27th April 2018
Established 1872. Online since 1996.

People power

Charlie Simpson tells the story of a planning controversy exactly a century ago, when the people of Lerwick united (almost) in their opposition to a new development. It is a story with strong echoes in another controversy of the present day.

The Viking Energy proposal to site scores of wind turbines atop our mainland hills has generated much heat already, as its proponents and opponents battle it out in newspaper columns and public meetings. There’s already been consultation with communities, and now a planning application is to come under scrutiny, allowing more debate. Even its promoters concede that the wind farm is by no means certain to go ahead. The modern planning process might seem cumbersome and time-consuming, but we should at least be thankful there is such a process at all. In stark contrast to the current windfarm debate, there was a public furore over a development proposal in Lerwick exactly a century ago which highlights just how little influence public bodies and private individuals used to have in such matters.

The villain of the piece in 1909 was one William Laidlaw McDougall, a young estate manager not long arrived in Shetland, keen to maximise revenue from his employer’s lands and assets. He was factor to Robert Bruce of Sumburgh and Lunna, an unmarried London tea and rubber merchant who, on inheriting the Sumburgh Estate after the death of his brother John in 1907, had no wish to live in Shetland. Instead, he formed the Sumburgh Company Ltd. and hired Laidlaw McDougall to run the company for him.

The early 1900s were boom time in the Shetland herring industry. Although landings had declined slightly from the peak in 1905, optimism prevailed, with steam drifters steadily supplanting sailboats and an increasing proportion of the herring catch being landed and cured in Lerwick in preference to the smaller outlying ports. Demand for herring station sites around Bressay Sound soared; eventually they lined the Lerwick shore from the North Ness to the Point of Scotland and on Bressay spread south from Heogan to Cruister, Leiraness and Ham. Despite protests, a curing station was even established in a yard at 12 Commercial Street – where Lerwick Boating Club’s premises now stands.

The worthy burghers of Lerwick hadn’t been slow to make the most of the boom. Herring brought trade and employment to the town, and prosperity to more than a few. In the new streets west of the Hillhead the profits from herring paid for the rapid development of fine houses, whose occupiers cared little about the fairly squalid accommodation and workplaces of the workers – so long as both were kept distant from the genteel, their homes and the green open spaces that ringed the town.

In particular, the area from the widows’ homes to the Knab and around to the Sletts was mostly an expanse of grassy farm parks. Bullet Loan – later Knab Road – ran from Annsbrae to the Knab, giving access to the cemetery and the Anderson Educational Institute. Another track led from Leog to the South Ness. Apart from Twageos House, South Ness House and one or two others, the only other buildings in the whole area were the farmhouses and steadings at Glenfarquhar, Brucefield and Bellevue. Lerwegians valued this “green belt” greatly as a place for recreation, but didn’t object too much when the Town Council, always keen to minimise expenditure and keep the rates down, cannily used the Geo of the Knab as a suitably remote dumping place for the town’s refuse. However, when it became known late in 1908 that Mr Laidlaw McDougall was offering to lease a stretch of Robert Bruce’s foreshore at Twageos – between the widows’ homes and South Ness House – for curing stations, there was immediate outrage.

In no time all the local press was busy reporting events. At the Town Council on January 5th 1909, Provost Porteous “said he had been called upon by several gentlemen in the town, who stated that it is reported that herring curing stations are about to be erected at Twageos beach and they asked if the Council would not do something, seeing that the amenities of the town are to be endangered in that locality”. The council agreed to write to Mr McDougall for confirmation.

The following week Lerwick School Board joined in. “Mr. Inkster brought forward the question of the proposed establishment of curing stations at Twagios [. . .] it was proposed to erect those stations immediately below the Anderson Institute, and he thought they should protest against any such erections as being very undesirable to the amenities of the town, and the aforesaid school must suffer somewhat considerably. The pupils [. . .] would be compelled to pass in close proximity to these stations four times a day, the School Board should do everything in their power to keep the surroundings pure if the wind is in the north or NE the school could be enveloped in smoke all day.” The board agreed to write to Mr McDougall.
Then came the protest letters. On 20th January, “Old Wife” wrote “The north road is now utterly spoilt for walking by its fishing stations and unsanitary odours; the Knab road, with its unrivalled views and fine cliffs, has also been spoilt by the unsavoury dust shoot [. . .] if ground for fishing stations is let at Twagios, we may say goodbye to walks in that direction also. There will probably be wooden buts for gippers on the upper side of the narrow road. On the lower side will be fishing stations with stagings run out, so as to spoil a very pretty and artistic bit of field and beach [. . .] We can only hope that, as an absentee landlord, Mr Bruce does not fully realise the harm that would be done by these suggested stations, and that when he does realise it, he will abandon the idea”.

“Scarf Skerry” sounded a more realistic note. “It is evident the views of the Council and the School Board have been given scanty consideration. Fortunately, there are still the Trustees of the Port and Harbour of Lerwick to deal with, and it cannot be doubted that these gentlemen will give the matter their very careful attention when the necessary applications are made to the Board of Trade for leave to erect these stations [. . .] It does
Seem absurd if it turns out that a non-resident landlord and non-resident fish curers are to be allowed to exploit their own sweet will.”

