This is a quiet time of the year for us. The bulk of the 3,000 or so training course participants that we receive every year come between mid-February and late November. This leaves us with an interlude for reflection and the drawing of breath before the next intake. Soon, the next group of young American undergraduates will be with us for a three-month semester, the month-long ecovillage training programme will be in full swing and visitor numbers for our habitual, week-long courses will start to rise.
For the moment, however, the community centre is pretty much ours alone and efforts are focused on preparing for the season of courses to come. Over in one corner of the community, however, the sound of hammer on nail and of spade in soil never quite stops.
Craig Gibsone has lived here for almost 40 years, the last twenty of which he has lived in one of the celebrated ‘whisky-barrel houses’. These are homes made out of discarded vats used in one of the early stages in the distillation process. We are situated next to the Spey Valley, with its myriad of small distilleries that turn out single malt whisky of the highest quality.
When, some years ago, one of these was de-commissioning its vats, they got in touch to ask if we had any use for them. Now, we have a ‘whisky-barrel cluster’ of fine, elegant, compact houses made almost entirely from local, low-impact building materials. Spirit containers, we call them!
Craig has now almost completed an extension to his barrel – this has been a slow organic process lasting several years and costing in the region of £25,000 – the original official estimate was £80,000. Craig reckons around 80 per cent of the materials he has used are recycled and scavenged – he has a gift for spotting building materials where the untrained eye sees only open landscape or debris. And yet, the overwhelming impression one has while sitting in the extension is of beauty and a pleasing lack of uniformity.
The feelings of well-being in the house are enhanced by the fact that Craig has designed it to merge seamlessly into his wonderful tangle of a permaculture garden. This is ‘edible landscaping’ at its best – a largely self-managing, abundant micro-ecosystem that requires minimal maintenance. Much of the five or so hours per week that Craig spends in his garden at the peak of the growing season is devoted to harvesting. And what a harvest! The third of an acre plot keeps Craig and his two daughters in fruit and vegetables for the entire year.
This is a glorious corner of wildness in what can feel a overly manicured campus. Lawns abound and we have a team of workers out pruning and sweeping and mowing. This little corner feels to me akin to the community’s sub-conscious – wild, untamed, hugely fertile and filled with creative surprises. Very much in character with the genial anarchist who has shaped it.