Gayle joins a group of volunteers on a mission to put the magic back into some of Kirriemuir’s much-loved but neglected areas…
The sky is grey and the rain is belting down as I arrive in Kirrie Den.
The grim weather hasn’t put off a small but happy band of volunteers who turn up religiously every Monday morning to spruce up the beauty spot.
Sporting hi-viz jackets, they hack away at rogue branches, sticks and weeds with gardening implements as I approach.
A rake is thrust into my hands and under the watchful eye of Ramsay Mudie, I get stuck in.
Between us, we fill a barrow of debris which we then wheel off to be composted.
It’s tough work and within minutes I’m perspiring heavily.
The volunteers are members of the Kirrie Den Project, a group which works closely with Angus Council’s parks team, carrying out work not covered by the council budget.
Their efforts over the past few months have massively improved the visitor experience to the Den, which has been described as the “hidden gem” of the Angus town.
However, with only four regulars showing up to help out, the group is desperate to recruit more volunteers.
Project member Elaine Findlay, group secretary, used to play in the Den as a little girl and recalls it was a busy place, popular with families.
“We would love it to be as popular as it used to be and we’re open to suggestions as to what people would like to see here, whether more play equipment or maybe a paddling pool,” she tells me.
“We really need more volunteers to get on board to help with general maintenance – tidying up, repairing and repainting railings, planting and cutting back trees and raking leaves.”
The historic cuttle well (a natural spring surrounded by rocks) had fallen into a terrible state of disrepair and the volunteers have done a lot of work on that recently.
Another fly in the ointment is the former park-keeper’s cottage which has been boarded up for years.
Getting it open again would be the final piece in the jigsaw for those hoping to bring new life to the park, which opened in 1867.
“It’s a phenomenal waste of a beautiful building,” bemoans Elaine.
“The title deeds appear to be missing so until ownership is established, nothing can be done.”
As I mop my sweaty brow and take a breather from wheelbarrowing, Pete Bowman, chairman of Kirriemuir Regeneration Group (the umbrella group which looks after the Den), runs me through some of the benefits of coming along to volunteer.
“There are four regulars – myself, Ramsay Mudie, Dave Campbell and Elaine – and we sometimes have another lady join us,” he says.
“There’s a lot to be done and the more volunteers we have, the more progress we can make.
“Without wanting to sound sanctimonious, it does feel good to help the community look after a beautiful, but sadly neglected area.
“We hope the Den becomes better used if it is cared for. It’s a stunning park and, being in a gorge, it’s easy to forget you’re actually in the centre of the town.”
The group has received loads of positive feedback on the improvements and they’re determined to keep going.
Need more reasons to help out? Pete has plenty: “Volunteering at the Den gives you fresh air and exercise. You make friendships and enjoy the companionship and banter. It would really help with people facing loneliness and fight anxiety and depression. Above all it’s fun.”
Worried you don’t have enough time to commit? Pete says it doesn’t matter whether you can give just half an hour or three hours on a Monday morning.
“Anybody can help us,” he says. “Physically, you just do what you can manage.”
As well as the Den Project, Kirriemuir Regeneration Group looks after the town’s much-loved Camera Obscura.
Housed in a purpose-built turret room in the cricket pavilion on Kirrie Hill, it was gifted to the town by Peter Pan author J.M. Barrie in 1930 and is one of only three camera obscuras in Scotland.
It was operated by the National Trust for Scotland (NTS) from 1999 to 2014. When in 2015 NTS announced budget cuts made it impossible for them to continue to operate the facility, the camera and pavilion were threatened with permanent closure. That’s when KRG was formed – as a community group which would save the unique attraction from being lost forever. The group continues to manage, operate and care for the Camera Obscura and its cafe from April until October annually.
Having never ventured inside, I’m delighted when Elaine suggests we down tools and take a trip there.
It’s a striking building, and volunteer and KRG member Irena Krasinska-Lobban is delighted to show me around.
“Everything you see on the camera is live,” she explains, turning off the lights.
“It’s a way of remotely viewing the surrounding landscape by allowing light to pass through a small hole and direct the image onto a viewing area in a darkened room. You get a 360 degree view of the countryside and, on a clear day, you can see for miles.”
Because the weather is rubbish, I don’t get the best views, but I pledge to return on a sunny day.
Before I leave, I stop for a cuppa and chinwag in the cafe with Elaine and Irena, who tells me: “The people of Kirrie are very supportive of what’s going on in the town and there’s a strong community spirit.
“But the message we want to get across is that we need more volunteers – for the Den, for the cafe, for Camera Obscura and for other projects in the future. The community can make things happen!”
The Den in Kirriemuir was opened in 1867 and extended later in the 19th century. As well as carrying out general maintenance, The Kirrie Den Project’s plans include mending fences, rebuilding damaged steps, painting railings and replacing anti-skid surfaces on bridges.
Kirriemuir Regeneration Group opens and maintains The Den’s public toilets from April to October. Check out the Facebook page, Kirrie Den Project, for more details.
The Camera Obscura and cafe are run entirely by volunteers with any donations and profits ploughed back into the community.