Tuesday, 1 February 2011
GalGael – Galvanising Govan
By Keith Fergus
GalGael’s Project Support Worker is Tam McGarvey who met Colin during the M77 protests and has been with GalGael since its inception. He explained to me at the 11,000 foot workshop GalGael now calls home the importance of such a project to the people of Govan. “I think Scotland is one of the world’s most beautiful places with an amazing history which many can’t access due to their circumstances. At GalGael we give people from disadvantaged backgrounds a sense of purpose. By providing a venue, some tools and training, as well as the right environment, then people can gain back a little of their dignity”.
These range from elaborate carvings, striking furniture, and beautifully crafted boats, one of which was being worked on by Mark Thornton who came to GalGael in 2008 with drug and alcohol issues. Mark readily admits that without the project he may not have overcome his addictions. “It’s a great group to be with and it is good to know that people like Tam are always here for you. It’s just good to be with people, a variety of different people. I always had a talent with wood but never did I think I would get an opportunity to build my own boat”.
The idea of using wood to build boats and integrating this with our culture and history is something that sets GalGael out from similar schemes. “There are a lot of good projects in Glasgow but I like to think we are unique”. Tam explained to me as we walked around the workshop. “The boat building is great because you are working as a team to build this beautiful craft whilst learning these transferable skills. The boats we build have been entwined in our history for maybe 1000 years and so you are learning about our history and heritage, and how people used to live and work together”. Once built, some of the boats are used for trips with one such expedition sailing all the way to Ireland.
Each person using GalGael will initially be put through a twelve week project in basic woodwork and if they are successful they will attain a woodwork certificate which is accredited with Cardonald College. They then move on to a personal project which Tam explained the importance of. “The personal project is incredibly significant as the individual gets to make something to give back to their families or friends and it is symbolic of the progress they have made and they are doing something creative with their lives. We try and get people away from this culture of taking all the time, like benefits for example, and to instil in them that it can be incredibly rewarding to give”.
Wednesday, 6 January 2010
Monday, 9 February 2009
Jake Bowers on how learning old skills is helping urban Scots connect with their roots - and nature
The Guardian, Wednesday 19 June 2002
It looked like a post-apocalyptic vision. Amid the industrial decay of rotting wooden jetties and rusting cranes, a wooden long ship, or birlinn, was inching its way up the river Clyde. But the eight oarsmen pulling against the current last weekend weren't new age Vikings; they were Glaswegian volunteers who had helped build the boat and were reclaiming their heritage.
The majority of the rowers had been referred to the project by local drug support groups, mental health care providers and occupational therapists. They call themselves the GalGael after the Gal-Gaidheal (meaning "strange or foreign Gaels"), the 9th-century people who once inhabited the Hebrides. The boat, named the Orcuan, was proving to the people and politicians of Glasgow that urban regeneration can also be a powerful force for social and ecological renewal.
The 30ft-vessel may be the smallest boat to have been launched on the Clyde in recent years, but, like Greenpeace's Rainbow Warrior, it is both a colourful means of transport, and a carrier of people's desires. It won't be saving whales, but trying to re-intro duce one of the most charismatic animals missing from large parts of the highlands and islands - people.
Many of the descendants of the 500,000 highlanders driven off the land in the 18th-century highland clearances now live in urban poverty in Glasgow. But, so far, the Scottish land reform movement, gathering pace through community land buyouts like those on the isles of Eigg and Gigha, hasn't touched the lives of the millions of displaced Scots of highland descent living on housing estates amid some of the worst gang violence and substance abuse in the world.
The launch of the Orcuan is intended to help change that. The boat has been built by the GalGael Trust, an organisation dedicated to training urban Scots with no experience of farming, forestry or the sea to live in the highlands.
"We've adopted training methods used by the Folkhögskola [people's high school] system found across Scandinavia," says master carver and founder of the GalGael, Colin McLeod. They are taught traditional and modern methods of working with wood, stone, metal and textiles.
"We aim to see people and nature more deeply connected by putting us back in touch with our Gaelic-Norse ancestors' relationship with natural materials, the elements, the river and the sea," says McLeod.
The GalGael Trust, funded by the Greater Govan Social Exclusion Partnership, was created in 1997 by the Scottish executive and Scotland Against Drugs. About 80 people so far have passed through their training sessions.
