Voting got under way on Saturday (10th May) in the South Cowal Community Development Company’s Public Ballot on its proposed buyout of Castle Toward Estate. It coincided with the local Community groups planned open day at Castle Toward’s Mansion House. This was the first time in over two and a half years that the public had been allowed access to the Castle Toward Mansion House, an occasion which was greeted with much enthusiasm by the local community who turned out in their many hundreds to attend the open day. South Cowal residents gathered at the doors where the local community groups Derek McIntyre gave them an impassioned speech about the importance locally of the Castle Toward Estate followed by a rousing welcome from Dunnon Grammar School pupil Sean Condy who piped the guests into the building to the sound of the bagpipes.
The local community group had been working hard over the past few days to get the building ready for the Open Day. Derek McIntyre said “We had to blow off a few cobwebs to get the place in order but even after years of lying empty this building is still in a remarkably good condition.” The group had wanted to showcase the 1820 Mansion House as part of it’s bid to buy the estate from the local authority. Chairman Alan Stewart said “The Mansion House is an integral part of the Castle Toward Estate which the community have been asked to vote on, so in order for them to make an informed decision we really had to allow people to see this wonderful building”. Although the main intention of the Open Day was to let residents of South Cowal see what they were voting on, people had travelled from far and wide for this special occasion. Members of the public on the day reminisced of times they had spent at Castle Toward, either as a worker, a student or one of the many who had stayed there as guests during the past sixty years. One woman had even travelled from as far as Newcastle to attend the Castle Toward Open Day. People could be heard singing the praises of this grand estate and explaining to others their memories of the place. One lady was even reduced to tears when she saw for the first time in almost 60 years the room she had once stayed in as a teenager. On show that day were the local community groups proposed plans for the estate which were greeted with much enthusiasm by local residents.
The community ballot for the proposed buyout of Castle Toward estate opened at 12 midday that day and the mobile ballot box was in place to receive it’s first public ballot papers. MSP Michael Russell who also attended the Open Day was on hand to witness the posting of the first residents ballot papers, when asked what he thought of the idea of the mobile ballot box he said "This is the cleverest idea I have seen for a community buyout and I used to have responsibility for them as a minister, I think it's fantastic."
Local councillor Michael Breslin, who is also a resident of Toward, attended the Open Day in order to place his vote and local residents joined him in the library room of Castle Toward to watch the democratic process in action, giving him a huge cheer when he did so.
The Open Day also featured a show of locally owned classic and vintage vehicles which, all highly polished, gleamed in the summer sunshine which shone brightly during the entire Open Day. People made the most of the gorgeous weather once having toured the Mansion House, listened to a performance in the building’s White Room, followed by a quick refreshment in the Tea Room, then retired to the Castle’s lawns to soak up the sun. “It’s so uplifting” said one local resident “to see this place so full of life.” a sentiment echoed throughout the day by many others. During the afternoon the visitors were treated to a selection of musical genres by talented local performers within the Mansion House. One performer in particular was an ex-pupil of Castle Toward back in the days when it was owned by Glasgow City Council who used it as a training facility for musicians. The ex pupil, Phillip Norris, treated lucky on-lookers and Open Day guests to a special recital on his cello. He also remembered fondly the time he spent as a youngster at Castle Toward and explained to the gathered crowd it’s importance in local history.
The Open Day was also the official launch of the South Cowal Festival Week and festival organiser Eleanor Stevenson conducted the first tour of the day round the Mansion House. She commented “I am over-whelmed by the turn out today, it just goes to show that community spirit is alive and well in South Cowal, what a great start to the festival week”. The only part of the day tinged with sadness was when at four o’clock the doors closed once more on Castle Toward’s Mansion House. “It was very difficult” said Derek “to ask people to leave, they just wanted to stay. I almost felt bad about asking them. I hope it’s not another few years before this estate greets the public once more.”
The Open Day event was the first chance for the local community group to gauge public reaction to their proposed plans to Castle Toward’s future. Local community group chairman Alan Stewart commented “If today’s turn out is anything to go by, I would say the community are right behind the proposed local buy-out of the Castle Toward Estate”. The public ballot will continue throughout the week in South Cowal, with the result of the ballot known by 20th May, watch out for the mobile ballot box in your area in the coming days.