on? Um, I don’t know if you can think of any others?
Mike: Well, from the forestry commission to an organisation called Paths for All, to help with paths.
Gina: Inverness College.
Mike: Inverness College of Forestry. Yes.
Kaska Hempel: Oh, that’s very handy, isn’t it?
Gina: Scottish Charities Voluntary Organisation. There are many, many bodies out there offering support to an organisation like ours.
Mike: Really, in answer to your question, you’ve got to have an aim. You’ve got to decide what you want to do and then you get together and decide how you’re going to do it.
And then things follow from that. Yes.
Gina: Um, just along with that though, it’s always been important to us to, um, in our meetings have minutes, but also to have a long term forestry management plan that we’ve all signed up to. And our most recent one was probably, I think, our best. And we took quite a long time to both, to consult with everybody in the wider community, but also amongst ourselves.
And we’ve set it now for five years. And, um, I think, I think, um, having structure within the organization and focus has helped us considerably too.
Kaska Hempel: And now more personal question. What’s your favorite tree?
Gina: Oh, well, probably the rowan and I have just planted one in my own garden. And I love the red berries in autumn and its white flowers in May.
And I think there’s just something about its vivid beauty. And also it’s meant to be a tree of protection and healing.
Kaska Hempel: You know, you’ve involved in community action in some way.
What’s the biggest challenge of being in Inverness? Um, and in the Highlands, to doing this work.
Gina: I would say it’s the ongoing unawareness of people of the importance of nature. And we’ve had an ongoing, um, need to clear up litter or, um, bottles or, um.
It’s for people living in the urban environment who haven’t had the same, uh, I’ve been very fortunate in my life, but who haven’t actually had the same opportunities to learn the same respect for nature. So that we had a bit of vandalism here, um, last month and we’d put up a community sign and somebody came and chopped it down.
So that’s the sort of, um, wider environmental lack of awareness that does still sadly exist in our country. And I would say that’s, that probably is our, our biggest challenge is people who don’t really understand what we’re trying to do.
Kaska Hempel: And what’s the advantage of being in Inverness and the Highlands, for the work you do?
Gina: Well, it has to be our bigger, wider environment. I mean, we live in a fantastic part of the country, and there are all sorts of projects both going on in Inverness and in the wider environment and the Scottish Parliament is very, um, proactive now, for community land ownership. So we’re living in a culture that is really supporting us.
So both within the Highlands, but also within Scotland, we’re at a very fortunate time in history.
Kaska Hempel: This is a question I ask everybody and it’s about taking a bit of time travel into the future, 10 years from now, and trying to imagine this place or Inverness or wherever you want to think about. Think of a scenario where everybody’s done everything possible to minimize the climate emergency and all the other emergencies we actually experiencing and share just one memory from that future with us.
Gina: It’s not really hard for me. I see it alive with life. And that means life in all its forms. Whether it’s the insects, whether it’s the birds, whether it’s the animals. And especially the children. I like to see that the children are coming and it’s full of children playing and exploring. And feeling that connection.
That’s always been so important to me in nature because they’re our future
Kaska Hempel: That’s the last question, but I always ask you’d like to add anything for our listeners, a final comment that you want to share.
Gina: Um, if you’re afraid of something, but your heart is telling you to do it, just go ahead and do it.
Kaska Hempel: And what about you, Mike?
Mike: Yes, I’d agree with that. I’d agree with that.
Kaska Hempel: Brilliant. Thank you so much. Thank you very much. Yeah, double act.
Mike: Good. Excellent, Gina. Well done.
Gina: We’ve been a double act all the way through, haven’t we, Mike?
Kaska Hempel (Narration): I found this tiny and precious urban Dell, along with Gina and Mike, after exploring a members map of Community Woodlands Association – one of SCCAN’s many sister community networks.
Listening back to this conversation, reminded me of another very special community woodland which happens to be located just outside of Inverness, on the banks of Loch Ness. Abriachan Forest’s made history as one of the first community land buyouts in Scotland, in 1998, and it remains one of the largest community-owned woodlands.
Its story’s been covered many times, but one of the more recent and immersively poetic pieces is the audio story by Mairi Mcfadyen featuring community voices. Together with her essay on the unique complexities of Highland’s land ownership, trees and forests it was a part of A Fragile Correspondence Exhibit at Venice Biennale last year. For a behind the scenes look, you can also find Mairi’s SCCAN audio skillshare presentation on our YouTube channel.
It turns out that both the tiny urban Aultnaskiach Dell and the expansive, rural Abriachan Forest have had case studies written about them which some of you might find useful.
As usual, I popped the links to all of these resources in the show notes for you.
After taking a minute to enjoy the quiet burbling of the burn and the changing colour of the leaves, I was ready for my ride southwards, heading downhill, back towards the Ness. My next stop was the brand-new Holm Grown community garden in the new suburb of Holm.
Aultnaskiach Dell website https://www.aultnaskiach.org.uk/
Community Woodlands Scotland https://www.communitywoods.org/
Case study: Aultnaskiach Dell as the Scottish Land Commission case study (includes video and report) https://www.landcommission.gov.scot/our-work/governance-ownership/community-ownership/aultnaskiach-dell-community-woodland
Local press article about the early days of the Dell SCIO https://www.pressandjournal.co.uk/fp/news/inverness/673891/20000-appeal-launched-to-save-natural-habitat-in-inverness-city-centre/
Abriachan Forest Trust https://www.abriachan.org.uk
An audio story of Abriachan Forest by Mairi Mcfadyen and accompanying essay on land ownership in the Highlands http://www.mairimcfadyen.scot/fragile-correspondence/2023/audio-piece
Mairi’s presentation for SCCAN storyteller collective audio skillshare https://youtu.be/HwHo0fjlKjQ?si=szJ25FvAaQo259Xt
Case study: Abriachan Forest https://www.forestpolicygroup.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/Abriachan-FPG-case-study.pdf
Community woodland case studies by Community Woodland Association, including Abriachan Forest https://cdn.forestresearch.gov.uk/2022/02/community_woodland_case_studies_scotland.pdf