The scenic Talla na Mara community enterprise centre held its Grand Opening yesterday (Friday 17th November) with Pairc Niseaboist resplendent and echoing to bagpipe music.

The VIPs were Ben Fogle who became a honorary resident of West Harris after living on nearby Taransay for a year as part of the BBC reality series Castaway almost 20 years ago; and Alex Passmore from Leverburgh Memorial School who won a competition to name the centre.

The event was introduced by Anna Helfrich, the trust’s commercial manager, who explained the centre had been in action already for 10 months and was already a major hub of local activity. Alex Passmore spoke a welcome in Gaelic.

Ben Fogle said South Harris had become the place in the entire world which feels like home for him. He explained how despite all that happened in the years since Castaway 2000 and all he had done since, people still asked about it on a daily basis, and they focused on the location, rather than the programme.  

Seeing the view over Luskentyre towards Taransay again as he approached the centre had taken his breath away (and EVENTS newspaper confirms that as he approached the centre, Ben pulled off the road in Selibost to gaze out across the Sound of Taransay).

Ben said it was 13 years since his last visit which was for his wedding and honeymoon. Since being “marooned” on Taransay, he has travelled to more than 200 countries but “this does remain the most beautiful place on the planet.” He also said there is something beautiful, too, about the spirit of the community. The new trust had helped the local population increase from 117 in 2010 up to 149 now. “I am really, really flattered to be invited here.” He explained how he had been in Cambodia a couple of days ago, and was due in the United States in a couple of days time.

Ben said he had recently become the United Nations’ Patron of the Wilderness and this interest had been developed entirely as a result of the time he spent in Harris and nowhere else in the world. “This is where it was rooted so whatever I do, wherever I go, I might be out of sight, I might not visit for a period of time, but have no doubt, this place is incredibly important in my life.”

The centre was designed to address the needs of local people by providing employment and business opportunities and a much-needed community meeting place, whilst also providing facilities for the thousands of tourists who visit West Harris every year.

In April 2014 a funding package was secured for the project by the Scottish Government. The Big Lottery Fund, Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, Highlands and Islands Enterprise, Coastal Communities Fund, The Robertson Trust, Scottish Hydro Electric Community Trust and an in-kind contribution from the West Harris Trust.

Rural Design architects from Skye were chosen to design an outstanding ‘multi-purpose centre’ with John Murray and Co from Stornoway awarded the construction contract.

Open year round, Talla na Mara is home to a small community of artists and designers, a light filled gallery displaying work from local artists or local interest exhibitions, a space for film, theatre and live music performances, three campervan pitches and a restaurant.

The Trust have been overwhelmed by the support they have received and the success of their first season. To date Talla na Mara has hosted five weddings, three conferences, parties, training days, a puppet show, film screenings, BBC broadcasts and training events.

The official opening was funded by the Big Lottery celebrate fund.