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North Yell: A small community with big ideas

by Promote Shetland -

With a population of just 200, the northeastern corner of Yell has become a dynamic centre of fishing, aquaculture and renewable energy. Now, driven by an active community development group, it’s looking to the future with a bold new plan.

At first glance, the pier at Cullivoe might not look quite like a fulcrum of innovation. It is a place of bobbing seals and fishing boats that seem to drift silently across the fierce rip tides of the Bluemull Sound, against a backdrop of Unst’s high cliffs. First-time visitors to the beautiful northeastern corner of Yell, the island north of the Shetland Mainland, might conclude that this is an area of sleepy single-track solitude, where not a lot goes on.

But the pier is anything but sleepy, fuelling the surrounding communities of Cullivoe, Gloup, Gutcher and Sellafirth, home to around 200 people. Built after World War II, this is now the eleventh biggest whitefish port in the UK, and an important centre for Shetland’s fishing and aquaculture industries, which have boomed in recent years, but have struggled as covid-19 lockdowns have shattered the restaurant industry.

During normal times, half of the salmon landed in Shetland arrives here, as do plump, world-famous mussels from ropes scattered around Yell, and cod, haddock and more from the rich fishing grounds to the north. The sustainably farmed mussels are processed in a factory at the pier by local company C & A Thomason, and – like the rest of the seafood landed here – taken away in lorries belonging to RS Henderson, a Cullivoe-born haulage company that also runs the village shop. Before lockdown, whitefish, salmon and mussels landed here would travel to top London seafood restaurants, deep into Mainland Europe and beyond.

Now, there are ambitious plans to build a new marina and double the size of the industrial estate at the pier, with hopes that the project will be completed next year. There will be extra office and industrial space for existing companies, including salmon farmers Cooke Aquaculture, with fast WiFi allowing for new businesses to use it as a workspace. New offices and moorings will host Shetland’s first whelk farming business, as well as providing space and facilities for angling tourism boats like Oberon and Compass Rose, which have become an increasingly important part of the local economy. The new marina, formed by a breakwater, will have berths for visiting sailboats, with showers, toilet blocks and caravan spaces. It will also free up space for more commercial fishing boats to dock at the main pier.

‘A small community like this always has to be looking ahead,’ says Mark Lawson, the chairperson of The North Yell Development Council (NYDC), the group behind the new plans. ‘We always have to be looking at ways to generate employment and protect the communities up here, especially now. One of the big growth areas in the last few years has been tourism, especially for fishing, and we’re hoping the marina will really help that, and make it a more attractive area for business generally.’

The NYDC, one of seven community development groups across Shetland, was formed after the War to raise funds for the pier, and has gradually expanded its remit over the years. Driven by local stalwarts like long-time secretary Andrew Nisbet, it has been one of the most active and influential groups in Shetland.

The NYDC’s remit covers everything from supporting hall committees to providing equipment for crofters and representing the community in council discussions about issues from roads to ferries and local schools (Lawson is the headteacher at the Mid Yell Junior High School). But its primary focus has generally been on bigger projects, especially in the area of renewable energy. The NYDC partnered with Edinburgh firm Nova Innovation, which established the world’s first grid-connected offshore tidal energy turbine in the Bluemull Sound in 2016. And it has led the construction and management of the Garth Wind Farm, five turbines on a ridge above Cullivoe, which opened in 2017 after a 14-year process, and is already generating significant profit.

Those profits go back to the community. When lockdown hit, for example, North Yell residents received care packages from the NYDC containing hand sanitiser and vouchers for the Cullivoe shop. But the main chunk of the wind farm profits are being redirected to the new project at the pier. And while most of the group consists of volunteers, the team are now looking to hire a full-time paid Development Manager to take things to the next level, managing the wind farm as well as the development and management of the new pier facilities. ‘It’s a chance for someone to come in and really make a difference,’ says Lawson, who has become an integral part of the local community since moving up from Edinburgh in 2003. ‘It’s an important time for us to look forward and make sure this part of Yell has a bright future.’

Read more about the NYDC, and apply for the new job, at www.northyell.co.uk

Posted in: Community

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