Work to complete new Fair Isle bird observatory resumes

Work is finally underway to complete the new £4m Fair Isle bird observatory as a means of paying back the thousands of pounds owed to islanders following the demise of the original contractor is sought.

Progress on the building came to a halt earlier this year when Orkney-based Andrew H Wilson Electrical went into receivership just as the finishing touches were about to be applied to the building.

Residents in the isle running B&Bs had taken Wilson’s staff in during the construction phase. Collectively, they were owed around £60,000 when the contractor succumbed to mounting financial pressures.

Now, however, many of the staff are back – this time working for Fair Isle construction firm Northmen, and aiming to have the project finished by the end of the year.

Chairman elect of the observatory trust, Roger Riddington, said Northmen had been chosen following a tendering process to help finish the observatory, which still needed warden’s accommodation and an external garage when in receivers Ernst and Young were called in.

The work must be finished this year to comply with the terms of grant funding being offered.

Shetland Islands Council has pledged £1.5m to the project while the Scottish government – through the Scottish rural development programme – has offered a further £2m.

Highlands and Islands Enterprise put forward £400,000, but Fair Islanders themselves raised £100,000 for the cause while the observatory trust stumped up £150,000.

Mr Riddington said awarding the contract to Northmen meant money would be circulating around Fair Isle.

“We had a number of bids but in the end we chose Northmen. They are employing some of the workers who were made redundant when Wilson’s went bust.

“It’s ideal in many ways. It’s good to use an island contractor. One of the great benefits for us, as well, is being able to pay money into the Fair Isle economy.

“Plus the fact they could start immediately as well. It’s critical for us to get the project finished this year. We need to have the observatory finished by then so we can claim the remaining tranche of grant funding.”

Had things run smoothly from the off, the observatory would have opened to visitors for the start of the season in April.

As it was the building opened its doors in June, once a temporary occupation certificate was obtained from the council.

Mr Riddington said visitor numbers have been remaining high during the season.

“Despite the problems things have been going better than we might have expected,” he said. “People have been supporting the place, and it is very encouraging.”

He said the trust was “working closely with the SIC” to try and secure a rescue package which should pay back the money owed to islanders.

Meanwhile efforts to find replacement wardens have been continuing apace.

Warden and administrator Deryk and Hollie Shaw had indicated this would be their last season on the island after 10 years on the job.

The task of replacing them has been particularly strenuous – not least because up to 200 people expressed an interest in taking up the job.

The names, however, have been whittled down to a final four. Interviews are due to take place in Fair Isle at the end of this month.


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