From Sailing Boats To Social Enterprise – The Incredible Journey of Scotland’s Leading Maritime Festival

Portsoy's Scottish Traditional Boat Festival

When the residents of a coastal community staged a celebration to mark the 300th anniversary of their historic harbour 20 years ago, the social enterprise movement in the UK was only just starting to stir.

As the volunteers erected bunting around the village of Portsoy on the Aberdeenshire coast, they had no idea that two decades later their low-key celebration would grow with that movement and harness business principles as a key driver for creating a sustainable community.

Since that first event in 1993, the gala celebration has grown to become the Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Traditional Boat Festival – an event which attracts 16,000 people to the shores of Portsoy, is one of the region’s leading tourism events and which generates £1m for the local economy.

But it doesn’t stop there. The festival volunteers have also undertaken a £400,000 renovation of a 19th century salmon bothy, converting it into a museum and genealogy centre with a community events space; taken on the operation of the village caravan park following a decision by the local council to outsource its operations; and next year they will launch PORT Boatshed which will be a centre for keeping alive traditional boat building skills.

“Sometimes you do stand back and wonder how this all happened,” says Roger Goodyear, the man who has been chairman of the festival for the past eight years. “We didn’t set out to become a community social enterprise but a series of serendipitous events has steered us in that path.

“After the first festival there was a desire within the community for this to become an annual event with a real focus on maritime heritage and traditions. We have remained true to those roots, but over the years the festival has grown to encompass just as many activities on the water as off it. For some reason, it really seems to have struck a chord with the public.

“We quite happily rolled along for years on that basis, but out of the blue we were offered the opportunity to take on The Salmon Bothy. That was the catalyst behind a self-generating momentum that has turned a simple festival into a community-run social enterprise.”

And they are not alone. The social enterprise model – a business that trades for a social or environmental purpose – is being adopted by volunteers and community groups all over the country in a bid to effect change. According to the government’s Annual Survey of Small Businesses in 2010, there were approximately 68,000 social enterprises in the UK.

Rory Dutton, north development officer for the Development Trusts Association Scotland, has seen membership of the organisation double to 200 groups, including the festival, over the past five years.

He says, “The festival started as a single event but is has spawned other initiatives that have interconnected in the right way. It’s a fantastic example of what can be achieved by communities.

“Most volunteers involved in these types of projects are quite canny in nature and are unsure of what they are capable of when they start out. While we don’t want to encourage groups to run before they can walk, part of the lesson from Portsoy is that communities can deliver on these ambitious projects.

“What communities do is to harness volunteers’ energy and resources to make this happen. It’s not possible to do that easily within the public sector. Development trusts do not replace what councils do – they do different things with a totally different level of energy and empathy.”

Incredibly, despite its rapid growth over the past 20 years, the Portsoy enterprise is manned almost entirely by volunteers. During the height of the festival this year over the weekend of June 22 and 23, the number of volunteers supporting the event will rise to around 300.

Mr Goodyear explains, “Each element – the festival, the boat restoration, the bothy and the caravan park – has drawn in different volunteers and we would not be where we are now without them. However, accession is a real issue to consider and we are at the stage where serious consideration has to be given to employing people.

“From our point of view, this creates an added dimension to what we can offer as a social enterprise. We are not just supporting a sustainable community by offering facilities and attracting visitors, we are developing an income stream which supports these activities and which provides employment opportunities in the local community.”

The business acumen displayed by the Scottish Traditional Boat Festival brought the event under the radar of leading global fund management company, Aberdeen Asset Management. Aberdeen, which is firmly anchored in Scotland despite its presence in 23 countries, has been title sponsor of the festival for the past three years.

Aberdeen chief executive Martin Gilbert is impressed with the approach taken by the volunteers. He says, “The festival is a key driver for economic benefit to a rural location and we felt it was important to give support to such a vibrant, volunteer-run community event which attracts significant tourism pounds for local business.

“We admired what the festival was doing with its growth strategy. The volunteers were able to identify opportunities to not only support the festival, but to make a real difference to the local community in terms of developing new and innovative enterprises. The ingenuity and ambition they have shown is comparable to any successful business operating within the more traditional commercial realm.”

So where will the festival sail to next? It is currently working with a local building preservation group to develop a series of derelict old buildings close to the shore. If successful, the festival wants to create a quality bunk house which could be used for accommodation for trainees at The Boatshed as well as other visitors to Portsoy. Not bad going for a local gala.

“Is this the Big Society in action? I’m not entirely sure,” says Mr Goodyear. “But what I do know is that local authorities can no longer provide the same services as they did 40 or 50 years ago – which was essentially everything. They cannot because the economics of the situation just do not allow for it to happen.

“The only way forward is for groups and organisations such as the Scottish Traditional Boat Festival to work with local authorities to provide the energy and drive that make communities sustainable.

“My advice to other communities is to be brave and go for it – you are more capable than you think. But it has taken 20 years for the festival to grow – don’t expect change to happen overnight.”