Alastair McIntosh, fellow of Edinburgh's Centre for Human Ecology and part of the campaign to bring the Isle of Eigg into community ownership, helps run the trust. "Most urban Scots are only three or four generations removed from the land, soconnection to the land is big in the Scottish psyche," he says. "We know that if we're to rebuild human communities and live in a world of dignified sufficiency, we must reconnect with a sense of place."
Just as the Orcuan is made of storm-felled timber, the GalGael consists mainly of what can best be described as storm-felled people. Former seaman and recovering alcoholic Davey Oliver bears the kind of facial scars that reveal Glasgow's destructive relationship with knives. Thanks to the GalGael, he's now far more likely to be converting wind blown trees into planks with a portable sawmill than "chibing" anybody in the face to give them an extended "Glaswegian smile".
"This work gets you back into the community, it roots you like a tree and helps you grow," he says. "I've learnt that I can do something different with my life other than drinking."
William Smith, another of the trainees, is even more ambitious. "The GalGael have taught us we can be a community again. But we don't want to be shoved into tower blocks any more, we want to be given the chance to build our own houses in some deserted island or glen!"
"When I first met the GalGael I thought they were mad," says local councillor John Flanagan. "But soon I realised that they weren't mad at all. They actually had a vision that involved reaching out to the socially disadvantaged."
Hugh Henry, deputy social justice minister for Scotland says: "The GalGael are giving hope to the community that there is something better. Ordinary working class people are showing the world that their proud tradition of shipbuilding is something worth celebrating."
They all have work to do. The Orcuan is a prototype of a 70ft birlinn, which the GalGael would like to build. They intend to house it in a traditional longhouse, and Glasgow city council and Scottish enterprise are funding a feasibility study into the idea. If it's anything like the Orcuan, people will be flocking from miles around to see it.
Published Date: 23 December 2007
By PETER ROSS
IT IS an unexpectedly bright afternoon in Govan, given the time of year. Rain fell half an hour ago and now glitters on the pavement and trickles down walls, glistening on graffiti which makes it clear neither the Pope nor the polis is welcome. On the short walk between Ibrox subway station and Fairley Street, there are two bookies, a windowless pub and a chip shop, a run of businesses that says it all about the problems facing this part of Glasgow – alcoholism, poor health and poverty.
On Fairley Street itself stands a blue, two-storey warehouse, a saltire hanging limp and windless above the entrance. This is home to the GalGael Trust.GalGael is an organisation that helps drug addicts, alcoholics, people suffering mental-health problems and the long-term unemployed; it does so by, among other methods, teaching them to build and sail boats of an ancient Scottish design. Actually, 'organisation' is an inadequate word – it lacks the poetic feel for imagery, which is so important to the GalGael, as the staff and volunteers call themselves. They regard themselves as a family, a crew, a clan, a safe harbour, a sturdy ark, a lighthouse on sharp rocks. They are keen on metaphorical language because it's a way of talking that is based on transformation, on identity slipping its moorings, and change is what GalGael is all about. Within its walls, logs turn into boats, wasters into grafters, and the hope is that, eventually, with a fair wind, a whole people can be made anew.GalGael was founded in 1997 by Colin Macleod, who had come to national prominence earlier in the decade as the 'Birdman' of the Pollok Free State – the head of the long-running protest that tried to prevent the M77 motorway from cutting through Glasgow's Pollok Country Park. Macleod, with his dreadlocks and white flash of beard, was an inspiring and greatly loved leader, and so it was a shattering blow when he died suddenly in late 2005. For months afterwards, the GalGael were left foundering. But now, in the year of the trust's tenth anniversary, they feel they are once again steering a true course.The moment I step through the front door of 15 Fairley Street, a friendly collie called Max jumps up at me. His owner calls him back. Livi is a volunteer here, a strong worker. Skinny and manic, he looks part Robinson Crusoe, part Lowry chimney sweep. He might be any age, from any century. Livi is the most dramatic-looking person in the building, but