Galashiels – the happiest place in Scotland? by Robin McKelvie

I’ll be honest, Galashiels is not a place I’ve spent a lot of time in. Not since I was a wee boy anyway when I came to visit my late uncle. Over the years I’ve been to Melrose and Peebles countless times, but not Gala. I’ve just been back. Well, I just had to: my journalistic curiosity was seriously roused when I heard it’s recently been named the happiest place in Scotland…

The happiest place moniker came courtesy of Rightmove in December 2022, their survey hailing its green spaces and friendliness. I find lashings of greenery zipping down from Edinburgh in under an hour on the Borders Railway, which was reinstated in 2015.  It is countryside of the beguiling sort that had both Robert Burns and local resident Sir Walter Scott swooning in prose and verse.

And friendliness? Plenty of that too, kicking off with Gala born and bred Debbie Paterson. She is quick to dispel any notions I have of a depressed town still struggling to cope after its once mighty mills closed. “Gala is booming,” she smiles in welcome when I step off the train at the swish modern Galashiels Interchange. “My business Kinalba is just one of the small businesses thriving in the town now. We make luxury cashmere products. Others make bespoke leather jackets and others still roast coffee. It’s all about quality over quantity, delivering style and substance.”

My next stop is that artisan coffee roaster himself, Jamie McLuckie. He was once a front of house sound engineer for musicians like Duffy and the Maccabees, but he has found a new home in Gala in many ways – “I came here to develop my love of artisan coffee, but I love it so much I’m in the process of bringing my young family down here. There is a lot of creative energy and that friendliness is a major draw, especially as I’ve spent time living in cities.”

Everywhere I wander in Gala – and it’s a great town for wandering these days with pedestrianised zones, widened pavements and revamped squares – I’m met with a warm welcome. It beams from the community-focussed folks at Unwind Yarns, through to the type of brilliant baker everyone wishes they had in their own town, Dalgetty’s, and on to Zola’s, a vegan bakery, and Paolo, a Galalean with Neapolitan roots who has won awards for his pizza and who now runs an eponymous Gala restaurant.

The most energetic and creative place of all is the MacArts. This former church has been brilliantly reborn as a popular music venue that plays hosts to a never-ending array of local bands and talent from well beyond the Borders. I find Gala band Patersun playing a rousing set to an appreciative crowd. It’s very Gala, the talented singer and guitarist has his dad on drums, the latter clearly living his best life banging away in his shades in the background.

I come across energy of a different kind at Why Not? This is another place I wish they had in my hometown. Not just a brilliant café – and it is that with Edward Collin smoked fish and Tweed Valley Venison – it also welcomes in all sorts of artists and creatives who sell their work to the public from the shelves here. Great food and coffee, plus art and culture, with an ultra-local focus. Why not indeed? I spot a trend here as owner Jenny Potter tells me she originally just set up shop here, before deciding she had to move to Gala too. Gala seems to have that effect on people.

Also having an effect on people is a brand new cultural icon that it is impossible not to react to. The Great Tapestry of Scotland visitor centre is an avant garde creation right in the heart of Gala that somehow manages to weld the ultra-modern with the traditional– it is joined at the sandstone hip with the grand old Post Office next door, which is now part of the sparkling complex.

Think historic tapestries and you’ll probably – like me – think instantly of the Bayeux. But Gala’s version is so much more engaging and worthwhile. Not a single tapestry, it is a series of 160 panels that were brought to life by an army of over 1,000 stitchers. In fact it’s the largest community stitched tapestry in the world. And it’s a sheer joy.

The Great Tapestry of Scotland director, Sandy Maxwell-Forbes, exudes the type of positivity I’m by now coming to expect in Gala: “Our tapestry is for everyone, for all of Scotland and indeed all the world, with everyone welcome. We’re starting to see a lot of visitors from overseas now.” It’s great that the centre is becoming globally famous, but Sandy pre-empts my next question: “We are still very much integrated into the community too. We opened over a year ago, but local people still love our café and the annual memberships are very popular. We’ve also brought over 1,000 schoolchildren through on education programmes and work closely with the students at Gala’s School of Textiles and Design.

It takes a lot to bring a world-class attraction to a town and a lot to propel enough around it to bring the whole place up. During my visit I’m continually impressed with the work of Energise Galashiels and Galashiels Heartland of the Borders. They’ve got this great website you’re reading this blog on now, but they’re also involved in a sweep of positive initiatives, such as the new monthly Heartland Market.

I also love the walking trails on the website that really open up Galashiels and its rich heritage. With a typically dry Galalean sense of humour the ‘Looking up at Architecture’ takes me on a ‘Pretty and Gritty’ exploration of Galashiels. There are 13 stops en route. There really is so much to look up at, and down too such as the old lade that used to help power the mills.

You can walk these trails for days, fitting for a part of the world where the great outdoors are never far away. The 212-mile coast to coast Southern Upland Way ripples through Gala and fans of taking to two wheels from this summer can explore the 250-mile Scottish Coast to Coast cycle route that sweeps through the Tweed Valley, from its start on Scotland’s west coast, to end up at the North Sea in the Borders.

This is of course big rugby country. I find everyone at Gala RFC buzzing as they’ve just trounced their local rivals Melrose. No surprise really as this is a town that has spawned dozens of Scottish internationals and seven British Lions, including current Scotland manager Gregor Townsend. Next door to their attractive wee stadium is an even grander one. The main stand of Gala Fairydean FC is a chunk of concrete brutalism from the 1960, the brainchild of Peter Womersley, that pulls in architectural devotees from around the world.

I had come to Gala to see if it really is the happiest place in Scotland. I certainly leave with a huge smile on my face after being wrapped in the charms of a dynamic Borders bolthole whose people are fuelling its grand old stone streets with an impressive new sense of life and community. It is years since I have been to Gala; it won’t be years before I come back.

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