The devastating floods that hit Ballater last December left misery in their wake. On day one of our new series, we talk to a resident who is determined to get back to normality after the deluge.
A stained-glass butterfly leaning on the windowsill and a white porcelain toilet were the only reminders that the construction site in which I was standing was once a lovely family home.
From the outside, the two-bedroom bungalow looks as it probably did before Storm Frank hit the community of Ballater on December 30 last year.
But go through the front door – which itself shows signs of damage – and it is a completely different story. Everything has been completed gutted and stripped back to just wooden beams and concrete floors.
I was meeting Janice McIlwain, a painter in Ballater, who lived in the house with husband Kenny. They had lived there for 28 years and it was where their daughter, Jodie, who now lives in Edinburgh, grew up.
While they had concerns about the nearby River Dee previously, they never expected that it could be as bad as what they – along with a third of the community – had experienced during last year’s festive period.
More than 300 homes and around 100 businesses were ruined during the floods. In the weeks that followed, the streets of the quaint village were lined with people’s destroyed possessions, while the caravan park resembled something from a war zone.
As I drove through the village, making my way to Janice’s house in Braichlie Road, there were some signs that the area was starting to get back to the way it was. The caravan park had been cleared and residents, having returned to their homes, are now trying to move on.
As Janice told me, “there is life beyond flooding”.
In the weeks following the deluge, the 52-year-old said she was very upset and in shock. But she has a new positive outlook on her situation now.
“You have to have that attitude, otherwise you’d be miserable,” she told me as we stood in what was her lounge. A room that also doubled up as her workspace for when she was painting.
“In the first couple of weeks, I wouldn’t have been saying that, but now we have to get on with it. The more you see things getting sorted, the easier it is to pick yourself up.”
Time to go
Janice said they had seen the flood warnings from Sepa and kept an eye on the River Dee during the night. It wasn’t until around 6.30am that they realised it was worse than ever before.
“It was then that you could see that the river was starting to burst its banks,” she said.
“We went and moved our car to the top of the village and then we came back. That was when we saw the water coming into the garden and we thought that it was time to go.
“The water was racing in. I grabbed a bag and put a pair of socks in it and that kind of thing and just took off. I was panicking, seeing the water coming in. It was flowing into the garden and coming up the garden path to the front door.
“There were firemen in our street who had to take an arm each because the current was so strong. The water was right up to above our knees.”
Janice had to leave behind all her treasures – including some belonging to her late mother and around 200 of her paintings, which would have fetched between £245 and £800 each.
The couple stayed with family for the first night, then at the Deeside Inn, before returning to find what was left a few days later.
“It was like a bomb had landed in the middle of the house,” said Janice.
“Everything was everywhere and there was just a sea of mud. There was a horrible smell of oil, too. I think maybe people’s tanks had been leaking or dragged away, but the whole village was smelling of oil. As you drove into Ballater, the smell just hit you.
“Everything was upside-down. The piano in the lounge was on its front; everything had collapsed. The water had even put holes in the plasterboard. We had a four-poster bed and it had been shifted down to one side. Wardrobes were on their sides. Everything had been obliterated.
“I wasn’t crying, but I was choked up thinking: Oh, my God. I was just in that much shock. Plus I kept thinking that everybody is in the same position, it’s not just us. It was horrific walking in and seeing it.”
Her daughter, Jodie, dealt with the insurance company and cancelled direct debits for things like Sky and BT while Janice and Kenny tried to salvage what they could.
Unlike some people in the village, the couple were covered for flooding in their policy – and had even measured the distance from their house to the river to ensure the policy was airtight. They have not been told yet the cost of the damage or what impact it will have on their policy.
Unfortunately, Janice’s paintings were not covered. She said that while they had buildings and contents insurance, the paintings weren’t considered personal items. And with so much work to do on the house, she hasn’t been able to get back to work, although she plans to start painting again next week.
“At the start, it was really sad to lose all that work, but now I’ve got used to it and I think I’ve just got to get another collection on the go.”
The house is also taking shape – something that is definitely helping Janice and Kenny get over what they have been through.
It is being dried out at the moment and they hope to have all the work done and be back in their home by Christmas – a year after the flooding occurred.
“It’s great to see the house, even in this state,” she said.
“It was horrible when the furniture and everything was in here, it was so dismal and depressing. That first month was awful.
“Once we got everything moved up, that’s when you started to think that there was life beyond flooding.
“We might be lucky and get in early, but there are a lot of houses in Ballater to be done. We think the company that we are going to be getting will have 25 houses in Ballater to do.”
She added that it is also nice to see the village getting back to normal and said the support from the community has been amazing. She said they had so many volunteers – some they didn’t even know – come to the house to offer their help in salvaging items and clearing up.
Janice said the disaster has brought the community closer together.
She added: “The people have been absolutely fantastic. I knew we had a nice community, but I never realised just how great it really was until something happened.”
Now, she is keen to look ahead and has already started discussing ways to protect their home if it was to ever happen again, including installing floodgates and covers for the vents. But as she admits herself, with water reaching as high as four feet, there won’t be much they can do to prevent it happening again.
It is something Janice said she had considered – and joked that she even thought of buying “cheap, plastic furniture”. But in her positive attitude, she said that wasn’t really an option.
“The whole thing was really hard to deal with,” she said.
“Losing personal items, the disruption to your life. I felt like a refugee for weeks, fleeing from our home. I was wandering about the village that day with a little carrier bag and that was all my lifelong belongings. We just never thought that would happen.
“You do think about what if it happened again and I have thought maybe I should just put cheap stuff in, but then you’ve got to live comfortably as well. You can’t live like that and it might not ever happen again.”
At the end of our interview, we chatted about how different Ballater looks now as we walked down her garden path, past a garage that was barely still standing. And I wondered if the risk of it happening again would ever make Janice go as far as to leave the picturesque village.
But before I even managed to finish my question, I already had my answer.
“I love Ballater,” she said, smiling.
“I love the countryside, the scenery, the people. No, I am not going anywhere.”