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Helping women to heal and grow from the Western Isles to Inverness via San Francisco

By Val Sweeney

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Lisa Buchanan is the new manager of Inverness Women's Aid.
Lisa Buchanan is the new manager of Inverness Women's Aid.

On her blog, The Highland Feminist, Lisa Buchanan states she is dedicated to "supporting other women to heal, to grow and live as fully and deliciously as possible."

The 42-year-old lesbian single mum of a young son – who was born following fertility treatment – is now bringing that determination to her new role as manager of Inverness Women's Aid which supports women and young people who are experiencing or have experienced domestic abuse.

She comes via a circuitous route including studying in Paris, helping to establish the Western Isles Rape Crisis Centre, working alongside the San Francisco Police Department and working as the boss of a housing association during the coronavirus pandemic.

She also organises women’s wisdom circles, is writing a book based on her fertility treatment – and owns a 25-year-old Highland pony.

She takes up her role at Inverness Women's Aid after the charity recently found itself at the centre of controversy amid plans to close the city’s 12-flat refuge for women fleeing domestic abuse.

Following a public outcry that women’s lives could be put at risk, the council and the charity reached an agreement to continue providing refuge and supported accommodation as a review continues over future provision.

Lisa felt she could not comment on how the charity found itself at the centre of controversy as she was not there at the time.

"It is disappointing it got to that position," she conceded.

"In a sense of sisterly solidarity, I don't want to pick over the decision.

"But I think what what it has meant is that for our partners and ourselves we have redoubled our efforts to collaborate or understand what the region needs – not just Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey.

"I like to approach things with an open mind and an open heart and I think we have got off to a fair start."

Her priority is to speak to a broad range of people and organisations and present a report to the charity's board later this year.

Lisa Buchanan says she is approaching her new role with an open mind and open heart.
Lisa Buchanan says she is approaching her new role with an open mind and open heart.

Born in Edinburgh and brought up in the Highlands, she considers herself a Highlander at heart while a constant thread throughout her life has been advocating various causes, including advancing the rights of women.

"My experience is such that from a young age I was acutely aware of the fear, injustice, and control that others can exert over other people’s lives and that for me, that meant developing a strong social conscience from an early age," she said.

"Later as I became a mother, like many women, I wanted to play my part, no matter how small, in creating better conditions for the next generation."

After attending schools in Kingussie, Caithness and Elgin, she studied interpreting and translating at Heriot Watt University in Edinburgh which took her to Luxembourg, Vienna and Paris before returning to Scotland.

She moved to Stornoway to join the Western Isles Learning Shop, an adult literacies centre, and when that placement ended in 2004, she joined the Western Isles Rape Crisis Centre which was being set up.

Although there were questions about its need, there was much support from men and women volunteers as well as Northern Constabulary.

"I think there was a curiosity about it - why do we need it here, or do we need it here?" she recalled.

"These services are still around and very much needed today. It would be naive to think 20 years later we have cracked it."

After living and working in Stornoway, Lisa joined Northern Constabulary which saw her undertaking a sabbatical in San Francisco.
After living and working in Stornoway, Lisa joined Northern Constabulary which saw her undertaking a sabbatical in San Francisco.

She then became a strategic diversity officer with Northern Constabulary which led to a six-months sabbatical with the San Francisco Police Department to study its approach to tackling hate crimes.

"I went out there thinking I would learn so much about good practice and what we could do here," she recalled.

"I learned that culturally and politically we are so different from America, particularly the state I was in – California is very different economically and politically and how society is organised."

A five year stint followed as chief executive at Cantraybridge College in Croy, a specialist further education college for young adults with learning disability, autism or additional needs.

Cantraybridge College in Croy.
Cantraybridge College in Croy.

At the same time, she was also undergoing fertility treatment.

"To say it was a real emotional rollercoaster would be a great under-statement," she reflected.

"Every time I would go to Aberdeen full of hope and then I would back there the next month."

She took time out and did consultancy work – and fell pregnant with her son who was born in 2018.

"He was one of the most wonderful gifts of my life," she said.

When he was about 18 months old, she took up the chief executive's post with Albyn Housing Society.

Eight months later, the coronavirus pandemic struck which brought massive changes to ensure tenants were kept safe and also the setting up a hardship fund.

In her spare time, she started training to facilitate women's circles and later started running "red tents", a mainly spiritual gathering of women based on the menstrual cycle.

When the chance arose to become manager at Inverness Women's Aid, she took up the challenge.

"I seem to keep coming back to working with women," she said. "It is very important to me."

While she is uncertain at this stage what the future service model will look like, she promises to listen and learn.

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