Findhorn Bay Arts festival among the winners at the Scottish Highlands and Islands Rural Economy (SHIREs) Awards
Easier access to your trusted, local news. Have a look at our digital subscription packages!
An awards event celebrating north successes over the last year had to admit one failure of its own.
Chris Kerr, head of the judging panel at the Scottish Highlands and Islands Rural Economy (SHIREs) Awards, and Highlands, Islands and Moray partner with event co-organisers Harper Macleod, revealed the judges had failed to select just one winner for the top award of the night, the rural star award.
Instead, the judges opted to announce two joint winners: Inverness-based charity Mikeysline and Portree gin maker Isle of Skye Distillers.
“We decided there was genuinely nothing between the two organisations,” he said.
Mikeysline had earlier been named rural charity of the year, sponsored by Tulloch Homes, in what host Nicky Marr had revealed had also been a very difficult category for the judges.
However, the judges decided the mental health and suicide prevention charity, which is now expanding into Ross-shire, should be the winner, pointing to what it had achieved in the short time since it was founded.
“Mikeysline are really making an impact in our communities in an aspect of rural life that affects so many, especially young males,” Mrs Marr said.
“Given the mental health issues that many have suffered during Covid, and some of the issues around isolation in the Highlands and Islands, the judges felt that Mikeysline was tonight’s most worthy winner. The scale of its impact alongside visible branding and awareness made it clearly stand-out.”
In recognition of how close the category had been, two other shortlisted charities were highly commended by the judges, Moray School Bank and the Elsie Normington Foundation, which is raising funds to build a specialist centre for children with additional needs in Inverness.
Thanking the judges, Mikeysline chief executive Emily Stokes said that as a non-funded charity, everything it had achieved was due to the Highland community and the dedication of its supporters and said winning both the charity of the year and rural star titles would be just amazing for the charity’s staff and volunteers, who had worked so hard over the last 18 months.
Speaking about the charity’s response to Covid, she said that Mickeysline had to change quickly in response to changing circumstances.
“Mental health issues are not going to go away, so it is crucial that we adapt to the needs that are out there,” she said.
Fellow rural star award winner Isle of Skye Distillers also won the rural taste award, sponsored by Executive magazine.
Founded by brothers Thomas and Alistair Wilson, it was described by the judges as a great all round winner.
“The judges were seriously impressed by the written submission of Isle of Skye Distillers,” Mr Kerr said.
“The use of local produce, the growth of jobs in a place where there were no jobs before, the first to do gin on Skye, international sales growth, together the figures behind that and the innovations around the gin school in Portree – the judges were in agreement that what they have achieved in a relatively short period of time is fantastic. And of course, the quality of the product is pretty good as well. It was something we felt every Highland business should aspire to.”
Alistair Wilson, who founded and runs the company with his brother Thomas revealed that the aim had been to create something that would be great for the island, as well as something that could be handed on to the next generation of the Wilson family.
“Last year we increased our staff by three through our shop and we are hoping to expand that even more next year with our expansion plans. We now have an export guy working for us in Germany now, so it’s all going in the right direction,” he said.
The rural star award was not the only category where the judges were unable to decide on an overall winner.
The judges could not split the two leading companies in the rural creative award, sponsored by ScotRail, Mrs Marr said, and did not want to use a casting vote, so had split the award between Findhorn Bay Arts and Skyeskyns of Waternish, Skye.
Findhorn Bay Arts has grown from its 2013 Culture Day to establish a year round programme of arts and cultural activities for young people and their families, even during Covid.
It was described by the judges as doing a fantastic job of filling a cultural gap and as very impressive indeed.
Findhorn Bay Arts festival director Kresanna Aigner said that when lockdown hit, it had consulted its partners and took a moment to ask how creativity could help the community in these difficult circumstances.
“We listened, we talked and we re-designed and adapted again and again and we rolled out a programme and we never stopped. We carried on delivering right the way through,” she said.
“The award represents just the huge amount of collaboration which has come together to really bring hope to our communities by connecting our communities. Awards like this really help us to develop our work as we look to the future.”
Skyeskyns is the sole remaining sheepskin tannery in Scotland, but has expanded to create a five-star visitor attraction with a tannery, sewing workshop, two shops, seasonal pop-up café and growing online business, while reducing its carbon footprint.