does not seem out of context. GalGael is a theatrical place with plenty of tragedy, jokes, characters and noise. Later, when I listen back to my tapes, they're full of sawing and hammering, laughing and shouting, even music I don't remember hearing. Who was that playing 'Waterloo Sunset' on the guitar?Maybe it was Tam McGarvey. He's sitting in reception and plucking the strings when I arrive. McGarvey is 49 with a short beard, greying round the mouth. A trained sculptor who used to work as an occupational therapist, he is one of seven staff, has a calm, friendly air, and is a sworn enemy of daytime television, "f***ing Jeremy Kyle" in particular.He shows me round and explains the ethos. The idea is that the poor and dispossessed can improve their lives by learning traditional crafts – boat-building, blacksmithery, wood-carving, weaving and so on. These are transferable skills, complete with a formal qualification, which GalGael graduates can use to find work. But there is also an over-arching philosophy that the people of Govan and beyond will heal themselves psychologically by reconnecting with ancient Celtic culture.GalGael, named after a ninth-century people whose bloodline was a mix of Celt and Norse, is characterised by this mixture of practical and mystical. The tone is manifest in Fairley Street. The reception area is dominated by a life-size wooden eagle, suspended from the ceiling, which was crafted by Macleod. Just inside the front door, a photograph of him has two eagle feathers sticking from the top and a candle burning underneath.Although it is a charity funded by a mixture of public money and private trusts, and has a turnover of almost a quarter of a million pounds, GalGael began when a few like-minded individuals pooled their Giro cheques and spent the money milling trees that had fallen in a storm. They used the wood to build a workshop in the grounds of Govan Old Parish Church. Then they started building boats. They have been in the current premises since 2005, and it is from here that they run the Navigate the Future training course.GalGael accepts around 60 applicants each year to its 20-week course. If they have addiction issues, it is expected that their drug use should not be chaotic, which can mean they have swapped heroin for methadone. However, GalGael isn't just about drug abuse. The organisers try to take on trainees with a wide range of issues. They learned this lesson from a rehabilitation centre in Govan which only took people with narcotics problems: when one person relapsed, they all relapsed.Trainees at GalGael are taught carpentry first. If they progress, they will be given the chance to work on a personal project. "It might be one of these chests or a chair," says McGarvey, gesturing at the furniture. "Quite often, that's very symbolic. It might be the first thing they've ever made, first thing they've ever achieved."Spend a little time in the GalGael office, and you get to hear plenty of stories. You might learn about the trainee who lives in one of the huge tower blocks nearby. He had been using drugs and his front door had been kicked in and then nailed shut; in order to get out to come to GalGael, he had to climb out of his flat, 19 storeys up, edge round the building, Spider-Man-style, and climb back in through a window on the stairwell. Or there's the young man so messed up from fighting in Iraq that he has seven different care-workers and won't talk to any of them.You'll get told, too, about the man who was in a terrible state when he arrived at GalGael, taking so much methadone that he was barely conscious; then when he was awake, you had to watch out. "He tried to hit me with hammers and stab me," says Ian Bogle, the workshop supervisor. "Just because I wouldn't let him go."Not letting people go is what the GalGael do best. 'Hold fast' is the motto of the Clan Macleod, and it's taken seriously here. That violent addict is now friendly and articulate. He made a beautiful blanket box for his mother, something she had always wanted. They had become estranged when he stole money from her, and his gift helped them to reconcile. "Any one of these people in here could have been something if they'd had the opportunity," says McGarvey, leading the way into the workshop.GalGael has 11,000 sq ft of space and seems to have filled every inch. The Boxing Day storm of 1998 was good for them – they're still working their way through trees blown over that day. In the training area, there are nine workbenches, and four boats are currently being restored. At the back there's a smiddy, complete with forge and anvil. Everywhere there are elaborate wood carvings, including an advancing bear.
