Fiona founded Greyhope Bay in late 2015 with the ambition to connect and engage communities with the marine wildlife, environment and heritage on Aberdeen’s doorstep. Fast forward to today and the Greyhope Bay Centre is now a reality, having opened its doors for the first time on 9 April 2022. Made out of converted shipping containers and operating completely off-grid, the eco-friendly centre offers spectacular views of the coast and a fantastic opportunity to view dolphins playing in the bay. Below Fiona shares some of the ups and downs she faced during the course of the project, as well as the importance of community engagement and storytelling to bringing Greyhope Bay to life.
It’s been quite a journey to get to where you are today. Can you tell us about why you started with the Greyhope Bay Centre project and how you got to where you are today?
My background is in marine science, and while I worked at the Marine Lab in Torry I used to walk the headlands, and for me, as a marine scientist, it seemed like an incredible asset we had in the city. I watched the dolphins daily as boats came in and out of the harbour and I just had this feeling that a visitor facility would really be of benefit to the area, and that it would also provide an opportunity for the wider general public to learn more about that environment as well.
At that time, I just wanted to go and tell somebody this idea and thought that the powerful people would go ahead and do it. But what actually happened is that through that process I started doing some research, worked out who owned the land, sent a few emails and ended up speaking to the head of Economic Development at Aberdeen City Council. He invited me in, and he said, “yeah it is a good idea, it's something that we’ve tried in different ways in that part of the city, but it really needs someone who will lead it and run with it”, and he basically said to go and do it! He then put me in touch with a local architect, Gokay Deveci, who is an award-winning and sustainable building designer, and that gave me the next step. This was about 10 years ago, and I was really just trying to work out how to bring a project like that together. At the time I was pitching it as a £10/15 million V&A type investment that would be transformative for the city, and I was actually getting a lot of traction with that as an idea, but not getting investment.
It was through the process of delivering events and coming to an understanding that actually the community as a whole was responding to this idea, that it was more important to do something that delivered facility for the community rather than try and helicopter in some massive big development. I was also learning through that process that there were things, like the monument, which people had deep affection for, and there was more opportunity beyond just building a facility that was a viewing point for watching dolphins. So, I started to piece it together and began to realise that the community was the way in which this project could be successful, and started building ways in which different parts of the Aberdeen community, from big corporates to individuals, could be a part of it.
The next step was to consider the question: if you're trying to do something that's not of huge scale, how can you do it in a minimal impact way? And that's where the idea of repurposing shipping containers and thinking about our impact on the monument started. As we were learning about the environment, we asked ourselves – how do we bring sustainability into how we operate? – and so that started to shape, not just the purpose of what we were trying to do, but how we were going to do it: community-led, sustainable and educating about our marine environment.
And how did you deal with any challenges that you met along the way?
I think early on with that big concept, the challenge was a sense, locally, that there wasn't a big enough visitor market to sustain that level of investment, and that there wasn't much of an understanding of the potential of the South side of the harbour in terms of connectivity and whether people would actually visit. That was my biggest challenge: to actually show there was opportunity there and to overcome that, as well as the sense of trepidation and also major risk, especially because I was talking about such a huge investment at that time. We learned that we needed to test ideas and demonstrate viability, so delivering the minimal viable project from which we could grow, rather than starting with something that’s really risky.
It’s also based within a historic monument and there are very specific things that you are able to do with developments in the monument. So we were limited and had to be quite creative in coming up with solutions.
Another challenge was the climate of trying to fundraise. As a charity that's new and doesn't necessarily have any clout, we were really having to build it from scratch. You just don't have the same leverage than if you were an established organization that has a history with, say, the National Lottery, funders and things like that, so you really have to piece it together. Then obviously COVID happened, which delayed programs and the build.
Finally, we had basically hobbled cash and in kind together and this meant that the actual build project was really complex because it wasn’t one main contractor. We were relying on goodwill a lot, which is harder, but ultimately it resulted in a successful delivery of the project. So for us, that was the perfect way to do it and it meant that everyone felt they were part of it.
What sort of reaction are you getting from visitors when they arrive?
People's faces literally change as they walk through the door, because it's kind of like going through the back door, and it’s when you're in the space that you really get hit with the views and people are impressed at that point and you get the wows. There’s also that experience of people spotting the dolphins for the first time and then watching it spread throughout the café. It’s really cool to see that response.
Sustainability has been integral throughout the build. Can you tell us more about that and why it’s been so important?
We want to try and lead by example, and we have had a great opportunity to test and trial technology. Being off-grid and having to minimize our impact on the monument, it's also imperative that we take these choices. So, we're driven by both our purpose and also by the limitations of the site. If you're not on the grid, usually your reliance is completely on a generator. What we have done is put together a solar and battery system to reduce our reliance on diesel. With regards to water, it didn’t make sense in terms of our carbon footprint to get a delivery of water every week, so we looked into a way we could treat water on demand. These technologies do exist, it’s just that they’ve not necessarily been put together in this particular fashion. But what we found is that by asking the questions and trying to work out those kinds of solutions, that the people who have developed these technologies were willing to work together to design something quite bespoke to make the system work.
We're repurposing material to create the build as well, so we're trying not to create something brand new as much as possible. Also, in terms of our operations, we're really keen to be very local with our suppliers and have a sustainable waste management system as well. Even considering our toilets, we could have just put a portaloo in, but we really wanted to make sure that we did something that again was quite different, funky and also green. I actually think people are responding really well, particularly to the toilet, and the fact that we're off grid, people enjoy it. It’s not just a novelty, it's a quality of experience. The toilet isn't like going into a portaloo, it's very fresh and clean, so it's taking a step forward, not just for sustainability, but also for experience and shows that something can be both green and impressive and somewhere you want to be.
You’ve got a great community of supporters. How did you go about building that community and how have they contributed to the project?
So the way we've done it is very much by creating ways that the local community can participate. We're at Torry Battery specifically because the community said we were at the wrong site and that the Battery would be a better location. Through delivering events, we have the opportunity to listen to their stories and respond to what they are saying and what is authentic to that place. And we have created avenues to allow the community to continue to be involved; we hold weekly meetings where we always meet at least once a week as a group, and anyone can join in on that, and we create spaces where people can share stories so that we can build content. And when I say community, it doesn’t have to be Torry locals, it could be anyone who has an interest in the site, such as an archaeologist, Aberdeen Harbour, or oil and gas. I think what is quite unique about what we did, is in within those weekly meetings we have big corporates and then individuals from Torry, or from somewhere else in Aberdeen, who are in the same space and able to share their ideas. For us it’s important that we’re not deciding things on our own and then just delivering it; we’re always providing inclusivity and empowerment and responding to what is shared with us.
We want to continue to do that, however I think it's changing at the moment because of our operations. It's not going to be the same, and we've found that it doesn't work as well. So we're going to change it a little bit and be really quite intentional about any workshops or events that we host. It’s very much inbuilt into who we are, and so it will always be the way that we work.
Can you tell us about how you are using storytelling to bring the project alive and engage with visitors to the centre?
It’s going to be delivered in phases. Our first phase will be complete by the end of the summer and we'll have a stories trail, which will be an interpretive, self-led trail with markers that link to a web platform with video and web content that tell different stories. What we found is that there are so many stories related to that site; obviously it's in an historic monument and it's had many different uses over time, from being used as defence, to social housing, and then there are some quirky stories from the 60s. And we know that there's more wildlife beyond the dolphins - it's an incredible spot for bird watching and there's an incredible geology to the area. There are also people who come and lay the ashes of loved ones lost and there's a real deep memorialistic side to it and we want to be able to honour that. We also want to tell stories about the outdoors and how we can interact responsibly with the outdoors as well, which we’re doing through our beach clean programs, as well as educating about how being outdoors is really good for mental health and wellbeing.
We’re building a collection of stories, which we’re calling Greyhope Stories, and we’ve actually collected quite a lot, it just all has to be pieced together. It will then exist as a walking trail and on a web platform, and then hopefully we want to get to a point where we're actually producing short stories, books and print material.
What are the key things you’ve learned over the course of the project? Is there anything you would do differently with hindsight?
With hindsight and thinking about moving forward, yes, we were able to deliver this phase, but it was very much on a shoestring and on minimal resources. That is okay for a certain amount of time, but really it's not sustainable. You really have to be driven by passion and determination and it's very draining. We've learned from that and we don't want to just jump into things, we want to make sure they're well-resourced as we jump in and as we build. I think that's a big thing that we learned and at the same time I'm not sure if I would do it differently, because ultimately, yes it was tough, but it was worth it. I think it's important to take any learnings and to change and to actually use it, but sometimes you have to go through these things to learn the lesson in the first place.
What does the year ahead look like for Greyhope Bay?
Hopefully within a year's time I would like to have a full year seasonal program that sets a rhythm to what you can expect from the Greyhope Bay Centre, with good engagement and good response to festivals and learning and education that's delivered at the centre. I'd like to have that fully visible, communicated and delivered by this time next year, including things like the additional trails and web platforms. The way that I think we continue to build visitors and engagement, as well as repeat visits, is through having a diverse and evolving program.
Is there anything you still hope to achieve over the longer term?
We definitely feel that we're too small for the demand, and so we will be looking at how we build on the centre in terms of its current form and build on our power and capacity. Whatever the next phase looks like, we will continue to include consultation and engagement as a key part of that planning process.
Do you have any final words of advice to share for other tourism businesses?
To really think about what is the impact that you're trying to have with the work that you do. I think it's important for us, in terms of whatever the next phase is as well, that it doesn't have to be something shiny and big; it’s about what the impact is of your offer. For example, we are recognizing that our art workshops are doing well, and is there something that we can do that allows for residencies and similar things that increase our impact, rather than being too focused on something that’s shiny and polished.