The Filling Station

The Filling Station
The Guardian

Applecross in north west Scotland is perhaps Britain’s most remote mainland community. Until the 1970s it could only be reached on a single-track road across the highest mountain pass in the country. It’s an arduous 40-mile round-trip to the next petrol station, so when villagers found out last year that their local garage, pictured below, was about to shut, the community sw ung into action.

Thousands of petrol stations have closed in recent years – as many in urban as rural areas – defeated by tiny profi t margins and competition from cheap supermarket operators. At abandoned garages, hoardings promise luxury flats – unlikely now amid the unfolding property crash – and many are fast becoming eyesores where weeds crack the concrete and graffiti covers ugly fencing.

But in Applecross, Alison Macleod was determined not to lose a facility that both villagers and visitors regard as vital. The settlement has just 182 people registered on the electoral roll, yet 110 have signed up to become members of the Applecross Community Company, which runs the pumps.

It is a brave commercial venture for a small community. Petrol stations need large amounts of cash upfront to run. The minimum order the community can make for a road tanker delivery is 5,000 litres. The pumps are expensive to maintain and replace. A feasibility study identified £4,000-worth of urgently
needed repairs.

Macleod is chairwoman of the company. ‘The station had been run by the owner of the shop opposite the pumps,but he said it was losing money and he could not aff ord to run it any longer. ‘We went through a period of discussion in the village, and eventually decided to set up a community company under the Land Reform Act of 2003. We had an AGM in June
and elected a board. From the start we agreed that we had to do this in a businesslike way.’

Finding the cash for the pump repairs was the first challenge. The community organised a fundraising walk from Applecross to the next petrol station, 18.9 miles away across the spectacular Bealach na Ba single-track road, through some of the most dramatic scenery in the Highlands. They raised nearly £5,000 in ticket sales at the local pub, the Applecross Inn, and the company was in business. On 29 November last year the filling station opened under the new company, and is now off ering petrol at 99.9p a litre – which, in the Highlands, is a pretty good deal. ‘I’d say it’s covering its costs. But we can’t afford to lose loads of money on this,’ says Macleod.

Commercial liability is a crucial issue for communities taking on risky businesses. Despite the enthusiasm for the project, Macleod acknowledges that some villagers still choose to fill up at Tesco on shopping trips to Inverness. But she, and the other members of the company, are personally liable for just £1. ‘And if we make any money, it will be ploughed back into the village.’

Maybe it will, indeed, be profitable. Applecross is the home to Monty Hall’s Great Escape series currently showing on BBC2, which has already sparked a rise in visitors to the village, and the community is anticipating a bumper summer season. But Macleod knows there are major challenges ahead. At some point the elderly pumps will need to be replaced at a cost of £80,000, and she has already started applying for grants from organisations such as the National Lottery and Scottish Enterprise.

And now that the pumps are flowing, Macleod is focusing on her other project, rescuing Raasay House, an 18th-century laird’s mansion that fell
into dilapidation. It’s a multi-million pound project, but this community
entrepreneur is undaunted, despite a recent fire. And if you fancy some
delicious prawns caught locally by her husband, she says, just come knocking on her door in Applecross.