“I just don’t take ‘no’ for an answer,” Pat Wain laughs as we tread carefully around the slippery curve of the famed Tarlair swimming pool.
“The more people said that it wouldn’t work, the more I wanted to make it happen.
“And look at us now, we are nearly ready to open.”
It’s now been more than 12 years since the Friends of Tarlair took it upon themselves to breathe new life into the crumbling open-air pool and its pavilion.
And there have been times when bringing Macduff landmark back to its former glory seemed like a pipe dream.
But soon, all of their relentless efforts will finally pay off…
In this deep dive into the Friends of Tarlair’s quest to preserve the A-listed attraction, we take a look at:
- How volunteers managed to protect the art deco lido from irreversible ruin “in the nick of time”
- Their plans to bring the downtrodden tearoom back to its former splendour
- How the Friends of Tarlair persevered through numerous challenges over more than a decade to achieve the seemingly impossible
- And what exactly the future holds for the iconic attraction
Tarlair pool was once a holiday hotspot
The sun is setting as I arrive at Tarlair on a freezing cold afternoon, and Pat is up to her eyes in work.
She and her colleague Wicek Sosna are desperately digging a trench to stop water streaming into the construction site following a recent landslide.
The bitingly cold breeze coming in from the Moray Firth has numbed their muddy hands, but that doesn’t seem to bother them.
A huge amount of work has gone into renovating the old tea pavilion in the last six months so they can’t let anything put that at risk.
But despite the frosty weather and tough work, the pair are upbeat.
Having another go at the rocky soil, Pat tells me about Tarlair’s “golden age” when the pool was at the heart of the community.
The art deco lido, nestled at the bottom of Macduff’s picturesque cliffs, had been the “Mecca of the Moray Firth” in its heyday – attracting thousands of visitors every year.
But numbers began to dwindle in the 1970s, and the once bustling site sank into disrepair before closing in 1996.
The building continued to deteriorate in the ensuing decades, with deep cracks ripping through its sturdy pillars and rust eating away at the metal frames.
The glossy pink and white walls were left crumbling, while the boating and paddling pools fell into decay.
The attraction lay disused for nearly two decades, vandalised and unwanted.
And as time went by, hopes to revive the derelict outdoor pool began to fade away.
Until the tides unexpectedly turned.
How it all started…
Satisfied that the trench is doing its job, Pat drops her pitchfork to show me around.
As she points out some of the upgrades they’ve made, she tells me how it all began.
The 72-year-old, who spent her early childhood in Macduff and has been living in nearby Gardenstown for 40 odd years, has been involved with the project since day one.
Now chairwoman of Friends of Tarlair, she recalls how their journey started in 2012.
The swimming pool had been closed for 16 years by the time the first “Save Tarlair” meeting was arranged.
Anybody interested was invited to Banff Primary to try and figure out what to do about the decaying landmark.
And while some would just come and go, Pat and her friends Doreen Shearer and Lorraine Smith – now group’s secretary and treasurer – were always among the crowds.
“The only three people who showed up at every meetings were us three,” Pat says.
“Doreen and Lorraine kept pushing because they used to swim here – it meant an awful lot to them.
“With me it was a little bit different. I just love architecture, and I want to see what communities can do when they set their minds to it.
“And it just snowballed from there.”
First major step towards revamp goal
By 2014, Friends of Tarlair was already an official charity group.
They had also worked out a “three-phase restoration plan” and were ready to hit the ground running.
Things got off to a good start, with a £300,000 boost from Aberdeenshire Council.
The money was used to carry out essential repairs to the paddling and boating ponds, stopping the pool from being swallowed up by the sea.
This made the area safe for walking and sailing model boats.
But soon after, the project came to a standstill.
‘It was one challenge after another’
Money was running out, studies were taking longer than planned and talks about taking over the site from the council appeared fruitless.
There were so many complications along the way, that Pat says one afternoon won’t be enough to go through them all with me.
And with the scheme “not getting anywhere further” as the years rolled in, people began to slowly lose hope it would ever happen.
Pat recalls: “Macduff had been promised a lot of things over the years – and every time it had fallen through.
