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Features / Voe Bakery still rising after 100 years

The Admiralty sent bakers to train local men in 1915. Shetlanders took on the work soon after, but some bakers from south settled and stayed on after the war - Photo: Courtesy of Shetland Museum and Archives

“THE SECRET of its success? The support from the folk of Shetland.”

That’s the reason, according to owner Tracey Thompson, why the Voe Bakery has managed to keep going strong over the last one hundred years.

The Lower Voe bakery, famed for its bannocks, pies and biscuits, is celebrating its centenary this weekend.

An event – involving representatives from the Royal Navy – will be held in the village on Saturday in its honour.

The bakery began life in 1915 at the request of the Navy to feed hungry sailors stationed in nearby waters during World War One.

Bakery owner Tracey Thompson (left) with some of committee members organising this weekend's celebrations: Ivor Arthur (local historian) Denise Anderson of the Pierhead Restaurant, and local resident John Taylor - Photo: Chris Cope

The Navy’s tenth cruiser squadron was bunkered at Busta Voe whilst the smaller second cruiser squadron was based at Olna’s old whaling station.

The crews were in the isles as part of Britain’s blockade to stop the enemy from getting supplies – such as metal, oil, foodstuffs and fabric – by patrolling the North Atlantic to intercept merchant ships from non-combatant countries that may have been supplying items to Germany.

With a number of ships stationed in Shetland, there was a need for easily reached sustenance – but the basic staple of bread wasn’t readily available.

“There was already a slaughterhouse up here, so meat wasn’t a problem. Fresh water came from the old whaling station at Olna,” said Ivor Arthur, a committee member of the war themed Cabin Museum in Vidlin.

“The only thing that they were missing was the bakery. So they actually commissioned Adies, who owned the building, to put a bakery up.”

The company T M Adie and Sons, founded around 1830, had an “empire” in Lower Voe at the time, added Thompson, with the current Pierhead bar being the former shop, whilst a weavers was located across the road.

James and Hanke Adie with their daughter Esmé; the Adie family founded the bakery in 1915 - Photo: Courtesy of Shetland Museum and Archives

But the elongated bakery is the only building that remains from the era that honours its original purpose.

“It’s the only bit that has lasted one hundred years out of the whole Adie ’empire’ – I suppose would be the word,” said Thompson, who has helmed the bakery alongside her husband for the last 12 years.

“There can’t be many places doing the same thing in the same place one hundred years later. And it’s never been extended. It’s exactly the same building.”

Merchant cruisers, colliers and tenders lying in Bustavoe around 1916.  A dozen ships can be seen - a tiny part of the blockade fleet that used the Navy base - Photo: Courtesy of Shetland Museum and Archives

The original brick keystone ovens – which weighed 120 tonnes each – were only removed in the 1990s.

The bakery’s production line is naturally a varied affair now compared to the basic white unsliced bread and biscuits of its emerging years. The bannocks, however, remain the most popular item on sale, with the festive period dubbed “bannock season”.

Thompson added that they once shipped out “13,000 dozen bannocks in the six days between Christmas and New Year”.

According to Shetland Museum curator Ian Tait, the bakery was initially staffed by naval experts, who later trained up locals.

“The momentum and its scale cranked up significantly in the spring of 1915 as the squadron grew bigger and as they started to realise the war would be dragging on for a long time,” he said.

Tait said that the nearby waters would have been “exceptionally busy” at the time, with Olna Firth on an average day having “about three armed cruisers, which were 500ft long”, as well as boarding steamers, water tenders, coal hulks and dispatch boats.

“Unlike now, people didn’t buy bread then in Shetland,” he added. “They might have in Lerwick and other built-up places, but in the main, folk made their own bannocks and didn’t eat so much bakery-produced bread. So there was no bakery.

“In 1915, most Shetlanders turned grain crops and made it into meal. It’s an incredible change to now. You had big families with their own land, baking their own bread with their own meal. Bannocks were the most popular, so it was a treat to have yeast bread from a bakery.”

The 750 tonne Portsmouth-based Royal Navy mine hunter HMS Middleton arrived in Lerwick on Thursday, where it will be stationed for five days.

They are using the 100th anniversary celebrations – which is accompanied by a commemorative wreath laying ceremony at the Commonwealth War Graves at the Old Voe burial ground on Sunday – as the focal point of a wider Shetland visit.

The mine hunter HMS Middleton arrived in Lerwick harbour on Thursday morning to participate in the celebrations - Photo: Ian Leask

The Navy’s Scotland and Northern Ireland liaison officer Lieutenant Commander Keith Conway said that it is “always good to remember what happened before” with regards to honouring the bakery’s naval history.

“Essentially, we’ve got a very short time to cram as much in to the whole of Shetland as possible,” he said. “So when someone says ‘why did you send the ship all the way to Shetland?’, well, first of all it’s the United Kingdom, so we should.

“And hopefully the ship will come here more regularly in the future.”

The Saturday celebrations will see stalls erected at the waterside, with the Jarl squad due to visit. There will also be music, food and children’s entertainment.

Scottish Bakers chief executive Alan Clarke meanwhile will be taking the trip north at the weekend to pay tribute to one of their valued members.

He said that the company’s anniversary highlights the progress that can still be made by independent bakers.

“Of our 200-plus bakery members, Voe Bakery is situated in one of the most picturesque locations and I am delighted to be visiting them again this weekend to support their centenary year celebrations,” Clarke said.

“In this challenging economic climate it is encouraging to see family businesses thriving as much as Voe Bakery is and it is testament to the family’s commitment and passion that the bakery has continued to survive and flourish.

“I hope that Lawrence and Tracey have a great weekend and that the business goes on to celebrate its 200th anniversary in years to come.”

When asked if she thinks the bakery can reach the big 200, Thompson remained coy. “It’ll be somebody else’s problem in 100 years, no mine,” she quipped.

The dominance of supermarkets, such as Tesco and its home delivery service, has been seen as a threat to smaller businesses.

However, the Voe Bakery only supplies to “peerie shops, so it’s sort of a different market”.

And it seems the reputation of the bakery’s products will ensure a bright future. “If you want a Voe pie or a Voe bannock, you’re going to buy one,” Arthur chimed in.

“You’re not going to buy a pretend one from Tesco. There’s nothing like the real thing.”

The Voe Bakery from the outside: “There can’t be many places doing the same thing in the same place one hundred years later. And it’s never been extended. It’s exactly the same building.”  - Photo: Chris Cope