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Owners of Thurso's Messy Nessy 'extremely excited' as they prepare for reopening

By Alan Hendry

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Ian and Fiona Carlisle at Messy Nessy in Rotterdam Street, Thurso. They say they have 'completely struggled' over the past year but are grateful for the support they have received from the community. Picture: Mel Roger
Ian and Fiona Carlisle at Messy Nessy in Rotterdam Street, Thurso. They say they have 'completely struggled' over the past year but are grateful for the support they have received from the community. Picture: Mel Roger

The owners of a popular soft-play centre in Thurso say they are "extremely excited" to be getting back to business from the start of next week following the latest easing of Scotland's Covid-19 restrictions.

Messy Nessy in Rotterdam Street will reopen on Monday and the couple who run it, Ian and Fiona Carlisle, have been "absolutely inundated" with bookings and enquiries. They say they are overwhelmed by the level of support from the public.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon confirmed on Tuesday that Highland will go down to level one restrictions from this weekend, allowing soft play to restart.

“We’re opening at nine o’clock on Monday morning," Mr Carlisle said. “We are extremely excited.

“There’s a booking system and lots of restrictions in place. We’re going through all the guidelines at the moment."

Soft-play centres across Scotland had to shut in March last year because of the pandemic. Messy Nessy was able to start up in November but was forced to close again at the end of December as restrictions were tightened. That had been "devastating", Mr Carlisle admitted.

“We have completely struggled over this last year," he said. “We got to open for a few weeks before we were closed again. But the customers were great, they filled all the slots we had."

He praised the community for buying ceramics and other craft items produced at Messy Nessy, saying this had "helped us keep ticking over".

The couple have been grateful for the support they received from the North Highland Regeneration Fund, managed by Caithness Chamber of Commerce, and they have also benefited from the UK government's furlough scheme. “We are using the new Kickstart initiative as well to be able to employ two members of staff because we believe we’re going to be quite busy when we start,” Mr Carlisle said.

There are now five staff, including the owners.

“We’ve almost completed our booking app and it’s ready to go,” Mr Carlisle said.

“Our message box is absolutely inundated just now. Everyone is ‘How do we book?’ ‘How do we book?’ It’s great.

“We are overwhelmed with the support we are getting from the public."

He revealed that they had been apprehensive about the prospects of opening up again.

"We didn’t think we were going to get to open at all, due to so much conflicting information coming through from the other play centres. Obviously Glasgow and some other areas aren’t going to open at all yet – they’ve only gone down to level two.

“We felt for a while that it was a completely political thing. You had the Scottish Government saying ‘funding has to come from Westminster’, you had Westminster saying ‘well, we’ve said you can open – it’s the Scottish Government that says you can’t’.

“It was always conflicting information, no-one willing to pick up any ownership to do with it. Every time we were promised that something was going to get mentioned on one of the briefings, it wasn’t at all.

“We are lucky enough that we have a great sense of community up here that helps support small businesses like us. It’s the bigger businesses down south that have thousands upon thousands of pounds a month in rent and insurance and everything else that don’t get to open their doors at all, they’re the ones that are worse off than us.”

Mr Carlisle described Messy Nessy as a community hub used by people from across Caithness and parts of Sutherland. As well as the children's play activities there are adult classes ranging from ceramics, glass-fusing and jewellery-making to knitting and crochet as well as yoga.

“We get regular customers from Tongue and all up west coming this way," he said. "And for our baby groups people come through from Wick, which is brilliant.”

One part of the centre that will remain off-limits for now is the ball pit.

“The ball pit won’t be open because we have to clean it between sessions," Mr Carlisle explained. "Each session we do lasts an hour and then we close the whole section for half an hour while we clean and ventilate for the next people.

"For us to properly clean our ball pit takes about nine-and-a-half hours, so the ball pit is out of the question at the moment.”

Highland will go down from level two to level one Covid-19 restrictions from Saturday morning. It is one of a number of Scottish regions to be moved down a level.

The decision was taken because in many parts of mainland Scotland the number of cases are at low levels and are broadly stable, the First Minister said in a speech at Holyrood.

It means that:

• Limits to meeting indoors will be increased to eight people three households

• 12 people from 12 households will be able to meet outdoors

• 100 people instead of 50 will be allowed to attend weddings and funerals

• Soft-play centres and funfairs can open

Ms Sturgeon said: "I know these changes will be welcome but please continue to be careful. That applies to all of us."

During her speech on Tuesday she pointed out that the vaccine was proving effective against the new variants and that full vaccination was vital to tackling the virus. She said it was still important to err on the side of caution and added: "We are not quite there yet."

Ms Sturgeon acknowledged that her announcement would feel like a “mixed bag", as some council areas will stay in level two.

"That reflects the fact that we are in a transition phase," she said. "But the vaccines are changing the game. And that means we can still be optimistic about our chances of much more normality over the summer and beyond.

“As always, all of us have a part to play in beating this virus back. So please, stick with it, and each other.”

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