By Julia Welstead
In a fate sadly common to many rural primary schools, Bragar school closed in 2012. Having opened in 1878 and with a peak role-call of 200 children, it was a sad day when the area lost its school and the building lost its purpose. The good news is that Bragar community rallied their creative, practical and financial resources to re-purpose the building into what is now Grinneabhat: a beautiful community hub and hostel.
I visit on a dreich July day, and am mightily glad to be welcomed indoors by Tina MacPhail, Grinneabhat Manager, who exudes enthusiasm and knowledge about every aspect of the history, the current situation and future hopes for the place. With a great uncle in the 1923 school photo, and schooled here herself (subsequently gaining a business degree before working in hospitality, and as finance assistant for Stornoway Art Centre), she’s an ideal person for this role.
As Tina says, “Grinneabhat is for the community, and was created by the community”. Many people pitched in to help with every aspect: fund raising, historical research, community questionnaires, building work and interior design. Initially developed as a social hub for all sorts of community get-togethers, art and exercise classes and the like, Lottery funding augmented local donations to enable a full renovation of the building (designed and built by local architects, builders and artisans). A wonderful wall of photo-tiles in the foyer depicts donors, or their ancestors who lived here.
Tina shows me around and I can see how carefully the character and spirit of the school has been maintained throughout. High ceilings and original wooden v-lining are freshly painted in a very particular blue-green and white that reminds me of my own school days. Classrooms have been minimally altered to form an exhibition space, a meeting room, a café. A plasterer’s handprint, signed ‘John Murray 1933’ uncovered during renovations, has been left exposed and framed. In a twist of fate, it was another John Murray who discovered it.
An 1897 map shows North and South Bragar land boundaries and another beautiful art map, created by local artist Anne Campbell, shows Gaelic place names. Local artists can display their work in the old P6-7 classroom. As well as hostel accommodation – four well-appointed rooms and a spacious communal kitchen – a launderette has been installed into what used to be the school cloakrooms. Accommodation can be booked through isleHoliday – the organisation that puts profits back into islands.
Outside there’s a ‘man shed’ where locals can gather to share time and tools, veggie plots and a polycrub for community food growing. Future ideas and plans include an outdoor dining area and bunkhouse, a fleet of EV bikes and a sensory garden. But all of this needs coordinating, and funding is being sought to salary a groundsperson.
Grinneabhat employs a dozen folk, ten of whom are locals. In the foyer is a cabinet full of local crafts with an honesty box. Exhibitions, concerts, dances, singing, poetry, storytelling, cooking demonstrations and suppers: all of this represents an ongoing revitalisation and celebration of culture, with work and money being ploughed back into the community.
As I walk back across the car park I notice shapes and colours on the tarmac – faded tractors, broken ladders, pale snakes – it’s the remnants of the old school playground, and another example of the sensitive renovation work that has breathed new life into this property, whilst honouring its past.