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Aberdeen & Aberdeenshire

No more sleepless nights? How heroes used 150 tonnes of Balmoral sand to build 500ft wall – and save Ballater from flooding

We have an inside look at the volunteer effort to allay flooding fears in the Deeside village left scarred by the devastation of Storm Frank. reports.
Denny Andonova
Pictured are volunteers at the newly built flooding defence at the River Dee in Ballater.
The community in Ballater - as well as a number of local organisations - banded together to protect their village from another flooding disaster. Image: Kath Flannery/DC Thomson

Eight years on, the destruction of Storm Frank still causes sleepless nights in Ballater whenever there’s word of adverse weather.

Hundreds from the Deeside village were left homeless amid the unprecedented flooding in 2015.

Within hours, the Ballater caravan park and the golf course were all but completely destroyed – with vehicles, chunks of wood and debris sent floating down the River Dee.

Despairing villagers had no choice but to flee, leaving precious belongings submerged by the murky water from the overflowing Dee.

The storm caused millions of pounds of damage, and lasting trauma…

Ballater Caravan Park was severely damaged during Storm Frank.
Ballater Caravan Park was severely damaged during Storm Frank.

It took more than a year to pick up the pieces, and there are homes that have never recovered.

And to this day, everyone’s heart skips a beat when the river rises and forecasters issue weather warnings.

A multi-million-pound flood prevention scheme was formed for Ballater in 2019, but when – and if – it will come to fruition remains unclear.

Tired of waiting for a solution that may never come, a group of determined locals took it upon themselves to find a way to protect their Deeside community.

Ballater streets flooded during Storm Frank in 2015.
Homes and businesses on Ballater’s main street were left submerged. Image: Derek Ironside/Newsline Media.

And now, after four years of hard work and planning, there is hope on the horizon.

We meet three of the Ballater volunteers, who lift the lid on four years of toil to bring new flooding defences to the Deeside village, including:

  • How Ballater residents spent countless sleepless nights after the devastation of Storm Frank
  • How the community pulled together to protect their village from more flooding, and further damage to homes
  • What their plans involved – and how they have already proven successful
  • And a “call for help” to come up with a long-term solution to an “ever-changing” problem

New hope for storm-hit community in Ballater

Volunteers, photographed in front of the newly installed flood defence in Ballater.
Volunteers have been working on the newly installed flood defence in Ballater since 2020. Image: Kath Flannery/DC Thomson.

I meet Neil Duncan, Richard Frimston and John Bannerman just a stone’s throw away from the local golf course days after yet another storm had battered Aberdeenshire.

Carefully hopping from one stone to another to avoid the mud, Neil tells me this area is usually the first swamped by the rising river.

This time round, however, Ballater has a new weapon in its arsenal.

Neil Duncan, John Bannerman and Richard Frimston. Image: Kath Flannery/DC Thomson

For the last four years, the trio have been working with a 20-strong team to protect people’s homes.

And while they all come from different professional backgrounds, the volunteers have “gradually become flood experts” to come up with a solution.

With a sense of achievement, Neil shows me the fruits of their labour – a sturdy wall bend, stretching nearly 500ft along the riverbank.

The newly erected wall passed its first test during Storm Isha, protecting Ballater as water levels rose. Image: Neil Duncan.

It took a huge amount of planning and hard work to get to this stage, Richard and John tell me.

But it was something they had to do.

‘There is a huge amount of worry and anxiety every time there is a storm’

As the frosty weather takes another bite at our bare hands, we decide to take shelter at Ballater’s Rothesay Rooms.

It’s quite a fitting location for our chat, giving that the cafe was created to drive tourism and employment in the aftermath of Storm Frank’s flooding in 2015 (though it has changed location since then).

As we walk across the village, Richard, John and Neil tell me why they decided to take on the ambitious project.

King Charles, then Prince of Wales, opened Rothesay Rooms – aimed to help Ballater recover from Storm Frank.

It’s a bright and dry day, but most of the houses we pass are still geared up with sandbags and floodgates.

Flooding has always been an issue in Ballater, Richard says, and those closest to the river try to be prepared for the worst at all times.

Since Storm Frank, many have spent countless sleepless nights every time there is a bad forecast.

As a member of the resilience team in Ballater, tasked with taking care of those evacuated during storms, John has seen the impact this can have on families firsthand.

Our coverage of Storm Frank in 2015. Image DC Thomson.

“There is a huge amount of anxiety,” the 62-year-old retired engineer adds.

“You would have people sitting in the hall all night, wondering what’s going on with their houses and their belongings, with the fire service checking on their dogs.

“And you can only understand that anxiety if you’ve been there with them – seeing them wrapped up in blankets, worrying about their homes and what happens next.

“I don’t even live in a flood zone, but every time I hear the rain hammering on my roof I can’t sleep.”

Flooded streets in Ballater during Storm Frank.
Storm Frank caused millions of pounds worth of damage across Aberdeenshire, with Ballater being the worst hit. Image: Derek Ironside/Newsline Media.

