17th March 2018
Established 1872. Online since 1996.

Long way from humble start as Council of Social Services racks up 50 years

, by , in Features

Next week is one of celebration for the isles’ “third sector” as the Shetland Council of Social Services (SCSS), the successful voluntary sector support organisation based at Market House in Lerwick, com­memor­ates its 50th anniversary.

The SCSS first set up shop on Commercial Street above what was then the Solotti’s ice cream parlour in 1959, initially functioning as an economic development or­ganisation.

It has grown over the past half century to provide a vital crutch for a range of voluntary organisations in the isles, having originally been behind activities ranging from the marketing of traditional boat building and harvesting of seaweed through to the restoration of a Bressay croft house, which became Shetland’s first self-catering tourist accommodation.

The range of services provided through the SCSS continues to grow under the tutelage of current executive officer Catherine Hugh­son, including Disability Shetland, the Citizens’ Advice Bureau, Crossroads Shetland, the Moving On employment project, Shetland Befriending Scheme, The New Shetlander magazine.

From 1975 SCSS has con­centrated on the development of Shetland’s social economy and chairman Gussie Angus, soon to retire from his post, said the SCSS was looking forward to new and interesting challenges, having already identified potential opportunities in recycling and childcare.

Outspoken former councillor “Slim” Jim Irvine was the main driving force of the organisation for a large chunk of its existence, first becoming involved in 1980 after retiring from his previous work as a postman and staying for some 22 years as executive officer to oversee progress towards the creation of new premises, which he eventually came out of retirement to proudly open in 2005.

Mr Irvine paid tribute to the work of a string of good chairmen he worked with – Drew Tulloch, Harold Leask and Stewart Hay, men he described as being “prepared to move with the times”.

He also spoke in glowing terms about the late John Gray, a retired head teacher from Dunrossness, who was installed as the chairman of a working group charged with the exhaustive task of publishing Shetland’s roll of honour and service for the Second World War.

Mr Gray came up with an innovative design model constructed from cigarette packets for an the extension to the cenotaph on the Hillhead, which was unveiled by former lord lieutenant Magnus Shearer on 17th May 1995, VJ Day.

“He was a tremendous, con­scientious researcher,” said Mr Irvine. “We got the right chap, a very colourful character; it was a tremendous privilege working with folk like that.”

The SCSS’s longest-serving employee, Mr Irvine recalled the organisation’s role undergoing significant expansion in the early and mid 1980s after the Conservative party under Margaret Thatcher – an administration which he loathed with a passion – brutally slashed the level of public grants available.

“The Tory government were advocating more of a role for the voluntary sector,” he said. “There wasn’t much difficulty getting grants until Thatcher came in.”

SCSS changed from a charitable organisation to a limited company in 1996, again at the behest of the Tories, and Mr Irvine said he spent the second half of the decade campaigning for a single premises instead of the three – at Brentham House, Harbour House and the Hillhead – from which the organisation was run at the time.

When the SIC offered to sell the SCSS the site of the former Leask’s garage at the corner of Harbour Street and Market Street for £1, it was the opportunity Mr Irvine’s organisation had been looking for and it was able to secure a grant of £2.2 million from Shetland Charitable Trust to restore the building.

In an extremely rare turn of events, the SCSS was even able to hand back nearly half a million pounds of that money to the trust after it was awarded sizeable grants by the lottery and HIE. “The charitable trust doesn’t often get the money back,” said Mr Irvine.

“I had been campaigning for this since 1994 and [there had been] a number of previous sites we looked at [but] it always failed until the last three years of my employment. It was a joy to see the new premises opening.”

The occasion of the SCSS’s 50th anniversary is to be marked by celebrations culminating in a civic reception at Lerwick Town Hall next Friday (8th May), while a special supplement will appear in next week’s edition of The Shetland Times.