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Balnakeil Craft Village

About half a mile from Durnes is the Balnakeil Craft village. A post World War II military encampment that has been converted into a Craft Village. These former military buildings have been taken over by a loose collective of artists and crafts people The Balnakeil Craft village which was established in 1964 provides an outlet for the sale of local arts and crafts Balnakeil Craft Village with its’ own unique history has been described from many aspects.


About twelve to fifteen crafts appear to be the average at any one time working at dissimilar levels with divergent commitments, ambitions and aspirations. There has been a diverse, wide range of crafts worked in the village. From fine artists to profit making hobbyists and people from all walks of life and different nationalities have experienced living in Balnakeil Craft Village. About two hundred individuals have been resident. A hotel, guest house, pony trekking centre, worm factory, fly tying, self-sufficiency have been enterprises operating at some time.


The properties since 1980 have been bought and sold as any other and no commitment to a craft is required to live and work in Balnakeil. All the buildings are privately owned although some are currently empty, the owners no longer living and working in the village. In 1998, the craft businesses present are noted here.

Balnakeil Craft Village has been described as “a glum collection of concrete buildings that is HM Forces contribution to architecture”. The Old Manse, and the surrounding land was commandeered for construction of an intended early warning radar station and supporting barracks, but it was obsolete in 1954 before it was complete, and abandoned, all but the use of two units.


A small-scale industrial site, to attract established businesses, was envisaged and the buildings were acquired for development by the county council for three thousand pounds. No interest was shown from commerce. In 1963, an imaginative development officer of the Sutherland County Council suggested its conversion into a Craft Village. From advertising the response was enthusiastic and was known as the Far North Project. The County Council would interview and vet all applicants for suitability and on condition of producing craftwork were given the buildings at a minimal rent, approximately fifty pounds per annum. The aim was to attract experienced craft workers resident all year and if they left, any improvements to the buildings had to remain.


The buildings were bare concrete shells with no plumbing or electricity, some with no glazing and were barely habitable. Single storey cavity breeze block flat roofed construction, the conversions of the bleak and deserted barracks into suitable properties was daunting. During these early years much work was done by the International Voluntary Service, erecting poles and running electricity power lines. The County Councillor Mr. Christie Campbell a Durness resident instigated a great deal of help and gave generous support to the early settlers. Two ex college lecturers took up residence at the old manse on the verge of the site and a large unit was renovated into a hotel. Craftworkers had to make the others habitable, construct workshops, seek out sources of supply, organise reliable deliveries and produce work with no guarantee of an immediate income. The buildings remain unsightly and require regular maintenance, flat roofed with water towers. A coffee shop and the first commercial transport to Cape Wrath were instigated from the first Craft Village settlers Paul and Yvette Brown.


There were many attempts at many different projects during the early years failing and succeeding in various degrees. Social gatherings were frequent and the musicians formed a band that played regularly in the Durness village hall. Informal meetings were regular and at the end of each season, there was a celebratory party.


It was not until around 1970 that any form of association was attempted. Meetings were held to discuss such things as signs, posters, and provision of public toilets. In 1974 – 1975, another tenants association tackled the problems and Sutherland County Council formed a Balnakeil Craft Village Management Committee and two people from the village were invited to attend but they had no vote. A member representing the Highlands and Islands Development Board was also included. Matters discussed were mostly concerned with applicants to join the village and to get the Ministry of Defence out of their building and to curtail their use of the car park as a helicopter pad. Efforts were made to smarten up the site. The Highlands and Islands Development Board paid fifty pounds toward paint; a job creation scheme provided labour to paint buildings, plant trees and mow grass.


Tenants had been pressing the County Council for a chance to buy their buildings and around 1978 discussions started to take place with this view and in 1980 the Highland Regional Council, after local government reorganisation, offered to sell the properties to the sitting tenants and the residents took up the offer to buy. Some sixteen independently owned businesses, operated by Craftspeople from all over the world made Balnakeil Craft Village not only the first establishment of its kind in Britain but also the only one to be owned by its residents.


In 1982 to provide a focal point for the village a Visitors Centre was opened, designed and furnished by the residents housing a permanent exhibition of craftwork from the village, a history of the craft village, a lounge and coffee shop. In 1983 Balnakeil Craft Village Community Co-operative was formed, a social development project, to provide facilities and services to residents, independent business and visitors. The population of the craft village at that time was forty eight, thirty three adults and fifteen children in twenty households. Thirty seven shares were issued to twenty six shareholders and by October 1986, seventy nine shares had been issued to thirty six shareholders. The response to the Community Co-operative was mixed from the residents, hostility to total commitment. The Community Co-operative was wound up in late 1986. The endeavour can be summarised as producing a clash of ideologies.


Balnakeil Craft Village , for uncertain reasons, since its inception has had a transient population, though from 1996 a relative stability appears evident. A trivial turbulent history has prevailed with the reputation of being everything from a tinker encampment to a hippie commune. Generally people have either succeeded in their craft and moved on, failed and moved on, or remained single proprietor operations. There is no constituted umbrella organisation. Small groups get together occasionally for activities of common interest.


People have moved from Balnakeil to Durness finding the life style of the district more suitable than the way of life in the craft village. The most prominent was elected as member of the Highland Council. Business success allowed a move to Durness to expand the craft enterprise and open the Sango Sand Oasis.

Businesses are operated at varied levels, from unqualified responsibility and the only source of income, to opening a shop for particular weeks of the year to augment other work. Some are unconcerned with business liability and aim to earn enough to enjoy a quality lifestyle at a basic level. The contrast of commercial features, personal factors and visitor attractions are closely interlinked with the individual commitments and objectives. The preference of priorities is dependent on the agreement of the ensemble and has been contended and unresolved to any great degree.


At first sight, Balnakeil Craft Village can look a forbidding place. The ex-military buildings do not lend themselves to being prettified. Each building has a plot of ground and the remainder of the land is owned in common by twenty two property owners. Some of the buildings have been further divided internally and split for sale since original sales in 1980. The buildings are all at dissimilar standards of refurbishment but most are weatherproof, insulated and centrally heated making comfortable homes and working environments.

Balnakeil is dependent on the wider community of Durness for its facilities and services and currently is not attracting people committed totally to a full time craft as the only means of earning a living. For the first time, 1987, there is no expectant mothers and no pre school children. Although generally the people of Durness have been very supportive to the concept of such an entity being successful, the craft village has had very little attraction for the native population of Durness.


The earlier settlers were collectively known as the Crafties but the use of this name has lessened. The craft village has sporadically provided employment but has never fulfilled the economic potential for the area as was at one time envisaged. A proprietor of the now non-existent guesthouse was a Durnessian. The ferryman for the Kyle of Durness and his family moved to a building in the craft village in 1984 when the Community Council sold this unit. The Community Council obtained the building when the military finally moved out in 1993. The boatyard was started by a local man.


Curious articles and reports have been written about Balnakeil Craft Village for multiform reasons and by assorted authors. Some have lived and worked here for some time and written of their interpretation and experiences, some have visited and written objectively on some aspect of interest or curiosity, some have used the concept as a subject for dissertation and some have recorded for tourist magazines. Each feature has presented an image at some stage of its progress. A varying account from every inhabitant can be relayed and to this end, perhaps the complexity, intricacy and uniqueness of Balnakeil can be appreciated.

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