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‘An awful way to welcome visitors’: Dumfries and Galloway’s derelict buildings

The Mercury Inn is “an awful way to welcome visitors to Moffat”. This is how one of many disgruntled residents described the derelict hotel that has blotted the entrance to the otherwise picturesque Dumfriesshire town for two decades.

When The Ferret asked readers to flag eyesore buildings in their area, it was Moffat’s old inn that came up the most, by far.

Despite protests, interventions from a local politician, and endless local pressure on the owner to either demolish, sell or remediate the building, all efforts have so far been unsuccessful.

Moffat is not an exception, however. Around Scotland there are derelict, empty and underused buildings from the lowlands to the highlands and islands, each with a story behind them. Former businesses, factories and community spaces sit in clusters in towns and cities, while empty homes, farms and other former outposts are peppered across rural areas.

To local communities, each one represents a frustrating eyesore, a physical manifestation of economic decline – or a golden opportunity for a valuable home, business, or public space.

We decided to look at derelict buildings across Dumfries and Galloway, Scotland’s most south-westerly and third-largest region, which extends around 90 miles as the crow flies from Langholm in the east to Portpatrick in the west.

As part of an investigation into land ownership, we have previously examined how communities are affected by derelict buildings in Glasgow, and what efforts are being made to remediate the 10 largest vacant and derelict pieces of land in Scotland.

The largest 10 vacant and derelict sites in Scotland

Whatever the size, derelict sites “can damage an area, resulting in social, economic and environmental harm”, according to the Scottish Land Commission (SLC). “However, these sites also present opportunities for regeneration and renewal – unlocking growth, reviving communities and reducing inequalities.”

The SLC found a third of the population to be living within 500 meters of a derelict site – a result of Scotland’s industrial legacy. In deprived areas, this figure increased to 58 per cent. To tackle “the blight” of derelict land and buildings, the commission has encouraged communities to apply for funding sources in order to bring such sites back into use.

It also proposed a compulsory sales order to empower councils when absentee owners refuse to sell neglected buildings. However, the Scottish Government abandoned this manifesto pledge in 2019.

In Dumfries and Galloway abandoned structures decay in the region’s largely rural areas, with backdrops of green rolling hills and glens, thick pine forests and extensive coastline. They are also easily found in many of its nearly 80 towns, villages and hamlets.

We’ve investigated a derelict factory deemed a “death trap” by a local politician, a decaying port that has long symbolised a town’s economic woes, and a Georgian high street tenement now home only to dead pigeons.

We also learnt of the rebirth of longstanding empty structures, such as a former bank being converted into crucial accommodation, and plans to convert an expansive former mill into a multi-purpose community hub.

Though communities have been burdened by derelict and vacant buildings, locals have in many cases united to bring these structures back to life and remake them in their own vision.

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The Mercury Inn hotel. Empty for more than 20 years. © M J Richardson (cc-by-sa/2.0)

The eyesore old Mercury Inn Hotel “blots the entrance” to Moffat, and is “one of the first things visitors see on the main road into town”, readers told The Ferret. Local anger about the eyesore hotel is palpable, with a one-man sit-in protest at the building in 2014.

In the 20 years The Mercury has lain derelict, much frustration has been directed at the owner, Edinburgh Woollen Mill (EWM). The company has made “a lot of money from the town” via its nearby shop, residents said.

In 2011, a petition was launched to demolish the building and in the following years, local Conservative MP David Mundell – who worked at the hotel as a student – met EWM head, Philip Day, to encourage the site’s redevelopment.

At least one local business made similar efforts. Moffat-based Chefs in Scotland (CIS) hoped to turn the site into a business and training centre, but EWM failed to reply to their request to buy.

In 2015, demand grew again for the hotel to be demolished. Mundell told the Dumfries and Galloway Standard that the council could use its compulsory purchase powers if EWM were “unwilling to bring forward proposals for the site”.

