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The town that became Scotland’s chilli capital

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Langholm Chilli Club

It all began as a joke but now Mark Hodgson can’t even pop to the shops without having to discuss chillies with people in the street.

The small southerly town of Langholm is laying claim to the title “chilli capital of Scotland” and Mark is the man responsible.

It was his love of the fiery fruit that has led to hundreds of homes growing chillies and a reputation that has spread around the world.

Mark grew his first chillies as a student in the 1990s, after he was given a plant by his favourite Bangladeshi takeaway.

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Langholm Chilli Club

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The first Thai Green chillies of the season

He has grown them almost every year since but last year, after planting his seeds, he had to go to the US for a couple of months.

Before leaving Langholm for the US, he handed his seedlings to “anyone who would take them,” rather than see them die in his absence.

One elderly friend took the plants off his hands but then, as a rather cruel joke, told Mark he had managed to kill them all.

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More than 1,000 chilli plants are growing in homes, businesses and schools in Langholm

The same friend later surprised him by walking into their favourite cafe with a large bag of fresh chillies, the harvest from Mark’s plants.

The incident piqued the interest of other people in the cafe and the Langholm Chilli Club was formed.

The club arranged a meeting in the cafe and expected to host a handful of people but word got around the town and it went “far out of control”, says Mark.

“From this point last year, guessing we might have 20 people, now we’ve got hundreds,” he says.

“It’s gone a little bit further than expected.”

The hot topic in Langholm

Mark hoped that the new club would help brighten up the town with colourful plants “when everything is going grey and dark”.

He wasn’t prepared for the reaction he received from friends and neighbours, as the craze for chillies spread far beyond Langholm’s boundaries.

The club now has members in the US, Canada and Portugal and a waiting list of 60 people eager to nurture their own plants next year.

“You’ve no idea how many conversations I’ve had with people saying ‘I gave one to my grandma’, ‘She gave one to her son in Fife’,” Mark says.

“Then all of a sudden they’re in Canada. It’s just ridiculous.”

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Katherine Latimer said her chilli plant in the window of Latimer’s of Langholm had become “a bit of an obsession”

Less than a year since the group began, Mark reckons that chilli plants are now growing in at least 300 of Langholm’s 900 homes.

Many of them began as seeds which were sourced and distributed by the chilli club.

But the committee also handed out seedlings which were germinated in heated propagators – Mark himself nurtured 331 plants in his tiny one-bedroom flat.

Now he believes there are more than 1,000 chilli plants, and in excess of 70 varieties, in conservatories, greenhouses and on window sills across Langholm.

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Mark Hodgson

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Mark says he grew more than 300 chilli plant seedlings in his one bedroom flat

There’s a “Chilli Trail” through the town where visitors can view 23 plants in shop windows and community buildings.

And on Saturday, Langholm Agricultural Show will host the inaugural “ChilliFest”, which will culminate in the inevitable chilli eating contest.

Fifteen of the town’s bravest souls will work their way through a succession of chillies, from the Apple Crisp – so mild it can be eaten like its fruity namesake – to the “brutal” Carolina Reaper, named by Guinness World Records as the world’s most fiery chilli.

(We’ve been assured medical assistance will be on standby).

Heating up Langholm’s tourism industry

The history of Langholm is interwoven with its textile industry but this year its largest employer is preparing to pull out of the town.

Edinburgh Woollen Mill, which employs 190 staff at its Langholm headquarters, is relocating across the border, to Carlisle, 20 miles away.

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Billy Young says his Orange Habarnero is “like a triffid” in the window of The Paper Shop

Billy Young, the chairman of Langholm’s regeneration group, says the decision will affect footfall on the high street.

“Twenty or 30 years ago, we had six very big mills and we had Border Fine Arts which made the handcrafted figurines and Edinburgh Woollen Mill,” he says.

“Come Christmas, we’re going to have nothing at all.

“It’s a very, very strong community. It will weather this storm, I’m sure.”

He says it was time for Langholm to rebrand itself and make itself more attractive as a visitor destination.

So could the town claim to be Scotland’s Chilli Capital? Mark Hodgson thinks so.

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Laura Ellis, who is growing a Carolina Reaper in the Blue Moon cafe, says the town has gone “chilli mad”

“We’re comfortable that we’ve taken the title on that,” he says.

“Partly because nobody else has done it – I know, I’ve checked.”

As economic challenges loom, cafe owner Laura Ellis, said the chilli club had brought some much-needed excitement and fun to the town.

“We’re all chilli-mad at the minute,” she says.

Cooking up a storm

As the chillies ripen, Langholm’s more adventurous cooks are finding new and inventive ways of using them to feed their families.

Recipes are being shared on social media while chilli jams, powders and dipping sauces are being distributed to friends and neighbours.

For some of Langholm’s chilli growers and their families however, this is their first experience of spicy food.

“Some of them thought gammon and pineapple was exotic,” Mark says.

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Langholm Chilli Club

‘We’ll swamp the entire town with chilli’

Mark’s infectious enthusiasm has drawn both experienced horticulturalists and first-time growers to chilli club.

The project has even been picked up by two local schools, where it is being used to educate children about how things grow.

“That’s one of the most beautiful aspects of it,” he said.

“My dream would be if just one of those kids ends up being a biologist, just maybe, because of it, that whole thing would have been worthwhile.”

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“It’s put Langholm on the map”, says Bill Barbour, who is growing a plant in his electrical store (Fairy lights, model’s own)

Next year he has big plans to make sure everyone in the local area has an opportunity to grow a chilli plant.

He wants to establish a more substantial, standalone chilli festival and there are even rumours of a community business.

It sounds ambitious but it’s clear he has the backing of the community.

“We’ll swamp the entire town with chilli,” he says.

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