It’s a glorious, if chilly day, and there’s a little green fishing boat bobbing in the gentle waves of Stranraer harbour. Running checks on his own vessel, a local fisherman tells me in his soft Galloway-Irish accent, that it’s called the Vital Spark and it was used in a film to promote the hugely successful, Oyster Festival.
Pulling my jacket a little closer against the cold air, I head over to the former Harbour Office, a lovely Art Deco building from the 1930s that’s been extended, and these days houses the Stranraer Development Trust.
Whilst the weather outside is chilly, the welcome I receive inside is comfortingly warm. The relaxed atmosphere the team creates for this first-time visitor is bereft of airs and graces, allowing a very friendly and insightful chat to develop.
Project Officer Allan Jenkins and G2G Officer Carolyn Mears are Stranraer through and through. Jenkins was a noted professional footballer who is still a big presence on the Stranraer football scene. Noting the climate action aspect of my job, Mears can recall running down five or six steps to the beach outside her home when she was a child. She pauses as a worried expression hijacks her smile before adding, “But with climate change, the higher tides push sand further up the beach and these days, there’s only one step still above the sand.” Proud of ‘The Toon’ as it is affectionately known, Jenkins and Mears are both anxious to see it flourish.
That, however, is a big task. Jenkins notes that there are ‘shoots of hope’ all around the town. He explains that back in 2011, the last of the big Ferries departed from the harbour jetty for the very last time. In the wake of that departure, Stranraer’s status as a crucial transit hub between Scotland and Northern Ireland sank beneath the waves of the Stena line jetty that still reaches out into Loch Ryan. Somewhat envious of the view from Jenkins’ desk, I look out at the jetty with its blue steel shanks pointing skyward. I get the sense that its presence seems to be taunting the town, reminding it of better days, and daring it to even whisper a belief that it could ever have a future after the Ferries.
But that’s exactly the kind of dare that people like Romano Petrucci, Allan Jenkins and Carolyn Mears along with Christine Johnston and Chantelle Downie, have taken on. Their energy, conviction, and absolute belief that Stranraer can and will flourish, has taken the Trust from strength to strength. There are multiple, new and ongoing projects around the town. Home to the last of Scotland’s natural oyster beds, the Oyster Festival is a perfect vehicle to promote ‘The Toon.’ And now that the terror of Covid (if not the disease itself) is moving toward the rear window of history, the team have high hopes that this year’s festival will be bigger and better than ever. Still muted by Covid concerns, the 2022 festival managed to attract a new record of more than 18,000 attendees and generated £1.7 million for the local economy. Locals love it too. Carolyn Mears tells me that in this closely knit community, people who probably could have entered the festival for free, insisted on making a donation. “Everyone just wanted to make it a success.”
When Stranraer hosted the Skiffie rowing World Championships back in 2019, the event was a roaring success, generating a £4-million boost to the local economy. Held every three years, it moved to the Netherlands, but competitors and organisers apparently loved their experience in Stranraer and are anxious to return. “Everything was on the doorstep for the competitors and organisers,” says Jenkins. “Our beautiful Loch Ryan, the harbour, and the town with its friendly accommodation, restaurants and shops all close at hand. We’re really hopeful that the Skiffies will return.”
Jenkins said there were ‘shoots of hope’ around the town, but they do seem to be very tender and prone to the frost of negative opinions at this early stage of potential regeneration. On a walk around the town, he points out the eyesore that was the George Hotel, right slap bang in the middle of the town. In truth, he didn’t have to point it out, it’s something any visitor would find difficult to avoid seeing. After years of putting up with path and road closures due to the fragility of the dilapidated structure, the George’s neighbouring businesses could put up with the state of limbo no longer, and a long line of adjacent shops are now vacant.
But Jenkins returns to his ‘shoots of hope.’ It seems a pincer movement of change to the left and right of the George has heralded a possible new life for the former Hotel. At one end of the street, Tragic O’Hara’s opinion-prompting mural depicts ‘The Toon’s’ past, present and future; and at the other end there’s the beautifully refurbished sun-trap of a town square, where even in March, visitors and locals alike can sit comfortably to enjoy the atmosphere along with their al-fresco coffees. Closer still, the thoughtfully designed, multi-purpose Millennium Centre points the way for new life to be breathed into this scarred retail street.
The former George Hotel / Tragic O’Hara’s Mural /The Town Square / The Millennium Centre
The Stranraer Development trust sees the potential of that pincer movement, and in partnership with the Council has engaged extensively with the local community and stakeholders such as Borderlands and South of Scotland Enterprise (SoSE) to determine a sustainable future for the Former George Hotel. The listed building’s front façade must be maintained, but all that remains at present, is a shell that will hopefully be transformed into an arts, culture and activity centre. When that new centre is built and the neighbouring museum totally refurbished, the street should begin to attract new businesses to the empty shop fronts.
“We’re just not that great at selling ourselves,” admits Jenkins. A sentiment shared by Council Ward Officer Kerry Monteith who describes the local character as ‘reserved.’ Jenkins lends detail to his characterisation, describing the ‘Welcome to Stranraer’ sign on the A77 from Ayr. “For goodness sake, the first thing you see after that sign is a derelict and dilapidated repeater station.”
“And then there’s the railway station,” adds Mears. “What must people think?”
And it’s true. I’m a first-time visitor, and when I see the long walk that must be undertaken from the station, with the Loch to the left and derelict wasteland to the right, I can only imagine how unnerving it must be for female passengers arriving on evening trains. With talk of rail passenger safeguarding in the media, I resolve to visit the station again at night and see what that walk looks like.
