As transformations go, the conversion of a former church into a stunning gallery and visitor centre showcasing the work of Orkney jewellery designer, Sheila Fleet, has been a spectacular one.
A year on from opening its doors to the public, Sheila Fleet’s Kirk Gallery and Café, situated in Orkney’s east mainland, has firmly established itself as a key attraction in the islands, drawing in over 34,000 tourists and local people alike in 2018. It’s also secured a shortlisting in the Best Store Design category of the 2019 UK Jewellery Awards.
“We’ve been overwhelmed by the response to the project,” says Martin Fleet, managing director of Sheila Fleet Jewellery, and son of the designer. “From the outset, we wanted to create a unique atmosphere for customers, whether they’re here to view and buy our jewellery, or just enjoy a coffee, cake or meal in welcoming surroundings.
“As a retail experience, and tourism attraction, we think it’s pretty special and it reflects the attention to detail we strive for with our jewellery,” he continues. “Suffice to say, we’re thrilled to have now been shortlisted for Best Store Design in the UK Jewellery Awards and are very much looking forward to July, when we’ll learn if we’ve been successful.”
The project was years in the planning. The Fleet family first bought the former St Andrew’s Kirk – sited next door to the Sheila Fleet Jewellery workshops in Tankerness – from the local community in 2006.
Work to renovate and convert the 175-year-old Kirk only commenced in December of 2015, but the gentle pace of transition was deliberate as the Fleets sought to sympathetically give new life to a building of great significance to the local community.
“We’d long wondered how we could link the kirk to the workshop,” says Sheila Fleet, who has been creating jewellery for half a century, earning an OBE in the process. “It’s such a grand building, we felt we could do something meaningful with the space. Over the years, people visiting our workshop kept us asking for cups of coffee, so we 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.”
Ultimately, the Fleet family’s vision was made a reality by award-winning architect, Mark Fresson. The path to the final layout involved stripping the kirk down 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,” explains Sheila. “We felt if we were going to do this, we needed to do it properly.”
The interior conversion to jewellery showroom, paired with café, incorporated many original features including the kirk’s pulpit, lectern and communion table.
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.
“We worked with some fantastic skilled crafts and tradespeople who listened to our ideas and there weren’t any compromises as we progressed our vision,” says Martin.
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 Kerr was 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 above the jewellery display and sales area showcases the work of other designers and hosts exhibitions and other special events.
The Fleet family are keen to share the human history of the building and have been collating 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.
“Orkney’s perhaps unique in that local businesses, across all the sectors, have a real pride in their community,” concludes Martin. “We share a collective sense of responsibility towards the islands and, whether it’s through our jewellery, or in the creation of high-quality visitor facilities, we’re always determined to do our very best to ensure Orkney’s reputation as a place to visit, and live, is protected and enhanced”.