The Ferret asked EWM about its plans for the building. A spokesperson for the company’s property team said that it was working to restore The Mercury and had added panelling to the building’s exterior in an attempt to make it less of an eyesore.

The site “is part of a development sit and until all the parts are in place, we cannot put in a planning application”, the spokesperson said.

Mills, factories and high streets

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Rosefield Mills from Dock Park. © Rose and Trev Clough (cc-by-sa/2.0)

Not all disused and derelict buildings are detested, however. A riverside mill that resembles a Venetian palace is a key example. It sits around 21 miles south of Moffat in Dumfries, the region’s largest town.

Affection for the rundown Rosefield Mills, which still looks striking on the banks on the river Nith, is partly owed to its grand exterior, defined by the town’s iconic red brick and sandstone.

Once the largest tweed mill in Dumfries, the 1800s building fell into a long period of disuse after production ceased around the 1930s. Then, in 2018, with hundreds of people backing a campaign to save it, Dumfries Historic Buildings Trust (DHBT) bought part of the site.

A series of community events followed, spawning a variety of different proposed uses, including arts and entertainment, farmers markets and exhibitions. Luke Moloney, DHBT’s chair said that the trust was still pursuing funding applications and hoping to receive money from Historic Environment Scotland (HIS) to help put a roof on the building and halt any further deterioration.

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The dilapidated Gates Rubber Factory, Dumfries. © Richard Webb (cc-by-sa/2.0)

Far less adored by doonhamers is the former Gates Rubber Factory in the town’s Heathhall area, which was labeled a “death trap” by south of Scotland Labour MSP, Colin Smyth. The building served as a car factory, WW1 aircraft manufacturing facility and a rubber factory throughout the 1900s.

However, since lying derelict, the factory has become an eyesore and a vandalism magnet. As well deterring local investment, such deteriorating buildings pose a danger to the public, according to the Scottish Land Commission.

Weak floors and decaying roofs can be perilous to urban explorers, and empty buildings like factories are known for attracting arson. Fire damage, particularly to roofs and interiors can leave buildings beyond repair, with demolition the only remaining option.

During 2018-19 Scottish Fire and Rescue Service figures showed that arson in Dumfries and Galloway had risen by more than a fifth. In recent years, several suspicious blazes have occurred in derelict buildings across the region, such as at an old mill in Langholm and in an unoccupied house in Kirkcudbright.

In Sanqhuar, seven individual fires were started in an empty factory in the space of one morning in 2019. An old mansion house near Dumfries has been a target for arson, as has an old high school in the town, and indeed the rubber factory, which saw two blazes in the space of three days in 2017.

In an attempt to speed up the factory’s remediation, Dumfries and Galloway Council prepared advice for developers looking to take it on after a creative design firm’s development plans reportedly ran into difficulties years earlier.

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107-109, and other empty buildings on Dumfries High Street. Image credit: Midsteeple Quarter

It’s not always in the power of a council or even local residents to remedy an eyesore building, however. Right in the Dumfries town centre, a once-beautiful Georgian building reportedly housing only dead pigeons has become a regular, unwelcome sight for anyone who walks down the high street.

Whilst downtrodden, the 1820s three-storey tenement numbered 107-109 is deemed culturally significant by Historic Scotland due to being a brainchild of renowned Kirkcudbrightshire architect, Walter Newall.

The Ferret asked Steven Jackson, a director of the Glasgow-registered N&S Property Company that owns the building about its future. Jackson said that while he hoped to sell, he had no immediate plans to do so.

The tenement is just one example of derelict and underused buildings on the high street, which has been declining over the years. Matt Baker, a local resident and a founding member of artist-collective, The Stove Network, said that like many other market towns, Dumfries had suffered the “death of the high street”.

He said this decline began decades ago, when institutional investors spotted a commercial opportunity in the town, bought out many central buildings and, in many cases, extended ground floor spaces for retail by demolishing housing in the closes behind.