Mears explains that when the ferries were running from Stranraer, the town had more of a joined up public transport system, and that rail passengers weren’t confronted with that unsettling walk. As for the lorry drivers, they could go to lorry-parks outside the town. But apart from a few port-a-loos there are no other amenities for them. That’s why they gather on the railway station road to access the town’s shops.
First impressions aside, once the visitor has spoken to any of the local residents, a more lasting, better impression is quickly forged. Anndrea Young was looking after shoppers using the self-checkouts, a place I’ve never struck up a conversation with anyone before, and I tell her that. She gives her views on the town, its people, her career, and family. Two grown-up kids have sought opportunity and careers elsewhere. She has worked in the tourist office, on the trains, and in hospitality, and demonstrating that reserve I’ve heard about, she cautiously welcomes the signs of change in the town. Changes that as I wave goodbye to Anndrea, I hope will provide youngsters with realistic career options to stay and help guide Stranraer even further forward.
Wrestling aficionado, Alexander lets me share his table at the Central Café. Over a late lunch, he explains that he worries for local kids who are confronted with social problems and boredom that can result in the kind of drug use endemic in towns throughout the UK that feel left behind.
After my meal, I order a coffee and get chatting to the daughter of Stranraer Development Trust Chairman, Roman Petrucci. Arianna conveys little of the local reserve and much of the dolce vita optimism of her Italian heritage. She is tremendously proud of her father’s work, and of her hometown. She gushes that her father was part of a campaign that beat Donald Trump’s world-famous Turnberry Golf Club to win a tourism award for Stranraer. “Just imagine that! Stranraer beat Trump!” she exclaims. Still smiling warmly after recalling that proud family moment, she tells me, “I went away for university, but this is my home and it really has a strong draw for me.” She pauses to think, “You know, getting this town going again won’t be plain sailing.” Then she smiles wryly as she belatedly recognises the pun inherent in the town’s sailing past.
With notions of ‘troubled waters’ and ‘not plain sailing’ on my mind, I head back to the harbour and take photos of Stranraer’s entry in the nationwide Dandelion project of ‘Unexpected Gardens.’ Beautifying some unused land, Stranraer’s garden showcases its maritime past and encourages people to sow, grow and share. The trust worked alongside the excellent Stove Network based in Dumfries, and local Creative Producer Bethany Piggot to create this much-praised garden.
As I take my photos, I can’t ignore that Stena Line jetty sitting in the harbour just behind the garden. During one conversation I get involved with, a quiet hope is touted that Stena would soon sell it for a nominal £1 to someone willing to take on the multi-million-pound liability, and turn it into an asset for the town. “After all, Stena made plenty of bloody money from us. Least it can do is try to give something back.” It’s like a maritime version of the George Hotel. Caught in a state of limbo, it provokes anger born of a state of helplessness.
Back at the Trust office, Chairman Petrucci had picked up on this topic of helplessness when he popped in after taking part in some filming for Stranraer’s Local Place Plan. From what he said, the Westminster government and the Scottish Government seem to be engaged in a game of political ping pong with Stranraer. Westminster infuriates Holyrood by saying it will upgrade the much- maligned A75 into a full dual carriageway till it meets the UK motorway network just shy of 100 miles away. Holyrood then cries out that Westminster has no jurisdiction over the area for such decisions. “But,” Petrucci offers with a pained smile, “Holyrood sees this as a Tory area.” He leaves that thought hanging, but the implication is clear that he feels Stranraer is overlooked by the ruling Scottish Nationalists to chase easier votes in the more supportive and populated communities of the Central Belt.
In this age of looking for greener transport solutions, there are also increasingly loud calls for the rebirth of the railway line from Stranraer to Dumfries. Such a line could replace much of the HGV traffic, carrying freight with very few stops along its length, whilst slower passenger trains could link up the many isolated towns that dot the South West Coast of Scotland. Tourists could explore Dumfries and Galloway with much less of a carbon footprint and for those hardy souls pedalling the new 250-mile coast-to-coast cycle route from Eyemouth to Stranraer, they’d have a more eco-friendly – and bike-friendly – way to rest their legs on the return journey across this massive county. A new 500km coastal walking trail from Gretna to Stranraer is also being developed with a start/end point at the exceptionally Instragram-friendly Harbour Office in Stranraer. A train would greatly assist the logistics for any intrepid hikers taking on a route that would be the longest walking trail in Scotland.
Petrucci concedes that maybe, just maybe, the apparent end of the Northern Ireland Brexit conundrum will herald an end to the town’s economic limbo, with the arrival of new investment. No longer used as a political pawn and drip-fed placebo promises that have only exacerbated the town’s economic ill-health in recent years.
There’s a large expanse of derelict wasteland around the train station; there’s a long line of empty shops around the former George Hotel; and there’s a jetty that reminds the town residents of its past as a transport hub. But as Jenkins demonstrated during our walk around the town, there really are ‘shoots of hope’ for an effective transformation.
The Trust it seems, will keep promoting the town with more projects like the Oyster Festival by ignoring the taunting presence of that Stena line jetty. After all, there is real beauty beyond that wall of unemployed concrete and steel. Loch Ryan must be one of the world’s most scenic and sheltered deep water bays with Ailsa Craig island (famous as the source of granite used in curling stones) perched at its mouth.
A white Stena Ferry at the new Cairnryan terminal / Ailsa Craig granite plug
As I walk back to my harbour front guesthouse, I glance over to that little green fishing boat called Vital Spark. Watching it bob up and down, I can’t help but wonder if Stranraer now has that vital spark to sail beyond its past and into a bright new future.
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