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Shetland Lives / Putting Northmavine on the map

Maree Hay: Doing something 'my heart was in'. Photo: Peter Johnson/Shetland News

MAREE Hay has successfully adapted skills first developed in the garage trade to run a thriving community enterprise as well as one of its spin-off companies that has made a great success selling weather-proof Polycrubs.

NCDC, the more catchy handle for Northmavine Community Development Company, has made its name with a variety of innovative cash for the community projects – probably most famously for the Polycrubs that have been an expanding and very successful line for its trading arm Nortenergy, with over 300 units supplied to as far away as the Falklands.

The Polycrub story started in 2008 when NCDC built a dozen for a project intended to provide covered community growing areas around the parish, so that a few people could use each one, and no one would have to travel too far to get to one.

Such was the interest in the robustly made salmon-pipe and polycarbonate tunnels that people were soon queuing to buy them.

Maree’s own involvement with NCDC began in 2005 after the prospect of a superquarry loomed over the Sullom community, threatening local quality of life and of course the hill that would be taken away for hardcore.

“Folk in the community were not just overly excited about it, and I was one of those. So we set up a campaign against it. I mind somebody saying to me, ‘Du’s trying to stop development in this community, what’s du going to do instead.’ So I ended up joining NCDC as a director.”

The superquarry came to naught but Maree did work for NCDC for 11 years. “The quarry made me realise, what I’d never thought about before, was that I cared about the place.”

NCDC’s mission is to make Northmavine a better place to live work and visit, and it was at the instigation of NCDC that that the sun-sparkly Welcome to Northmavine sign was installed at Mavis Grind.

After a couple of years Maree was development officer at NCDC. “Prior to that I had worked in garages and had managed the Brae Garage for 15 years. By that time my boys (Sean and Mark) was grown up, so I thought I’d do something that my heart was in. And I applied for the job and got it.”

“The quarry made me realise, what I’d never thought about before, was that I cared about the place.”

The success of the Polycrubs sparked “business ideas” within NCDC minds. A trading arm was set up, selling Polycrub kits, but it became apparent the Polycrub venture would need staff and Maree decided to join Nortenergy as she had been part of the Polycrub venture more or less since its inception.

Of course all the profits made by the Polycrubs go back into the Northmavine community. “That way, what I’m doing with them is still making a contribution to the community,” said Maree.

The Nortenergy name stems from an initial wind turbine project that never really got turning, but that is more than counterbalanced by the Polycrubs’ success.

Polycrubs allow Shetland to grow fresh produce locally and thus reduce food miles. Photo: Polycrub

The company now has depots in the Western Isles and Inverness supplying kits, which can be erected by specially trained and certified installers, or the owners themselves with the assistance of ground plans and construction notes.

Polycrubs have been developed in the windiest testbeds of all – Shetland.

Last summer Nortenergy took a mini-crub, a ‘Peerie Poly’, on the show tour with visits to the County Show in Orkney, the Black Isle Show and the Turriff Show.

Polycrubs have structural accreditation that they can withstand winds up to 120mph and, of course, their development in the windiest testbed of all, Shetland. They are classed as a permanent structure usually covered by permitted development rules.

Before the Polycrub, people had used salmon pipes to strengthen their polytunnels, but the new design took this a step further with the use of hard, transparent polycarbonate sheeting that would also serve to help qualify for climate challenge funding.

Polycrubs are built with recycled salmon pipes and have saved around 50km of pipe from landfill in Shetland and 20km in the Western Isles. “That’s a lot of stuff that’s now not lying in landfill,” said Maree.

As well as the 3m wide Peerie Poly, there is the 4m wide Polycrub Classic and the Opyl, which is intended for lambs, hens or other livestock. This Polycrub has wooden gables and is designed to be less retentive of heat.

One of the spin-offs from the Polycrubs’ success has been the creation of a compound near the Ollaberry junction, and the new Bruckland SCRAN (Sensible Community Recycling At Northmavine) company that shares the pound with Nortenergy.

Bruckland SCRAN is paid for by subscription and members can put their goods there for skip disposal, or recycling and sale in the shop, so that the enterprise pays for itself as well as providing a valuable service.

… and they now also come as hen houses.

