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Features / Obituary: a pioneer in Shetland wildlife tourism

Libby Weir-Breen, who helped to put Shetland on the world’s wildlife tourism map and founded the Island Holidays tour business with the late Bobby Tulloch, has died at the age of 72.

AFTER schooldays in Acton, West London, Elizabeth Crichton Weir-Breen went to secretarial college in Edinburgh. Her first job was senior personal assistant to the directors of Guardbridge paper mill in Fife, moving on in 1973 to a similar post with the managing director of The Scotsman Publications.

After several seasons working in ski resorts in Austria and Switzerland she set up her own public relations company in 1979. In 1982 Maurice Mullay hired her to advise Shetland Islands Tourism on advertising and public relations.

In the early 1980s the oil construction boom was drawing to a close so local hotels urgently needed new customers but tourism was in the doldrums – because of the shortage of accommodation during the years while the Sullom Voe Terminal was being built.

Libby Weir-Breen at Noss, June 2009.

Libby’s brief was to promote Shetland as a holiday destination, a task she undertook with great enthusiasm and considerable success, arranging nationwide publicity and extolling Shetland’s attractions at tourist trade fairs all over the country.

She quickly noticed a gap in the market. Wildlife holidays were, even then, a fast-growing sector of the national and international tourism trade but Shetland was making little impact, despite its superb wildlife attractions.

The tourist organisation was starting to work with Bobby Tulloch to promote his entertaining slide shows at RSPB members’ groups around the UK, after he had pointed out that the RSPB had more members than all the political parties combined.

Libby organised these tours (which included live, toe-tapping Shetland music) and made sure local newspapers and radio in places such as Coventry and Milton Keynes heard about the campaign. Soon Shetland’s holiday bookings began to rise. Better still, Libby was pleased to see how many of the visitors became ‘repeaters’ – returning to the islands year after year once they discovered Shetland’s amazing seabird colonies, plus otter-spotting and orca-watching opportunities.

Libby’s success in marketing Shetland led to her being asked to help develop wildlife tourism in the Falkland Islands in 1987. With Bobby as her business partner she set up Island Holidays and Bobby took their first clients to Port Stanley in 1988. The firm’s small-group tours to the Falklands were soon joined in Libby’s attractive brochures by wildlife package holidays to, among other places, Crete, Mauritius, the Seychelles, St Helena, South Georgia, Svalbard and the Pribilof Islands in Alaska, as well as the annual trips to Shetland.

The business traded successfully for over 30 years and she liked to boast, justifiably, that Island Holidays “operated from the Arctic to the Antarctic”.

In June 2009, to mark the 21st anniversary of Island Holidays and in memory of Bobby, who had died in 1996, Libby organised a memorable expedition from Oban to Orkney and Shetland aboard a small Russian cruise ship. Among the highlights were a call on Bobby’s sister, Mary Helen Odie, in Burravoe, Yell, and evening visits to Noss and Mousa.

As usual, there were hoots of laughter from Libby over drinks before (and after) dinner. She was good company and loved a dram, a funny story and a jolly song. Her sense of humour was infectious (and sometimes delightfully ribald). Once, when an official filling in a form asked if she was a ‘Mrs’ or a ‘Miss’, she replied: “Miss, of course! Do you think I’d have married someone with a surname like mine?”

Many of Libby’s clients were repeaters and over the years some of them visited almost all of her carefully selected destinations. They came back for more because she was a stickler for detail – and a sometimes exacting employer of the professional guides she hired, always expecting the highest standards and round-the-clock attention to the needs of her guests, a few of whom were, to put it kindly, a trifle eccentric.

On one Alaskan tour an elderly gentleman, when landed on a remote island in Prince William Sound and presented with dozens of friendly sea otters at point-blank range, grumbled: “Oh, I’ve seen these before, on that pier in San Francisco.”

During a Shetland tour, a rather large lady who had signed up for an ‘active walking’ holiday despite being barely able to move, complained there was not enough broadband in Haroldswick, Unst, for a daily Skype call with her dog – who was missing her terribly at boarding kennels in Connecticut. Libby took this sort of thing in her stride, soothing ruffled feathers and usually eliciting a laugh, or at least a giggle, from the offended party.

Libby had been in poor health for some time and retired last year, just as the Covid pandemic halted most international air travel, crippling Island Holidays like so many other tourism businesses. Sadly, her first and only year of retirement was clouded by financial anxiety as she worked long, stressful hours for no reward, winding up the business, trying to reclaim money from recalcitrant airlines and refunding her customers for their cancelled trips. This prolonged crisis did not help Libby’s health.

She spent some time in hospital earlier this year before apparently making a partial recovery, sounding quite cheerful in a phone call with the writer on 20 July. Her death in Ninewells Hospital, Dundee, on 11 August came as a shock to her friends in Shetland and many other islands around the world, as well as to neighbours and fellow churchgoers in the Perthshire village of Comrie where she lived for so many years.

She is survived by her sister Eleanor and nephews James and Marcus Mumford, to whom she was a devoted and doting aunt.

Libby Weir-Breen, wildlife tour operator, born 1 July 1949; died 11 August 2021

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