Field Note: Luke Fraser reflects on the Confident Rural Communities Conference

March 15, 2024

Luke was invited to attend the conference in November to represent the North Ronaldsay Trust, a community-led project that has previously received grants from The Royal Countryside Fund.

North Ronaldsay is Orkney’s most remote island, with a population of around 65. The island has the same challenges around housing, transport and digital connectivity, demographics, sustainability and resilience that a lot of other island and remote rural communities have. Support from funders like The Royal Countryside Fund is hugely important to help develop and deliver projects in communities like North Ronaldsay.

Following Keith Halstead’s visit to North Ronaldsay in the summer in 2023, the North Ronaldsay Trust was invited to attend the RCF’s Confident Rural Communities Conference in Yorkshire in November. When Keith outlined the reasons behind holding the event, I was really interested to attend. It isn’t often that a funder invites the groups it has funded to influence its funding strategy going forward and this seemed like too good an opportunity to pass up. It’s not a quick journey from Orkney to Yorkshire, but two planes, two trains and a bus later I arrived!

Having worked with the RCF on a couple of different projects it was great to meet the team behind the funding, as well as representatives from other community groups all over the United Kingdom. The North Ronaldsay Trust is involved in a few different networking bodies, but they are Scottish based, so there is very little opportunity to properly engage with groups from the other countries within the UK. The conference was a brilliant opportunity to do just that and I learnt lots and made some brilliant new connections, which wouldn’t have happened otherwise.

A panel discussion with representatives from four rural communities.

The conference sessions were insightful, filled with good examples of community innovation and lots of lessons learnt and great best practice examples. The conversations with the RCF team were brilliant, they were obviously keen to learn from and support the community groups present and of all the conference events that I have been to over the past few years, it was certainly the most insightful and well worth the long return trip.

The RCF has helped fund two North Ronaldsay Trust projects to date. The initial project was the redevelopment of the island’s Schoolhouse into a 3-bedroom affordable rented property. The RCF provided the final piece of the funding puzzle to allow the project to go ahead and the completed project has allowed us to attract a household to the island and then retain a further household, which is a huge benefit to island sustainability. The Trust is now delivering a further housing project as part of the wider £2m Pund Project which will see the development of a gym and wellbeing centre, hot desk and meeting space, 2-bedroom flat, wool mill and meat larder.

The other project the RCF has supported is the work around developing a repair and renovation feasibility strategy for the island’s Grade A listed monument sheep dyke, which is 13 miles long and circles the island. The sheep dyke was built in the 19th century and is designed to keep the island’s unique native sheep breed on the foreshore and away from the grassland which is needed for crops and cattle. The dyke can suffer greatly from winter storms, with large, fragile sections collapsing during severe weather. Maintenance is an ongoing challenge for the island and without the dyke, the future of this unique flock would be at risk. This means that the Trust and others are looking to ensure that the dyke is sustainable into the longer term and the RCF has helped fund some feasibility work towards the development of a Heritage Lottery Fund application to help fund significant works to reinforce the dyke in some areas of key vulnerability.

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