“Tarlair was moving in that same direction at some point and we lost local enthusiasm – people just went ‘dinnae bother, because they won’t let you do anything’.
“There have been many times we’ve gone to a meeting, thinking it might be our last.”
What happened next?
Pat and her determined volunteers never gave up on their dream, however.
And just like that, everything started falling into place in the last three years.
In summer of 2020, the Friends of Tarlair gained a 99-year lease from the local authority so they could move forward with their regeneration project.
And with a range of successful fundraising galas and a nearly £1.5m boost from the Scottish Government, things began to pick up again.
There were still a few “sticky bits” to overcome, but the scheme was at last moving in the right direction.
The following year, London-based architects Studio Octopi were appointed to lead the second phase of the overhaul, which includes renovating the old poolside pavilion.
And once the Covid lockdown was lifted, the group hired Crimond-based builders VG Willox to carry out the work.
‘We want to bring back the buzz’
Now, just months away from opening the pavilion cafe, Pat looks back on all of these hurdles with pride.
With a smile, she admits getting to this stage wasn’t easy.
But what pushed them to persevere, I wonder.
As we continue around the ruined pool, Pat tells me how she wants to see the attraction full of life again.
Her face lights up as she reminisces about Tarlair’s golden days, excitedly pointing out to me where everything used to be.
She paints such a vivid picture, I can almost see it before my eyes – the bouncy diving board, the pier with tied-up pedalos and kayaks, and the crowded viewing platform.
And over there, right across from the old tearoom, was the baby pool where toddlers would spend hours dangling their feet in the salty sea water.
They’ve been determined to bring these memories back to life.
‘It was like the village lost its core’
“We just had to do it for the community,” Pat smiles.
“People grew up around this pool, met their husbands here, then brought their own children for a swim – it was just one of those things.
“And when it closed, it felt like the village lost its core.
“Now, there is nothing that really belongs to them, and we want to change that. We want to bring back the buzz.”
And they are half-way there to making it all happen.
Do you have any fond memories of Tarlair swimming pool? Let us know in our comments section below.
Could new ‘golden age’ beckon for art deco Tarlair?
While there is still a lot of work afoot, the group’s plans have now started to take shape.
The dilapidated poolside hut is on the verge of being brought up to modern standards, with most of the rusty bits already replaced and new insulation installed.
Once completed, it will be a café with a roof terrace and outdoor seating.
Pat explains their aim is to ensure the revamped structure will withstand the test of time, while also preserving the original art deco design from the 1930s.
Meanwhile, the additional building on the side has been knocked down to make space for a “fresh looking” arts workshop.
This will be used for courses, musical nights and talks, and host a permanent display showcasing the history of the unique site.
There will also be a designated community space, which people could book for small celebrations or other events.
All of these upgrades are part of the project’s second phase, with the total cost reaching about £2 million.
The building will be completed by June next year, and open some time in autumn.
So what are the group’s next steps?
The next and final stage of the project – which is still in its very early stages of preliminary work – will include bringing the swimming pools back into use.
A twin building of the changing rooms might also be build on the other side of the big pool, to fit with the art deco style of the site.
And this is just a part of their long-term plans…
Wicek – Pat’s digging comrade and project coordinator – hopes to extend the coastal path all the way to Gardenstown, and improve routes between Macduff and Tarlair.
They want to make coming to Tarlair “more of an event, rather than something you just hurry along”.
‘Determination is all you need to make it happen’
As the sunset covers the art deco lido in golden light, Pat and Wicek are filled with hope for its future.
Another day of work done and dusted, and they’ll be back again the following morning striving to achieve what some feared would be unachievable.
“We were let down so many times,” Pat says as she looks at Tarlair over her shoulder.
“But we never gave in. Determination really is all you need to make it happen.
“And once we are done, it will be like a butterfly coming out of its cocoon.”
Read more about efforts to bring other north-east sites back to their former glory:
- ‘Tom’s dying wish’: Inside historic Portsoy harbour buildings amid multi-million-pound labour of love to revive them
- ‘It’s a family legacy’: Inside look at Newburgh’s Udny Arms Hotel after million-pound makeover
- ‘We turned Fraserburgh’s fire-hit John Trail bookshop into million-pound hotel – and we’re just getting started!’