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News of the Convent

When we set out on this UnConventional adventure, we were driven by a refusal to watch the Benedictine convent in Dumfries continue falling into disrepair and remain unused.  We knew that we were far from qualified for such an undertaking, but since no one else was doing anything, we decided to give it our best shot.  Recently, we learned that the private owner found a buyer.  Now that the sale has been confirmed, we want to share the news with everyone who has been involved with UnConventional.  

The new owners, Building Craftsmen of Dumfries, are a well-known local residential property developer and we are thrilled that the convent rests in their capable hands.  They have yet to announce their plans, but we suspect they will be converting the buildings into flats.  While this means our vision for the convent, inspired by all of your input, will not come to fruition, we are happy to see that such an important and beautiful place will be saved and put to good use.  

The past seven months have been an incredible learning experience for all of us and we remain motivated to start social enterprises in Dumfries that will serve the community.  One important lesson we are walking away with is that we must focus on how we will put a building to use, rather than solely on saving a building itself.  There are a number of at-risk historic buildings in Dumfries that could be preserved through grant funding so long as sustainable business plans are developed to put those buildings to use.  

With this in mind, we are planning to focus on scaling down the business ideas we’ve been working on and find good places for them throughout Dumfries.  Each of us will continue to collaborate and support each other while working on social enterprises aligned with our unique interests:

Felix will continue growing Deep Green Space, a local charity that he set up to bring people together to transform gardens and green spaces around Dumfries, including the convent cemetery clean-up project.

Phil is working with other writers in Dumfries to open The Wobbly Shelf, an independent bookshop, publisher and writing centre.  For further details, follow The Wobbly Shelf on Facebook.

Emily leads the We Agree On Eggs artist collective and has a plethora of artistic projects underway throughout Dumfries and Galloway.  You can stay in the loop by following We Agree On Eggs on Facebook and Instagram.

Gaby is involved with Food For All as well as helping several charities with fundraising throughout the UK.

Thank you for all of your support as we pursued this crazy convent idea.

See you downstream,

Felix, Phil, Emily and Gaby

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Spring Update

As all that follow us may have noticed, we’ve been somewhat silent since our last online zoom meet on the 17th of February. This does not mean the charity has not been in our hearts and minds, on the contrary; we’ve been ticking away hosting meetings, attending a plethora of educational webinars, reading local cultural reports, filing through assigned tasks from The Social Enterprise Academy to learn more about running a business, and networking with local and more far-a-field heritage organisations. This is the first time any of us has come into this close proximity to this kind of project and we are in a continual state of learning, which sometimes feels very scary but also incredibly empowering. Day by day, I can feel us triumphing a new bit of understanding.

Phil, unfortunately for us, left Dumfries to return to America where he is using extreme passionate and capability to teach languages and focus on his fiction writing. Being so far away physically from the project has led him to dis-attach somewhat from the group. Nether-the-less, it is in his vision that we are proceeding, and he has been on hand to help steer us.

Felix and Emily are now mid-way through their Steps to Sustainability course by The Social Enterprise Academy. This has really helped unlock the potential for the convent as the they rubix-cube all the components of the business together. Thanks to the incredible response to the vision quest, they have a sound understanding of what the different communities in the area are looking for in a community centre. So far the building has been portioned off to hold: a restaurant, a hostel, student accommodation, a museum, a bookshop / library, an art gallery, studio spaces, classrooms, facilities for sport, multifunctional event space, and of course garden space for community growing in permaculture, food-growing, medicinal and dye plants, and ornamental gardens. With in this, is the idea that we can host an abundance of interesting events, conferences, exhibitions, residencies, rooms-for-hire, classes, spiritual groups, weddings, after school activities, and regular community events.

We talk a lot about creating many levels of access, to be a successful community centre it must serve all members of the community. Of course, this means that we’d expect different members of the varying communities to take ownership and create their own projects and spaces with in UnConventional. The different routes of access drawing people to a common centre could then mean they find something, or someone, they’d not have usually been drawn to, thus generating a place of sharing and learning. Closing up the dividing cracks in society is important now as a common unity is what is needed to shift prospective futures into more positive outcomes.

We will be striving to make this building as energy efficient as possible. There is currently good funding for renewable energy. But we also think we have a good opportunity to open the building up as a kind of renewable energy school. Through Interface (a portal of connecting business to academia) and the conservation courses held at The Crichton, we think we can set up UnConventional as a place of research connecting renewable energy to old buildings. As you can see! This is a very large scale building and we expect we’l section it off bit by bit for development and renewal.

So now, it is our mission to research each business route to find out how viable it will be. This means contacting different organisations and obtaining facts and figures. We are in the current throes of designing a research plan, who and where we can look for the types of information we need. This means visiting some of the local community centres and schools so we can understand how we can work symbiotically with them, as well as other organisations further afield who’ve successfully implemented hostels or community kitchens to their full effect.

It is with anticipation we have our first pitch to the Social Enterprise Academy mid-June to release our first pocket of funding of £10,000. This is to subsidize our validity study as well as hopefully contribute to our first building survey.

