Like many of those who live in the remote village of Birgham in the Scottish borders, Kevin Mills, pictured above, struggles to get a booking for a table in his local pub. Given that he was one of the villagers that saved it from being turned into a house, and that he now owns a share of the building, you might think he’d be a tad upset, but not at all. ‘If I can’t get a table, I can’t get too annoyed because it means the pub’s full. I just think I’ll have to book a bit earlier next time,’ he says.
The story of the recently reopened Fisherman’s Arms, near Coldstream, is a tale to warm even the coldest heart. A year and half ago it had closed for what seemed the last time, apparently destined to follow thousands of other pubs around the country and be turned into residential property.
The village was about to lose its focal point. That was, until the residents – coming from just 62 homes – decided to act.
Today, the pub is entering its fourth month of trading, and its success has exceeded the community’s wildest hopes. The restaurant is so popular that on some Sundays it serves 100 covers from its small kitchen. And it’s all due to a community buyout, and the hard work of all concerned.
‘It has been a dream story,’ says Mills who, prior to helping the scheme get off the ground, freely admits he had no experience of pubs or catering, other than as a consumer.
‘The pub had been allowed to run down and hadn’t been a success for some time. The couple who owned it had applied to the authorities to turn it into a house, which is when we launched our campaign.’
He says a survey of the community found incredibly strong support for retaining the pub. ‘There were 111 objections to the Scottish Borders Council, which is not bad considering there are only 62 houses in Birgham. The village really has nothing else – no shops and a dilapidated hall. But the campaign really brought people together, some of whom hadn’t even spoken to one another before.’
Between them, they came up with a plan to put together a consortium and a deal was a struck at £150,000. In the end, 23 shareholders came forward to buy the place, which they agreed would be leased to a tenant who would run the business. The group set about upgrading the building, installing new central heating together with a complete redesign.
‘We knew very early on that we didn’t want to run it ourselves – not least because none of us had any experience,’ Mills admits. ‘The key was finding the right tenant. If I’m honest, I was utterly amazed at the support and the response of the community who all helped turn it around.’
After several months of hard work the pub reopened early last December just in time to catch the Christmas trade. Mills says it has been a huge success. ‘People are coming from far and wide, drawn by great food, the atmosphere of a traditional local with great ales.’
He has huge praise for the people who now run it as their own business – especially the landlady, Pauline. No one gets free drinks, and shareholders who want bookings have to take their chances along with the locals and the fishermen who flock to the nearby Tweed.
Meanwhile, he says the shareholders – who are paid a return on the money they invested – are currently getting more than they would if they had money in the bank. ‘With savings rates currently so low, it’s actually turned out to be a good move, although that was our last thought when we set it up,’ he adds.