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Businessman has major plans to boost employment and tourism in Fetlar

| Written by Chris Cope

Houbie is the island's main settlement. Houbie is the island's main settlement. A BUSINESSMAN and his family have bought a considerable number of properties and land in Fetlar in an attempt to create additional employment on the island and develop tourism.

Among Neil Bellis’ plans is the reopening of the island’s shop and cafe, and the creation of holiday accommodation units.

They are also now in ownership of 1,600 acres of farm land which has already created new employment, while they aim to redevelop the existing Gord bed and breakfast into a seven-bedroom licensed guest house.

Fetlar development worker Robert Thomson said the plans are “great news” for the island, which currently has a population of around 65 and boasts some of the greenest, most fertile land anywhere in Shetland.

While Bellis is confident about all of the proposals coming to fruition, he stressed that he wanted to be “careful about shouting too much about our plans before we have started delivering on them”.

Bellis, his wife and sister-in-law moved to Fetlar from Sussex in October, initially buying croft land and two houses from a local couple who left the island after 25 years.

They also purchased the empty Society of Our Lady of the Isles building in Aithness – which had been on sale for £255,000 – and another small cottage with the intention of living in the former nuns’ home and renting out the other properties as holiday lets while farming the land.

However, they were offered another three sections of land soon after and purchased them too, although they would be happy to pass those on to newcomers.

They employed Eshaness farmer Brydon Anderson in a full-time role to work on their land and are actively seeking an assistant and apprentice, while there are plans to make it organic and develop arable production alongside sheep and cattle.

It is hoped the new plans could invigorate Fetlar's tiny island population. Photo of the Haltadans stone circle by Maurice Henderson. It is hoped the new plans could invigorate Fetlar's tiny island population. Photo of the Haltadans stone circle by Maurice Henderson.

Bellis, who has previously been involved in property services on a significant scale, hopes by increasing employment on the island and offering more for tourists on day trips and longer stays then population figures on Fetlar should increase.

The B&B at Gord currently only has three bedrooms, while alongside a camping bod “there are two good self catering cottages run by Leagarth Estate but these are in high demand”.

The family first came to Shetland on holiday a number of years ago and after staying in Unst and visit Fetlar, they started to consider moving to the isles.

“The population of Fetlar has fluctuated over the past decades but the general trend has been downwards, with a particular shortage of younger families moving here,” Bellis added.

“Developing the local economy and creating employment should assist in reversing that trend.”

The island’s shop closed in 2015, but it is currently being renovated in the hope of re-launching by the end of May, while they aim to open the cafe throughout the year.

Bellis bought the shop, cafe and bed and breakfast, which had been on the market since 2014, as a package only after two prospective purchasers failed to see the transaction through.

“Fetlar has a great deal to offer but currently visitors have limited facilities. Potential visitors and in particular specialist groups are deterred by the shortage of places to stay, the absence of a shop and very limited opening of a café,” he added.

“Following refurbishment we plan to offer a further four holiday units with six double bedrooms in total, alongside the planned seven bedrooms at the guest house at Gord, together with the shop and cafe.

Otters relaxing on the island. Photo: Brydon Thomason. Otters relaxing on the island. Photo: Brydon Thomason. “We believe we can attract small groups to Fetlar, general tourists and those with a particular interest such as birds, geology, archaeology and fishing.”

Community group Fetlar Developments Ltd was set up in 2008 in an effort to boost the population level on the island, which was at one point less than 50.

Support worker Thomson, who helped to organise an event in April to celebrate the strides the community has made over the last decade, said he was hopeful the plans could bring huge benefits to Fetlar.

“Somebody prepared to come and live here and invest a significant amount of money in the community and provide employment for people can’t be anything but good news,” he said.

“There are very few employment opportunities on the island, that’s been the issue. To get jobs which would allow new people to come to the island, or to sustain the population, is critical.”

Bellis, meanwhile, has also submitted planning applications to erect a couple of turbines on the island to make their properties more energy efficient.

Objections were raised by planning officers following “interminable delays” in the applications being validated, leading to some modifications being made.

However, in January this year the applications were refused and an appeal hearing is due to take place on 6 June.

A third turbine at the shop, cafe and guesthouse at Houbie is likely to be applied for in “due course”.

Bellis said he was “extremely disappointed” by the “unhelpful and indeed obstructive approach” from the SIC planning department.

“We hope that we are not faced with obstruction for our plans going forward,” he added.

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