From Highland cows to electric cars, it was great to explore how one rural business is trying to keep ahead of the pack while at the same time as doing its bit to tackle climate change.

As more and more rural businesses move to diversify in order to support core farming enterprises and aim to capitalise in a growing demand for home-based holiday breaks, I caught up with Alex Fleming, at Gavinburn Cottages, about his self-catering business and find out how makes his cottages stand out from an increasingly crowded market.

Alex moved away from a career in auctioneering and land buying nine years ago to set up Gavinburn Cottages, five self-catering units set high in the Kilpatrick Hills, exactly halfway between Glasgow and Loch Lomond.

There are five cottages offering farm holidays at Gavinburn (Pic: Andy Surridge)

There are five cottages offering farm holidays at Gavinburn (Pic: Andy Surridge)

One benefit of running his own business was that compartmentalising the 'day job' gave him more freedom to continue growing his 'evening job' as an after-dinner speaker, compere and charity auctioneer. That said, the cottages still require a lot of hands-on work, though save on travelling.

Whilst the cottages are all beautifully furnished and decorated, Alex admitted it’s the stunning hillside location that really is the major attraction at High Gavinburn. The cottages all enjoy unrivalled views over Glasgow and the River Clyde and guests are only 15 minutes to either the City Centre or the famous banks of Loch Lomond.

Highland cows and green cars are now playing a major role in a change of direction for one farm holiday accommodation business overlooking the River Clyde

Highland cows and 'green' cars are now playing a major role in a change of direction for one farm holiday accommodation business overlooking the River Clyde

There are also some fantastic walks and cycle trails on the doorstep over the Kilpatrick Hills and beyond.

Alex has always believed that there is only so much you can do with bricks and mortar, and you have to look beyond just your property in order to set you apart from the competition.

Lots of farm cottages and glamping sites have great views and locations, so businesses have to offer other features and services in order to grab the attention of increasingly savvy and picky guests.

From the outset, Alex utilised his location, from promoting the views to forming partnerships with local businesses who could offer his guests discounts, or preferential treatment at spas, restaurants, golf courses and other visitor attractions. He sourced discounted rates at local bike and water sport hire companies so his guests could fully enjoy the great outdoors.

Alex also promotes whisky tours at the nearby Auchentoshan and Glengoyne distilleries and since each cottage is named after a whisky, he supplies mini bottles of whisky in the hamper of Scottish produce which welcomes each arriving guest. Nice touch.

Another idea to attract customers was the introduction of the successful 'Farmers need holidays too' promotion which offered discounts to farming families, knowing only too well how difficult it is to get farmers to take time away – and how much they love a bit of a bargain!

An ever present attraction at High Gavinburn are Highland cows from Authentoshan distillery worker, John MacKay’s Kilpatrick fold, that graze the fields around each cottage. They are so popular that some guests will spend many minutes taking selfies with them – a new born Highland calf is the Holy Grail of marketing!

Cars with a view - the new BMWs will provide a new enviromentally friendly edge ot Alex Flemings holdiay homes

Cars with a view - the new BMWs will provide a new enviromentally friendly edge ot Alex Fleming's holdiay homes

Alex said that anybody considering offering on farm accommodation is to have livestock grazing as close to the cottages as possible – "It’s a great highlight for city guests," he pointed out.

So what changes have been happening lately to keep these wee cottages one step ahead of the competition? Lockdown offered him time to tackle projects and jobs which he maybe wouldn’t have managed during a normal trading year, but the most exciting change was a move towards a more sustainable and environmentally friendly way of working.

He confessed that, like many people, he was guilty of ignoring climate change and dismissing it as an inconvenient issue. However, after working alongside Sir David Attenborough at an Edinburgh charity dinner in 2020 and listening to issues that guests felt were important, Alex is now fully committed to exploring various ways to lessen the environmental impact of his business.

Whilst the business recycled as much waste as it could, the farmland is organic and all water needs are sourced from a sustainable rock spring source, a quick review highlighted other simple ways of making a difference.

Firstly – and with a somewhat heavy heart – Alex realised that his gas guzzling Range Rover used for airport transfers and guest tours, had to go to make way for a greener alternative.

That would also come with an added incentive of tax benefits if purchased through his company and after some research and meetings, Alex signed up to an exclusive partnership with BMW UK, through Douglas Park BMW, in Hamilton.

That means he will now run and help promote the new, fully electric and hybrid range of BMW SUVs. Alex plans to showcase this new range, including the new BMW iX3 which is 100% electric and the BMW X5 plug-in hybrid by ferrying guests, in environmentally friendly style, to golf trips, whisky tours and airport transfers, whilst minimising the business' carbon footprint.

David McBennett, head of business at Douglas Park Hamilton explained: “We have a long history of supporting farming and rural businesses, and after working with Alex at charity events we were delighted to link up with him and help drive his business forward in an environmentally friendly manner by becoming his new 'travel' partner.

"The BMW range of SUVs have always been as at home in the field as they are on the road and with the new hybrid and electric variants, are now even more economical to run and better for the environment. We hope his guests enjoy a green and pleasant chauffeur service – there’s also the added bonus that we are helping Alex get to his charity events on time!”

Two electric car charging units have also been installed at the cottages for guests to use. “I was finding more and more guests were arriving with electric cars and whilst we had outside sockets, it can take up to three days to fully charge cars with the three-pin 'trickle' chargers. Now they can plug in at night and by next morning have a 'tank' full of electrons, ready for a day's exploring,” explained Alex. Currently, there are no plans for charging customers for the extra electricity as the units are a great tool for attracting more guests, since charging points are still scarce in some rural areas.

He also added that providing a charging network helped show people that electric vehicles are viable alternatives to petrol or diesel cars and that range anxiety shouldn’t be an issue.

Other environmental improvements include a tree planting programme being put in place, with an arboretum of trees planned for behind the cottages. This has been inspired by the conservation work of his late boss, Bill Bruce, of Scotia Homes and Logie Estate, in Ellon.

A site has also been cleared for some beehives and so there will be High Gavinburn Honey in the cottages by next summer.

Plus, a large hole in the ground that was dug out as a planning requirement to provide a water reserve in the event of a fire, also now doubles up as a wildlife pond after some strategic landscaping and planting.

"As for sustainable heat sources, this proved a more challenging area and each cottage is currently heated by mains gas with individual boilers," he said, adding that many alternative 'green' systems are not yet proven to be capable or reliable enough.

He considered systems, like a large bio-mass wood chip boiler to heat all five cottages, but the stumbling block is that if it were to breakdown he would have five cottages without heat at the one time. “We can all put up with a few days without heating in our own home but guests have paid to stay at your properties and expect hefty compensation if things aren’t right," he pointed out.

"Many people go into the self-catering business thinking it will be easy, but it’s a very tying industry and anyone who is in the business will know the feeling of dread when a guest calls at 10pm on a Saturday night to say they have no heating.”

He is currently exploring the idea of ground source heat pumps which might be more capable than the likes of air source pumps, or a solar panel install. The idea of installing a wind turbine has also been explored but the local West Dunbartonshire council authority have so far turned down all applications from anyone for turbines in the region.

So, all in all it remains a work in progress at High Gavinburn, but by embracing green cars, looking after the finer details and providing Highland coos alongside stunning views, Alex hoped Gavinburn Cottages can continue to flourish in such a competitive market.