Neilston Development Trust

Neilston Development Trust used community-led action research to find out how a local asset, Cowden Hall Estate, could be developed to support wider use and access to nature.  Even though development of the Hall has not progressed as planned, the research has created a body of work to support the Trust’s aims.


Neilston Development Trust in East Renfrewshire is one of six community and voluntary sector groups in Scotland to have taken part in the “People and nature: learning through doing” action research programme which ran from Autumn 2009 until Spring 2011. This programme aimed to identify successful approaches to involving people in enjoying, learning about and caring for nature and was supported by Scottish Natural Heritage and Scottish Community Development Centre.

Cowden Hall EstateIn Neilston, it aimed to explore the potential for wider use by the Neilston community of Cowden Hall Estate as a place for enjoying nature and the outdoors. The research was carried out by volunteers from Neilston Development Trust.

Neilston, a former mill town in East Renfrewshire, has been a hotbed of community-led regeneration in recent years. Neilston Development Trust (NDT) bought the former bank building in 2006 as a hub for community development activity and in 2009 Neilston became Scotland’s first Renaissance Town, publishing the Neilston Charter — a 20-year vision for the sustainable regeneration of the town.

The Charter identified Cowden Hall Estate, the designed landscape of woodland and gardens around the original mill owner’s home, as an untapped resource in terms of its heritage and natural environment.  In its former glory the estate was enjoyed by mill workers and the wider community, but had fallen into disrepair.

Growth and development

Neilston Devlopment Trust's participation in Learning Through Doing was tied into a wider programme of events and activities marking the importance of the mill in Neilston’s history.  This included photograph exhibitions, communiy walks and school study trips.

Studying natureThe research project involved 100 days of volunteer time from Neilston Development Trust and the local community. It was carried out by a team of eight volunteers, led by the Trust’s cultural convenor.

The Trust wanted to use their research to find out:

  • how Cowden Hall Estate was currently used and valued by the local community
  • why some people did not visit
  • how the estate had been enjoyed in the past
  • how it might be developed to support wider use and access to nature.

A survey was carried out on-site as people visited the estate and in the wider community through local groups and schools. 251 surveys were completed, 5% of the community.  The research found that:

  • Over 90% of respondents would be more likely to visit if improvements were made: such as path maintenance, seating, wildlife areas and bins.
  • There was considerable interest in activities being organised in the estate: 67% for walks, 49% for conservation and 44% for gardening.
  • The main reasons for not visiting were: not knowing where it was, not knowing the way around and safety concerns.

Intergenerational storytellingA storyteller was commissioned to bring older and younger members of the community together, to gather memories of work and fun in Cowden Hall Estate and inspire ideas for its future. These were captured in artwork by the children.  The intergenerational storytelling sessions provided insights from the past and ideas for how Cowden Hall Estate might be developed in the future. These ranged from just tidying it up, to creating walks, play parks and sports areas, to reinstating the original gardens.

To record how Cowden Hall Estate was valued by the community, a website was created drawing together the history of the place and the findings of the action research.  See

A key finding was that the estate’s value was complex; it meant different things to different people. For some people its wildness was a barrier, for others it was part of the attraction. For some, it was a beautiful woodland walk. For others, a place of historic interest in the development of Neilston. For older people, it was a place rich with personal associations from life as a mill worker. For the young, it was a place for fun.


For NDT, the research was an opportunity to take forward community aspirations in the Neilston Charter, and to bring younger and older residents into this process. It allowed the Trust to build volunteer capacity with new skills in survey techniques, data analysis, website creation and managing volunteers, and to explore opportunities for enjoying the outdoors.

New contacts were made with BTCV and the Dams to Darnley park rangers and two volunteers were trained as ‘biodiversity mentors’ to record local wildlife and lead community nature sessions.  A new contact was also made  with the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland (RCAHMS) who support community-led projects on sites of historic interest.

The research enthused NDT in exploring outdoor aspects of sustainable place-making and led to several new initiatives, such as local nature walks as part of East Renfrewshire Walking Festival.

Lessons and learning

For NDT, the action research project had the following benefits:

  • Establishing a cultural link between people and places can spark interest and encourage enjoyment and care
  • Storytelling can be a powerful way of capturing how a place is valued and using this to inspire ideas and improvements
  • Community-led research can require significant resources of volunteer time as well as office facilities, insurance, childcare and experience in managing volunteers

"We started off thinking this was a modest project, but it turned out to be very involved and challenging. But definitely worth the effort!”

The research has created a body of work to support the Trust’s aims around heritage and place-making, community learning, health and well-being and possible social enterprise opportunities in horticulture and conservation.

It was challenging for a community-led organisation with no core funding to take on a project of this size — especially the time and resources needed and huge reliance on one person. It was important to get the landowners’ permission before starting the research, but this meant that timings slipped and some volunteers became unavailable.

NDT and communityNevertheless, by linking their research to other local activity and bringing in expertise from other organisations, NDT greatly expanded the scope and reach of their project. More people were drawn into the research and several new contacts made for ongoing collaboration. Skills and knowledge were uncovered within the community and a legacy was created in the website.


Group website

Read the full action research report here.

For more information on SNH’s work on increasing and broadening participation in outdoor recreation, see or contact Elaine Macintosh at Scottish Natural Heritage, 0141 951 4488

Click here for more information and resources on action research on the Communities Channel

For more case studies on knowing your community click here