Ambitious plan to expand Bonhoga gallery and cafe revealed by Shetland Arts

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Shetland Arts is looking to spend over £1 million on an ambitious plan to expand its Bonhoga gallery and café in the Weisdale valley if funding from UK and European sources can be found.

Director Gwilym Gibbons told The Shetland Times that the organisation was eager to expand the café as it is running near to full capacity, while a bigger, more flexible gallery space and more room for car parking have also been identified as desirable.

In order to meet those aims, Shetland Arts has decided to look for the necessary finance to construct new premises adjacent to the existing, publicly-listed Weisdale Mill building – which would then be turned into studio space for artists and may also accommodate some staff.

Stressing the environmental credentials of the would-be project, Mr Gibbons said he was hopeful that funding from various bodies outwith Shetland could be found. Shetland Arts has a target of making what he describes as the “Westside cluster” financially sustainable by 2015 and part of the plan would be to install a hydroelectric scheme to reduce overheads.

“It’s one of only two four-star visitor attractions in Shetland and I think it’s right for us to build on that asset,” he said. “[The plan is] that it becomes self-sustaining in terms of energy use as well as costs. At the moment the café is almost always full; it’s very, very busy and expanding enough to be able to make that much more commercially viable [and] look at how we can reduce costs in energy use and recycling is all part of the idea we’re developing.”

The project has been approved at a concept stage by trustees, though the proposal remains in its early stages. Mr Gibbons said he hoped to be able to provide more detailed information on the plans in the coming weeks “when we’ve firmed up some of the areas of the development that are under negotiation”.

He continued: “Because the mill is a listed building, we’re very restricted in what we can do to it – the mill probably lends itself better to being studio space or working creative spaces, and for there to be an adjacent building that’s gallery, café and shop. Any new design needs to integrate those three elements more so that if you’re visiting any one of those bits, you’ll come across the other spaces.

“Whatever we do, we’ll seek to take advantage of the fantastic location alongside the burn there, and any new build will seek to be as environmentally-friendly and sustainable as possible, so the building methods and the style of that building will need to blend into its location.”

Given the current constraints on public finance, Mr Gibbons said he accepted it was unlikely that local money for such a development could be found, although he did not rule it out entirely. But bodies such as Community Energy Scotland will be approached and lottery money is likely to be sought, while various European sources of funding will also be looked into.

“It’s very hard to say at this stage how much it will cost [but] it will be in excess of £1 million,” he said. “Our impression is that local funds are exhausted and that we’re going to make all efforts to secure funding for that from sources outside Shetland.”

The existing building at Weisdale was originally built as a large water mill in 1855 by David Dakers Black, the infamous Angus farmer who was the proponent of the cruel clearances which saw hundreds of tenants in the valley displaced in favour of sheep farms during the middle of the 19th century, an episode later addressed in fiction by John J Graham in his acclaimed novel Shadowed Valley.

The mill was purchased by Shetland Arts Trust in 1985 and substantially renovated before being opened as a gallery, shop and café in April 1994. Prior to being bought by the arts trust it had latterly been used as a butchery by Brian Anderson and his family.


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