“Previously you had an infrastructure of smaller shops on the ground floor and flats up above, but the business culture of the 70s and 80s changed all that”, said Baker. Investors began renting out the ground floors to chain stores, often removing staircases to maximise space, and sealing off the upper floors to use as storage.

When the financial crisis and the rise of internet shopping began around 2008, big chain stores began to up sticks, leaving behind swathes of poorly maintained and largely unusable buildings in dire need of investment.

“The really sad part is that very little of the profit came anywhere near the town,” Baker said. Rents went to investors from outside the town, shop proceeds went to national chain stores and locals saw only retail jobs in return. “It’s been a story of extracting value out of the town and leaving the community with the mess to clear up at the end,” he added.

While doonhamers have long been frozen out of deciding the fate of their town centre, a local-led project, the Midsteeple Quarter, is working to rejuvenate a run-down section of the high street.

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Midsteeple Quarter’s street level plan, showing businesses, re-opened closes and public spaces, with residential units on the upper floors. Image credit: Midsteeple Quarter

Consisting of a dedicated team – including Baker as strategic director – and a 400-strong local membership, Midsteeple’s vision is to take eight disused buildings into community ownership and bring them back to life.

This would pave the way for a mix of 50 new businesses, and culture, leisure and other services on the lower floors, with 66 flats providing affordable rented housing for around 200 people in the floors above.

Midsteeple are building relationships with owners, and seeking to use local and national legislation, such as community right to buy and compulsory purchase orders to acquire the properties.

With their recent masterplan published, the first phase of the project, dubbed The Oven, is proposed to begin in summer 2020. With a recent history of successful community buyouts, most notably on Scotland’s islands, other towns will be watching Dumfries closely as Midsteeple attempts to usher in an urban community buyout.

Baker hopes that Midsteeple Quarter can inspire both doonhamers and residents in other Scottish towns to seek control of their spaces, and turn them into what they know their communities need.

Ports, hotels and banks

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Former Stena Line ferry terminal, Stranraer. © The Carlisle Kid (cc-by-sa/2.0)

Around 60 miles west in the Rhins of Galloway peninsula, empty buildings on a vast, derelict port are the first thing you see when you arrive in Stranraer by rail. The “fantastic natural asset of Loch Ryan has been maligned by an old port harbour that lies in wrack and ruin,” lamented a local development trust.

The town had long benefited from its location on the southern shores of Loch Ryan – a natural harbour. However, Stranraer’s iconic port, once the gateway for ferries crossing to Northern Ireland, moved around six miles up the road to Cairnryan almost a decade ago.

The deeper waters closer to the mouth of the eight-mile sea loch allowed for bigger ships to depart and shorter crossing times across the Irish Sea. When the ferries departed in 2011, so did the more than a million passengers who would pass through Stranraer each year, spending time and money in the town.

The following year a Scottish Agricultural College report said Stranraer was the fourth Scottish town most at risk from the recession. This vulnerability was heightened by the closure of the economically important port, which was a key part of Stranraer’s identity for 150 years.

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The George Hotel, Stranraer. © Billy McCrorie (cc-by-sa/2.0)

On a prominent corner of the town centre, an empty hotel serves as a further reminder of the exodus of ferry passengers. According to the Buildings at Risk register, the George Hotel on Church Street provided accommodation to travellers using the ferry crossing to Ireland since the 1800s, but having been disused since 2007, has fallen into decay.

Dumfries and Galloway Council bought the derelict hotel in 2017 to prevent it from further deterioration, and with an aim to restore it. But with the roof structure and the majority of the interior deemed unable to repair, calls were made to demolish the building. The roof later caused the closure of a nearby street due to falling slates.

However, the council’s website says that as the hotel is a B-listed building, demolition would need approval from HIS.

Despite a period of doom and gloom in the town, the community has banded together to help transform Stranraer’s economic fortunes and reignite positivity. One organisation, the Stranraer Development Trust, was formed to do just that.

