Opinion: Revitalising coastal towns across the North East

Wednesday 01 May 2024

Dr Jonathan Scott
Writing in the Press & Journal, Dr Jonathan Scott from the Scott Sutherland School of Architecture highlights how diversification and sustainable development offer coastal towns across the North East a bright future...

The north east of Scotland is distinct from the coast to the hills, with very natural boundaries between them.  Coastal towns have been struggling significantly and in decline, socially and economically in the 20th century, meaning there had been a loss of working capable people from the region.  The oil boom had seen this trend reverse briefly, and for the past several decades the area has moderately bounced back.  With the end of the oil boom in transition and the effects of climate change more recognisable – now is the time to look at diversification.

Students at the Scott Sutherland School of Architecture & Built Environment are engaging with local communities in coastal towns across the North East, including Buckie, Macduff, Fraserburgh and Peterhead, to regenerate key buildings that were once historical landmarks. The Circular Economy Project aims to help coastal communities transform derelict sites into energy-positive buildings that set the standard for construction in Scotland, across their life span. This means understanding the materials, construction sequence, affordability, carbon offset and ultimately disassembly of a building among many other things!

Over the past year, students have engaged with the local community to explore new low carbon ways to support the socio-economic future of these towns and to embrace the region’s heritage. As part of the project, they’ve been asking local communities what they really need and being finding out how best to redevelop derelict buildings so that they can be as useful as possible to support the areas socially, economically as well as of course environmentally.  Uniqueness and innovation is key.

The sites are chosen for a range of reasons, Buckie’s rich commercial background, Macduff’s fishing and smaller scale community background, Fraserburgh’s cultural, as well as fishing background – being home to the earliest University in Scotland for example, and Peterhead who before it was the largest fishing port and second largest town after Aberdeen had cultural significance as a ‘spa town’. 

All four have faced challenges in the 21st century despite having their own unique cultural dialects and mannerisms, much of which is lost – with very little written or historic material about them. Without the likes of ‘The Christian Watts Papers’ all would be lost. Christian having an eventful life, starting in life in a Fraserburgh fishing family – but illustrating how coastal people and communities influence and dynamism created these communities.

Central to this are what people leave behind – the buildings.  Buildings and Places should reflect the current yet also the history of a place – creating a sense of place and pride.  And it is this lens and idea, with the central tenant of circular economy – that the students are tackling their projects in their final year.  The project supports the UK Green Building Council’s ambition to encourage more sustainable built environments to help transform buildings and infrastructure, to help communities thrive. It is an ambition that is becoming ever more important in the North East of Scotland, as the region transitions towards net-zero and seeks a more sustainable future.

The project builds on a number of successful regeneration projects underway in the North East that are driving growth and re-energising local economies and communities. In Fraserburgh, the recent restoration of the civic and symbolic Faithlie Centre in the historic heart of The Brock, celebrates the town’s granite heritage, along with the bold and the new. The centre is a lead project for Aberdeenshire Council’s Fraserburgh Townscape Heritage and Conservation Area Regeneration Scheme and is catalysing further regeneration in the town centre. 

In Portsoy, the Community Boatbuilding Centre has replaced a two-storey derelict building and established a new space to construct traditional boats and teach skills to local school children. What’s great about this project, is that it is led by volunteers from the charity who have partially constructed the building themselves. Elsewhere, the North East Preservation Trust, has rescued a number of important historic buildings in Aberdeenshire from neglect and dereliction including the Duff House Vinery in Banff, the Sail Loft in Portsoy, the Prop of Ythsie near Tarves and 2- 4 Old Castlegate in Banff.

The Peterhead Cultural Project - ‘Cultural Tides: North Sea Connections in Aberdeenshire’, led by Aberdeenshire Council has successfully secured funds from the UK Government’s Levelling Up Fund to create new cultural and heritage opportunities in Peterhead and MacDuff. There are plans to re-establish the walled garden in the vacant Arbuthnott house and to create a new public space in the heart of Peterhead. The existing museum and library building could also be refurbished for a new cultural use, and Macduff Marine Aquarium, expanded to create a new learning space and café/restaurant to celebrate the town’s shipbuilding heritage and coastal setting.   

All these projects serve as a beacon of hope for sustainable development in the North East, and represent a clear example of how the region can establish itself as a cultural destination with a bright future. 

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