Govan is on the River Clyde in the heart of Glasgow. The area has been a world centre for shipbuilding for hundreds of years, and the skills, identity and pride of the local community have grown around this vital local industry. Shipbuilding in the area employed 35,000 people at its height - and a great diversity of people as, like many ports, Govan's population comes from all over the world. The decline of the shipbuilding industry started at the end of the 1960s and the area now suffers from dereliction, mass unemployment and poverty: 48% of people in Govan receive welfare benefits.
The GalGael Trust reflects Govan's proud heritage of shipbuilding and cultural diversity. The GalGael were the 'strange or foreign Gaels' who were the Gaelic and Norse cultural mix of peoples inhabiting the western seaboard of Scotland in the ninth century. The Trust chose the name to show that the roots of their work are in modern Scottish culture, which includes the rich social and cultural mix of people now living in places like Govan. It is their way of saying "No matter where we are from, we're all in the same boat together."
The Trust was started in the mid-1990s by a small group of unemployed people, mainly young but some retired. They wanted to do something to fight the problems of unemployment and poverty, especially the high incidence of family breakdown and alcohol and drug problems. They had adopted the emblem of the ninth-century GalGael - a birlinn (a highland galley or large rowing-boat).
It occurred to them that they could achieve many of their social objectives by actually building a boat and this is what they set out to do. They then found inspiration in the community boat-building revival in the Shetlands and in Norway, which they envisaged would make a good template for reclaiming heritage and reconnecting Clyde coastal communities.
With support from the local Addiction Services they raised some money and - using timber from trees which fell in a huge storm in Glasgow in 1998 - they built a timber-frame workshop and 12-foot model birlinn. They took this to the Govan Fair, where they attracted more interest and funding. Their ambitions grew and they moved on to building a 25-foot yawl, which they launched with much pride on the Clyde on New Year's Day 2000.
Since then, GalGael people have produced a multitude of smaller hand-crafted products including carvings, furniture, ironwork and even rowing-boats. But the main project has been the building of a 30-foot birlinn. This boat, named Orcuan, was completed in the summer of 2002 and launched by the Deputy Social Justice Minister for Scotland.
It was then rowed to the Isle of Eigg with the aim of opening sail training opportunities to the community. GalGael are currently undertaking a partnership project with Govan Youth Access to build a series of 23-foot sail-boats with local youth to address youth crime and territorial.
The Trust's next project is an even more ambitious community regeneration project. With a big emphasis on community participation, and ancient local history, they want to self-build a timber Gaelic-Norse longhouse, using a design based on depictions of these historic buildings on tenth-century hogback tombstones in Govan's ancient parish church. The longhouse will be used as a local community centre with a focus on 'skills for living'. The centre will also house the construction of a 70-foot birlinn, which the Trust plans to sail all around Scotland to promote the regeneration of Scotland's communities and ecology. The construction of the boat will provide an opportunity for local people to gain training in transferable skills, but will also enable them to express their own creativity and so rebuild individual and community pride and identity.
Getting adequate funding is always a battle but Glasgow City Council is generally supportive and has funded a feasibility study for the project. GalGael have been funded for the last three years by the Greater Govan Social Inclusion Partnership. Funders already recognise the potential benefits to the local economy of the development of community enterprises of this sort, not only through training opportunities but also in supporting tourism by providing another fascinating site to visit.
Developing a new organisational structure is a crucial next step to seeing the project through successfully. Already, though, the achievements of the GalGael Trust have inspired a similar project at the other end of the UK - the Devonport Flagship Project in Plymouth.
The Devonport Flagship Project already has an embryonic training organisation and, like GalGael, those involved want to link traditional ship-building skills with regeneration, local history and tourism. They want to use timber from the local woodlands sustainability project, which is aiming to plant and manage broadleaf woodland for timber production. Here, the ambition is to build a full-scale replica of a historic square-rigged wooden sailing ship, and then other ships, to provide sail training experience for disadvantaged young people - with the whole project sited in the historic South Yard Devonport.
The GalGael Trust sum up the unique qualities of these projects: they recognise people's inner need to contribute their own creativity to their community, as well as their outer need for a living wage. Their work is an inspiration, and a challenge, to regeneration and training projects everywhere.