Welcome to Scotland’s happiest town

Galashiels - Alamy

Galashiels – Alamy

“Is Galashiels the happiest place in Scotland?” The man behind the counter at Edinburgh Waverley couldn’t believe my suggestion. For a moment I thought if he would even sell me a train ticket. This roared just behind St Ives, not only winning the Scottish title, but also the second happiest place in the UK.

The “happiest place” tag comes from Rightmove’s Happy At Home study. Not bad for a town of just under 15,000 that dates back to the 19th century when Gala Water ran mills that produced tweed, wool, plaid and cashmere for the world.

Gala's Golden Age came back in the 19th century when the town's water-powered mills produced tweed, wool, plaid and cashmere - Getty

Gala’s Golden Age came back in the 19th century when the town’s water-powered mills produced tweed, wool, plaid and cashmere – Getty

While exploring a new 13-stop “Looking at Architecture” hiking trail from the ambitious Energize Galashiels initiative, life-long Galalean Debbie Paterson explained: “Gala was once a textile hub in Scotland, but by the late 1970s cheaper competition and mass production had begun to come from factories from abroad. bankrupt many of them.”

Yet Paterson was still smiling, and it’s no wonder the cashmere business Kinalba exploded. “After several false starts, Gala is back on the map with niche operators focusing on quality over quantity and we are seeing strong demand,” he said.

Local Debbie Paterson says Gala is back on the map

Local Debbie Paterson says Gala is back on the map

Gala’s decline accelerated when Dr Beeching stole the railroad in 1969. It was therefore convenient for me to arrive by train from Edinburgh on the Borders Railway, which was re-laid through the emerald hills in 2015 to help stimulate the local economy.

The railroad’s return has empowered Gala in numerous ways – most notably the Great Tapestry Scotland visitor centre, which opened in 2021. Common sandstone with the big old Post Office next door. On a dreary January day, I was greeted with the sparkling Galaleans in its lively, bustling cafe. It’s incredible what it can do for a town’s soul when you replace a Poundstretcher with a cultural treasure.

Center director Sandy Maxwell-Forbes embraced the new Gala and described its most important piece, the Great Tapestry of Scotland with 160 panels covering the country’s 420 million years of history, as the “Baeux of Scotland”. “This is the world’s largest community-stitched tapestry, but it’s also a living, breathing part of town.”

This cultural hub is not a white elephant that helped start a visible renaissance. Arresting murals now adorn downtown buildings. Local writer Sir Walter Scott’s stately Abbotsford mansion is today just across the street from Tweed, a dramatic museum brimming with works from Robert Burns, Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Romans (who were huge fans of Gala).

Nod appreciatively at the tapestry center, Why not? In this gorgeous cafe and arts center, local produce like Edward Collin smoked fish and Tweed Valley venison feed residents and visitors alike, while local creators rent space. Owner Jenny Potter moved in after the arrival of the Borders Railroad. “The train literally got it moving,” he smiled as he ate the smoked salmon and truffles cheese. “But Tapestry has gotten so avalanche with its center. I love it here. Things change fast – it feels like it’s improving every week.”

Visitors view the exhibit on Scotland's Great Tapestry

Visitors view the exhibit on Scotland’s Great Tapestry

I wandered through pedestrian Channel Street, into Unwind Yarns, a wool shop that offers community lessons, and into an alley looking for Jamie McLuckie. Working for the likes of Duffy and the Maccabees, this former sound engineer shunned life down the road to found the award-winning coffee roasting company, Luckie Beans. He said: “Gala is a very creative place with the likes of Tempest Brewery and Aero Leather nearby. But it’s also very friendly – people always have time and smiles for you. That won me over very quickly. I found my happy place here.”

Everywhere I turned there was momentum. Nearby, the monthly Heartland Market, set up last year, is brimming with “artisans, bakers and confectioners.” I found a vegan bakery in Zola; an inviting boutique retreat at the Salmon Inn; Paolo’s arancini is an Italian that can be picked up in Rome.

Jamie McLuckie, a former sound engineer, moved to Gala to start his award-winning coffee roasting business, Luckie Beans.

Jamie McLuckie, a former sound engineer, moved to Gala to start his award-winning coffee roasting business, Luckie Beans.

The oddities are many. Peter Womersley’s remarkable concrete stand at Gala Fairydean FC is a pioneering 1960s hulk of ferocity that draws devotees from around the world (Gala RFC next door, its best export is Gregor Townsend). As a reference to the decline and rebirth of the town, I came across a hiking trail that offered to take visitors on a “Beautiful and Bold” journey. The words of Kayleigh, the powerful ballad of Marillion 1985 – inspired by Gala – are carved into the cobblestones of Market Square.

Wherever you go, the hills are never far away – the town stretches from the banks of the Tweed River into a narrow valley. They lure hikers on the 212-mile Southern Highland Trail and cyclists on a new 250-mile Scottish coast-to-coast route.

Back in the center, I was eventually drawn to MacArts, where an old church was reborn as a music venue. I discovered that local band Patersun blasted original songs full of energy and creativity. The MacArts manager told me they strive for music that is thought-provoking, life-affirming, and at the same time makes people smile. I expected nothing less from Gala until now.

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