The beauty of living in a small island is the sense of community, and the willingness to work together for the good of your friends and fellow residents. It’s why many of Orkney’s isles are thriving, vibrant places.
That hard work and commitment has certainly been on show in Shapinsay this year, as the community came together to revive, refurbish, and reopen the island’s Smithy Café and Restaurant for the first time in four years.
“Shapinsay has had nowhere to eat out, grab a takeaway or meet for a casual coffee for some time now,” says Lisa-Marie Muir, the island’s Community Development Officer. “It was most apparent when post-COVID lockdown rules were relaxed and folk were only allowed to meet in cafes and restaurants and we had nowhere for local residents to go.”
The Shapinsay Development Trust sprang into action during that strange summer of 2020 and opened a pop-up café for coffee and cake in the island’s church, which became an important place for many, especially those who lived alone or were housebound.
“We ran it once a fortnight, and then moved onto providing soup and sandwiches as restrictions continued to ease,” says Lisa-Marie. “It was really popular, and it just amplified how vital it was to have somewhere in the island for people to meet and socialise.”
The focus quickly turned to the mothballed Smithy. Housed in the island’s former blacksmiths, the venue had previously been owned by the local Community Council and franchised out on a tender basis. It closed for good in 2019 after years of struggling to find someone to run it.
Discussions took place about the building’s future, but as is often the case with ventures like these, a project to bring it back to life proved challenging. “There’s no doubt it was hard work,” says Lisa-Marie. “The restaurant had bare stone walls, so it was cold and damp. Electricity costs were high and investment was needed to insulate it. And because it was owned by Orkney Islands Council (OIC) it was nearly impossible to find funding.”
In the end, the Shapinsay Development Trust agreed to purchase the Smithy in 2022, thanks in part to help from OIC and the Scottish Land Fund. Other support came from the North Isles Landscape Partnership, CARES, the Shapinsay Community Council, and OIC’s Community Development Fund. The aim was to start building work in late-2022 and open in early spring so the new team could prepare for a busy summer. However, as anyone that’s renovated an old building will know, things don’t always go to plan.
“There were delays getting the work started, and then once we stripped everything back in the building, we realised things weren’t quite what we expected,” says Lisa-Marie. “It really was just a case of ever-changing goalposts, but our contractors worked so hard to get things ready as quickly as they could and we got the doors open in June, straight into the summer season!”
It has been a baptism of fire for the new-look Smithy team, but it’s one that Lisa-Marie says has seen them all rise to the challenge. “We had such a lovely summer, with such positive feedback. We were so grateful to all our customers for bearing with us as we learned the ropes on the job and for the kindness and support everyone showed. It really kept us going and it was great to see so many new faces come over to visit!”
There were plenty of folk hopping on the ferry from Kirkwall for some food and fancies at the Smithy, sitting next to locals and visitors from further afield in the bright and spacious venue. Even with winter on the horizon, the lunch menu is still full of favourites like paninis, toasties, soup and sandwiches, and there are plenty of cakes and coffee on offer to tempt folk in from the cold weather. Orkney food and drink takes centre stage at the Smithy too, with bere bannocks, local beers and much more available.
Now the summer is over, the team will offer takeaways and evening meals, as well as hosting special events. There has already been a pizza night, which proved very popular, but according to Lisa-Marie, the team will be taking things slowly. “It’s very much ‘watch this space’ at the moment. As with everything in a small island, staffing will dictate what we can do and when, but we have such a great peedie team who are all really keen to get going as soon as we’re ready.”
It's not just the Smithy café that has made a welcome comeback, either. Upstairs, the island’s Heritage Centre has recently reopened too, offering new displays and information all focused on life in the island in years gone by. It’s the perfect place to stop off to trace family routes, before enjoying a refreshment or two downstairs.
For Lisa-Marie, the relaunch of the Smithy and the Heritage Centre is more than just another project to tick off the list. “It’s perhaps more vital in a small community to have a meeting place as there are no alternatives like a cinema, or other cafes or restaurants,” she says.
“We’re a vibrant community, but not everyone wants to go to classes, workshops, the gym, or join committees, so it’s great to have a space with no expectations, for folk to drop in and just enjoy themselves.”
Find out more about the Smithy Café & Restaurant. Keep in touch with opening hours, special events and menus by following the Smithy Café & Restaurant on Instagram. You can book a table by emailing email@example.com or phoning 01856 711 243.