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Two isles women honoured in Queen’s birthday list

TWO Shetland women are celebrating this weekend after being awarded the British Empire Medal in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list for their work in the communities of Burra and Brae.

Both Greta Hartley and Valerie Johnson have won their awards in recognition of their efforts running family businesses in their local townships.

Both, too, were shocked when they received the letter announcing the news from the Cabinet Office.

Greta became sub-postmistress in her father’s shop in Hamnavoe back in 1979 and remained ‘in post’ through thick and thin for the next 36 years before finally retiring last year at the age of 69.

For 30 years she also served as the community’s registrar of births, marriages and deaths and even conducted a dozen wedding ceremonies in the Burra public hall during her final decade in that position.

It was chance that saw Greta take on the role of sub-postmistress after she returned to her native island when her husband Fred joined oil services company Schlumberger back in the 1970s boom years.

Former Hamnavoe sub postmistress, 70 year old Greta Halcrow BEM

The Hamnavoe general stores was run by her father Erasmus “Raffie” Halcrow and uncle John William, who took over from their father Andrew Halcrow, whose name the shop goes by.

In 1979 Greta had been hoping to return to college to train to be a teacher after having four children, when her brother Wilfie, who was due to take on the role of sub postmaster, died suddenly aged just 32.

“I never intended to be in the post office, but when my brother died, I said I could start. My youngest daughter had her fourth birthday just after I started, so I took her along,” she recalled.

Her father retired from the shop in 1984 and his brother Gerald ran it before selling it to Greta and her two sisters some time later. Greta took over from her father as registrar in 1986.

The shop closed in 2003 for a few months after business suffered with the opening of the Tesco superstore in Lerwick, but Greta kept up the post office behind a barricade in the empty store.

“It was very bleak for a while in there, but I didn’t lose any trade in the post office.”

Then her cousins Doreen and Jimmy Fullerton took the shop over before handing it to current owners Alistair and June Inkster eight years ago.

Throughout all this upheaval Greta, who now has six grandchildren, kept the post office going, and even carried on, despite wanting to retire, when it became an outreach service two years ago based at Burra public hall, the building where she held several weddings. Last year it was taken over by Mark and Helen Robinson from Weisdale.

You could not get much more conscientious than Greta – in 36 years she had just three days off. “If you were feeling out of sorts in the morning, nine times out of ten you were feeling OK by 10am.”

The esteem in which she was held locally was reflected in the presentation made to her after a community council collection on her last day…and now in this award.

“When I first got the letter I thought what the heck is this? I felt a bit shocked and had to read it twice. I went through to Fred and he said, ‘Well good for you”.

“I was absolutely overwhelmed, I never expected anything like this to happen in my lifetime. I feel like what the heck have I done to deserve this, I was no better than anyone else – but I did like my job and working with the public.”

Equally shocked is Valerie Johnson from Brae who, like Greta, has no idea who nominated her.

The brains behind Frankie's Fish & Chips, 53 year old Valerie Johnson BEM

Unlike Greta though, Valerie has become used to being in the spotlight after opening up Britain’s most northerly and officially the best fish and chip shop in the UK.

Frankie’s Fish and Chips began life, she jokes, after husband Gary, who runs the Brae Garage and Johnson’s bus company, complained about having to make a 50 mile round trip to Lerwick if he wanted a fish supper.

The couple owned a green field site in the township and decided to take a leap in the dark and build a new eatery, naming it after their much-loved Westmoreland terrier, who sadly died just before it opened.

Passionate about providing quality food and supporting the local seafood industry, Valerie sourced her fish fresh from local boats and fish farms, making local produce the badge of the business.

A full 98 per cent of fish and shellfish they sell comes from Marine Stewardship Council accredited stocks, and the shop now has three stars from the Sustainable Restaurant Association.

That focus on sustainability and quality led Frankie’s to win a clutch of awards culminating last year when they became the UK’s top fish and chip shop judged by trade body Seafish.

Not only that, but Carlyn, who now manages the business, was voted young fish fryer of the year, cementing Frankie’s position as one of the best places in Britain to enjoy a good fish supper.

As well as serving good food, Frankie’s has been at the centre of a huge charity fundraising effort.

Their 2015 Charity Cycle Sportive raised £6,600, the proceeds split between the Fishermen’s Mission, Cancer Research UK and Alzheimer’s Research UK, bringin the total raised since the event started to £27,000.

Frankie’s also runs a fish course at local primary schools to help teachers with the Curriculum for Excellence, which led to a calendar of children’s drawings of fish that raised £800 for the charities Anthony Nolan and The ARCHIE Foundation.

For Valerie, though, the BEM is not for her but for her hardworking staff – seven full time and 15 part time – and the Shetland seafood industry that provides the high quality produce they serve.

“It’s a bit of a surprise and a shock, but I am delighted and humbled to be nominated and I am accepting it on behalf of all the staff at Frankie’s, who do such a great job,” she said.

“It also reflects well on the community here in Shetland who have been very supportive ever since we opened.

“And hopefully the award is recognition of the great work the fish catching and shellfish industry have done in Shetland.

“Without the supreme quality of the sustainable seafood they produce, we wouldn’t have been able to achieve what we have,” she said.

Completely in the dark about who has nominated her, Valerie added: “I don’t know who it was, but I would like to thank them.”

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