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January 6, 2010

Catrine on the comeback trail

In its heyday, the small town of Catrine in Ayrshire was famed for embracing new technology. Its cotton mills were the first to install power looms and at one time had the largest suspension water wheels in Britain. The town even had gas street lighting two years before London.  But that was over 150 years ago and since then the town has slipped into gradual decline.  All that may be changing as Catrine Community Trust have some big plans for the future

There is little to distinguish Catrine, a remote former mill town in Ayrshire, from many other declining Scottish communities. The high street shows similar signs of decay and many houses appear the worse for wear.

Yet residents are preparing to fight back. The community is among 28 across the UK, including four others in Scotland, that are battling to take part in a new BBC reality television show that could help to lift the town out of the mire. If Catrine becomes one of the six finalists featured on Village SOS, to be broadcast in the new year, it will receive £400,000 in lottery funding and be filmed as it undertakes a major regeneration project that, it is hoped, will create sorely needed training and jobs.

The big idea in Catrine, population around 2,000, is to restore its 19th- century reputation for technological innovation with a pioneering renewable energy scheme, including Scotland’s first environmentally-friendly recycling facility, converting used cooking oil into biofuel — a fuel that can be run in almost any diesel engine.

The product, which would be no more than half the price of forecourt diesel, would be sold to local motorists to help reduce their fuel bills, and could be used to heat public buildings. Villagers also want to construct a hydro-electric plant and visitor centre, with the profit used to invest in electric cars.

“The whole idea of this project is to provide income, training and jobs,” said Hugh Hutchison, of Catrine Community Trust. “There is 27 per cent unemployment in this area. That is much higher than the average because of the lack of industry.”
The biofuel scheme, he says, is perfect because as well as generating manufacturing, sales and marketing jobs, it will also make it cheaper for locals to travel to employment in other areas. And much of the infrastructure for the hydro-electric scheme is already in place after a previous hydro plant was installed and later shut down.

In its heyday, Catrine was renowned for embracing new technology. In 1806, its mill was the first in Scotland to install power looms. In 1816, a gas works began to operate, bringing street lighting to the village two years before London, and in 1828 the mill installed suspension water wheels that were the biggest in Britain. But the village could not compete when cheap cotton imports from India began to flood the market in the 1900s. Trade declined and in the 1960s the mill closed, only to be destroyed by fire and demolished.

The 28 communities shortlisted to take part in Village SOS was awarded a grant worth up to £10,000 from the Big Lottery Fund to produce a business plan for their regeneration projects. The deadline for the business plan is March 2010, with the winners to be announced in May. During the reality series, the six finalists will be seen working with a “village champion” who will help to turn their proposals into reality by moving into the communities for a year. Catrine’s champion is Pete Cooper, an accountant from Fife. “This will do Catrine some good regardless of whether or not it becomes one of the six finalists, because it will help them to consider ways of raising funds,” he said.

Mr Hutchison added: “This is a commendable idea from the Big Lottery Fund and the BBC, and also very stimulating. It is going to show village life, and all the trials and tribulations people go through, and in the process change the lives of the community.”