NCDC acts as an executive for many of the priorities identified in the local community development plan and expressed by the community more generally.

According to Maree, NCDC has always had a name for being self-sufficient for core costs, “so you weren’t at the mercy of grant funding.”

That meant generating income and jobs. Maree was the clerk to the community council and letting agent for a couple of properties. NCDC also provided a book-keeping service.

“I always say I had to do a lot of things, perhaps, badly,” said Maree with a chuckle. “It was a very varied job. I probably did some of my best work in passing places.

“You had folk that maybe widna come along the office, but if you were drawn into a passing place to let them by, they would think ‘ah, I must tell Maree about something’ and they would ebb up alongside you.”

Growing up in Brae at a time of massive change

When Maree left Brae School her father Frank, a plasterer, gave her two-weeks to get a job or come and carry a hod for him. So she got a job at Templetons (where the Lerwick Boots is now) and then in the office in Burgess’s Garage followed by a spell at Sutherland’s Garage when the boys were peerie.

After that, she was back on home turf with a part-time job at Brae Garage before being asked by Geordie Munday if she would work full-time.

“I probably did some of my best work in passing places.”

Growing up in Brae at a time of massive change, Maree saw the village and school roll “exploding overnight” with a host of incomers flocking to work at the nearby oil terminal.

Oddly, when she left school, the advice was that Sullom Voe’s days were numbered and applying for a job there was shortsighted.

Maree’s grandfather, well-known salesman Harry Hay, owned the Camp Shop in Brae as well as the Mossbank shop and upstairs pub.

She remembers working in the shop one day when there was a strike at the construction site and the bears walked from Sullom Voe to the shop.

“I mind him (Harry) having to go on the door of the pub – one out, one in policy – because there were hunders of men outside the door coming in to the shop to buy carry outs until they could win in to the pub.

“Huge changes and a different way of life, but it all passed without incident even with the huge influx of folk.”

Collaborative community effort

NCDC’s most ambitious and successful event was the three-day Glustonberry festival, which saw about 1,500 people congregate in and around a tree-shaded farm for a celebration of music and fun.

Glustonberry was blessed with near constant sunshine, when the rest of Shetland was shrouded in fog in an otherwise near-Arctic summer of 2013. Maree recalls people sent emails to the organisers to say it had been the best weekend of their lives.

While the event turned out to be a draining organisational task for Maree and NCDC stalwart Margaret Roberts, even bomb threat contingencies and emergency helicopter landing sites had to be accounted for.

Glustonberry was also a huge, collaborative, community effort with around 140 volunteers involved. “We wanted it to be a real family event and it was just a massive success,” said Maree.

“It put Northmavine on the map, it brought folk together and we raised £16,000 in profit which for wis was like winning the lottery.”

Will there be another Glustonberry? “Someday maybe yeah,” said Maree, who admits the thought of it still makes her twitch.

NCDC’s portfolio also includes the Hillswick Shop, which was refurbished and re-opened 10 years ago with a great deal of voluntary help.

“We had a pool of about 40 volunteers that completely refurbished the place,” said Maree. “We bought the shop in July and opened the door in November. I think they did the whole refurbishment for about £23,000, just because of the commitment from folk and their labour.

“It gave folk that feeling that this was their shop and so they support it. Whenever we do surveys to find out what folk is thinking about the shop, always the most important thing to them is that it is community owned.”

Across the road from the shop was a “derelict muckle building” that NCDC could not quite figure out what to do with despite repeated brainstorms. “We never found a use that would have made that building sustainable. Getting the money to refurbish it would have been the easiest bit of the job.”

Luckily, a buyer emerged and owner Geoff Jukes transformed the building into The Hillswick Weaving Shed – a base for an artist in residence and an art gallery, dedicated to his late partner, songwriter Jeannette Obstoj.

Maree’s father sadly died five years ago leaving the crofts to be run at Sullom by Maree and husband Neil. Although Maree is a country girl who liked nothing better than “hokin in da gutter” when she was a bairn, inheriting the crofts was “a steep learning curve to take on”.

“As time went on, we thought, ‘well, we’re making not too bad a job of this,’ so five years on, we probably have more sheep than we had to begin with! It is maybe not very profitable but it’s what we enjoy,” she said.