Braemar has twice broken the record for the UK’s lowest temperature.
Whenever freezing weather is predicted, residents are conditioned to fear the worst.
For some, their fireplace can become the most important part of their home.
That was particularly true just weeks ago, when many went without power for days in the aftermath of Storm Arwen.
Shivering residents were able to boil water over the open flames and heat bowls of soup for themselves and their neighbours while they huddled in their duvets.
Now six council housing residents are desperately battling local authority plans to remove their open fires on Monday.
The authority is poised to carry out the work on Balnellan Road and Balnellan Place properties.
It also comes at a time when electricity costs are expected to soar.
And there are fears that losing the fireplaces could plunge the Braemar residents into crippling fuel poverty as they are forced to turn up the heating instead.
Why are the Braemar fires being removed?
The scheme is part of Aberdeenshire Council’s “housing improvement plan”, designed to help meet climate change targets.
Under the programme, open fires will be removed and electric storage heaters will be upgraded in certain properties.
Citing net zero targets, the council’s housing chief today remained adamant the work will go ahead.
Louise Kelly is one of the tenants who is refusing to let the changes happen at her home.
Fireplaces vital as mercury plummeted
She said: “During Storm Arwen, when we had no electricity for more than three days, temperatures dropped to below -10C.
“My neighbour and I used our open fires to boil water for hot drinks and hot water bottles to keep, not just ourselves, but also our elderly neighbour warm.
“With scientists predicting more extreme weather events, there could well be further power cuts, to say nothing of the extra costs coming down the line for electricity supply.
“I don’t see why the council can’t carry out the necessary upgrades but leave the fires in place.
“This would protect our interests and save themselves the costs of demolishing the fire at the same time.”
Plea for 11th hour U-turn
Braemar Community Council understands the council’s need to “move to a more environmentally acceptable” method of heating.
But chairman Brian Wood says removing the “security of an alternative source of heating from particularly vulnerable residents” is “uncaring and irresponsible”.
He added: “Braemar residents are very resilient and are used to dealing with winter power cuts.
“However what we experienced in the aftermath of Storm Arwen demonstrated clearly how vulnerable we are if we depend solely on electricity to fuel our heating.
“I very much hope that Aberdeenshire Council puts a last-minute stop to the removal of the fires.”
‘What works in Westhill doesn’t work in Braemar’
Aboyne, Upper Deeside and Donside councillor Geva Blackett is accusing council chiefs of failing to appreciate the diverse nature of the huge county.
She said: “Aberdeenshire is a very large area with diverse communities.
“What works in Westhill or Inverurie does not work in the remote communities making up my very large rural ward in the west of Aberdeenshire, where temperatures plunge in winter and power cuts are not uncommon.”
Money stretched as it is…
With time running out before workers are sent around to rip out the fireplaces, the councillor, who lives nearby, is growing “desperately worried” about her neighbours.
She said: “My community has already seen lengthy periods of furlough during the pandemic…
“And financial resources in households are stretched with food costs already showing significant increases and further increases expected.
“April will see rises in National Insurance contributions and frankly this remote community cannot afford to be hit any harder.
“I accept the council has to meet Government targets but not at the expense of the people we are here to serve.”
‘Modern heating solutions’ needed
Aberdeenshire Council’s head of housing and building standards, Rob Simpson, stressed the need for the fires to be removed.
He said: “We have been moving away from solid fuel heating in our properties for a number of years and open fireplaces remain in less than 2% of the homes we manage.
“Unfortunately, open fireplaces would not allow us to meet statutory and regulatory energy efficiency standards for social housing, nor our ‘net zero’ targets.
“And it is important we move to modern heating solutions for all of our properties.”
Council upgrades can also include improved insulation, replacement windows and doors and installing solar panels to reduce the cost of keeping homes warm more efficiently.
He added: “We appreciate it has been a challenging time for many, and the concerns around energy prices and the overall cost of living have been a key consideration in the development of our rent strategy, due to be considered next month.”
It is understood that only around 1.8% or Aberdeenshire Council properties have open fireplaces; around 235 in total.
Braemar holds the record for the lowest ever UK temperature – having reached – 27.2 twice, in 1895 and 1982.
More information on the council’s housing improvement plan is available here.