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From Schoolhouse to Community Hub: The Glenkens Community Centre’s Remarkable Journey

Built in the late 19th century as a school, the Glenkens Community Centre in St John’s Town of Dalry has weathered challenges, closures, and transformations. Discover its rich history, dedicated volunteers, and pivotal role in the heart of Dumfries and Galloway.

The Glenkens Community Centre building. Courtesy of the Glenkens Gazette.
The Glenkens Community Centre building. Courtesy of the Glenkens Gazette.

Built as a school in the late 19th Century, the building which is now the Glenkens Community Centre has played a key role in St John’s Town of Dalry for almost a century and a half. 

However, it hasn’t all been plain sailing and during the last 50 years the building has faced closure three times, each time being pulled back from the brink through the commitment and dedication of volunteers. 

St John’s Town of Dalry (known locally as Dalry) is situated roughly in the centre of Dumfries and Galloway. With a population of around 500, the village formed around a strategic river crossing point on the pilgrim route to St Ninian’s Chapel in Whithorn. The layout of Dalry dates back to the development of a planned village by the Earl of Galloway in the 1700s, leading to a compact settlement roughly triangular in shape. 

The land for the community centre was purchased in 1878 for the building of a school, as a consequence of the 1872 Education (Scotland) Act introducing mandatory education for children aged five to 13. It was actually the third school building in Dalry, with the first records of a school in the village dating back to 1639. The 1878 building was a simple rectangular hall constructed of granite and whinstone; with just one classroom with a high ceiling, heated with a single coal fire, with vents in the ceiling to let out the smoke. 

The school had one teacher, whose desk was positioned squarely in front of the fireplace, ensuring he was nice and warm, even if his students shivered. Some went to school barefoot all year round, even through to the 1920s and 30s. The original building had no plumbing; loos were earth closets, with the soil being utilised to fertilise the kitchen garden of the headteacher. 

Photograph by KH, Dalry School Group Photo 1937, from the Carsphairn Archive.

The building was expanded and remodelled over the years, with a house for the headteacher built out to the side of the original school, and the back wall of the school taken down to allow the building to be extended to form a second classroom.

In the early 20th century, a third classroom was added which served both as science lab and home economics room. In the 1920s the fireplace was bricked up and radiators were fitted, powered by a coke-fired boiler. This was during the 30-year incumbency of dead teacher Sandy Singleton, who lived in the adjoining schoolhouse with his wife and family. The fact that the family had two servants demonstrates the relatively high status of teachers at that time. 

During the Second World War, evacuees from Glasgow boosted the school roll in Dalry. In the mid-1930s a separate primary school was built, leaving the old school as a secondary-only site. The secondary school was attended by pupils from the primary schools of Balmaclellan, Carsphairn, Corsock, Kells, Polharrow and Stroanfreggan, as well as Dalry. It was not uncommon for pupils from outside the village to struggle to get to school in the wintertime, as the diesel in the school buses would freeze. 

In 1965, Dalry’s new (current) secondary school was built, although the old school was pressed into use when the roof blew off the new school (this happened on more than one occasion!). The village is very hilly, with level ground mainly being confined to the flood meadows alongside the water of Ken (from which Dalry – meaning ‘meadow of the king’ in Gaelic – gets its name). Local legend has it that a resident with a demolition licence was tasked with blasting all the knowes on the piece of undulating land bought from the Church of Scotland for the new school, leaving a level piece of ground for the school and playing field. 

Following local government reorganisation in 1975, the now rarely-used building became the responsibility of the Community Education Department. Renovations were carried out in the late 1970s as part of Scotland’s Youth Opportunities Programme, and the building was repurposed as a community centre. The Regional Council owned the building but the management was tasked to a management committee made up of representatives from each of the centre’s user groups. This committee were charged an annual rent of £900 to cover the cost of a cleaner, heating and any repairs to the building. 

When the council subsequently embarked on a regional programme of closing community centres, the management committee put up a spirited battle to keep the centre open. This was successful but led to a change in the management structure in that council still owned the building, but the management committee took full responsibility for funding all costs apart from maintenance of the outside of the building – an arrangement which continued for more than four decades. 

With user groups including a playgroup, Brownies, art and craft groups, martial arts, the Good Neighbours club and the Glenkens Children’s Club, the building was well-used by residents of all ages from across the communities of the Glenkens. The building also hosted ballroom dancing lessons, French classes, art exhibitions and history days, as well as being let commercially.

However, in 2014/15 the building was again threatened with closure and the only option to keep it open was for a community body to take on ownership. To facilitate this a charity called the Dalry Community Properties Trust (DCPT) was set up and the transfer into community ownership was finalised in 2017. The new setup saw the management committee covered running expenses, paying DCPT a rental fee for any major works. User groups continued at the centre, with a local childcare provider (Bright Stars, formerly the Glenkens Children’s Club) becoming the main user overall, renting the space four days a week. 

Changes in the funding of childcare provision and disruption through the Covid pandemic resulted in this formerly vibrant and well-used facility standing empty and unloved. The UNESCO Galloway and South Ayrshire Biosphere partnership investigated converting the building into office space, but this did not come to fruition. In August 2022 a crisis point was reached and a public meeting was called to see whether new volunteers would step forward to take responsibility for the building.

Thankfully new faces stepped forward to take up the baton and, almost two years on, the building is once again a thriving community venue. For older residents, the Good Neighbours club has rekindled and there are weekly digital literacy drop-in sessions. Martial arts and Yoga for All groups offer an opportunity to keep fit, and the weekly Glenkens Youth Group is a hit with local teens. There is an outreach service of the local Citizens Advice Bureau every fortnight and art and craft groups take place regularly. 

The Glenkens Food Hub team outside the Glenkens Community Centre with BBC Landward TV presenter when they featured on a recent episode of the show.

The old science lab/home economics room at the back of the building is now the home of the Galloway Food Hub – a local, producer-led online farmers’ marketplace which an online shopping experience, including delivery, from producers based within 30 miles of the Glenkens. A community garden has been set up in the front garden of the building, with grant funding received to construct raised flower beds, and the Glenkens Gardeners group meets here regularly. 

Community engagement for the Local Place Plan has demonstrated strong support for the creation of a café run as a community enterprise; this extra income could enable the community centre to offer free room hire to groups of benefit to the rural communities of the Glenkens. 

Not content with bringing the building back into use, the new management team have big ambitions for the future. With its high ceilings and minimal insulation, it is an expensive building to run and DCPT trustees have plans to future-proof the building, creating a warm and welcoming, as well as economic, venue that flaunts its eco credentials. 

After a turbulent few decades, at present the future of the now community-owned Glenkens Community Centre looks bright. Hopefully this space will continue as a beacon of grassroots community activity; a hub of local activity and a vital community resource in these times of tightening council purse strings where rural amenities seem to be disappearing at an alarming rate.

Glenkens Community Spaces Network was created by the Glenkens Community and Arts Trust in early 2023 to provide a forum for the management committees of Glenkens village halls, town halls, community centres and other community spaces to come together to share ideas, successes and issues. To find out more visit

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