Livi, a volunteer, and Tam McGarvey, a trained sculptor Picture: Robert Perry
We go over to speak with a couple of older volunteers. Jack Manderson, a former engineer, is 77. He's a small man in blue overalls and a tartan bunnet. His friend, Davy Christie, is wearing brown dungarees and an old jumper. He's 67, retired now, but he used to build boats and make furniture. The GalGael are fond of saying "work is worship" – if so, then Manderson and Christie are elders of this church. They represent a level of technical accomplishment that was common when Glasgow was a world capital of heavy industry – but, as that has declined, fewer and fewer people possess the sorts of skills they have at their fingertips. One of the things GalGael is trying to do is ensure that the know-how is passed on to a new generation."I'm amazed at some of the skills I see in here from people coming in," says Christie. "Some of them have never touched a piece of wood in their lives, but they've got the feel for it in their hands. A lot of these kids have got problems, but this does help them. You can see the difference once they've made something."Not that it's an easy road. "There's no quick fix," says Gehan Macleod, Colin's widow, who now heads GalGael. "It's not just about changing that person. Often they can be doing well and then something from their past, like an old drug debt, catches up with them. We had one of our trainees standing outside for his tea break, having a cigarette, and someone came up and hit him on the head with a monkey wrench over money that he'd owed from a year and a half ago."I talk to quite a few trainees and former trainees. Although each story is different, what everyone has in common is the way they feel about GalGael: they love it and would be lost without it. Someone tells me it's like a drug. They are reasonably candid about what their lives were like before, though no one is keen to go into the murky detail. They are sick of social workers and counsellors asking them to reflect on the problems of their past. The future is what interests them, or, at the very least, the present.Hugh Hamilton, Shug to his pals, is 27 years old. He's wearing a Rangers baseball cap and immaculate white trainers. If you saw him on the street, you might well think 'ned' and keep your head down. But Hamilton isn't like that. He's softly spoken with a gentle manner and a quiet dignity. He had alcohol and drug problems, but has discovered a great talent for carving wood. He gets his mobile out and shows me pictures of things he has made, including football crests and Celtic crosses."Before I started here, I just thought I was pointless," he says. "There was nothing to get out of my bed for. But once I started carving, I was in here every day, bang on ten o'clock, getting stuck in. Because I've been in here so much, I've not been in the house, sitting bored, drinking and taking drugs. There's lots of people like that in here. They've just had too much time on their hands. Then you come in here and realise you're worth something instead of the buroo telling you you're useless."While I'm talking to Hamilton, a young woman called Kelly-Anne Lochrie comes into the room, delighted to see her friend – "Shug!" I've heard about her. On a recent GalGael excursion to Glasgow Cathedral, McGarvey was surprised to hear Beethoven's 'Für Elise' echoing round the nave. Following the music, he found Lochrie sitting at the piano, playing beautifully. He had no idea she could do that.Lochrie is 26 and has been with GalGael for a couple of years, apart from some time she spent working as a cleaner. She's wearing a hooded top and navy dungarees, her hair pulled back from her face. She used to hang around Pollok Free State when she was ten or 11, drawn to the treehouses, and met Macleod at that time. She thinks it's fate that she found GalGael so many years later.She's happiest here. It's given her more confidence and now she'd like to go to college, which would not have occurred to her before. "When I was 16, I ended up on drugs until I was 22, and then once I got away from that I started drinking," she says. "So that was a lot of years wasted, and I don't want to waste any more."I ask how GalGael has helped her. "When Orcuan was out the back, the big boat that's on the Clyde now, it needed to be re-tarred, and I helped to do that. Then, once it was back out on the water and I was sitting in it, knowing that I had done that, knowing I was I part of that felt amazing."She nods towards the workshop. "Sometimes when I'm out there, doing whatever I'm doing, my mind's clear. Does that sound strange? It clears my mind."Her mind wasn't clear before? "No," she says, laughing a little. "Broken bottles."ONE CLOUDLESS day, the winter sun low and blinding, McGarvey, Bogle and John Elder drive across the Clyde to Glasgow Harbour. The Orcuan needs some maintenance, and these three GalGael staff consider it no chore to work on the boat.At a little over 30ft long, the Orcuan is the largest vessel GalGael has built. Put together from 16 different types of native Scottish wood, it is the first boat of its kind to have been built in Scotland for hundreds of years. It was modelled on medieval stone carvings of a birlinn, a particular type of galley used in the waters around the Highlands and Western Isles in the 12th century. The Orcuan has room for 12 people, including eight rowers. The religiously minded have noted that this is the same number as Christ's disciples, but McGarvey personally considers The Dirty Dozen a reference that gets closer to the truth.The Orcuan means a lot to the trainees. They built it together and sail in it together. The boat symbolises the personal journey that they have taken, and they clearly understand its message – if we all pull together, we will go forwards. The GalGael have done a lot of sailing in the Orcuan, notably in a 16-hour crossing to Ireland in a force-nine gale, keeping their spirits high with Gaelic rowing songs."This boat is a statement," says McGarvey. "It's basically saying