‘Ardtornish Alchemy’

By Simon Pepper |

Participants during the Trusts 2011 weekend
Participants during the Trusts 2011 weekend

In 2007, a new Trust was born, writes Simon Pepper, former Chair and Founding Trustee of The Andrew Raven Trust. Created to nurture creative discussion around topical issues in sustainable rural development, the Andrew Raven Trust invited 40 individuals to share a weekend at Ardtornish House, deep in the folds of Morvern, Argyll, to hear a world expert on climate change and to discuss the implications for Scotland’s rural communities.

It was an instant success. The guests departed informed, inspired, some said transformed. After five years – and five such weekends – the model has been tested, with different audience and other minor variations, in discussions of rural  housing,  community resilience, land ownership and most recently ‘paths’.

Each time participants say that the experience has left them feeling greatly stimulated and  enlightened by fresh insights, contacts and ideas. So we thought it might be helpful to try and capture the essence of this model of engagement. What do we think are the success factors?

  • Hospitality. Participants are invited personally to attend as house guests. This creates a bond of generous exchange, quite distinct from the customer/client status of the paid contract. It’s a treat, offered to a sample of people who show promise as contributors and/or beneficiaries on the topic under discussion.
  • Philanthropy. The hosts demonstrate an unambiguous commitment to their charitable purposes, free of vested interests or hidden agendas.
  • Conviviality. Enjoyment is a key factor in the design of the event. This is not ‘work’. The atmosphere is deliberately informal, sociable; plenty of time is given to relaxed social exchange, resisting the temptation to over-fill the timetable with organised activity.
  • Removal. Detachment from familiar surroundings/routines is important for exposing the imagination to new ideas. The venue is many miles from work or home, beyond the range of mobile phone networks, running from Friday evening to Sunday. Early features of the weekend include name labels and a careful introduction to the venue, its surroundings and the event itself.
  • A relevant setting. The event is held in a place with inspirational qualities of its own, and where practical examples of most of the topics arising can be experienced nearby.
  • Open discussion. The event is gently chaired to encourage a free exchange of ideas, not seeking collective decisions, under the Chatham House rule.  A summary report of the discussion is posted on the Trust’s website for wider consumption.
  • Inspiring contributors. The important centre point of the event is a presentation by a leading figure in the field with widely acknowledged expertise and charisma.
  • A diverse audience. Participants are sought from the widest possible range of relevant backgrounds, crossing social, cultural or intellectual barriers and giving particular opportunity to an exchange between the sciences and the arts.
  • Head, heart, hand.  The organised components of the weekend programme are designed to offer a refreshing mix of intellectual and emotional stimulation alongside relevant physical activity such as a walk to see or participate in practical applications of the subjects under discussion.

With these nine factors in the mix, we have found that the time, the place and the people interact with extraordinary creativity, energy and mutual trust and affection.

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