Community Response takes its first steps: Merkinch, Inverness

The first Enough! community response pilot is taking place in Inverness. Enough’s Mairi McFadyen reflects on the project so far. 

As a means and rationale for finding a community to work with and in for our community response strand, and to complement our outward-looking European route-map, we began with the idea of the canal as a kind of metaphor or provocation – a change of pace, a new direction of travel. Before our hydrocarbon-dependent society, the coast and our waterways hosted community centres rather than peripheries.

We looked to the major canal networks in Scotland and chose to land in the Highlands for our pilot. Merkinch, one of the oldest areas of Inverness – once home to the town’s shipbuilding industry – is flanked by the Caledonian Canal to the west, the River Ness to the east, the local nature reserve on the north edge of the city and the Moray Firth beyond.

Map of Merkinch – Friends of Merkinch Nature Reserve

We invited local community workers, artists and others who work in, with and alongside the community of Merkinch to a shared meal on the Loch Ness Barge. Responding to the wider themes of degrowth and deep adaptation, various themes began to emerge in our discussion: the challenge of connecting with nature in an urban context; how to connect the city and the waterways; re-learning the skills and tools we need to live well in community. The conversation centred on our natural-human disconnect and the energy and enthusiasm clustered around thinking about where our food comes from. These became the threads we chose to follow.

The local Merkinch Nature Reserve has become the community focus for our gathering, learning and exploration. As an anchor organisation, we are working in collaboration with the Friends of Merkinch Nature Reserve. We are also working with Common Good Food – a practical advocate of food sovereignty in Scotland – and with local artists, activists and interested folks.

In response to the energy and excitement of various local and volunteer groups connected to the reserve, Enough! is supporting the work already ongoing to create a Wild Food Trail. In recent months, Caroline and her volunteers have planted over 60 fruit trees – apple, pear, cherry, quince and plum – and have begun to map the wild species growing there.

This trail will become a creative focus to bring local groups together to explore themes framed in terms of degrowth and deep adaptation and the commons : land, community resilience, food sovereignty and the vital role of biodiversity – it all starts with the bees…

bumble bee enjoying the meadowsweet

Across the globe, the commons movement, as a lived expression of degrowth, is recovering hopeful alternatives to global capitalism and its destruction. The term ‘commons’ refers to an shared resource, usually a natural one like land or water, which is shared by a group of people (usually locally based) and to which they all have rights and responsibilities. In many traditional cultures people see their whole way of life as a commons, where taking care of and being taken care of by other people and the local environment are indivisible – nothing is separate from the commons.

This reserve can be seen as a local commons. It is a special place – the only site the Highlands to be designated as a Local Nature Reserve (2007). It belongs to the whole of Inverness, but the local community in Merkinch are the de facto stewards of this commons with it flourishing on their doorstep. Very often, the idea of a ‘nature reserve’ is viewed or assumed to be a separate or removed place, reserved for the animals, plants, birds and insects. We hope to shift perceptions of this place – to being to see it not just a haven for wildlife, but as a reserve and a resource for the community too –  a commons that we are very much a part of, that can nourish us – both physically and imaginatively.

“In our era of rampant privatisation and rapidly rising inequality, the idea that there are some things which are so important, which are needed by all people and which everyone should take care of, has started to make sense to more and more of us.”

Common Good Food

Put most simply, the commons is that which we all share that should be nurtured in the present and passed on, undiminished, to future generations. We might think of ‘reclaiming the commons’ as the act of reclaiming both our future and our past. As such, a commons approach is as much about discovering new ways of living as it is about rediscovering locally rooted cultural practices and skills. In this case, we will dig where we stand in Merkinch and connect with the radical history of the commons across the Highlands – traditions of crofting, the shieling or àirigh, dùthchas – exploring how both old and new ideas might have practical application on the ground in this local community into the future.

We will also begin to think more about the potential and possibilities of the idea of the food commons. We hope to connect with and learn from the wider community food movement in Scotland, connecting with local groups such as the inspiring MOO Food project in nearby Muir of Ord, Abriachan Forest or Grow Urquhart – the latter two connected to Merkinch via the Caledonian Canal – and explore the possibilities of forest gardening and community growing as forms of deep adaptation.

First steps

Our first gathering event took place on July 26th on a swelteringly hot day in the summer holidays (the hottest recorded day of the year at that time across the UK). After gathering at the Merkinch Community Centre, we were led on a wild food walk by project manager Caroline Snow and by Gaelic plant expert Roddy MacLean, whose work celebrates the rich connections between the Gaelic language and Scotland’s environment. Roddy has recently worked with Scottish Natural Heritage and Bòrd na Gàidhlig to produce a responsible forgaing guide, which you can download here: Rùrachd Lusan Fiadhain.

For many people, the act of foraging – collecting and eating wild plants – has been part of life since childhood. In the not-so-distant past, foraging would simply have been a way of life – a necessity in fact. While foraging is no solution to the challenges ahead, as an activity it bridges the gap: it nourishes and captures the imagination, helps us reconnect and invites us to think about how we might choose to do things differently. This said, in the near term, depending on the time of year, when the shelves of Tescos or Aldi’s are bare due to the shocks to our just-in-time supply chain, this resource may well prove very valuable. 

In the nature reserve, you’ll find a host of edible species ready to be transformed into jams, teas, cordials or cooked up in a stir fry. In August we discovered salty orache (cooked like spinach), meadowsweet and elderflower, hazelnuts, raspberries and brambles. One of the most enjoyable things about foraging is the way it brings greater awareness to our senses and our surroundings – the need to slow down, pause, observe, to smell, touch and to taste. 

Thanks to Roddy, we learned so much more about these plants just than what we can eat. We learned about food uses for medicine; for example, how yarrow, or or lus na fala, can help stop bleeding if you’ve been wounded or cut. Roddy also told us about crofting traditions of the past, when the orache, or praiseach-mhìn, that grows on the shore was divided up equally among crofters; about how the ancient warrior Cuchulain’s raging temper was soothed by a bath of meadowsweet, after which he always wore the flower on his belt, giving rise to the plant’s Gaelic name crios chù chulainn; about the the salmon of knowledge and the hazel tree, craobh-challtainn; and about the special importance of the Rowan tree or caorann for protection in Gaelic tradition.

Back at the Merkinch Community Centre, looked after by the caretaker Ian, we cooled off with an extremely refreshing and delicious glass of homemade elderflower cordial made by Caroline from flowers picked from the reserve. We also sampled some herbal teas – nettle, elderflower and rose – before tucking in to lunch. 

With thanks to Laura Nicolson, we played a game to learn local Gaelic place names and their translations. Merkinch means ‘the horse meadow’ coming from Marc Innismarc being an old word for horse and innis, an island or meadow. Nearby Sgorguie means windy point, sgorr gaoithe! Local artist Laura Harris created opportunities for drawing and painting inspired by the wild walk and together we created artwork for a new map and guide. Thanks to Abriachan Forest Classroom for lending us some books on wild food and recipes, we were inspired to go back and forage for ourselves!

Thank you to everyone who came along on the day and who helped out.

If you are interested in joining any of our future gatherings, would like to find out more or to contribute to this project, please email Mairi McFadyen at [email protected]

Leave a Reply