Case study: Silverburn Flax Mill

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

The Flax Mill at Silverburn was built in 1856 to process flax on an industrial scale using the latest technology – a steam engine to power the machinery, a railway siding to move products in and out in bulk, and the Schenk process to complete all 3 processing stages in one building.  The mill is the only survivor of the 9 flax or linen mills in the Leven District in 1867 and is also the only surviving Schenk rettery in Scotland.

The mill closed in 1889 but was then repurposed as accommodation, estate offices and a laundry to serve the Russell family estate. Silverburn Park was gifted by the Russell family to Leven Town Council in 1973, and that gift is covered by a Conservation Agreement with the National Trust for Scotland which states that the Park must be kept forever “as a place of quiet relaxation, nature trails and organised camping for the benefit of the public in general and the people of Leven in particular.” 

Kirkcaldy District Council subsequently opened an animal farm and a petting zoo in and around the Flax Mill which was a popular destination for locals and visitors alike. Fife Council inherited the estate, closed the animal facilities in 2002, and in 2011 started to look for a partner to take on the management and regeneration of the park. 

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

 In 2012 Fife Employment Access Trust (FEAT) was selected as the preferred bidder and started a community-led process to revitalise the park and develop facilities that would eventually allow the park to become financially self-sufficient, thereby ensuring the availability of the park for the enjoyment of future generations.

The renovation project is a joint project between FEAT and Fife Council, with FEAT as the Lead Client supported by Fife Historic Buildings Trust (FHBT). The renovated building will have a backpackers’ hostel with a total of 26 beds in 10 ensuite rooms over 2 floors, and 80 seat café and restaurant, a reception and shop, meeting and event space, three arts and crafts studios, office space, public toilets including a Changing Places accessible toilet and interactive heritage displays that tell the story of the Flax Mill, flax processing, and how the mill fitted into the wider flax industry across Fife.

How did you source funding and support for the project?

The project was awarded Development Phase funding as a Heritage Enterprise project by the National Lottery Heritage Fund (NLHF) in June 2019, with the Development Phase completed in August 2021.  Additional funding for the Development Phase came from Fife Council, the Architectural Heritage Fund and the William Grant Foundation.  

The Flax Mill project is now mobilising for the Delivery Phase following the award of £3.476 million from the NLHF in January 2022.  Other significant funders are Fife Council (£2 million), the Regeneration Capital Grant Fund (£1.5 million) Historic Environment Scotland (£0.5 million) and the Levenmouth Reconnected Programme (£0.3 million).  

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

A 2-phase Business Plan was produced in 2014 following an extensive community consultation and feasibility studies.  The short-term phase saw the introduction of catering and camping facilities to start to attract more visitors and generate income.  The long-term phase is the renovation of the Flax Mill as a Visitor Centre and Community Hub that will be the centrepiece of the park and the main income generator.

A team of 30 people, a mix of FEAT and Fife Council staff, volunteers and consultants, were employed for the Development Phase, which was not without challenges.  Principal amongst those was COVID, which delayed the start of the detailed condition survey required to produce the next iteration of the design and detailed costings. COVID also impacted our fundraising strategy as trusts and funds either closed for applications or concentrated on the immediate impacts of the pandemic on communities. A subsequent increase in capital costs required a detailed cost saving exercise. 

All these challenges were overcome by a huge team effort backed up by advice and support from FHBT, the Design Team and the NLHF.  The overall result was an extension of 3 months to the 24 months allowed to complete the Development Phase and submit the Delivery Phase application to the NLHF, an increase to the forecast costs from £7.5 million to just over £8 million allowing for a significant VAT reclaim on the capital costs and a 12-month delay to the projected opening date, which is now April 2026.  The latter delay was due to 6 months of COVID delays and an additional 6 months of construction required to deal with some of the issues identified in the detailed condition survey.    

How did you involve the community in your project?

The community has been involved from the start of the project, although our original plan to set up User Panels with stakeholders including the local community to discuss and agree elements of the design had to move online due to COVID.  Community support has been evident through questionnaire responses and detailed consultations carried out as part of the Activity and Interpretation Plans.  The community has also been involved in crowdfunding as part of the match funding effort.

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

Silverburn Park itself has seen a massive increase in footfall during the pandemic as local people have rediscovered the benefits of green space on their doorstep.  Our footfall went up 5-fold on the first day of lockdown in March 2020 and those numbers have increased since then with annual visitors approaching 250,000 in the last financial year.  The completion of the Flax Mill in 2026 is anticipated to attract even more visitors, provide a welcome boost to the local economy and finally achieve our goal of making the park financially self-sufficient. 

What’s next for your project? 

The Flax Mill project is now mobilising for the Delivery Phase. The award of the Main Contract in March 2023 will be followed by 30 months of construction work finishing in September 2025 and the building opening to the public in April 2026.  

To learn more about Silverburn Flax Mill, check out their website.