Stuart Black, HIE’s Chief Executive reflects on his recent visit to businesses and community groups in Shetland.

Last week was my first trip to Shetland as Chief Executive (31 Aug – 2 Sept). It’s great to have been able to get out to visit all eight areas in the Highlands and Islands.

I arrived in Sumburgh on Wednesday before driving to the office in Lerwick to meet area manager, Katrina Wiseman along with our Shetland area team where we had a good discussion on local issues.

Our first stop was at the Lerwick Port Authority where I met with Victor Sandison and Neil Arthur. The scale of development there is very impressive, and it was encouraging to hear that more than 90 cruise ships with a total of around 70,500 passengers have visited the islands this year – around three times the population of Shetland and even more cruise ships are booked to visit next year! Tourism is an important part of the local economy so this is very good news.

The port authority is planning to develop an ultra-deep-water quay with a depth of 21m at Dales Voe, Lerwick. A major decommissioning project is underway there where the Ninian Northern jacket is being safely dismantled and I was fortunate to see that. An Ultra deep water quay would further enhance the facilities and would allow for a significant volume of future decommissioning work to be undertaken at Dales Voe, which could create at least 120 jobs with significant investments coming into the area. This would be the only facility of its kind in the UK.

Another business I visited was logistics company, Peterson Shetland, based at the Greenhead Base in Lerwick – a significant employer in the islands.  The facility has the potential to deliver large scale renewable energy projects for Shetland now and in the future.   

I also met the Norn Alliance, which was formed by four of Shetland’s engineering companies (Lerwick Engineering and Fabrication, Voar, Malakoff and Ocean Kinetics) to jointly bid for the offshore wind work. This structure will strengthen their collective position to target the assembly of offshore wind projects from Shetland. The collaboration between the four companies was impressive. In Lerwick I also met with the council’s development director to discuss key issues for Shetland.

On Thursday, I met the Scalloway Community Development Company, the community group, which is building a new camping and recreation facility in Tingwall with our support. Tourism has such a vital role in these islands our community organisations have an important part to play by delivering assets and services to support this sector. This is an excellent example of a community-led tourism infrastructure project that will boost the local economy, support jobs and strengthen community resilience while enhancing Shetland’s wider tourism offering.

I also saw plans for the waterfront improvements at Scalloway and I called at the Scalloway Museum, which is community-run and celebrates the role of the sea link between Shetland and Norway (the Shetland Bus) during the second world war. From the mainland, I took the ferry to the island of Yell.

From Yell I took the ferry to Unst where I had a look around the impressive Saxa Vord Spaceport with Frank Strang, the Managing Director of the company. As well as building significant road infrastructure on the peninsula, where the spaceport will be, there is the start of three launch pads and also a large integration facility. The scale and pace of the development is significant.

Also, in Unst I met with Nova Innovation – an Edinburgh-based company creating tidal energy. They currently have three tidal turbines in the Bluemull Sound generating tidal energy which is used in one location to charge electric cars. It’s positive to see how much of a serious contributor towards our net zero ambitions tidal energy is becoming in Shetland.  

The company has progressed from experimenting with a small prototype turbine to now operating the world’s first tidal array supplying electricity to the Shetland grid, with two further turbines about to be added. I also met local company Sandisons who operate a diverse range of businesses including a talc quarry and bakery where I bought some excellent oatcakes!

After that, I took the ferry back from Unst to Yell. On Friday, I was given a tour around a major infrastructure development by the community group North Yell Development Council, and met two of the aquaculture businesses who are based there. The group is undertaking an ambitious £3m business park and marina expansion at Cullivoe Harbour to help grow local firms, create new jobs and attract more visitors. This has been partly funded by the community’s own windfarm and a whole new industry has been developed on the back of the marina’s offering of deep-sea angling activities and the need for business expansion particularly aquaculture businesses. Our discussions touched on the importance of transport links to the north isles and the long-standing desire for fixed links. These will be increasingly important as developments on Unst and Yell progress over the coming years, enabling a larger labour supply and more capacity for freight.  

We flew over Fair Isle on the way home, which reminded me of the island’s challenge to address depopulation and its natural beauty. It’s positive that Fair Isle can now look forward to a promising future as the Fair Isle Bird Observatory is being rebuilt and we are really pleased to play a part in funding that development. It will support the viability and sustainability of one of the most remote islands in the UK and at the same contribute to the net zero aims of those living on the Island.

It was great to see so much collaboration between businesses and communities with everyone working together effectively, being so resilient and ‘can-do’. In spite of the on-going challenges of high energy costs and general inflation the visit was inspirational and gives me confidence about the future of Shetland. It was an excellent three days.

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