Reverend John Riches

We signed the lease on Gavin’s Mill, the old watermill that gave Milngavie its name, on January 27, 2017. The building was structurally sound but dank and dark after lying empty. With only four months rent-free, the pressure was on to open for business. Creative chaos ensued. A regiment of gardeners cleared the dense undergrowth. Ad hoc squads of volunteers cleaned and whitewashed and a troop of tradesmen were very generous with their work and time. One man turned up in the still shelfless shop saying: “I’m retired and enjoy carpentry. Can I help?” I nearly wept with relief. One of our management team, Sue Milne, worked into the night to put stock on the computer. And 32 days later, on March 1, broadcaster Sally Magnusson declared Gavin’s Mill Fair Trade shop & Café open. It felt like a miracle.

It wasn’t the first. In 1980 a group from Baldernock Church had turned the coach house in our garden into what was later identified as the first successful fair trade shop in Britain. Balmore Coach House began as a Bible study group asking how relatively rich Christians should behave in a poor world. My wife Nena and I had witnessed unbelievable poverty while working in the Transkei in the 70s and saw that well-targeted support could transform people’s lives.

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From day one two-thirds of the Coach House profits went overseas and one third to UK charities. In 37 years around £1.2m was distributed, while thousands of farmers, artists and craftspeople found an outlet for their goods.

I retired from teaching New Testament at Glasgow University in 2003. By coincidence, I’d just agreed to start importing jam from Ezwatini, a chutney and preserves project in Swaziland, to sell to other fair trade outlets. We got back from skiing one day to find 1500 pots of jam in the dining room. Under our Just Trading Scotland umbrella, we’re still importing and selling it, along with other products like Kilombero rice from Malawi. The Scottish Government has been extremely supportive. With their help we’ve been able to supply the rice farmers with new ploughs and ox-carts and improved seed.

The projects we support and the goods we sell often come to us through personal contacts. A health project in a remote village in Myanmar began 20 years ago with one of my PhD students. (He’d been beaten so badly by the generals that he was nearly deaf.)

Hundreds of people went out of their way to visit the Coach House to buy fairly traded goods, especially around Christmas. It was often described as “an Aladdin’s cave” and there was a great affection for the old place but we knew it couldn’t last forever. I’m 78 now and one day Nena and I will be gone and our children will want to sell the house, including the coach house. Sue Bond, our manager for nearly 30 years, was retiring and the time was right to move.

Gavin’s Mill once again brings new life to an old building and it gives us far more space and footfall. At Balmore most of our volunteers were retired. Now we have more than 70 helpers, ranging in age from 16 to octogenarians and the change of venue has brought in many new customers. Old staples, like fair trade chocolate, tea and coffee are still good sellers but we’ve been able to expand our range of food as well as stocking more homeware, cards and crafts . There are colourful bowls made in India from recycled aluminium, lovely wooden toys from the Lanka Kade Project in Sri Lanka and multi-coloured children’s cardigans from Peru. Now that Scotland is a fair trade nation, I think more people are getting the message that shopping in places like Gavin’s Mill can change lives for good.

Gavin’s Mill is in the carpark of the Tesco store in Milngavie. Visit www.gavinsmill.org