In our last public meeting, both Emily and Felix talked about some of the smaller projects they could do in the nearer futures. Emily is currently looking for small pots of funding to help aid a publication in response to the vision quest. And Felix will be rolling out some Deep Green Spaces garden opportunities at the start of summer. We will keep everyone updated as these projects build traction.

In the meantime, we’ve assembled a mood-board to represent the charity and the kind of things we are looking forward to hosting. We’ve used as many of our own images in this as we can, not only does this show we have experiences catering some of the activities asked for; but let’s face it. It looks a lot better then stock images.

Please don’t hesitate to get in touch if you have any questions or ideas you would like to discuss with us. We will be working towards another community meet up soon, and hopefully in the not too distant future, one which we can host in the convent grounds with food and drink.

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Looking back and looking ahead

We set out on this adventure to bring the former Benedictine convent on Corbelly Hill back to life in September last year and the past four months have been full of surprises and excitement.  What started out as two guys passionate about historic preservation and community-building has grown into a team of over a dozen volunteers with diverse backgrounds and a multitude of talents.  In this e-mail, we’ll reflect on what we have accomplished and share our plans for what lies ahead.

First, some amazing news: We have been successful in our application to participate in the National Lottery Heritage Fund’s Steps to Sustainability programme.  Felix Waterhouse and Emily Tough will be taking part in a 5-month course focused on building a sustainable heritage organisation.  Specifically, they will be working on creating a robust business plan for UnConventional which will be essential as we move forward with applications for funding from the Scottish Land Fund and Architectural Heritage Fund that would provide for acquiring the convent and bringing it into a state of good repair.  Following completion of the programme, we will receive 10,000 GBP in funding to help support a viability study and building survey.  

Now, looking back: It all started with our launch video, starring Liz West, a former pupil at the school who has published a book documenting its history.  She’s a wealth of knowledge and we are so fortunate to have her help!  Philip Palios and Sabrina Henry also helped with the production.  The video was produced by Felix and his ability to weave hours of footage into a compelling story and call to action resulted in the video accumulating over 1,000 views in the first two days.  

Philip has also been working behind the scenes, including getting our website going with the Vision Quest survey as well as launching our Facebook page and email list.  Going forward, we plan to utilize the mailing list and website more than social media both for financial and ethical reasons, but we recognize the usefulness of Facebook so will not completely abandon it.

Following the launch, Felix and Liz produced a second video focused on green spaces at the convent.  With 8 acres of land, there are a lot of opportunities for us to engage the community both in and out of doors.  Felix then went on to lead two (masked and socially distanced) volunteer work sessions cleaning up and beautifying the convent cemetery. Huge thanks to all of the volunteers who joined in to help with this!

In November, we held our first (online) community gathering.  It was a great opportunity to connect folks in Dumfries, discuss the project and share ideas.  We followed this up with a second gathering in December that was equally helpful.  After a winter break, we are planning to hold a third gathering later in February (details below).

Our final project of 2020 was a Christmas card campaign.  Emily created a beautiful drawing of the convent and designed postcards featuring the drawing along with our new logo designed by Katie Barr (as seen at the top of this message).  Felix led a group of volunteers to deliver these postcards to people living close to the convent and in other parts of Dumfries.  While we would love to connect with the community in-person, we thought this was a nice way to go offline and continue to be covid safe.

Toward the end of 2020 we were fortunate to have Anne Lindsay join the team.  She has a lot of experience with community projects and has helped with our funding applications as well as ensuring perspectives from different generations feed into our work.  Gabrielle Bailey has also been helpful by providing her extensive fundraising expertise to help guide our development work.

With nearly 100 responses to the Vision Quest, we have a lot of data to inform our business planning.  Our intention is to transform the convent into a community centre with a focus on education.  The building is so massive that we can’t help but see it serving a variety of uses, including education, lodging, spirituality and dining.  Our focus for the first half of 2021 will be creating a business plan that shows how we can use these ideas to create a sustainable charity.  In the second half of 2021 we aim to begin meanwhile use of the building, assuming we are able to progress in our funding applications and negotiations for purchasing the convent from its private owner.

Being a community-driven organisation is at the core of our constitution and we want to make sure as many diverse voices from Dumfries as possible are heard as we move forward.  Sharing this update as well as our videos and encouraging others to join the Vision Quest are the best things you can do to help us make this happen.

We know there are a lot of questions and have done our best to answer them here, but please write us if there is more information we can provide or if you would like to get more involved.

Our third online gathering will be held on Wednesday, 17 February at 7pm.  Joining details will be sent leading up to the gathering, but please save the date and spread the word!

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Help us Restore the Convent Cemetery

Our first volunteer opportunity is this Tuesday, it will be a great chance to give the cemetery some love and meet others who are passionate about the convent!

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Welcome to UnConventional

We invite you to explore the former Benedictine convent on Corbelly Hill in Dumfries, Scotland and hope you will be inspired to share your ideas for its future by taking part in our vision quest.