Case study: Bridgend Farmhouse

What is the history of the building, monument or area?

Bridgend Farmhouse is a traditional, 18th century farm steading with family house, yard and outhouses and garden surrounded by stone walls. Until the 2000s it was a working farm with cattle, pigs, cereals, fruit and vegetables. It lies in the old Inch Estate which included Craigmillar Castle on the south side of Edinburgh. It is now surrounded by ex-council estates of Craigmillar, Inch, Moredun and Gilmerton (EH16 and EH17).

How did the project begin and what community need(s) was it seeking to address?

The building was bought by the City of Edinburgh Council in 2000 with the intention of using it as the gatehouse for the new Craigmillar Castle Park, a millennium project. However it failed to find funding and fell into dereliction. In 2010 a small group of local people, some of them gardeners in the neighbouring Bridgend organic allotments, dreamt of restoring the farmhouse and opening it as a community centre.

There was clearly a need for skills training, healthy eating and exercise in the local estates where there are significant pockets of deprivation and poor health from de-industrialisation in the area over the past 40 years. 

How did you source funding and support for the project?

Pilot projects and consultation events were organised, engaging with a wide range of local community members, until in 2012 we won a ‘Investing in Ideas’ grant from the National Lottery. This allowed us to engage consultants to help us draw up architectural and business plans and were eventually awarded a full £1million grant from the National Lottery Community Fund Growing Community Assets stream in 2015.

At the same time, we campaigned to have the ownership of the farmhouse transferred to us for £1 as a Scottish Charitable Incorporated Organisation (SCIO). Thus in 2015, we became one of the pioneering examples in Scotland of an urban asset transfer. This was done before the new Community Empowerment Act and powers for asset transfer were brought into place.

Early Feasibility Studies focussed on the costs and opportunities between new-build and the repair of the existing, with some assuming that the very poor state of the old farmhouse – including fire-damage and water-ingress – would lead, inevitably, to demolition and rebuild. But a careful description of the necessary repairs showed that repair was – just – cheaper, and it is significant that this route then brought in considerable additional funding, from bodies like Historic Environment Scotland, and has also brought huge additional heritage interest through the continuity of food and growing, at the heart of the site, as well as retaining and fortifying a building whose solidity and longevity will assist its retention, at the heart of its community, for as long as it is loved.

How did the project progress from inception to delivery? What obstacles did you overcome and what were the major milestones?

Under the supervision of architect Malcolm Fraser and project manager Graham Harper, the contractors, Cornhill Building Services, completely restored the farmhouse and added a series of workshops in the garden. We took out any work from the contract that could legally be done by volunteers and did that all ourselves, with a DIY spirit throughout.

The design and proposals evolved and were tested through community workshops, where knowledge was first harvested about the wider area and community’s benefits and challenges, problems and loved places, favourite walks and views, as well as needs and aspirations, and then applied to the immediate site and initial proposals. Outputs focussed on looseness and adaptability: rooms that might change in use, workshops for all sorts of activities, open space for growing, or children or gathering.

We held an official re-opening in the spring of 2018 with two of the families who had owned and worked the farm as guests of honour, where over 1,000 people came to celebrate with us. Bridgend Farmhouse is now a thriving community hub providing training in cooking, gardening, bike maintenance, and arts and crafts. We host children’s adventure clubs, tai chi, singing and walking groups, skills training, peer support groups, and organise regular community events.

The challenges we faced were many and complex. None of the original group of six committee members had any experience of building restoration or running a charitable organisation. We learned by doing, and by persevering. Funding applications are demanding. Turning consultation events into meaningful plans is not easy. We had to campaign hard to persuade councillors to overturn the official rules at the time which demanded that council assets be sold on the open market and not handed over for £1 to community organisations.

We were only the third charity in Scotland to convert from a SCIO to a Community Benefit Society with charitable status in 2018. This allowed us to offer shares to the public, which raised £70,000 to complete the building work and contribute to staff costs in the future. We now have over 420 members/shareholders who collectively own the land and farmhouse. Each shareholder has one vote at the AGM, whether he/she bought a share for £1 or £5,000.

The biggest challenge is to make the farmhouse sustainable in the long term. Our self-generated income comes from our buildings, our courses, our cafe and community events. We have to ensure the charges we make for these cover our energy bills, maintenance and insurance. All staff and outreach costs have to be funded by grants.

Recently we have had the challenge of COVID, which forced us to close during each of the lockdowns and which led to problems of staff turnover. We responded, however, with a major emergency food programme during the first and strictest lockdown, April to July 2020. We provided over 300 families with a food parcel each day containing a healthy breakfast, a simple lunch and a cooked evening meal, chilled and ready to put in the oven or micro-wave. This was funded by Scottish Government, council grants and trusts/foundations. We also moved many of our activities on-line, with classes in cooking, arts and crafts…even singing !

How did you involve the community in your project?

Our community has been involved in our project from the start. Volunteers cleared the site, fitted the charred cladding to the workshops, decorated the finished farmhouse, restored the garden. We held many consultation exercises and our organisational structure is still open and democratic. The board of 12 is elected at the AGM and the majority of members have to be from our “area of benefit” – EH16 and EH17. Most of the work however is done by our actions groups – which are open to everyone – namely: land and buildings, activities and events, bike hub, food and café. We also hold a volunteers forum once a month. This is organised by using what is known as a ‘sociocratic’ form of democratic governance.

What has been the impact of the project on the community? 

We estimate that over 5000 people have benefited from our activities. We have four full time members of staff, six part-time staff and nearly 200 volunteers. Our community survey, carried out in October 2020, attracted nearly 400 household responses. Of those who had been to the farmhouse (39 per cent), they rated our services between 3 and 4 out of 5. They said we were welcoming (4.2), good for wellbeing (3.9), learning new skills (3.8) and building confidence (3.6). We believe we have added to the “social capital” of our community, providing training, volunteering opportunities and a place for many isolated people to find company and friendship.

What’s next for your project? 

As to the future: we have just begun a new project “Farm to Fork” linking our garden allotments to the kitchen and café. This has allowed us to employ part-time coordinators to work with vulnerable volunteers to grow food and cook it.

We are also completing our eco-bothy build and children’s nature-based sensory play area. It has taken over six years to design and build, with teams of volunteers, led by a paid instructor, working one or two days a week. When completed it will be a state-of-the-art eco-building, with wooden frame, straw bale walls and planted roof. During the day it will be used for children’s clubs and outdoor education. In the evenings it will be rented out to drama and music groups. And at the weekends, it will be able to accommodate groups of young people visiting from other parts of the city and beyond.

We are also continuing on the restoration work, with local volunteers offered the opportunity for training courses in traditional stone-wall restoration and dry-stane-dyking to repair all our perimeter walls, as well as working with local stone-masons. We are converting the old stables into a mindfulness/zen garden, and looking to convert the other barns into a mini-orchard, a forge, and a larger bike workshop and repair space. The work continues on, led and delivered by this community. Bit by bit we learn and grow with it each day.

To learn more about Bridgend Farmhouse: