Friends of the Earth

by Peter Calder / 24 April, 2010
Before there was an environmental crisis, a small band of hardy pioneers were creating a carbon-neutral community in a remote part of Scotland. Peter Calder visits Findhorn.

To be honest, I had been expecting something more Earth Mother and New Age: free-range chooks and toddlers in the driveway; overall-clad figures bent over vegetables; a geodesic dome or two.

But Findhorn, the new-age community that was born before the New Age was invented, looks positively modern, like a slightly raffish conference centre or even an unplanned seaside resort. On the site, east of Inverness, there are organic gardens all right, but the buildings, including a fully equipped auditorium, are a far cry from shacks and teepees.

Longtime Findhorn resident Michael Mitton, who had responded to my email enquiry by offering to show me around, explains that a seaside resort is precisely what Findhorn was before founders Peter and Eileen Caddy arrived.

Peter, educated at Harrow and a former RAF officer - his specialty was catering - had just lost his job managing a hotel at nearby Forres in late 1962.

"He and Eileen had three kids, aged eight, 10 and 12. And the only place they had to go was a caravan which they had parked at Findhorn Bay Caravan Park."

It's worth explaining that Findhorn Bay - the village existed long before the foundation and community - is the kind of place where only a Scotsman or a penguin would build a holiday park. Even in mid-May, the Arctic wind, whipping across the Moray Firth, nips at the ears and fingers. Mitton, who was born here and, after a time away ("Don't we all hate home at 18?" he asks, by way of explanation) came back to stay, admits it would not have been fun.

"The place was a dump," he says. "Their caravan was in a little hole by a broken shed and they lived on £8 a week."

What followed was a remarkable story that became an inspiration to two generations of Whole Earthers. Unable to afford enough to eat, the Caddys, joined by friend Dorothy Maclean, started growing vegetables - following directions from Eileen called "the guidance". This consisted of what Eileen would later call "the still, small voice within" and what Mitton describes as "contacting the intelligence behind nature".

The result has been famously described as "40lb cabbages grown in pure sand", which may excite the derision of sceptics but it was the beginning of a community now more than half a century old, which time and environmental crisis have made more interesting than ever.

"We're sometimes referred to as the oldest intentional community in the world," says Mitton, "but the fact is that it was unintentional. The founders weren't set on founding a community. They were just trying to survive. People heard about them and began coming."

Eileen's next big pronouncement does seem extraordinarily prescient. When the population reached a dozen, she suggested building a dining hall. Her specifications were that it should seat 70, but the kitchen should be adequate to cater for 250. That is the number at which the population has settled in recent years and although the seating area has been repeatedly - and simply - expanded, expensive rebuilding of the kitchen has never been required.

Peter and Eileen have long gone - they died in 1995 and 2006 respectively - but Findhorn flourishes. It has the lowest recorded ecological footprint of any community in the industrialised world - much lower than BedZED in Surrey, the UK's first purpose-built carbon-neutral eco-community, which is a flagship of government eco-policy.

It seems glib to say that the place was carbon-neutral before carbon-neutrality existed but it's true. There was no climate crisis and, as Mitton says, it was never intended to be an ecological community ("The founders just wanted to live in harmony with the earth") but the ultimate eco-village is what it's become.

Findhorn generates its electricity from a four-mill windfarm but, Mitton says, there is still work to be done.

"Our energy use is 50% of the national average and that's not good enough. We really need to be 10% to be sustainable and the first 50% reduction is always going to be easier than the next 40."

But they grow much of their own food and buy locally - they are in food co-operatives with local farms - so the carbon footprint of their eating is about 30% of the national average.

To a city dweller, the most impressive part of the community is the so-called Field of Dreams where energy-efficient houses are heated entirely passively, with no fuel - a considerable achievement in Scottish winters.

And the community shares its ideas with a range of workshops and residential courses, the fees for which sustain it economically.

Says Mitton: "With the world in crisis - the environment and financial system - we'd like to think we had a few ideas that could help."

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