CowalFest origins provide firm foundations

It’s 20 years since Russell and Dorothy Bruce came up with the idea of a walking festival in Cowal. Two decades on and the now, well established event is scheduled to return in October 2023 after a three-year hiatus due to the pandemic.

Dorothy, who now lives in the Borders, commented: “It’s good to know that Cowalfest is still going! My husband and I started it in 2003 when Russell became one of the first directly elected board members of Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park not long after it came into being. We had long thought that the area needed something to reinvent it, to make it attractive and more relevant to what many were looking for in the new millennium.

“The Forestry Commission had received money to upgrade and create new all-purpose paths and were keen to have them utilised. Health boards were also advocating the benefits of outdoor activities for mental as well as physical health.

“With Russell on the National Park board, it meant we had access to decision makers in the various agencies. Such a festival fitted their strategies and accorded with many of their own aims so we received their help and input.

“The festival was only possible because of the many volunteer walk leaders who along with their skills and knowledge of the walks imparted information on the area, the wildlife, the history. The same went for the rangers of the many agencies involved,” added Dorothy.

A well-attended, public meeting was held in Strachur which led to a number of people volunteering to form a committee. From the start, collaborations with musicians, local arts groups and other community organisations was a vital part of the strategy.

“The first festival was called “Reflective Water, Dramatic Hills”. It wasn’t until the second that we decided on the snappier name of Cowalfest.

“Shops in Dunoon hosted artists’ paintings and on one occasion sculptor George Wylie came to judge the best window display. We had music with fiddles, guitar, harmonica players. a cellist, harpist and the renowned Peatbog Faeries. Then there were food events with walkers seeking mushrooms etc for their own lunches – all properly supervised of course. Lots of wildlife events too. As well as art and theatre walks/events and visits to historic places not usually open to the public.

“Russell and I were involved for about eight years until we decided to return to the Borders. It was a fairly hectic time with the calendar peppered with homecomings and gatherings, destination development projects, wildlife events, and National Park and Enterprise Company seminars covering a range of subjects.

“Many of the other walking festivals at the time concentrated on fairly long walks. As not all our potential participants wanted a long hike, what we were trying to achieve was an event that lots of people could enjoy whether it was just a short stroll around old Dunoon or a walk that really challenged them which they would have been put off doing on their own.

“We hoped that that mix, along with other events, would let people see Cowal in a new light, different from the 1960s version many remembered, and come along for a few days to enjoy themselves and make new friends. I hope we achieved that in a small way,” added Dorothy.

A bit of the pioneering spirit and creativity demonstrated by Dorothy and her charges two decades ago will go a long way to ensuring that CowalFest 2023 makes a similarly impressive impact!