“It’s been about blending elements of its past with the future and finding it a new purpose,” says Sheila Fleet of the former St Andrew’s Kirk, now serving as a visitor centre for her Tankerness based jewellery business.
“We hope the local community and tourists will enjoy the space.”
They certainly seem to be so far. After being open for just over a week, the visitor centre and café is bustling, with the constant stream of April weekday customers an indication this could be a very busy summer indeed for Orkney’s newest attraction.
It’s a project that’s been years in planning and development. The Fleet family first bought the mothballed old kirk – sited right next door to the Sheila Fleet Jewellery workshops - from the community in 2006, with work to renovate and convert it only commencing in December of 2015. But the gentle pace of the 175-year-old Kirk’s transition has been deliberate, reflecting both Sheila Fleet’s designer’s eye for detail, and her desire to sympathetically give new life to a building of great significance to the people of Tankerness.
“I’d long wondered how I could link the kirk to the workshop,” reflects Sheila, who has been creating jewellery for half a century, earning an OBE in the process. “It’s such a grand building, I felt we could do something with the space. Over the years folk visiting the workshop kept asking for cups of coffee, so I thought we’d have to bite the bullet someday and have a café’, but it was never a clear concept in terms of the final layout.”
Sheila, and her son Martin who manages the day-to-day running of the 25-year-old business, spent a lot of time considering how best to use the space. “It was a mixture of just feeling it, coming in here and walking in the space, wondering what we could do,” says Sheila, whose ultimate vision was made a reality by award-winning architect, Mark Fresson.
The path to the final layout involved stripping the kirk to its bare walls and replacing the roof, but the fabric of the old building was fundamentally sound.
“The community had looked after it so well,” adds Sheila. “We felt if we were going to do this, we needed to do it properly. We were fortunate to have a very skilled group of local craftsmen working with us.”
The interior conversion to jewellery showroom, paired with café, has incorporated many original features including the kirk’s pulpit, lectern and communion table. They’ve even had the kirk’s old bell restored, though Sheila admits everyone’s been too busy to ring it yet.
It’s a truly striking end result – unmistakably a former church, but a light and airy space that’s both contemporary and welcoming. Jewellery cabinets flank the aisle of the showroom, leading up to what would have been the business end of the kirk in its day, with a raised platform and a special display area for engagement and wedding rings.
The large café area next to the showroom has been fitted out to the same standards, with bespoke furniture – including a 12-seater Scottish tiger oak table – created by local craftsman, Leo Kerr. Some of the café furniture has been created using wood from the kirk’s old pews.
Leo is also responsible for much of the carpentry within the showroom - look up at the ceiling and you’ll see his carved wooden version of the Birsay Disc, the first piece of jewellery designed by Sheila when her business started in 1993.
A mezzanine area has been installed above the jewellery display and sales area to showcase the work of other designers and to host exhibitions.
The Fleets are also keen to share the human history of the building, with plans to collate as many stories as possible from those who’ve been through its doors during its life as a kirk. All in all, it’s a unique space, one the Fleets hope will endure for many generations to come.
“We’re very proud,” says Martin Fleet. “It’s amazing that something that has taken so long and been discussed for so long, is suddenly open. It’s been the fastest week of my life! The reaction has been really good and that makes us feel so chuffed. We’ve worked with some fantastic skilled contractors who listened to our vision and there haven’t been any compromises.”
Sheila adds: “You shouldn’t do anything in too big a hurry. If you don’t give something due thought, it won’t have any depth.”
To find the visitor centre and cafe from Kirkwall, drive towards the airport and take the first left after the airport into Tankerness. From there follow the Craft Trail signs and the newly painted Kirk is located next to Sheila's workshop.
Find out more about the visitor centre, cafe and Sheila Fleet Jewellery from the official website.
The Digital Orkney project has been part financed by the Scottish Government and the European Community Orkney LEADER 2014-2020 Programme.