‘No more waiting – we need to take action now’

In 2019, Aberdeenshire Council approved a £31 million defence plan for Ballater, which includes building an 11ft concrete wall along the riverbank.

Earth embankments and major barriers made of glass will also be built along the centre of the golf course to keep the water away from the village.

It was said this is the best option for Ballater, although the community raised concerns that it could result in potential loss of tourism.

Image: DC Thomson.

But four years on, the project is still in limbo – with no indication when it will be done.

So in 2020, campaigners decided to take matters into their own hands and come up with their own “sustainable and achievable” solution.

With more and more storms hitting the region every winter, they had no time to waste.

John Bannerman: “We are this small group and the community sees us as ‘it’s us or nobody’  – so we all feel the weight of this responsibility.” Image: Kath Flannery/DC Thomson

John adds: “The system is completely geared towards low frequency events – but we’ve had three ‘one in 10 years’ events just in the last three years.

“And if you take this into account, how do you say to the village ‘Well, we’ll do nothing until this [the £31m project] pans out’.

“People don’t like doing nothing – especially when the river keeps moving, things change and you begin to get flooding that is making people’s houses wet annually.

“No more waiting, we had to do something to protect Ballater now…”

So what did they do?

There were many struggles along the way, but the group – now named the Flood Action Community Team – never gave up.

And many rushed to their aid, eager to see the project come to fruition.

In December, the bund was successfully completed – marking a “quick but big win” for Ballater.

Volunteers working on the Ballater flood defence
The project turned out to be a huge undertaking, with volunteers working in freezing cold conditions some days, determined to get it done. Image: Kath Flannery/DC Thomson

The riverside path, damaged in Storm Frank, was also restored to its original level and part of the embankment has been strengthened with trees toppled during storms.

John, Richard and Neil say it was a truly collective effort, and they couldn’t thank those who helped them make it happen enough.

The £15,000 project was funded with donations from the Ballater Caravan Park and the Ballater Charitable Chiels, as well as a grant from the Marr Area committee.

Aberdeenshire Council supplied the boxes needed for the bund, while Balmoral Estate donated 150 tonnes of sand to fill them with.

Balmoral Castle.
Balmoral Estate was very supportive of the project, donating materials to the cause. Image: DC Thomson.

And Aberdeen-based trucking company Colin Lawson delivered the materials for free.

But Richard, Neil and John are far from done yet…

What next?

The trio is already thinking about their next steps, which would involve seeking further advice from a specialist on what else they can do around Ballater.

Their aim is to come up with a green, long-term solution to flooding in the village, which could potentially help them go without any problems for years.

However, John says they are still “miles away from that”.

And he adds they need to remain “realistic” that while the new bend is “good news”, it won’t prevent another Storm Frank.

Richard Frimston, from Ballater flood group.
Richard Frimston, 70, couldn’t just sit back and wait for another disaster to happen. Image: Kath Flannery/DC Thomson

“It’s so complicated and nobody knows what’s going to happen,” Richard adds.

“Are we going to have more storms, higher storms, is it realistic for Ballater to ever be protected against Storm Frank? Nobody can categorically say.

“But for £15,000, we have managed to keep streets and homes dry – so I’d say that’s a big win for all of us.

“It shows the power of one community pulling together.

“We can’t stop these big storms, but if we could keep some of the water upstream, reduce the risk to homes and make sure nobody loses their life – then we’ve achieved something.”

Neil Duncan, from Ballater flood group.
Neil Duncan, 54, says their aim is to create a green solution to enhance it to protect the amenity value of the caravan park and the golf course, which are essential to tourism in Ballater. Image: Kath Flannery/DC Thomson

“We learn after every storm,” Neil says, taking another sip from his hot tea.

“That’s the nature of the beast – we take it step by step, change the plans while trying to be pragmatic, and adjust to a constantly changing complex issue.

“This is going to be a continuing process forever.”

And now the local heroes are appealing for more people to join their quest…

‘Call for help’ to build on project

Richard, John and Neil are now full of hope there are only better days ahead for Ballater.

They have already drafted the next stage for the project, which would include getting another 200 wind-blown trees to strengthen the whole length of riverbank.

And that’s just the start of it.

John Bannerman, Neil Duncan and Richard Frimston hope they can further improve the flood defences around Ballater – but need to help to do so. Image: Kath Flannery/DC Thomson

But to take the scheme to the next level, they will need a lot more help.

“I honestly don’t know how we are going to pull it off yet,” Neil sighs.

“It’s getting beyond the volunteers’ powers, but I know we can do it if we all continue to work together and more people get on board.

“It’s a call for help.

“We have achieved something collectively together, now let’s recognise it, give some feel-good factor to the community and continue to build on it.”

There are many community-led projects across the north-east worthy of admiration. Read more about others who devoted their time and efforts to the places they hold dear: