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Shetland Lives / Busta has shaped him but now Grant is putting his own stamp on the country house hotel

The adventure begins here: Hotel co-owner Grant O'Neil in the well-stocked Busta House Hotel bar. Photo: Sarah Cooper for Shetland News

AFFECTIONATELY known as the “face” of Busta House Hotel, co-owner Grant O’Neil recalls how the hotel he has been working at for the last 25 years has turned him into the person he is today.

And who would have thought that O’Neil with his outgoing, candid and welcoming nature was once a shy teenager unable to speak to customers without getting embarrassed.

The 42-year-old has literally spent all his adult life at the country house hotel, a journey that started as a 17-year-old getting trial shifts as a kitchen porter to now co-owning the historic 22-room hotel with his business partner Joel D’Eathe.

Celebrating a quarter of a century at Busta, O’Neil is happy to recall how “useless” he was at his job to begin with, and how he slowly got out of his shell to become the hotel manager he is today.

“After a couple of years of being a kitchen porter I was looking for money for nights out and designer clothes – which has always been a big thing for me, stupidly – and asked if there were more shifts available,” he says as he takes up the tale.

He started doing handyman type jobs around the hotel and painting. After a while he asked for even more shifts and was offered a front of house position.

Speaking very candidly, O’Neil is happy to admit that he wasn’t the most competent worker when he started covering front of house shifts: “I was ridiculously shy. It was pathetic, I couldn’t speak to anybody.

“Seriously, if I had employed me, I would have sacked me. I was absolutely useless. I couldn’t take orders from people, my face would go bright red, I couldn’t hold a conversation.”

However, after around six months he started to enjoy the new role and found he “came out of his shell”.

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This led to a full-time position once he had finished college: “I still wasn’t thinking about a career in hospitality at all at the time, but then I went from waiter to become duty manager. I was assistant manager in around 2002 and then moved on to become the hotel’s general manager.”

A daunting prospect

It was about 2012 that both O’Neil and D’Eathe were asked by their bosses Joe and Veronica Rocks, if they could envisage taking over the hotel as they were considering retirement.

This was an extremely daunting prospect, O’Neil recalls, adding: “It was never an aim of mine to own the hotel, it was just a job.

“But I thought about it more and thought about what I would do if it was sold to someone else, or what would happen to the hotel. So, we agreed to take it over, and did so in July 2015.”

Both co-owners have great respect for the historic building and its role in Shetland’s history while “putting their own stamp” on the hotel.

“We’ve got nine bedrooms where we’ve stripped them right back, refurbished and renovated them. We’ve refurbished all the bathrooms in the hotel; that work is still ongoing.”

Refurbishment plans will continue over the next few years on a continuous basis due to the nature of the building.

“We will always find something that needs to be done. It’s an old building that’s wonderful and beautiful, but that does come with its own problems,” O’Neil sums up the challenge.

The bathrooms now feature sleek back tiles, waterfall showers, and some have freestanding baths. During the refurbishment in a couple of the rooms – Foula and Fetlar – the builders found one of the walls was originally the old external wall constructed in 1714.

O’Neil and D’Eathe have embraced this and made it a feature wall in both bedrooms, one featuring an original window alcove which is now a dressing table, and the other an original fireplace being turned into shelving using original Busta House beams.

Looking back to the “huge blow” that was the Covid-19 pandemic, O’Neil says: “There were times we sat down and looked at the figures and realised we were losing £5,000 a week by staying open.

“There were a couple of times we thought we couldn’t continue with it, but we decided to try and do what we could whether it was takeaways our outdoor dining – which I never thought would happen in Shetland but we tried it, some people came and enjoyed it!”

A ghost called Barbara

As for the resident ghost and haunting rumours that come with any old building O’Neil is convinced that “there is definitely something here”.

“I would have to say I have a relationship with Barbara [the ghost] where she is happy to let herself not be known to me, and I’m happy with that situation as well.”

But other staff members have different stories: “There have been many incidents over the years. One waitress was clearing the restaurant one night and switched all the lights off, but then a light was still on.

“There was a woman sitting at the table and stood up, turned around and walked into the wall. My head chef has seen a lady in white walk through the kitchen on three separate occasions.”

And then he annoyed Barbara during the refurbishment works: “We were renovating one of the old rooms with the original wood panelling and I wanted to strip it out.

“Joel said we couldn’t because we’d offend people – he meant Barbara. I made an offhand comment about it, and I’ve never had such a hard week in my life in this hotel.”

Everything that could go wrong did go wrong in the following week with heating, plumbing, and electrics. O’Neil found himself standing in the bar and apologising to Barbara – after which life returned to normal.

Recently, he contacted the previous hotel owner Judith Jones who had first employed him at the age of 17 to tell her he was now a co-owner of Busta House Hotel.

“I think she was equally as shocked as I am, given how useless I was on front of house at the time,” he smiles. “It was a really poignant moment for me.”

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