Project Manager Grace Heggs writes about her visit to the Shetland Islands, celebrating the end of a successful year of Start with Shetland Arts.
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In 2015, Shetland Arts Development Agency became our 100th Start Partner, working with 300 pupils from five schools in Aith, Baltasound, Fetlar, Sandwick and Symbister. Some of these schools are a ferry ride and then a very long drive away from each other, so it’s very unusual for them to be working together on this project.

I don’t think I exactly knew where the Shetland Islands were until we found a partner there. Shetland is made up of 100 islands but only 16 of them are inhabited and it is rated one of the most untouched regions in the whole world – I could barely believe such a place is part of the United Kingdom!  Unlike my usual trips around the UK to visit our partners, this time I didn’t have to sit on a train at all. My options were to either take a very small plane across the sea from Aberdeen or an 11 hour boat, as Shetland is so far north it's on the way to Iceland. I wasn’t surprised to read that for hundreds of years Shetland was cut off from the outside world for most of the winter and only received post a couple of times a year.

Our project is lucky to have Amy Gear involved, an artist who understands both island and mainland life. Born in Yell, one of the most northerly islands, she studied at the Royal College of Art in London but returned to her homeland to inspire the Shetland contemporary arts scene.

As part of my visit I was able to speak at a teachers’ professional development training session at the Bonhoga Gallery, an old mill in Weisdale. It was a joy to meet the teachers and give them a sense of scale of Start and show how they are part of a UK-wide network of partners especially as one teacher from Fetlar, one of the most remote and northerly islands, told me there are only five children in her whole school.


The Bonhoga Gallery was also home to the project’s end of year exhibition titled THE FUTURE, exploring what Shetland might look like in 300 years (‘What will people be wearing? What will futuristic music sound like? Will we have flying hover boards yet?’). During Start, children worked with Amy Gear and film maker JJ Jamieson to create their own hand drawn animations of futuristic people, transport, buildings and their own futuristic music score. You can see the animations and read the project blog at 2317thefuture.tumblr.com.

We discussed plans for the second year of the project, taking art outside the gallery and using the wonderful landscape of Shetland to explore site specific installations and sculptures. The schools were very interested in the Units of Power project we ran in Tottenham where each pupil produced an individual piece of artwork that, when put together, formed one large installation. It was fascinating to hear Amy and the teachers discuss taking elements from this inner-city project and creating similar collaborative artwork in totally different surroundings.

I look forward to finding out what comes next from this group of children, growing up and developing their ideas in this wild and beautiful place.