A new management team at the Callanish visitor centre are looking ahead to the 2019 visitor season with confidence – and they’re buzzing with ideas.
Victoria Harvey and Gregor Macleod took the helm of visitor service provision at Callanish after the retirement in January of Angus Mackenzie, centre manager for nearly 10 years.
Angus has plans to spend more time on his croft, and for a big trip to Canada in autumn this year, but Gregor says with relief: “He’s just down the road, and if we need anything, he’s always there.”
Catering supervisor Gregor (30) and Victoria (28), who is now front-of-house supervisor, are bringing a combination of youthful enthusiasm and experience to an important task.
Gregor is stepping up to the role after 10 years of experience within the café, and Victoria has made the shift after two years as project development officer on a large-scale visitor centre expansion plan, which is in the pipeline.
The ancient stones at Callanish are one of the world’s most famous Neolithic sites and the visitor centre provides the refreshment, information and shelter from the weather that tens of thousands need each year. A visitor-counting ‘clicker’ last year numbered 50,000 visitors to the centre, and a staggering 120,000 to the stone circle itself.
Victoria says: “Our plans for the future of Callanish include a hugely expanded interpretation centre and much larger visitor facilities, including a café doubled in size to 100 seats and an events and education space. The actual interpretation and display, telling the story of what we know about the stones, is planned to fill the whole of what is currently the shop and café area.
“There has been research work through 2018 by a team from St Andrews University, which included geophysical surveys of the peatland across the whole district and core samples taken from Loch Roag. They’re due to report during 2019 but I know they have some exciting new knowledge.
“But it’s good that the stones have a mysterious, unknown side too, and we aim to bring together the whole story of this ancient landscape while leaving the mystery intact.”
Mystery and landscape bring people to the site throughout the holiday season, and that is not far off. The centre will be closed for three days next week, Tuesday to Thursday February 26th to 28th, to get ready for the start of the big influx. The team will be re-displaying the shop with new shelving, installing a new till system and preparing a new menu.
They’ll re-open on March 1st with the year-round team of six full-time staff ready for action – and recruitment due to start to increase the team to 25 for the summer season. Local employment is just one of the benefits the centre offers to the populations of Callanish, Breasclete and other nearby villages.
Gregor, who lives just the other side of the stones in Callanish village, says: “Through the summer the coach parties and independent tourists really swarm here, but in the winter the locals come and they support us very well. Most of those who live nearby have grown up with the stones and they’re just ‘there’ to us, like a coffee table or something. It’s not that we don’t appreciate them, but we are used to them. What we appreciate is having a place to come and get a good cup of coffee and something to eat without going far from home.”
Victoria and Gregor’s plans for the 2019 season include music events and a ceilidh, working with local community organisations to provide what holiday-makers yearn for when they visit the Outer Hebrides. They’ve already participated in the new Dark Skies festival organised by An Lanntair through February, and they saw 40 people attend a ‘supermoon quiz’ hosted on Tuesday evening (February 19th).
From now on, though, the planning is all about the tourism season. Victoria said: “We get people coming who have a spiritual pull to come here, and there is the ‘Outlander effect’ of people who want to see ancient stones and experience Scottish culture. We want to make sure they can hear music, get the chance to dance and ceilidh, so we hope to work with local community groups to host more events.”
The pair are certain that they can step into the experienced shoes of Angus and believe that their skills are complementary. Victoria says: “Because I’ve been in a different role up until now it’s easier for me to see how things might change, but Gregor has the experience and knows what is possible. We’re both full of ideas and I think we’re sparking off each other.”
Gregor agrees: “Victoria has the artistic flair and new approach, whereas I’ve been here for ten years so I’m looking more at how we can improve what we offer within the parameters of what we have already. We’re both feeling very positive about the future.”
Pictures show Victoria and Gregor in the existing interpretation room at the Callanish visitor centre, and a hardy visitor soaking in the winter experience of the stones.