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Skerries’ outlook bleak as population halves

Skerries primary department has shut after the last pupil left - two years after the SIC closed its secondary department.

SHETLAND Islands Council has mothballed Skerries Primary School after its last remaining pupil moved to another school, amid concerns for the future of an island whose population has tumbled drastically in the past couple of years.

The tiny community, to the east of the Shetland mainland, is facing a bleak future having lost its secondary department and a salmon farm which was the main source of employment in recent times.

SIC children’s services director Helen Budge confirmed the school had been closed, with the department not reopening following the summer holidays.

She said it was looking unlikely that there would be any pupils to enable the school to reopen in 2017/18.

“As far as we’re aware, there will be no pupils in the near future. It’s mothballed at the moment,” Budge said.

The local authority is now starting to speak to the staff affected about alternative employment, while Budge also said that if a family with primary-age children did move into the island, the SIC would look to speak to them about how best to provide education to them.

Some families had to move off the island to find work after the salmon farm, which employed six people, closed down in spring 2015.

After the community fought off numerous attempts by the council to shut Skerries’ secondary school department, it eventually closed in July 2014.

In December last year the inter-island air service to Skerries was lost after several of the fire crew volunteers needed to man the airfield left to seek employment.

Now the loss of the primary school will see a further four part-time posts fall by the wayside.

It has prompted renewed calls for the council to look at whether its passenger ferry can be stationed permanently in Skerries – which would create jobs and encourage families to return or move to the island.

Island resident Alice Arthur said it had been “one thing on top of another” in recent years.

She acknowledged the salmon farm’s loss had played a major role in a decline which, by her reckoning, leaves the permanent population down to just 30 from around 70 only two or three years ago.

But Arthur feels strongly that it is also the inevitable outcome of the SIC’s decision to shut the secondary department despite reports identifying the potentially savage economic effects it could have.

“It’s not a surprise at all, because it was obvious that’s the way it would go,” she said.

Had the school still been here, she said, mothers in the island “would have bidden with the bairns” while the men who had worked at the salmon would’ve worked elsewhere and returned to Skerries at the weekends.

“It’s very lucky the men that was working there [at the salmon farm] have all got jobs, but it’s just destroyed the isle,” Arthur said.

“I was counting up the other night, around 30, and it maybe goes up at the weekends if somebody’s not working and the family comes home.

“[Families] are having to rent on the mainland and pay the mortgage of their houses here, so it’s very tight.”

Her son Alistair got a “splendid” job working on one of Lerwick Port Authority’s tugs. But, because he is required to be within 15 minutes of the harbour when on duty, it is impossible for him to commute.

The SIC is currently staging meetings about the future of transport services and Alice said the community, which met to discuss the situation on Tuesday night, felt the “only thing that can save this isle now is if we get the ferry based here”.

Last year SIC environment and transport committee chairman Michael Stout said having a ferry operating from and based in Skerries would have “obvious advantages for us as a council as well as for the community”.

Douglas Irvine of the council’s development department said Skerries’ predicament was a “serious situation” and that in such a small island, “if a major employment source stops it’s very difficult to replace it”.