Successfully applying for government funding, the trust distributes grants to smaller local organisations via their own “resilience fund” to help “showcase Stranraer in a positive light”.

The town’s vast sea loch alone is enabling many events which are helping both to build community confidence, and attract visitors “to help local businesses thrive”, said Allan Jenkins, the trust’s project officer.

Events include beach cleans, the 2019 Skiffie Coastal Rowing World Championships, the upcoming Coast 2 Coast Rally, and the annual (and Scotland’s first) oyster festival. With Loch Ryan home to one of the last wild, native oyster beds in Scotland, the 2019 festival alone brought 14,000 visitors to the town and generated £1 million for the economy.

“People in Stranraer have turned that negativity from years gone by into what can we do, how we work together and how we achieve it,” said Jenkins. “The community will need to work together along the way and we’ll give it our best shot at getting the town back to where we want it to be.”

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Wigtown’s town square. Photo credit: Nick Walker

Head east through the stunning wilds of Galloway, and you’ll find other communities battling to keep cherished buildings from falling into disuse and disrepair. In Wigtown, Scotland’s national book town, local activists have worked tirelessly to write a new chapter for a former bank building in the town centre.

While the more than a dozen bookshops in the town have thrived, partly thanks to the tens of thousands of literature lovers that flock to the annual book festival, other businesses have not been so resilient.

Like so many towns and villages in rural Scotland, Wigtown was badly affected by the infamous Beeching cuts which saw many of the UK’s vital rail links closed in the 1960s. Even the line between Dumfries and Stranraer, the south west’s two largest settlements, was axed.

In the decades that followed, two of Wigtown’s major employers, Bladnoch Distillery and the Co-operative Creamery, were lost, although the former reopened in 2017. According to the Association of Wigtown Booksellers, the closures led to an increase in vacant buildings and a falling population in the remote town, which sits on eastern edge of the Machars peninsula.

A lack of affordable local housing for pensioners and young families has also become a serious issue. So when the Bank of Scotland announced in 2017 that it would close its Wigtown branch, locals saw an opportunity.

An existing house building project of the Wigtown & Bladnoch Community Initiative (W&BCI) had just been stymied by a landowner, who W&BCI said refused to engage with the community. Then “the bank building fell into our laps.”

The group used community right to buy legislation to register an interest in the property, ultimately securing first refusal to buy it for an independently-assessed value. Then it had to be proved that solid proposals for the building’s use were in place and, crucially, that the local community was on board.

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The former bank building. Photo credit: Nick Walker

This process was slow, and far from simple, however. Firstly, Bank of Scotland was “difficult to engage with” and the agents overseeing the sale “barely even knew where Wigtown was”, said Nick Walker, W&BCI’s convenor and co-owner of the local Beltie Books shop and café.

The group also needed business plans, consultants and funding. The majority of the funds – around 95 per cent – were secured through the Scottish Government’s Scottish Land Fund, with the rest covered by donations.

In February 2019, W&BCI finally took ownership of the C-listed building and have since gained planning permission for a dedicated community project. To reach this stage, however, further funding had to be secured from a dizzying array of sources, including town centre, architectural heritage, community benefit and rural housing initiatives.

Now the plan is to transform the upper floors into a family-sized flat, while the downstairs space will be split between a one-bedroom pensioner flat and low-cost accommodation for visiting hikers and cyclists, known as The Booktown Bunkhouse.

Discussions are also underway to find a use for the large garden behind the building, but early indications are that a community garden project has the most support.

W&BCI’s mission “is to bring neglected land and property into community ownership in a sustainable way, to benefit and enhance the lives of the people living in and visiting Wigtown and Bladnoch”, Walker affirmed. “This reflects the motto of the former royal burgh: Let Wigtown Flourish.”

He concluded: “There’s a real sense of optimism now that tangible progress is being made, with strong support for the development of a new and much-needed community asset.”

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A notice of W&BCI’s plans for the former bank. Photo credit: Nick Walker

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