Members of the HIE board at Orkney Distillery

Alistair Dodds, Chair of Highlands and Islands Enterprise, reflects on the HIE Board’s recent visit to Orkney.

It was great to back in Orkney again with colleagues from the HIE Board and Leadership Team (30 October – 1 November 2023).

As always with our visits around the region, this gave us another valuable opportunity to meet local partners and business and community leaders face-to-face and discuss HIE’s role in addressing opportunities and challenges within the area economy.

The programme kicked off with a really good lunchtime engagement session at the Kirkwall Hotel, attended by businesses, social enterprises and community-led organisations.

HIE chief executive Stuart Black outlined our priorities from our new strategy, which was published in August, before the two of us responded to questions from the audience.

The discussion was robust, highlighting issues including housing, transport, artificial intelligence, workforce and skills supply, and the importance of attracting young people to the islands.

We also discussed HIE’s ambition to build and sustain a greener, fairer and more resilient region that benefits everyone, and the role of innovation as a driver of business productivity.  

All the points raised were noted and will inform our discussions and decision-making in future.

Next stop was Hatston Pier, which has the longest deepwater berth in Scotland, servicing passenger, freight, energy and cruise business. Tourism and hospitality have been growing over the past couple of decades in Orkney and the islands experienced a very busy cruise season in 2023 with 205 calls.

Hatston is also a hive of activity for marine renewables and we met firms supported by HIE including Waterfront Stainless Steel, Leask Marine, Magallanes Tidal Energy and Orbital Marine Power, each of them sustaining high value local jobs and trading on the global stage.

Waterfront has successfully diversified its Aberdeenshire-based business to create a new company in Orkney that specialises in designing, manufacturing and installing hygienic equipment in a variety of settings, from breweries to hospitals. Their products are shipped as far away as Australia.

Alistair Dodds with Waterfront's Stuart Mackie

Leask Marine, Magallanes Tidal Energy and Orbital Marine are pioneers at the leading edge of developments in renewable energy and they displayed a spirit of cooperation that can only benefit the growth of this important sector in Orkney.

Neil Kermode, managing director of the European Marine Energy Centre (EMEC), described the 20-year history of the world’s first accredited grid-connected open sea facility for testing wave and tidal energy devices, and outlined some exciting future plans. These include ground-breaking work in green hydrogen, supporting the offshore wind sector and extending the tidal test site to accommodate an array of devices. HIE was a founder of EMEC in 2003 and continues to support its growth ambitions.

Another group of board members took the ferry to Shapinsay where they met members of the island’s development trust who have refurbished The Smithy into a hub offering community facilities and a café and heritage centre. This has created jobs in the heart of Balfour Village.

The trust also has plans to acquire and develop accommodation for families and key workers as well as developing a site to provide new housing, serviced sites, business units and much more to benefit the community and visitors to the island. The group is also planning camping pods as part of their development and run an electric bike scheme and have an electric car for community use.

The following day, we split into two groups again. One headed for Lyness on the island of Hoy to see the newly-renovated Scapa Flow Visitor Centre and Museum, which commemorates Orkney’s involvement in the two world wars.

Others called in at the Orkney Cheese Company in Kirkwall, a business that is 70% owned by a co-operative of local farmers, exporting almost £3m worth of cheese to France as well as selling products locally and nationally.

Swannay Brewery was next on the itinerary, a producer of fine craft ales that is expanding with a strikingly attractive new restaurant and visitor centre.

Last stop before we held our regular Board meeting at Orkney Research and Innovation Campus in Stromness was Orkney’s main gallery and independent museum, the Pier Arts Centre. Internationally recognised, this is home to a collection of national significance to Scotland.  As part of the Creative Islands & Wellbeing strand of the Islands Growth Deal, the Pier has ambitious plans to develop the former Stromness Post Office into a creative arts hub and to further develop Linkshouse, their arts residency in Birsay.  

After the Board meeting we had a really helpful meeting with the Leader and CEO of Orkney Islands Council to continue the strong collaboration that we have with OIC.

Before departing on Wednesday, we visited Orkney Distillery and Visitor Centre, where we learnt the story of their Kirkjuvagr gins and the link between the botanicals they use and local history. The owner, Stephen Kemp, also runs Orkney Builders Ltd and sits on the board of the Scottish Building Federation, so was able to give us an excellent insight into his work in the Orkney construction sector too.

There is so much inspiring activity happening across Orkney – the innovation is typical of what we see across many of our island communities and I’m already looking forward to my next visit.



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