After months of delays, the new Fair Isle Bird Observatory is now open and welcomed its first guests this week, despite the building’s contractors recently being declared bankrupt.
The observatory has been closed for the past year after the original building was demolished, to make way for a new accommodation and research base for birding enthusiast and visitors to the isle.
Warden at the observatory Deryk Shaw was delighted to welcome the first guests on Monday, though there remains concern in the community at Andrew H Wilson Electrical going into receivership just days after completing the building.
In what islanders described as a “huge blow” to the community, they are collectively owed in the region of £60,000, meaning a venture which was expected to be an economic boost to the community has instead left some in financial difficulty.
But despite those concerns, Mr Shaw said he was pleased to able to welcome Jo and David Sutherland, from Huxter, as the new observatory’s first guests. “It’s been good. It’s fantastic to get folk in as it’s been such a long wait,” he said.
“The warden’s part of the building is still waiting to be finished but we are functioning. There’s still a bit to do on the outside, but the visitors’ experience won’t be affected.”
As well as having a new research and bird-ringing area, the building boasts the latest energy-saving technology and has been designed to avoid wasting heat. Visitors will enjoy comfortable, modern facilities with spacious en-suite rooms and a large communal area.
At a cost of £4 million, funding for the project came from a variety of sources. Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) granted £400,000; the SIC donated £1.5 million and the Scottish Government, through the Scotland Rural Development Programme, invested £2 million.
A substantial amount was also raised publicly. The Fair Isle Bird Observatory Trust put in £150,000 of its own funds and Fair Islanders themselves raised around £100,000 in an ongoing campaign.
An open day was held on Saturday to give islanders a chance to see the results of all their hard work, which the majority of residents attended.
Crofter Stewart Thomson said: “I’m delighted with what I’ve seen. It’s exceeded all my expectations.”
Angela Wiseman added: “I think it’s fantastic – a huge improvement, and it might be difficult to get visitors to leave.”
Former observatory warden Nick Riddiford, who along with his wife ran the observatory in the 1980s, said: “I like the spaciousness of it all. We never had enough space to put our archives or even our people, at times.”
However, the construction has not been without difficulties. The new observatory was due to open in May, but delays caused by poor weather meant the building team, based in Orkney, had difficulties in getting materials and staff to the isle.
There is still considerable work to be done on the warden’s accommodation within the building, and the firm has left owing islanders large sums of money for providing bed and breakfast and services such as plant hire.
So far islanders are owed in the region of £60,000 and the venture which was expected to be an economic boost to the community has instead left some in financial difficulty.
Mr Shaw said: “We’re desperate to get some sort of answer to get the place finished before the weather turns, but it’s a bit of a waiting game at the moment. Nobody foresaw it could have come to this.”
Resident Kathy Coull, who runs a B&B in the isle, put up workers during the construction of the observatory but has not yet been paid.
Ms Coull said: “We’re very, very upset and just still accounting for the damage. It’s looking a bit bleak.
“It’s devastating. It is the last thing anyone would expect to happen to such a prestigious project, and we are looking at ways to redress the financial impact.”
She said around half the isle’s working households had been left “severely out of pocket” and the community was currently waiting to hear if there was a chance of claiming anything back.
Many have also written to MSP Tavish Scott, who this week said the situation was “extremely concerning”.
He said: “I’ve had a number of emails and calls this week from people directly affected as creditors of the Orkney construction firm, outlining their concerns.”
Mr Scott said he and Orkney MSP Liam McArthur had met the receivers, Ernst and Young, on Tuesday to discuss the situation.
“It’s very serious indeed. The advice is on the worrying side. It’s looking like it’ll be extremely difficult to get any money back from the sale of the company’s assets.”
Mr Scott will be attending a meeting at Hayfield House in Lerwick on Monday morning to discuss plans for a way forward with SIC convener Sandy Cluness, head of the development department Neil Grant, councillors, members of the Fair Isle community and Trust directors.
Chairman elect of the observatory Trust, Roger Riddington, said: “It’s extremely unfortunate that there have been business losses for so many people but I am confident that the observatory and the island will pull together and we’ll do everything we can to ensure all the work is completed and to support the islanders in their fight for payment.”
However, the community does still see the new observatory as an asset to the isle. Established by ornithologist George Waterston in 1948, the observatory was originally a collection of huts until the previous building was built in 1968.
In the years since it has seen visitor numbers of around 400 people a year, but at over 40 years old it was however becoming increasingly difficult to manage which lead the trust to think about commissioning a new building.
Meanwhile, warden and administrator Deryk and Hollie Shaw, who have worked at the observatory for 10 years, have decided that this will be their last year in the posts.
Mr Shaw said they wanted to see more of their family. “This is our 12th year at the obs[ervatory] which is far longer than anyone else has done, and we just wanted to spend more time with the children. We hardly get to see them during the season.”
They will not be leaving the isle, however, and will continue to stay in the house they have lived in while the observatory was being built.
As a result, they are now looking for applicants for the posts of warden and administrator. For details see
the observatory website at www.fairislebirdobs.co.uk