The judges were impressed by its top quality product, but also loved the fact t was sourced from the local environment and the community benefit which came from the creation of local employment.
Skyeskyns general manager Dave Till said: “We really try as much as we can to be as local as possible and recently have tried to make our tanning process sustainable.”
An unexpected guest made an online appearance to accept the most contested award at the SHIREs.
Freddie the parrot, the pet of rural Covid resilience award winner Annie Body of Annie’s Bakery in Canisbay popped up on Zoom after she was named the winner.
Annie admitted she had been “totally gutted” when lockdown struck. With her new café unable to trade she closed it down and instead provided vital supplies at cost to local people who were unable to travel to a supermarket
Then when travel restrictions forced her to close her shop, she donated supplies to local groups to provide meals for those in need.
She has now converted her indoor café into a shop and has created an outdoor marquee, which has become incredibly popular.
“The impact of Annie’s Bakery on the local community was inspiring, especially the creative way in which she did it,” Mrs Marr said.
“Annie didn’t just manage. She flourished as the pandemic went on. Her story resonated with the judges on a personal level and was all about getting your sleeves rolled up and getting on with it.”
Cairngorm Early Learning and Childcare and traditional arts organisation Fèis Rois were also highly commended in the category.
The rural digitisation award, sponsored by Openreach, went to Alness-based Aquascot, which had invested in new processes which have helped it to achieve record output, making them the standout winner in the category, Mrs Marr said.
The rural natural capital award went to Cairngorms National Park Authority, which has invested in peatland restoration in three key areas, including establishing a peatland action programme, running new training programmes for new civil and plant businesses and piloting green finance initiatives.
“The judges felt it was a very clear winner,” Mrs Marr said.
“The investment being made by the authority in the peatland action programme was impressive. They are clearly a driving force in such an important aspect of Scotland’s natural capital.”
Stephen Corcoran, the authority’s peatland programme manager, said it was great for the team to be recognised for what they did.
“The is a massive difference we can make in Scotland by restoring peatland,” he added. “We just need the contractors to be able to do it.”
The rural blue award for innovation in the Highlands and Islands marine and waterways sector went to Orkney’s European Marine Energy Centre (EMEC) wave and tidal power testing centre.
Commercial director Matthew Finn said: “We are really passionate about what we do and I think a lot of the attention we have had underlies the fact that we are trying to do the right thing and are really quite pioneering. We have had a lot of attention from all around the world and some of the things we are doing here will have a global impact.”
The rural entrepreneur award went to Murray Travel, which until recently was known as Inverness Travel. Despite the impact of the Covid pandemic on the travel sector, owners Scott and Sarah Murray had taken the opportunity to expand and had taken over two other north travel agencies.
Sarah Murray commented: “It was obviously a bit of a risk, but one that was worth taking and we knew if we could hold out, travel would start picking up again.”
Also highly commented in this category was John O’Groats Brewery.
The rural community award went to Drumnadrochit’s Loch Ness Hub, which has transformed as disused building into a visitor information centre and transport hub, providing employment for six locals.
2021 SHIREs Awards
Rural Digitisation, sponsored by Openreach: Aquascot
Rural Natural Capital, sponsored by SSE Renewables: Cairngorms National Park Authority
Rural Blue, sponsored by Port of Cromarty Firth: European Marine Energy Centre (EMEC)
Rural Creative, sponsored by ScotRail: joint winners, Findhorn Bay Arts, Skyeskyns
Covid Resilience Award, sponsored by Highlands and Islands Enterprise: Annie’s Bakery. Highly Commended: Cairngorm Early Learning and Childcare, Fèis Rois
Rural Entrepreneur, sponsored by Business Gateway: Murray Travel. Highly Commended: John O’Groats Brewery
Rural Charity, sponsored by Tulloch Homes: Mikeysline. Highly Commended: Moray School Bank, The Elsie Normington Foundation
Rural Community Award, sponsored by Cairngorms National Park Authority: Loch Ness Hub
Rural Taste, sponsored by Executive business magazine: Isle of Skye Distillers
Rural Star Award, sponsored by Haper Macleod: joint winners, Mikesysline, Isle of Skye Distillers