Amid the visual melee of the Kelvingrove Art Gallery’s ground floor east court sheltering in a small alcove is a small display of photographs, household objects, written records and other memorabilia. You’d almost be forgiven for not noticing it, being so overwhelmed by susended heads, stuffed animals, display cases and the miscelanneous paraphernalia of a badly conceived room display.
But linger awhile and the display begins to slowly unravel its meaning. It’s here under the auspices of a modest community-based initiative called We Are Here, established in 1998, and based in the village of Cairndow on Loch Fyne – not fifty miles distant from Glasgow city centre. The main purpose of the organization is to assist with the development and the sustainability of the local community.
In 2009 We Are Herereceived Heritage Lottery Funding for an unusual but important local history project which they named Our Houses: Their Stories. Propelled by the drive and enthusiasm of prime movers Alice Beattie and her daughter Dot Chalmers Our Houses: Their Stories seeks to illustrate and document the links between houses and the people which inhabit them “This is the biography of the 107 houses of Cairndow as well as the story of those who lived – and live – in them and their livelihoods and their occupations. It is about the impact of where you live on your life: and on your way of life on your house,” explains Chalmers. “One of the first things we did at Here We Are was to photograph all Cairndow’s 107 houses. In our early days Alice Beattie meticulously recorded data about who lived in which house from the first 1841 census. More recently, as we collected, scanned and catalogued our photo collection we began to amass a photo gallery of people who had lived, and live, in Cairndow. Out of this emerged the idea for Our Houses: Their Stories.
Cairndow, which lies in the Parish of Kilmorlich was forntunate in having records from a variety of sources, including the local estate (many of the houses were at one point ‘tied) and the Census. But more contemporary technology has allowed the organisers to record extensive audio and videon interviews with Cairndow’s inhabitants, many of whom talk passionately and informatively about the relationship with the houses they inhabit. Touch screen technology allows links to be made with particular families and their place of residence; or to access the history of habitation relating to a particular dwelling.
Very few of the village’s dwelling houses are modern, meaning that time has allowed the accumulation of memory, experience emotion, and a sense of continuity – all of which may be described as the effect the buildings have had on their human ocuupants. This is something well understood by the philosopher Gaston Bachelard in his now famous text The Poetics of Space. At the same time the occupants have had an effect sometimes profound, sometimes minimal on the buildings and heir architectural integrity.
Our Houses: Their Storiestherefore records a two way process and illustrates the symbiotic relationship between buildings and people.
As well as all of this the project has linked the local and the voluntary with the national and the professional – as the project has called upon the expertise of such bodies and organization as advisors as the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland (RCAHMS), Simpson and Brown (architects/archaeologists),and the School of Scottish Studies Archives at Edinburgh University.
Although currently modest in scope, it’s easy to see how Our Houses: Their Storiescould act as an inspiring model for community participation at a national level by fostering social cohesion and a sense of place.