The Whithorn Trust was set up in 1986 following an archaeological excavation at Whithorn in Dumfries & Galloway that discovered remains dating back to the early centuries of Whithorn’s development as a Christian centre.
Since 1988, the Trust has been a large employer in the area, employing predominantly local people, as well as welcoming a large group of volunteers of all ages who give guided tours and get involved in everything from gardening to flower-arranging and maintenance. Centred around a mediaeval roundhouse reconstruction and visitor centre, the attraction attracts around 8,000 visitors every year (pre-pandemic) to its location as one of the most southerly points in Scotland.
Paul Cookson working with trainees to show how to square a beam from a tree branch, using medieval techniques, with an axe.
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought many challenges, but it has also given many of the Trust’s varied projects new impetus and meaning. The trust has been able to employ six young people aged 18-24, as part of the Kickstart scheme, who are learning ancient and traditional joinery skills and other heritage craft skills, with a view to the long-term development of full-scale reconstructions of the early medieval buildings as living history attractions, as well as training for young people.
We know that the pandemic has been particularly hard on young people, who were already prone to leave the area - this was particularly true of the mid Galloway area, where there were few training, volunteering or arts and heritage opportunities.
The scheme we currently have is just the start of our ambitions: we want to transform into an accredited training centre for heritage skills, taking on cohorts of young people who can in future work with us, or within the conservation and heritage industries. We've teamed up with leading architects, the University of Edinburgh and other partners such as the Engine Shed, to start sketching out a full-time course and the full-scale designs of our 8th-century buildings. We've been inspired by Guedelon Castle in France, which is both tourism and training in one.
Whithorn was famed for the "Whithorn School" cross carving of the 9th Century and 10th Century, and for centuries, its cathedral was being reconstructed and expanded, so that we know on this very spot, there were craftsmen working for over 1,000 years. We're simply giving it a modern twist by planning on offering apprenticeships in heritage construction skills.
The Whithorn Trust has a great connection with the local community and recognises that by offering opportunities to local children can help reach new audiences and get people from the local community engaged and involved. Their events can also have a positive impact on local businesses; for instance, a visit by a car club resulted in an order to a local crafter.
The volunteering and crafting opportunities on offer at The Whithorn Trust can also have a positive effect on someone’s mental health.
This summer we have opportunities for children to get involved with forest skills and we are offering a series of craft workshops for adults, free at the point of use, so that they can experience stained glass art - something Whithorn was famous for - with the benefits of working in a group, mindfulness, and a sense of achievement when they complete their piece of glass art.
Our young employees are already reporting the benefits of working together and losing the feeling of being unemployed and stuck at home. We have big plans in which they can be involved, and that alone raises the sense of well-being and confidence. They'll be paddling a prehistoric log boat they've created from a tree at a local regatta - that sense of having seen it through from start to finish is uplifting. We're also ensuring that they get lots of side benefits such as First Aid, Lifting and Handling, and safety on the water courses, chainsaw experience and that they get a full portfolio of their work. They're now hoping that more people will see their work and that they can contribute positively to the community, so we're on the road to becoming a social enterprise.
How you can get involved
Tourism is an economic and social powerhouse for Scotland. It creates wealth and social benefits in every corner of the country and enhances the wellbeing of everyone who takes a holiday at home. For more information on all strands of this project and how you can get involved visit our #tourismforceforgood page.