Around Lochaber with Angus MacDonald – 27.2.20

Some welcome sunshine brought out the crowds for the parade along the High Street in Fort William on Sunday. Picture: Iain Ferguson, NO F19 SSDT PARADE
The parade along the High Street in Fort William for the start of the Scottish Six Days Trial always draws a big crowd to Fort William town centre. Photograph: Iain Ferguson, The Write Image.

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What makes a great High Street today?

Picture this for a moment, a band marching along the Fort William high street, devoid of vehicles, crowds of smiling people lining the route. The next day, a farmers’ market with unwrapped vegetables from the garden, homemade jams, duck eggs, cheeses, and a stand of delicious sloe gins and other liquers; local charities have tables set up for raffles and fundraising competitions. Some children are playing hopscotch in a marked out area, with parents sitting around on benches sipping coffee from the renown café on the corner. Independent shops are thriving, quirky, individual places selling delicious baking and pies perhaps, local knitwear, a hardware shop with paper bags to fill with the nails and screws you want. Two children from the high school are busking, playing the fiddle, there must be £50 in their upturned hats. Next Tuesday night a great local band is playing in Cameron Square, tickets will be hard to get.

This is where people want to be, not in the soulless out-of-town supermarket boxes, overly chilly, devoid of laughter.

Before my family moved back to Lochaber, we lived near Pitlochry. Despite having a high street full of cars the town is buzzing, every Monday night for five months there is ‘a highland night’ where one of the two pipe bands marches down the high street, all the shops stay open and do a roaring trade. In October ‘The Enchanted Forest’ has become a mega hit, with 80,000 people attending a year. It is a bumper month for the retailers, when here in Fort William the streets are emptying for the winter. Its New Year street party attracts huge numbers and the Etape Caledonia is Britain’s largest cycling event.

The North Perthshire hospitality industry has a season four months longer than we have here; the owners of the hotels and the many independent cafes are positively prosperous. Lochaber-based Highland Soap Company’s shop in Pitlochry has 50 per cent higher sales than their shop in Fort William, despite being the same size, prominence and both having delightful staff. The difference is the non summer spend.

I read an article once that said that thriving high streets were about experiences. A high quality farmers’ market, a good bookshop and a town centre cinema brought people into the town…and what also made a real difference was a stream of events, especially in those shoulder months.

In Fort William we have the final day of the Scottish Six Days Trial motorcycle competition and the Christmas Gathering, but so much more can be made of our high street.

Fort William has so much more going for it than Pitlochry – it doesn’t have a cinema, a bookshop or our excellent West Highland Museum, not to mention Ben Nevis and the sea. Every event could start and finish on the high street, including the Ben Nevis Race, mountain biking events. We have the fantastic Lochaber Piping Festival hidden away in the Nevis Centre – get the participants out to play. Our tiny weekly farmers’ market is jammed down at the east end of town, so much more could be made of that! I’d love a parade of the cattle and horses down the high street prior to the Lochaber Show – imagine! A ticker tape parade of our victorious shinty team holding the Camanachd Cup aloft…okay, I am getting a bit carried away here.

I wanted to host – and pay for – a street party for the opening of the cinema, but it was all too expensive and difficult. Security personnel, barriers, and emergency access required for the fire and ambulance service was the killer blow. Alcohol would not be allowed either.

Edinburgh closes off Princes Street for both New Year and the Fringe festival, and alcohol is certainly allowed there. I feel that our town could be vibrant, a really happening place, but we need help.

Come on Highland Council, become the organisation that wants to say yes. Councillors, show some leadership, see what is happening elsewhere and figure out what can be done to help our town thrive once more.