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Dynamic Sandwick looks to the future

by Alastair Hamilton -

Sandwick, a district on the east coast of Shetland’s South Mainland, brims with energy and ideas. The area, which mostly consists of farm and croft land, is home to around 800 people, distributed among several villages or hamlets such as Hoswick, Leebitton, Stove and Swinister.

The recent completion of work on the visitor centre at Hoswick (pictured above) is just one example of the many ways in which the community has been investing for the future.

Sandwick has a school serving both primary and junior secondary pupils, a modern swimming pool and shops, including a bakery. The passenger ferry that takes visitors to the isle of Mousa and its astonishingly well-preserved broch leaves from the Sandsayre pier at Leebitton, where, in the boatshed, there are displays telling the district’s story. There are successful craft businesses, too, engaged in textiles and woodworking. Older buildings have been refurbished and brought back into use. In short, there’s a buzz about the place.

One of the villages within Sandwick is Hoswick and the recent work done there to expand and improve the Visitor Centre is one example of the dynamism of the local community.

Today, the building and its surroundings have been transformed. Visitors and locals can wind down with a cup of tea or coffee, delicious cakes or a light meal. Panels explain the history of the district and of weaving and some of the original equipment is on display. It’s also possible to buy knitwear and other items.

Outside, funding was found for much better provision for car and coach parking. Bounded by a drystone wall that’s in keeping with the area, the new car park has capacity for 12 vehicles. There’s an electric charging point and space for cycles, too. The additional car spaces mean that up to three coaches can now be accommodated.

To complete the picture, a small peat stack helps tell the story of peatland restoration and pieces of public art will reference fishing traditions and the Hoswick whale case, an 1899 legal dispute in which residents of the village defeated the landlord’s claim for a one-third share of whales that had been driven ashore.

But how did all this come about? One of the people behind the development of the new centre, Rosemary Inkster, told me about the work involved in making the new centre a reality.

“It must have been about 1999 that the visitor centre started up. It was the old weaving shed, and at the far side there was a dilapidated old garage, with – literally – the roof falling in. The weaving had stopped some years before that and a really peerie café had been set up”.

The café was owned by the knitwear factory, but the ownership changed and it didn’t seem to have a future. However, there was an opportunity to create a visitor centre that would be well-positioned about half-way between Lerwick and Sumburgh, and that was the path they followed.

A group was established, a feasibility study was undertaken and three recommendations emerged. Two of them related to the Sandsayre pier and the old boatshed; the pier was crucial to maintaining the link with Mousa, so must be secured, whilst the adjacent shed was “visually dreadful, an environmental disaster with rusty corrugated iron.”

The pier, which was completed in May 1855, was designed by David and Thomas Stevenson, the lighthouse builders. Construction was undertaken by John Bruce, the local laird, and local fishermen, with financial support from the Board of Fisheries, which was unprecedented at that time. Today, it’s a Category B Listed Building.

Thanks to a huge fundraising effort led by the Sandsayre Pier Trust, to which many local people contributed alongside public agencies, the pier and boatshed were restored in 2012. The old boatshed was fitted out to include excellent interpretive displays and a waiting room.

The third recommendation was that the building that now houses the Hoswick Visitor Centre should be purchased and developed – “and that’s what we’ve done.”

The pier, boatshed and visitor centre aren’t the end of the story, though. A little way uphill from the visitor centre, a community park with play facilities has been built and it’s really popular with local children.

As the photographs below show, there have been many other improvements. With the collaboration of the Council’s Planning Service, paths have been waymarked and improved, with bridges and stepping stones provided. Another member of the local community, Neville Martin, was involved in tree planting – which is extensive along the stream leading down to Hoswick – and he also showed me the fish ladder which they constructed below the road bridge. A narrow section of road now has a parallel lane for cyclists and walkers.

Both Rosemary and Neville reminded me of Sandwick’s long track record in innovation, community development and, quite simply, welcoming people. Indeed, I hardly needed reminding of the visit in August 1993 by the European Association of Student Architects, who’d wanted to hold one of their annual get-togethers in Scotland and chose Shetland, and Sandwick. It would, their brochure predicted, be a “terrific creative explosion…the centre of a creative storm, with more energy thrown up than is possible to imagine”. And as it turned out, they weren’t wrong.

Neville recalls that each country offered food from its own traditions, which made for a truly eclectic set of dining experiences. Rosemary recalled: “It was fantastic, brilliant – even if it was freezing cold! There were hundreds of them. We had marquees over at the Central, at the back of the youth centre, and we had more marquees at this side of the school.

"They had events every night and I remember a country or a nationality taking responsibility for those. The Turks were in the Gospel Hall – and their coffee, you could stand a spoon in it! It was a big event and it went well. I know it was something that maybe some of the wider community thought “this is just mad, it’ll never work”, but it did! It’s taking the community with you; it’s a big deal to sell it and present it as something that will work.”

With so much energy, it’s entirely understandable that the community in Sandwick has won a number of national awards, including Scottish Community of the Year and one for community-inspired regeneration. Rosemary recalls another, for working with young people; “we were quite proud of that”.

As it happens, as I’m about to leave the visitor centre, I meet Sophie Tait, who is still at school, in S3, but had started working here, part-time, a couple of weeks previously. Rosemary says: “Sophie is a good illustration of the benefit of the development over the years. Since 2000, there’s been an awful lot of Sophies going through. The average that they work here is four years but there are one or two that have exceeded that. It’s great work experience and I’ve certainly written enough references, whether it’s for weekend jobs when they’re at uni or applying to other things. We do have, and have had, people whose career might be in hospitality. They get great experience here and then they go and get a job – and leave us!”

Business is thriving in Sandwick and Hoswick, too. Niela Kalra, whose innovative and adaptable textiles have a reputation far beyond Shetland, tells me that “it’s a really exciting place, for both residents and visitors. There’s an increasing presence of artists and creative individuals, who stay here – and have stayed for a long time. I think it’s a really forward-thinking community which is very interested in its own future.” Other local residents include the well-known painter, Ruth Brownlee; and there’s one of the wonderful cake fridges that are becoming ubiquitous in Shetland.

It’s no accident that the first thing visitors see on entering the centre are the multilingual panels welcoming visitors to that student festival back in 1993. Nobody who visits Sandwick can fail to be impressed by what the people of this well-rounded and open-hearted community have achieved. They’re clearly happy to introduce visitors to its past, but they have their eyes very much on the future. As Rosemary Inkster says, “it’s about working together."

Posted in: Community

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