Posted by editor 27/03/2014 0 Comment 3877 views


Jenny McBain discovers a thriving community of master craftsmen and women in the heart of Glasgow.

You don’t expect to come across a shop front with a sign depicting a Viking longboat here in Govan; a place once famous for shipbuilding but now more readily associated with the travails of fictional BBC character Rab C Nesbitt. (An unemployed Glaswegian with  a fondness for philosophy and booze.)

But there is something poignantly apposite about this particular motif which has been adopted by Galgael, the social enterprise which lies within. This is a place where wood is transformed into boats and other beautiful objects.  It is also a community where people flourish, with warrior like tenacity, in the face of adversity.

Curved chairs, musical instruments and a low table of irregular shape and generous dimensions fill the reception area.  All are hand crafted from timber as is the swooping eagle suspended from the ceiling.   We are greeted by volunteer Chris*, a former engineer who came here 8 months ago to rebuild his life following redundancy from an engineering firm and the break up of his marriage.

He leads us through the back to an enormous workshop and we enter into a world of loud noise and purposeful activity. A guy with long red hair and matching beard could easily belong in the 10th century were it not for the chainsaw he is deftly applying to a mighty chunk of oak.  There is a lot going on here and it’s as well we have a guide.

“Our participants come here for 6 weeks to learn basic wood working skills.  From there they can move on to the next block and also work alongside the boat builders” Chris tells us.  He gestures to a series of workbenches where men of various ages and one woman are completely absorbed in the tasks at hand.

Some are trainers other apprentices or learners but the distinction is not immediately apparent.  Chris says, “The ethos of the project is that everyone is equal.  There are no bosses here.  People come in between 10 o’clock and 3 but if they can’t make it, they just let us know and come in when they can.  Most people like it so much that they want to be here.”

Chris uses an engineering metaphor to expand upoun how things work.  “It’s like two cogs in a wheel.  People have various aspects to their lives.  Some are recovering from drink or drug issues, others have had mental health problems. Many have been long term unemployed but they all come together perfectly”

Within the workshop- which is as vast as the famous football pitch just down the road at Ibrox and almost as cold- there are different zones dedicated to particular activities.  Alongside the boat builders, there is a place for milling wood, a black smith’s forge and several furniture making stations.  Some graduates of the course have gone on to become self employed artisans. Seamus* is one of them.  He is a boat builder and musician who believes sincerely in the healing power of mindful application to craftwork.  After all it worked for him.

“This is a fantastic place.  I came here in 2003. I’d been housebound for a long time with M. E. and was suffering from anxiety and panic attacks.  This place gives me a sense of community and friendship.  Right away when you come in the door you sense that it is a safe place.”

Galgael operates a bit like an ancient clan and the modern day members of this clan appreciate the family atmosphere.  Daily lunches of home cooked food are served up to all participants.  These provide a sense of kinship as well as nourishment. And on Thursday nights, Galgael is open to the wider community; to anyone who wants to drop in, share a meal and be creative. There are opportunities to practise art, pottery, weaving, music and, of course, woodwork.

Launching boats and embarking on voyages of discovery into the wilds of Scotland is an important aspect of Galgael.  After all what is the point of building kayaks and longboats if you yourself never get the chance to leave dry land?  And how can human beings truly thrive if they are forever hemmed in by concrete without a connection with nature?

Of course the harsh reality is that all the wonderful things that happen here require money and money is a rare commodity in Govan.  The local council donates fallen timber from its many parks and the sale of goods and firewood provide some income.  But there are challenges ahead.

Galgael cofounder and programme director Gehan MacLeod is a steady hand at the tiller who, along with her colleagues and fellow board members, is full of positive ideas about how to face the fiscal challenges and take things forward. (Update to come.)

Meantime, if an actual visit to Galgael is impractical then take a quick tour of the website.  You can purchase craft items which are richly imbued with story and character and offer extraordinary value for money.  You may choose to commission a piece of bespoke furniture or even a boat.  It is almost certain that you will be inspired.

The heavy industry on which Glasgow was so dependent did not enter into a gentle decline.  Its demise is ongoing and the wellbeing of families and indeed entire communities has been seriously undermined but here in Govan, there is heartening evidence that the human spirit is not easily defeated.   You just need to look past the all too familiar signs of 21st century urban deprivation and focus on that symbolic image of the Viking longboat.

*some names have been changed.

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