Shetland farmer, David Murray, of North Roe, is a man with a lot on his mind.

Coming home after 10 years working overseas in the oil and gas industries, his skill as an operator of heavy plant has resulted in a new vocation – setting up a company with two others to take on specialised peatland restoration work.

His skills in sheepdog trialling earned him a place in the 2019 Scottish team, and that is what gave birth to the idea of setting up Shetland Rural Experience Centre (SREC). The location of his farm includes the remains of a historical fishing station, while the natural topography and wildlife attracts huge interest. However, most unusual of all, is the fact that he is also the host to a rocket launch site.

An experienced plant operator who spent time in USA teaching others to emulate their skills, David now specialises in restoration of peatlands.

A Scottish Government funded Carbon Capture project aims to repair areas of natural erosion throughout Scotland and to hinder or prevent further deterioration.

In Shetland, as elsewhere, black, moorland peat hags are very vulnerable to natural erosion from wind and water damage.

“The restoration work involves stripping back the turf from a face, and re-profiling the underlying slope to make it less steep, then replacing the turf to preserve the new terrain," said David.

"We make dams to slow up the water which regularly washes soil away. We put down netting to stabilise the new contours and add sphagnum moss to create an eco-system to attract wildlife and ground nesting birds. We have been doing this since 2018 and we are already seeing the benefit, in the numbers of birds and frogs around the restored land and ponds.”

David made a great impression at the 2019 International Sheepdog Trials where he came fifth in the qualifying round and 12th in the supreme final and that prompted a suggestion from Highlands and Islands Enterprise that he consider the idea of presenting the skill of the dogs to visitors.

Now, David and his partner, fellow trialist, Isla Sutherland, an integral part of the work at the farm, hope to attract tourists and locals once it is safe to do so. Meantime, Isla has given up work as a chef, to look after the dogs and sheep while David is busy on peatland contracts.

The couple plan to stage sheepdog demonstrations, and to show the process of training a pup.

SREC will also include Shetland ponies and native Shetland sheep; visitors may be able to see a lambing, feed pet lambs, watch sheep shearing and other seasonal tasks. They will see how the variety of naturally coloured fleeces in the native breed inspired the origins of Fair Isle knitting, where the range of colours and shades create distinctive patterns.

The rural experience will not end in the field, as the next stage will be a shop selling mature mutton from yearling sheep. Isla is an experienced chef and the farm has already met an encouraging response from selected ‘test’ consumers. A range of preserves made from home grown fruit and veg will also be on the menu.

Isla hopes that in time she may be able to add a tea shop to the experience.

“There is a lot of potential, but at first I will concentrate on jams and preserves from home-grown fruit and bring in some other local produce. We’ve bought a catering van, so setting that up will be the next step,” she said.

David thinks there may be a market for dog related goods such as whistles and leads too. As well as islanders and casual tourist visitors, he also hopes that once the centre has built a reputation with good reviews, it will appeal to the cruise liner trade, a regular part of Shetland tourism, and realises that that is a longer term goal

“The cruise market is very well organised and depends very much on good recommendations for any attraction they offer to their guests,” he added.

North Roe, at the extreme North of Shetland mainland, extends to a narrow peninsula which has attracted industrial developments traditional and modern. Fethaland’s, two rocky beaches ‘back to back’ on either side of the peninsula was ideal for landing catches and drying fish in former times. It was one of Shetland’s biggest working fishing stations from the 15th century to the 20th.

While the beaches provided landing spots, the rocks, retained the summer’s warmth which helped to dry the cod and ling, salted and laid out by women and children at the seasonally populated stations. David’s father was one of the last inhabitants, leaving the peninsula in 1944. Some stone built huts remain, but there was no road until David built a track in 1981. The fishing station was previously accessed by sea.

“Fethaland has a very long and rich history. It attracts photographers, birdwatchers, history lovers and geologists, so that covers a lot of different interest,” he continued.

There is evidence of viking settlement at Fethaland and a walking route from there leads to Uyea Sound, where young men took refuge from the press gangs who forced seaworthy men into service in the Navy.

News of their arrival would spread quickly and the local men would make for a Cave at Uyea, easily navigable for locals, but unseen from the shore. In Neolithic times, when ships came to grief there, the bodies of the drowned men were buried nearby.

David’s current tenants of a block of land at Fethaland have brought industrial history up to date with their use of the site for test launching unmanned rockets, to collect data needed prior to larger rockets going into orbit for communication and other purposes. The first one was launched in summer 2020.

“The rockets are about 7’ long, so it is quite a small scale of operation, just now, but very promising for the future, none the less,” said David.

Clearly, he has a place in his plans for the rocket launch pad, alongside sheepdog demonstrations, a deserted fishing station, a catering wagon, environmental land works, cruise ships, Fair Isle knitwear, home grown rhubarb and mature mutton.