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Galashiels: Murals, tartan, tapestry – and a spirit that’s driving change

A series of striking murals stand as a powerful reminder of Galashiels’ proud past. But the artwork is also a statement of intent about its future: bold, ambitious and with the community as its heart.

For the famous textiles town known as the Heartland of the Borders, that community core is the key artery as collaboration breeds creativity, which creates vibrancy which – together – is delivering success.

That’s not to say that this is work without challenge. There are – as in every place working to regenerate and make itself economically and environmentally fitter for the future – hurdles to overcome.

But instead of wishing for the return of days gone by, townsfolk in Galashiels are using their past as an inspiration. As demonstrated by the murals.

The Vibrant Gala project which created the trail is the result of work carried out by the multi award-winning  Energise Galashiels Trust, just one example of a vast array of activities and schemes in which it is involved, from the popular Heartlands Market to shopfront improvements and digital support for businesses.

And their catalytic effect – along with wider work – is making its mark as people work to ensure Galashiels town centre is a place in which people not just work, but live and visit too. Indeed, its impact is attracting the interest of other towns keen to learn more.

 

“A survey recently named Gala as the happiest place to live in Scotland, which is really rewarding,” said Energise Gala chair Ian Dalgliesh.

The Vibrant Gala murals – which grew from one celebrating the reopening of the Borders Railway to and from Edinburgh – were developed in tandem with the opening of The Great Tapestry of Scotland.

As well as celebrating the world-renowned mills which once dominated the town, they pay homage to key characters in its past, including Sir Walter Scott and the distinctive Shepherd’s Tartan. A further artistic installation – honouring the community’s agricultural life – is also in the pipeline.

“It’s been a fantastic collaborative project for the community,” Energise Gala manager Angela Crow explained.

“The murals came about as a result of public consultation linked to the tapestry. They were something people were keen to see more of.”

They have certainly added to attractions in the town and are impossible to miss.

The positive impact of the Vibrant Gala project was recognised as it took the Creative Community title at the 2023 Scotland Loves Local Awards, organised by Scotland’s Towns Partnership. It also earned the Improving Scotland’s Places accolade at the 2023 SURF Awards.

Angela added: “The recent awards have contributed towards people feeling prouder of the town.

“We want to make this town centre the best place it can be for people who live here, people who work here and people who visit here.”

 

Drive to create improvement district

Energise Galashiels is also supporting work in an attempt to create a Business Improvement District (BID) for the town.

Potential levy-payers are expected to vote later this year on whether to grant the go-ahead for BID Galashiels, with supporters hoping that its creation will further support the town centre, encourage shoppers and visitors while helping to drive further investment.

The passion which those involved have in making a difference is clear.

Debbie Paterson and Lewis Roden, both of whom run family businesses in the town, are the co-chairs of BID Galashiels.

“The thing that makes Galashiels most special is the people,” said Debbie. “Historically, this was a textiles town. It was bustling, there was lots of noise and there was a lot of pride about what was produced.

“As we have gone through the years, the mills have closed and it left a gap. The town lost its identity a little. 

“But, in recent years, people have realised they want to recreate that vibrancy that Gala had. We can now see shops which had sat empty for years being filled, there are gorgeous murals and there are plans in place to keep Galashiels thriving.”

Lewis hopes that the BID can further build on the efforts of Energise Galashiels.

He added: “We really want to build on that momentum, put on more events and drive traffic to Galashiels to support local businesses.”

Work to develop the BID in Galashiels is being backed by Scotland’s Improvement Districts, the organisation responsible for rolling out and supporting the work of improvement districts nationally.

 

The Great Tapestry of Scotland

The Great Tapestry of Scotland – which opened in a purpose-built centre in August 2021 – has been credited with drawing people into the town, directly supporting the area’s immediate recovery from the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

The brainchild of celebrated Scottish writer Alexander McCall-Smith, the attraction – operated by cultural and leisure trust Live Borders – is home to one of the world’s biggest community arts projects, with a team of 1,000 stickers creating the 160 linen panels which tell the nation’s story. They are based on a narrative written by Borders-based writer and historian Alistair Moffat.

For a town renowned for its textiles, it is another way in which the past is being woven into the future.

Visitor officer Valerie Kelly meets many of those – locals and those from around the world – who visit the tapestry every year.

“We get some people in tears because they are so overwhelmed by what they see. And they usually come back. The more you look, the more you see.

“The people who come here also spend money around the town so businesses have improved around the centre. People are proud to have this here.”

 

Why choosing local is critical

Businesses across Galashiels have been advocates of the Scotland Loves Local drive for people to support enterprises in their community, as well as embracing the Scotland Loves Local Gift Card to help lock money into the Scottish Borders economy.

Bulldog’s Bakehouse,on Channel Street, is among those which accepts the cards.

William Mason founded cake-making business Bulldog Bakes alongside husband Aaron, starting it in their kitchen before moving into their town centre premises.

The support they receive from local people means they, in turn, can support other local enterprises.

“It’s great to see small local businesses being supported. Every pound that comes across the counter is kept local,” said William. “Our regulars are the bread and butter, who keep us going.

“I feel Galashiels could be on the cusp of becoming an up-and-coming place. There’s a lot of time, money and energy being put into the town – and it’s working well for us.”

 

Forging a future together

Euan Jardine is a Galashiels councillor, as well as being the leader of Scottish Borders Council.

Speaking with pride and enthusiasm about the town, he praised so much of what is happening – from the work of Energise Gala to the energy of local businesses, the mission to bring more people into places including Channel Street, sports teams, events and so much more.

He said: “There’s a real vibrancy around Galashiels right now. It can sometimes be hard to realise how much positive change is happening in the town because it’s happening quite organically. Galashiels is showing what can happen with local support.

“Galashiels is one of those places where once people come, they realise all of the hidden gems we have here. There’s so much to the town – with something for everybody.

“Community is so important to all of this. People here are proud to be from their town.”

Find out more about Galashiels at www.galashielsheartland.org.uk