How innovative communities are shaping local development
Community led tourism helps visitors find the true north
One of the main principles of community wealth-building as a social and economic development approach is that people in communities have a greater say in how their local assets are owned and managed.
Memorable visits are all about people and place. In Unst, many of the unique tourism attractions are owned and run by community organisations. They've created experiences for visitors which share all they love about their island, and which have community benefit for all at their core.
There are many unique selling points: be the most northerly person in the UK; sit inside a Viking longboat; view the wild northern skies as never before; see the puffins at the national nature reserve; learn about the islanders' relationship with the land and the sea; and enjoy the luxury of accommodation that preserves local heritage.
While facing the same challenges from COVID-19 as everyone in the tourism sector, find out about the role of community in Unst tourism, the passion and imagination of local residents, and latest developments in preparation for the safe return of visitors to the island.
Since COVID many people are prioritising connections to others, to place, and sustainable living. Community tourism is well placed to tap into this shift. Visitors value authenticity and Unst is great at really involving visitors in whatever's going on.Fiona Stirling, development manager, HIE
Following a visit to an Icelandic northern lights centre a few years ago, Unst's Jane Macaulay spotted a fantastic opportunity to develop a project drawing upon science, astronomy, meteorology and the arts to interpret and celebrate Shetland’s amazing skies.
The stars have aligned for the project which has grown into Wild Skies Shetland. It has developed thanks to local support, and an impressively qualified Board of Trustees - with expertise in physics, community development, museums, the creative arts, and an Unst based professional meteorite hunter.
The group plans to create a Sky Trail, with 15 Sky Stops, 11 of them in Unst and others en route to the island. The stops will be themed and feature a range of interactive content: a talking bench, Virtual Reality technology, each will have a QR code taking visitors to online information. Having supported the initial feasibility study, HIE has committed almost £18,000 as part of a funding package to carry out their technical work.
The project is not just for visitors, and there are exciting plans for project work with Shetland schools, a series of summer activities and an exhibition 'Wonders of the Shetland Skies' opened at the Heritage Centre at the start of June.
Catriona Waddington, chair of Wild Skies, participated in HIE's Communities Leading in Tourism programme, joining a network of more than 45 organisations across Scotland who have taken part in the specialist tourism programme. The Unst Partnership has supported her training.
Photos of Skidbladner, Catriona and the puffin on this page are courtesy of Rob Brookes
The Communities Leading in Tourism course is a welcome opportunity for me to “meet” with other folk involved with community tourism. Wild Skies Shetland is a relatively new organisation and we have a lot to learn from the experience of others.Catriona Waddington, Wild Skies Shetland
Unst offers exceptional opportunities to explore Viking heritage. One of the first landing spots when the Vikings came to the UK, the island still has the remains of at least 60 Viking Longhouses. At Viking Unst in Haroldswick, you can visit a reconstructed Longhouse and get on board the dramatic Skidbladner, a replica of the Gokstad ship.
Viking Unst is operated by Shetland Amenity Trust, a registered charity which aims to safeguard Shetland's natural and cultural heritage, opening access through a wide range of projects and attractions.
Additional investment is happening at Viking Unst through HIE's short-term Community-Led Tourism Infrastructure fund, helping communities invest in capital projects as we emerge from Covid-19.
The investment is building on the site's existing accessibility, by: improving paths for wheelchair access; creating ramps and an opening in the hull for easier access to the Skidbladner; and carrying out a range of general modifications and improved signage to ensure visitors get the most from their experience.
The project is also supporting Shetland Amenity Trust to invest in outdoor seating and low tables at Viking Unst and other sites including Sumburgh Head Lighthouse, the Shetland Museum & Archives in Lerwick as well as at smaller sites in Bressay, Eshaness, Fetlar, Skeld, Yell and Voe.
photo courtesy of Craig Sim
Additional panels and improved access have been installed for everyone to get closer to the Skidbladner.
Passion, determination and the skills of local people have all been key ingredients in delivering the community led project to breathe new life into stunning Belmont House in Unst.
Belmont House is a classical Georgian property which was bought by the Belmont Trust, a charity set up by local volunteers who raised £1.2 million to restore the house from ruin. Historic Environment Scotland was one of the many funding partners, and local craftspeople were key in delivering the sympathetic renovation.
The property offers unique high-end visitor accommodation, and all proceeds are reinvested to preserve the house and gardens.
Mike Finnie, Chair of the Belmont Trust, said: "There is a huge amount of work and commitment needed for a project of this scale. As we celebrate our 25th anniversary two of our original trustees are still in place. It takes heart and head. As well as the passion for architecture and for protecting our heritage, there was always a recognition that that the house has to have a purpose. We need to generate a surplus to be sustainable."
HIE has worked with the Trust over many years, and during lockdown we have provided some capital funding for conversion work and to reinstate the house's focal fireplace to working order.
For over a decade Belmont House has been making new memories for all those visiting for family gatherings, celebrations and weddings. It is everything we could have wished for as a community when we began its rescue from crumbling ruin 25 years ago.Mike Finnie, chairman, Belmont House Trust
Gardiesfauld Hostel and campsite is run by community enterprise Unst Youth Centre Trust and offers hostel, caravan and camping facilities for visitors to Unst.
It's the perfect base to explore the island, its wildlife and spectacular scenery.
The Trust's Alison Hunter said: "We usually have a really busy summer season, especially during Unstfest, our two week long community festival. Over recent years we’ve been finding the season lengthening too which is great. It's very disappointing not to have managed to open at all during 2020, we can't wait to welcome visitors again when restrictions are lifted."
Uyeasound’s public toilets have had a facelift for the new season. The site took over the facilities a few years ago, when they were earmarked to close.
With funding from HIE's Community-Led Tourism Infrastructure fund there is now a proper toilet and shower block for campers and caravaners. They'll be open to general visitors too and locals who are out and about in the Uyeasound area.
Hermaness is one of Scotland's 43 National Nature Reserves. Its stunning cliffs are home to 100,000 seabirds, including puffins, and it attracts around 9,000 visitors each year to Unst.
Managed by NatureScot, national reserves have close links with public, private, community and voluntary organisations. Hermaness is an important part of daily life for locals as well as visitors; it's an important grazing area, and local people enjoy the boardwalks and spectacular coastal walks.
Work is starting on a major capital investment to create a new boardwalk route to Hermaness Hill, a visitor information hub and toilet facilities at the car park.
The work, due for completion in May 2022, will create a circular route opening up additional access to the site while protecting peatlands and nesting birds.
The project, costing more than £800,000, is being funded by:
Photo of Hermaness and Muckle Flugga Lighthouse courtesy of Yolanda Bruce.
If the Unst story has inspired you, find out how we can help you in the Highlands and Islands.
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Through CUPIDO, we’ve partnered with the University of St Andrews to work with communities and social enterprises across the region on a programme of transnational digital heritage activities.