Dunkeld & Birnam: A business community response to COVID-19

Brenda Roddy

Brenda Roddy lives and works in Birnam.  Her day job is as a coach for Crowdfund Scotland.  She is also the co-owner of Jessie Mac’s, a well-established self-catering hostel and bed & breakfast business located within Birnam.

In our latest guest blog Brenda explains how the business community of Dunkeld and Birnam responded to the sudden impacts of COVID-19 and how they are starting to prepare for the lifting of restrictions and re-opening of businesses.

"Dunkeld & Birnam responded to the Covid-19 crisis by setting up a volunteer group, using the PH8 postcode prefix to set its boundaries and to give it a clear brand. Led by the chair of the community council, the PH8 Volunteer Team had cross sectoral representation, including businesses from the outset.  Various business owners stepped forward asking how they could help - and the PH8 Business Group was born.

Initially, when the Covid-19 crisis hit the villages, myself and Dot (co-owner of Jessie Mac’s) agreed that we'd like to volunteer to help out. We're business owners but also community members so we divvied up the work - she volunteered to help with shopping, deliveries etc. My work pattern wouldn't allow that so I opted for feeding into the organising group to ensure that they could understand where the businesses were coming from.

We put a call out to local businesses through the community Facebook page and our local newsletter asking people to let us know what support their business might be able to offer. It was a bit chicken and egg - we had businesses offering to prepare food but there was limited uptake from the vulnerable/shielding members of the community - that's gradually changing. Offers included accommodation for emergency workers, supply of PPE and bed loans for the local nursing home, loan of rental bikes and e-bikes as well as food prep and delivery for vulnerable groups.

The first wave of action from the PH8 Volunteer Team was to protect the community members and ensure that everybody could get the supplies that they needed - food, prescriptions, hand sanitiser etc.  A number of community members contacted the group offering to make financial donations to help everything run smoothly.

My day job is as a coach for Crowdfund Scotland, so I set up a Crowdfunder campaign. It raised £3,850 and about £3K by cheque. This pot of funds has helped to pay for fortnightly editions of the local newsletter to every home, covered volunteer costs and various other minor expenses.

The second wave was to get the businesses to work together to get a joined up economic recovery. We set up the PH8 Business Facebook page, contacting other businesses in the area to encourage them to engage, and utilised Zoom to have virtual meetings to share best practice. Businesses like the Atholl Arms and the Scottish Deli have been at the forefront, inviting other businesses to pop in and learn from them.

Like a lot of rural communities, tourism is a significant part of our economy so we need visitors BUT, we also have a lot of older people in our community and we need to protect them. It’s a tricky balance.  Dunkeld & Birnam Tourist Association has an excellent website. It’s our public face and provides links to local businesses, services and attractions.  We’ve just crafted a notice aimed at potential visitors that will appear on the website and possibly on posters around town saying -  let’s take it slowly and please stick to the rules (Simon at the Scottish Deli was the driving force behind the poster). This will be regularly revised. Amongst other things, the Dunkeld & Birnam Facebook page highlights efforts by businesses to reopen gradually to promote them to the community and visitors.

Some businesses are ahead of the game and have a clear game plan, with risk assessments and new equipment already in place. Others don’t know if they’re even going to survive. Using the PH8 Facebook Business page, members help share best practice out of public view. Businesses post what steps they’re taking to encourage others. There may be opportunities for joint procurement and shared training. Accommodation providers limited to self-catering can partner up with food providers for breakfasts etc.

We’re a very active community and have many wonderful projects but we’ve never had an overarching plan. Right now, the local economy is badly damaged and we need a plan to recover. It needs to take us from being ‘closed for business’ and being reactive, to having clear prioritised actions and funding options. It’s also an opportunity to change for the better - we don’t want to just go back to the way we were. We want to be even better - a better place to live, work, visit and to be more resilient.

I’ll end by reiterating that I’m just one of a team.  We've had about 6 businesses being proactive and there’s a lot of high value desk based activity e.g. Dot's done a lot of trawling of Facebook and website pages to create a local business database.

My role has mainly been to nag, nudge, facilitate, publicise and try to ensure that we tap into and inform more strategic people/organisations.

I hope that by sharing what we're doing that we'll get ideas back from other communities facing the same impacts brought on by COVID-19 and that together we can continue to develop sustainable rural communities."