On Wednesday morning a small team of three, Shona, Alex, and Sandy, returned to the distillery Shop here in Tarbert to open its doors for the first time in 20 weeks. So much has changed in that time, and things are far from the same as before.
We closed in the face of COVID-19 on March 17th to help safeguard the health of our staff and the island community and, as the crisis quickly unfolded, the peat fire in our hearth has remained unlit ever since.
As lockdown restrictions eased over recent weeks, we’ve continued to listen to official advice and consider local opinion as to if, and when, we should cautiously return to work and welcome visitors once more.
Harris has become an increasingly popular travel destination in recent years and although the annual influx of new arrivals was far from its summer norm this year, it was clear many people were making the long journey to our shores again.
The reality of this has been met with mixed emotions by the community here. On one hand, we love to share this place with the wider world and the livelihoods of many local folks are reliant on tourism and the valuable business it brings.
And yet, we’re painfully aware that Harris is one of the few places in the world which remains untouched by the coronavirus, an even greater blessing when our ageing population and limited medical facilities are taken into consideration.
But we’re also a realistic bunch, and on balance, most of us in the Outer Hebrides believe it’s better to take a positive and pragmatic approach to these challenges than to simply pull up the proverbial drawbridge.
Managing director Simon Erlanger tells us...
‘Once local hotels and shops started to re-open, we agreed that it was time for us to be the ‘social distillery’ once again. Fortunately, our shop is large enough for us to be able to operate in a way which keeps our staff and our visitors as safe as possible. It’s also hugely motivating for our team to hear voices and see people coming through our doors after such an eery silence. Wednesday was an important milestone towards recovery’.
Things are a little different right now. Many places remain closed, transportation is more limited and with less capacity, and the facilities for camping and camper vans are far from offering a full service.
But the beautiful beaches and high hills remain free to wander and roam, and with such places less busy, social distancing is a breeze compared to the tightly-packed parks and public places back in the big cities.
We’re taking our re-opening responsibilities seriously, and those arriving at the distillery are strongly encouraged to stick to a few simple rules when they cross our threshold.
An easy-to-follow, one-way system through the Shop space is in place and clear signage helps keep visitors correct, with a hand-sanitising station made from our alcoholic spirit as the first stop along the way.
New floor markings are affixed at 2-meter intervals, the traditional crofter and distiller of our social distillery marque now showing how to keep your distance instead of their usual shaking of hands.
Following Scottish Government guidance, facemasks must be worn while inside the building but those who are unable to do so for medical reasons can call ahead and we’ll be pleased to take payment and deliver their order outside.
Our till area is now safely ensconced behind some surprisingly stylish glass screens and we are currently only taking payments by card, offering quick and contactless purchasing for orders below £45 too.
Sadly, for practical reasons our intimate tours and convivial Canteen can’t be offered at this moment in time but we hope that next year that situation may change if communal life becomes a little less convoluted.
Meantime, we’d like to thank everyone who has joined us since Wednesday and enjoyed a safe and successful visit to the Shop. We’ve been busy keeping our Isle of Harris Gin flowing and it’s been lovely to see so many new faces, even if half-hidden!
If you’re planning to travel to the Outer Hebrides this year, be sure to download the Guide To A Great Stay In 2020, and please show care and patience as we all adjust to the new normal.
There’s also a great new film full of stunning scenery and useful advice from NHS Western Isles while you spend time in the islands, and the soundtrack from local heroes Peat & Diesel is pretty good too.
It may be business as unusual here at the newly socially-distanced distillery but a warm welcome, as ever, always awaits. Stay safe on your travels and be well!