that, after years of persecution, clans are still here. Not in a jingoistic sense. It's about community. Even though the world economy is set up to break down community, we're here to mutually support each other, and that unity gives us a lot of strength. The boat symbolises that for us."COLIN MACLEOD first had the idea to create the Orcuan during the M77 protest. People thought he was crazy. Here they were in the middle of a major city – why build a boat? Yet he insisted and, in a typically grand gesture, dug up from the Pollok earth an ancient silver medallion stamped with the image of a birlinn. See, he said, here's proof that this is the right thing to do.Macleod seems to have been a remarkable man, a born leader with a touch of the prophet about him. Writing on his website, the Scottish academic Alastair McIntosh, who is GalGael's treasurer, refers to "the goodness and the light of Christ" that he had seen in Macleod's life."He dropped dead of a heart attack, and you can never say what exactly caused that," McIntosh says now. "It may have been something congenital. It may have been that he totally gave himself to his people and the organisation and worked every hour of the day he was given. That may have been just a bit too much for his physical system. The metaphor that came to my mind when we wrote his obituary was that he broke his heart helping the people of Govan. And while that may not be medically accurate, I think it's accurate in a poetic sense."Sitting at an oak table in Fairley Street, Gehan Macleod reflects on the impact of her husband's sudden death. "Pretty massive," she says. "He held such a lot of roles, and kept such a lot of things ticking over, and he had such a unique style of engaging with the participants that's hard to replace."There are things that were happening more when Colin was here, like getting people out on the boats. We've not been using them to anything like the degree we want to." They are going to hire a new member of staff whose role will be to develop the boat-building and sailing. "We need to tease out these roles Colin used to play, but it'll take a while. I always think of it as a beech tree in a forest. When a big tree comes down, it takes a while for the trees that remain to grow and fill the gap in the canopy."Gehan is 37 with dark curls and a kind, open face. Around her neck she wears an Ethiopian leather cross, which belonged to her husband. Originally from near London, she moved to Glasgow to study at university, but became increasingly involved in environmental campaigning. She first met Colin at the road protest camp at Twyford Down. They married at Pollok Free State and had three children together – Tawny, 12, Iona, 11, and Oran, eight.When her husband died, she took just two weeks off. GalGael, which she co-founded, has helped her cope. "What this gave me was a part of his legacy," she says. "I came back to work quickly because I couldn't stand to think of losing Colin and this place. I can feel a lot of his character in here. Even the trainees that never met him say to me that they feel like they know him a bit."The sense of community here makes it feel like an extended family, and that really kicked in when Colin moved on. I did feel supported, and I do feel the burden of grief was shared by so many people. That did help, although sometimes it was difficult because I was having to go through the grieving process very publicly."There was absolutely no talk of GalGael closing in the aftermath of Macleod's death. In fact, there are big plans. One is to employ Govan Old Parish Church, which is no longer used for religious worship, as a centre from which to build and sail their fleet of boats.GalGael's other major project is the restoration of Barmaddy Farm in Argyll. The idea is to plant native forest and establish a skills centre in the countryside to which they can take trainees from Govan. Just getting out of Glasgow is a revelation for some of the trainees. One woman wept on a trip to Barmaddy because she saw Loch Lomond and Loch Awe. It was the first time she had ever seen a loch and couldn't believe she was getting to see two in one day."Places like Govan have lots of negative rites of passage," explains McGarvey. "You're not accepted inside your gang if you've not done something that's pretty bad: if you've not broken into somewhere, or taken the right drugs; if you've not stabbed somebody or been slashed. So we change the whole notion of rites of passage back to something positive. So you might say, 'I've sailed somewhere', or 'I've climbed some hills'. These things make your life better rather than take it into a downward spiral."IT'S GETTING towards the end of a long day at GalGael. Most people have gone home, the rain's battering down, and it's dark outside. In the workshop, a 39-year-old volunteer who goes by the name of Sir Robert Harte is still hard at it. He used to work for the council until his epilepsy caused him to lose his job. He tells me how much he likes it here, about new friends and skills. Right now, he's performing a ritual that marks the end of his day – sweeping sawdust from the workshop floor.The GalGael create a lot of sawdust but they don't let it go to waste. They use it to soak up water that leaks in through the roof. Like everything else here, that feels like a metaphor. It says something about the way GalGael recycles people, giving them a sense of purpose so they no longer feel like the detritus of a productive society which has no place for them.Maybe that's a bit complicated and pretentious, though. George Burton, a 39-year-old former heroin addict, puts it more simply and, therefore, with some force. "I would recommend this place to anybody who is wanting to get out of a cycle, be it drink, drugs, depression or just boredom. You'll get a cup of tea, you'll get a bowl of soup, you'll get a good laugh, plus you'll learn how to make something."He spreads his hands and I notice he's missing the top of one pinkie. "That, in itself, doesn't sound a lot but it's pretty good for the soul."