For over a decade the village of Thornhill in Nithsdale has been blessed with one of the best attractions in south west Scotland. Cafe, gallery, bookstore and purveyor of all manner of household and personal indulgences, Thomas Tosh has become an institution – in the very best sense. It is the inspiration of David Cripps and Paul O’Keeffe, who have kindly agreed to tell their story here.
Thomas Tosh has been woven into the fabric of my own life over the last dozen years. Enigmatically named and hidden up a side street, for me and my family, as these pictures show, it has been all of the following things, and much more.
The perfect place for pancake breakfasts on a Saturday or tea and scones on Friday afternoon, when school is out.
A great venue for events as varied as a death cafe, a concert, a book launch, a poetry reading, unveiling a new album, or a cookery demonstration.
Home to a collection of books large enough to be full of surprises but not too big to overwhelm you – from Scandi-noir to nouveau-nature writing, to various things Japanese.
A place to spot a famous actor, a rock star, or maybe just someone you recognise from somewhere or other and can’t place for the life of you.
The go-to venue for Christmas shopping. With luck you’ll find something there for everyone on your list.
An essential base from which to take stock and plan your route for day two of the Spring Fling.
An art gallery displaying work of many kinds, from prints to oils, mixed media, and photography.
A highly successful location for a surprise 50th birthday party, with friends in attendance from far and near.
Read on to learn of how this remarkable place came about and what Thomas Tosh means for its creators, David and Paul.
1. Tell me how you first came to live in Dumfries and `Galloway, when that was, and what your plans were at the time.
David: I had been to the Borders as a child with my sister on holiday regularly in the 1970s, when my grandmother used to live on The Glen estate just outside of Peebles. A lot more people will probably know about the place now because it is the estate of Lady Glenconner. And her books Lady in Waiting and The Crown have made it more well known.
Paul and I were living in Hackney but I still had a yearning for Scotland, and memories of Scotland. We made a trip up in the early 2000s and stayed in Peebles on holiday. We also had friends in Edinburgh and made visits. And then in 2006 we did a house swap holiday with a friend in Edinburgh, and on the trip back home to London we needed a break and Paul’s brother suggested Portpatrick might be a good place to stay.
Driving through the Dalveen Pass was just a revelation. We stopped off at Moniaive on the way to Portpatrick because it reminded Paul of villiages in the west of Ireland, where his Mum is from. It was a quiet evening and I looked in a window of what was a local baker and noticed a ‘for sale’ sign.
Paul: David was obviously cooking up a plan then. Because when we left Portpatrick to return home to Hackney, David suggested we go back via Moniaive, completely out of the way. That’s when he revealed the bakery that was for sale. At the time the BBC was going through what became its first, now regularly sad, decimation. David and I were at the point when it felt like time to leave London for new adventures. So we sold up in London at the end of 2006, I took redundancy from the BBC, and we moved to Moniaive, with the plan of buying the bakery.
2. How did it come about that you decided to develop Thomas Tosh in Thornhill, which came first the building or the concept?
Paul: We never did buy the bakery in 2007. But at the end of that year we started seriously thinking about buying what was then the old parish hall building that housed Angels Portion in Thornhill. The late Dorothy Hill had moved the building on by expanding the café and had diversified the retail. We purchased the building in April 2008 and then spend a month just taking it all in, wondering what we had done, and deciding what to do. We had a lot of works and decorating done and opened at the end of May with the café in place but with changes to retail and with more plans for regular events and exhibitions.
3. How did you choose the name?
Paul: Dorothy had a picture of an official ceremony of the unveiling of the bust on the front of the building that she showed me while we were buying the premises . The bust is still there, and it is of Joseph Laing Waugh. The picture of the dedication ceremony was from 1931. I did a little digging and found out more about Joseph Laing Waugh, whose writing about rural characters was popular at the beginning of the 20th century. Part of what’s known as the Kailyard tradition. And one of the characters that Joseph Laing Waugh created was Thomas Tosh, a beadle who lived up Shinnel Glen. Well, how couldn’t you call your business that? And here’s a thing. Thomas Tosh is 100 year old this year. The story he appeared in was published back in 1921.
David: So happy 100th birthday, Tammas Tosh!
Paul: Let’s hope we match his hearty and healthy longevity!
David: We got to know Joseph Laing Waugh’s nephew Laing who was mostly squeezed out of the picture of the dedication of the bust in 1931 by a minister who apparently indulged in an early version of photo bombing. Laing’s son Lewis and daughter in law Jan Coventry, had an exhibition at Tosh in 2012. Laing died in 2018. And we dedicated our exhibition about the story of Thomas Tosh to him as part of the business’ tenth birthday celebrations.
4. How did your past skills and experience inform your approach to Thomas Tosh? Do you still have other jobs?
Paul: Yikes, when we started up Thomas Tosh, we never actually grilled ourselves this hard about our skills. Otherwise we might never have opened up and still be on essential skill building!
David: I can remember on the first day we opened one customer said: ‘Are you the bakers from Selfridges?’
Paul: I think she was a little underwhelmed by our café counter offering. Something was definitely lost in translation.
David: I had worked at Selfridges in retail and then management development up until 1997 and then helped set up the consultancy People Development Associates that concentrates on developing team and leadership skills. And I am still doing that.
Paul: And I had 15 years of journalism under my belt including the BBC. And for a time since then I worked at a communications consultancy including some time working advising academics on the independence referendum.
David: So that’s all part of the mix. But I think our overall interests and likes are a big part of Tosh. What we see, read, watch, exhibitions we go to, food we cook, or eat when we are out and about, things friends and customers tell us. What we come across in trade shows. What artists and exhibitors and musicians, theatre groups who play at Tosh, are interested in, or the themes they pick up on.
