College's focus on renovation skills is steeped in tradition
Perched on scaffolding several storeys up, the view is spectacular: the spire of Brechin Cathedral in the foreground with the forests of the Angus countryside stretching into the distance.
The city centre boasts an impressive medieval layout with not a shopping mall or tower block in sight. But look closer and the boarded-up shop fronts and tired unoccupied buildings make depressing viewing for residents and visitors. So it is reassuring to hear that a regeneration programme is under way.
On the ground floor below us, regulars are drinking in the Dalhousie Bar, while the listed building with four flats is under renovation and draped in scaffolding. Up here at roof level, a stonemason is rebuilding a chimney using the original stone after carefully dismantling it piece by piece.
Traditional skills like this are much in demand to restore Brechin's historic heartland and Angus College in Arbroath has been working alongside the city's Townscape Heritage Initiative (THI) to ensure appropriate training is available.
"When Brechin Townscape Heritage Initiative was looking at the development of this project, they were unaware of the skill levels of the local companies," says Kevin Murphy, director of learning and teaching at Angus College. "So we undertook a survey of more than 200 companies in the Perth and Kinross, Angus and Tayside regions. From this report, we identified a skills gap and a need for a recognised qualification in traditional skills."
To meet this demand, the college now hopes to be the first further education provider in Scotland to launch the Heritage SVQ Level 3 in September 2011 and offer masterclasses in heritage skills to industry. These include stone masonry, painting, joinery and slating.
Angus College highlights a growing demand for traditional skills as a by- product of a recession which has seen construction job losses and significant cuts in apprenticeships.
"We have also seen the virtual collapse of the new-build market," says Mr Murphy. "Almost overnight a lot of companies are being forced into repair and maintenance."
His report on traditional construction skills, commissioned by the THI, was funded by Angus Council, the Heritage Lottery Fund and LEADER, part of the Scottish Rural Development Programme which aims to boost skills through local business networks.
The report points out that Scotland's pre-1919 buildings are in danger of disrepair because of a lack of skilled workers, yet the current curriculum focuses on the new-build market to the detriment of traditional skills.
An early priority for Angus College will be to train its own lecturing staff to deliver these skills and seek validation for the programme. With further LEADER funding, it plans to map existing SVQ qualifications and identify what skills need to be added to enable heritage skills accreditation.
Work such as the regeneration of Brechin will help support it, according to THI project manager Sarah Kettles. She is now two years into the five- year project, which will provide opportunities for training on-site over the next phase.
"We have some projects coming on-site this year where, as part of the tender process, we have stipulated that the contractors offer placements to four Angus college lecturers in the construction department," Mrs Kettles says.
In a separate initiative, Historic Scotland is co-ordinating a bid for Heritage Lottery funding for four bursaries in traditional skills at Angus College.
"The bursary fund would be available for companies locally that employ workers in a traditional area who could focus on stone masonry, lead work or whatever," Mr Murphy explains.
Architect Susan Burness, of Bell Ingram Design, is the lead consultant for the project at Dalhousie Bar and flats. She says the lack of traditional skills is already evident in buildings throughout Brechin. "You can see the use of cement pointing has caused problems with deterioration of the stone where it should be lime pointing, and that's one of the skills which I presume will be taught at the college."
Sub-standard repairs can actually cause or aggravate problems in older buildings, she says."
Back at Angus College, the students are enthusiastic about the prospect of learning traditional skills. Paul Cottrell, 19, and Dean Smith, 16, are on the Introduction to Construction Skills course and recently returned from a visit to the Scottish Lime Centre in Fife, which teaches traditional building skills.
"They were showing us how they made lime and what they used it for. Everybody was interested in it," says Paul.
"You had to cut the stone in and cut your initials in and we did pointing and building up one of the walls," says Dean.
Their brick-laying lecturer, Gary Knox, hopes to teach on the new course. "You can ruin someone's building work by doing it the wrong way," he says. "There is a real need for this."