Once the capital of its county Ross and Cromarty in the Scottish Highlands, Dingwall is a market town with a population of around 5,500 people – a number which has been in decline for years, with a struggling local economy and young people moving to Inverness and beyond. The local Edinburgh Woollen Mill shops have closed and jobs are scarce. One Tesco store is the largest private sector employer and there are few facilities for any visitors who might want to stay.
The town’s isolation is in part a by-product of regional transport planning. When the town was effectively by-passed by the Cromarty Bridge and Kessock Bridge, shops, jobs and businesses gravitated to Inverness, now within easier reach.
The town is full of life once a fortnight when Ross County, the football team lying ninth in the Scottish Premier League, play at home at Victoria Park (officially the Global Energy Stadium after the naming rights were sold for corporate sponsorship years ago). There is pride in the club and the population of the town doubles for a couple of hours, but the swarm does little for the local economy in between.
But the town has dreamers, and they banded together five years ago to form a co-operative whisky distillery, Glenwyvis, community owned, using renewable energy and barley from local farmers.
The last distillery in the town closed a century ago, bringing to an end a long tradition of whisky production. Dingwall was home of Robert Burns’ favourite tipple and when the town’s Ferintosh distillery closed, the poet was moved to declare:
Thee, Ferintosh! O sadly lost! Scotland lament frae coast to coast!”
I caught up with their more recent efforts when speaking to Josh from Glenwyvis in advance of a lecture I have given recently as CEO of Pilotlight in honour of the great Scottish co-operator and social entrepreneur John Pearce – hosted by Professor Cam Donaldson and the wonderful Yunus Centre for Social Business and Health at Glasgow Caledonian University.
They power their operations using wind, hydro, solar and biomass energy. The co-op has raised funds for its work from a series of community share issues, bringing in three and a half thousand people as members to put up £2.6 million between them to invest in something that they could believe in.
While the distillery takes shape, they have been grappling with madcap local planning catch-22s that stimy their hopes to attract visitors to the distillery. The tours they plan are all for 11am, timed to release those who come to eat out locally afterwards. Their ambitions are not limited to whisky as they want to turn around the fortunes of Dingwall by attracting in tourists and developing local services to meet the needs of locals and visitors alike.
During the lockdown, they have run virtual tours of the distillery, as a taster as it were. Casks have been a good seller, with people buying them as investments and Glenwyvis is selling bottles now of their inaugural malt, for delivery by Christmas 2021.
You can join me as one of those who will open a bottle in twelve months, but you will have to be fast before this first run is all sold. We are promised “a light, balanced oak influence with fruity maltiness and a little dessert richness.”
You may just taste the community spirit too? Glenwyvis is creating a community charity for local social action, to benefit from a cut on each sale.
Or you can opt for their GoodWill Gin, a Highland premium craft product with locally picked Hawthorn berries… and available this Christmas.
“So many distilleries in Scotland are owned by huge multinational corporations and, although the whisky industry is fantastic for Scotland, a lot of the wealth is taken out,” says Cait Gillespie, local historian for Dingwall.
The tools of a co-op and a community charity, a focus for our support at Pilotlight (see for example this post – does it have to be business or charity?) are a device for dreams: for bridging the present and a possible future.
The members and their supporters have a long way to go, but as I explain in the John Pearce Memorial Lecture they are using the tools of community economic development to make that journey.
They are helping to regenerate a town which the economy has left behind. With the economic headwinds ahead, this is a story that we can all take heart from.
The 2020 John Pearce Memorial Lecture – The Power of Dreams: community economic development after the virus – is now freely available to view online.