Sylvia awarded MBE for work in Lanark’s community and heritage

Sylvia Russell in Castlebank's fairy dell, while chainsaw sculptor Iain Chalmers was working on the carvings.  (Pic Sarah Peters)
Sylvia Russell in Castlebank's fairy dell, while chainsaw sculptor Iain Chalmers was working on the carvings. (Pic Sarah Peters)

The woman behind the transformation of Castlebank Park has been awarded the MBE.

Mrs Sylvia Russell, who chairs Lanark Community Development Trust, was given the award in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List published late on Friday night.

She had received a letter telling her the Prime Minister proposed to submit her name to the Queen six weeks earlier, a letter which arrived in a very ordinary envelope.

“I thought it was probably something from the tax people,” said Sylvia. “I opened it and just let out a shriek!”

Her husband Roy took the envelope from her and confirmed the message.

“It was a shock,” said Sylvia.

Like Christopher Wren’s memorial, people need only look around Lanark to see why Sylvia was given the award for community and heritage work.

From the boards welcoming people to Lanark and hiding the worst of the Royal Oak hotel’s dereliction, to the town’s playparks, the airshow sculpture and Castlebank, Sylvia has had a firm hand in many things.

She began her career in teaching, but then developed an interest in working with dyslexic children, and took further qualifications, working as a learning support teacher with psychological services, and becoming head of learning support services for Lanarkshire, setting up teams of teachers to support children in mainstream schools rather than in clinics.

And she went on to become the director of the Scottish Government’s special educational needs training co-ordination project, seeking out best practice, and also lecturing.

“It was a great project. I loved every minute of it,” said Sylvia.

And then she retired.

“I really got involved in the community because I don’t like housework,” offered Sylvia, now 73, mother of Jill and John, and a grandmother.

“But there is so much needs doing and I enjoy seeing things happen.”

While chairman of the Lanimer Committee - and she is still a hard worker on that committee - she was asked to join the committee commemorating the centenary of the Lanark airshow in 2010. Already a member of the Museum Trust, she ended up chairing the airshow committee, which worked with schoolchildren and commissioned the three-plane sculpture now dominating the skyline at Lanark Loch.

By the time that disbanded she was a member of the development trust, which she now chairs, and which has done so much to beautify the town, putting up the boards at the station and setting out the Wallace Trail with its leaflets. And - once a member of the original Castlebank consultative committee - she is overseeing the transformation of the park, which now has its horticultural centre, its fairy dell and Wallace memorial rose garden as well as a high profile, and the Trust is still seeking grants to convert the derelict sawmill building there into a community hub.

“I am a very stubborn person,” she said. “I don’t like to give up on a project.”

“The Trust is trying to push Lanark forward, trying to make a difference and make the place look more attractive.”

A chance meeting with Isobel Watson led the two women to set up the playparks committee, resulting in new equipment in Kildare Park and at the Loch, and the cycle trail at the racecourse, and more in the pipeline.

There is a committee of very active young mums involved in that, and Sylvia stresses that in all the work she is praised for: “I am just the front person. There is a whole team of people behind me, working just as hard as I am.”

She has been overwhelmed by all the good wishes, cards and emails which have come in since the award was announced, and was surprised to receive a bouquet of flowers on Sunday at Christ Church, where she is a member of the vestry and produces its magazine.

“I don’t do things if I don’t enjoy them,” Sylvia added.

“I get involved because there are things that can make a difference, and I get a kick out of seeing things happen.”