Paul: It’s all part of the ‘cross pollination’ as they say in ‘design process thinking’ which I have been delving into in recent months. Being open to ideas and influences all the time. Making mental or physical notes of them. We’ve always been doing that. And then hopefully feeding our own ideas back. That’s the key for Tosh.
5. How would you say Thomas Tosh has changed over time? What has worked best and what has been not so good?
Paul We were really into our stride before the events of 2020. In 2017 we closed down for two and a half weeks to renovate, and such a long closure seemed like the riskiest thing we had ever done with the business. I should pause for irony here.
Once we reopened after the renovation we went to seven day a week trading and I think that marked a new chapter for the business, out of start up and now more mature, In 2018 we enjoyed the business’ 10th birthday with Denise Zygadlo putting in an appearance as ‘Thomas Tosh’. And into our second decade in 2019 we had a steady stream of book events that were focusing on food with cookery demonstrations, we had local born artist Kate Mink back with us from San Francisco for Spring Fling, we were hosting a series of artists in exhibitions, and had a number of events organised with Dumfries and Galloway Arts Festival. The last musical event were in December 2019 with Emily Smith and Jamie McClennan who also performed at our official opening in 2008, and then Cairn Chorus for their annual Christmas concert. And Dan Toombs, ‘the curry guy’, did our last food demonstration in early March 2020.
David. Everything felt like it was on a roll, it was proving our most profitable year to date, and then 2020 tried to do its worst.
6. Can you explain how Thomas Tosh has evolved over time in relation to its customers and the community in which you are based?
David: We knew from the outset the importance of the building as the old parish hall, and the ties and relationships people had to the building and its role in Thornhill. So making sure that we are open and friendly and people feel safe here is really important. And we know that’s the case with the various groups that come and use the café to meet, because they feel it is a safe, friendly place.
Paul: And we’ve had great support from customers, many of whom we are now very lucky to count as friends. From our first days in Moniaive to now, D&G has thankfully been a great place to make friends.
David: And we’ve seen people make extra efforts to support local business too especially because of current events. That is very much appreciated.
7. Many ‘events’ have taken place at Thomas Tosh over the years, can you describe some of these, how they come about and how they are received?
Paul: Well over a hundred events, so you are going to get us in trouble by who we pick and who we don’t!
David: It’s horrible to choose. From the very start we had the exhibition for our official launch in 2008 where customers and villagers in Thornhill brought in old pictures of the parish hall. That was lovely and people appreciated that. We had Burns the Tax Man in 2009 tied in with Homecoming, and big events to tie in with the 250th anniversary of Rabbie Burns’ birth. That got us on Border TV News.
Paul: So many exhibitions and events, we got named Culture champion of the year 2011 by D&G Life which was lovely, and a tribute to all our contributors. We’ve got a little core of artists now that we promote: Kate Mink, Fiona Allardyce Lewis (the first artist to exhibit at Tosh) print artist Lucy Hadley, and Clare Melinksy, whose Harry Potter’s Cover exhibition was another favourite and whose workshops at Tosh are always popular. Hugh McMillan has been a stalwart, as has Hugh Bryden with book launches and workshops and his big take over of a wall at Tosh for the ‘local types’ exhibition. He drew local nicknames and pasted them on the wall. That was a show we did in conjunction with the Dumfries and Galloway Arts Festival.
8. How has the Thomas Tosh team changed and evolved over the years?
David: We have a core of staff which is great, some who have been with us from the start. And then we will have staff who are maybe completing studies at school or university who will be with us for shorter periods. It’s so lovely when team members from ten years ago visit and to we see what they have gone on to do.
9. Pre-lockdown, how would you describe a typical day at Thomas Tosh?
Paul: Each day sees the café prepare for a busy lunch time and the retail team take in at least one delivery a day, make orders, arrange displays. What was an addition pre-lockdown, and hopefully we will get back sooner rather than later, was the exhibitions that would be every two months, and the evening events such as food demonstrations or musical or theatrical performances. So on days of performances we would quickly move things around the building to make the most out of the stage area that we reinstated in our 2017 renovations. That area will hopefully come back into its own this year.
10. What has lockdown meant for Thomas Tosh?
Paul: We were lucky to be able to open and trade from early August until Christmas Eve, compared to the numerous lockdowns and constraints other businesses faced. A lot of time in the run up to reopening in August 2020 was spent making sure everything would be safe for both staff and customers, and making sure we were confident overall. We made lots of physical adaptions in the building as well.
David: We did a lot of planning for how the business would operate with teams split into bubbles and other operational changes that meant we could more or less go back to normal trading with the added responsibility of track and trace, and additional cleaning required, all behind a mask.
Paul: Again in this lockdown, it is all about making sure that everything is in place for the planned reopening this spring. Getting on top of all the new and more detailed guidance that is now coming out one year in. And of course keeping the business financially safe as well to safeguard its future.
David: And we’ve been keeping up conact with our suppliers and a few new ones so that we will have fresh ideas.
11. How do you see Thomas Tosh operating in the future?
Paul: Thomas Tosh is very much an In Real Life business. People enjoy being in the building, meeting up, and it is always a little boost when people who have never been to Tosh, walk in a relatively small entrance way and then find themselves in the expansive space full of interesting things and people. And you can hear the little ‘goshes’ and surprised murmurings.
So, we’re looking at new ways of keeping the business fresh. That includes ways for people to shop with us even if they can’t get to us, but still feel like they are shopping in the building.
David: I think making sure that Tosh is still a place that has retail that is different and stands out. That’s food is tasty and home baked. And that has a buzz and a friendliness to it, that you just won’t find in any virtual world.
Paul: And I think this time out of lockdown the emphasis needs to be fun. Note to selves: fun needs to come back!