“An Old Lerwegian” brought up another aspect of the matter. “Since I was a small boy forty years ago now – the bathing place at Twagios has been regularly used by Lerwegians [. . .] it was principally appreciated by small boys like myself, who were already wage-earning and could not spare the time to get so far as the Sands of Sound [. . .] if my recollection serves me rightly, byelaws were drawn up to regulate the bathing.”

William Laidlaw McDougall was not to be discouraged. In February he responded to the School Board’s Clerk. “I cannot agree with your Board that herring curing is noxious or injurious to health. If it were so, curing would not as at present be permitted in the more populous parts of the burgh; nor do I think that in letting the ground for curing purposes, and thus deriving from it the services of which it seems best capable alike in the interests of the proprietor and of the inhabitants of the town and the public at large, that there is any danger of injuriously affecting the amenity of your Institution.” Faced with this blizzard of verbiage, the School Board then “dropped the matter”.

McDougall answered Lerwick Town Council in similar vein. “In reference to your letter, I have to inform your Council that it is intended to let the vacant ground at Twagios for herring curing stations. You do not say whether your Council take exception to this proposed use of the ground, which must, in my opinion, be beneficial to the industry upon which the prosperity of your Burgh almost wholly depends. Your Council, however, permits curing in the most populous part of the town, so that it seems to be their view that the industry is un-injurious to the comfort and health of the inhabitants.”

The Shetland Times reported in great detail the town council’s deliberations on McDougall’s letter. The members made much of the bathing byelaws and talked of rights of way, but in reality, the council had no powers to prevent the development going ahead; for the Town and Country Planning Acts were forty years in the future. Mr. Bruce, the proprietor of the Twagios foreshore, could do exactly as he wished with his property.

Here was a classic case of the nimby – “not in my back yard” – philosophy towards a development, tainted with more than a dash of hypocrisy. For Laidlaw McDougall’s words were uncomfortably accurate. The hypocrisy didn’t end there, for the mess and stink of a curing yard – tolerable out along the North Road – continued to be cited as a reason why it was intolerable at Twagios, as growing public opposition continued to vent its feelings in print.

“An Old South End Boy” wrote in late February. “I scarcely know how to express the indignation I feel at the procedure. To think that anyone, for the sake of a few pounds, and against the wishes of the populace, will allow the most beautiful spot around Lerwick to be converted into a veritable quagmire, seems to me preposterous [. . .] Anyone who knows anything about a herring station knows perfectly well that it is impossible to carry on the work without turning the place, more or less, into a bog [. . .] the public authorities had apparently allowed the matter to drop. But what about the public? I hope they will not stand idly by, but will rise in a body and protest against an action which will forever destroy the beautiful appearance of the south end of the town, and turn it from pleasant resort to a place to be shunned by everybody.’

This letter was prescient, for by mid-March the “Times” could report hopeful progress in the opposition campaign. “The question of the proposed erection of fishing stations at Twagios is now entering upon what may be considered as the acute stage. We are informed that Mr Bruce has recently wired his factor, requesting him to take no further steps in the meantime as to the letting of the ground [. . .] Last week a petition was forwarded to Mr Bruce, requesting him to consider certain reasons set forth in the petition against the letting of ground for curing stations. It was signed by the whole representatives of the community, viz. – the Provost and Magistrates and the Town Clerk; a quorum for the Trustees of the Feuars and Heritors; the Chairman, Vice-Chairman and Clerk of the Harbour Trustees; the Chairman and Clerk of the School Board, and the Chairman of the Parish Council. This petition will no doubt carry weight with Mr Bruce in his further consideration of the whole matter. But in order that he may judge for himself the local feeling on the question, another petition is being largely signed by the inhabitants of Lerwick. [. . .] It is expressive of the desire of nine-tenths of the people of Lerwick, and with such hearty and unanimous opposition to having the work carried out, we sincerely hope Mr Bruce will see his way to retain the foreshores of Twagios as they are at present, keeping in view the intention of his brother, the late Mr John Bruce, that the ground be laid out for residential purposes. Except we are much mistaken, Mr Bruce will not endeavour to add a few pounds to his rent roll, if such addition can only be accomplished through the discomfort of a large community, and against their express wish.”

The people of Lerwick could only complain, but fortunately there was one local body with a real say in the matter, for the Harbour Trust had a right of objection with the Board of Trade. The Trustees were all men of business, everyone with a vested interest of some kind in the herring industry, and it probably went a little against their grain to oppose the project. Nevertheless, the weight of local feeling helped to stiffen their attitude. In April, the people of Bressay petitioned the trust to control the speed of drifters in the harbour; it was reported that a trustee asked “Will this petition be sent to the Board of Trade along with our objection to the proposed stations at Twagios?” and the Chairman replied “Oh, yes!” In the end the Trustees bowed to public opinion and informed the Board of Trade the proposed station jetties would be a navigational hazard to vessels entering the harbour. With that, Lerwick had to be content, and await events.

Finally, on May 15th, the Shetland News reported. “Telegraphic word was received at Lerwick that the Board had refused to give their sanction to the erection of herring curing stations at Twageos [. . .] There was a widespread feeling against the proposal, and while no one in the town desires to check the natural development of the herring industry, or do anything that would in any way prejudicially affect its interests, it was thought by many that there was plenty of available ground elsewhere without utilising the shore adjacent to the only decent walk in the town, and in consequence the decision of the Board of Trade was received with general satisfaction in the town.”

That was the end of the matter. In a display of People Power never seen before – and seldom seen since – the worthy burghers had stemmed the tide of development and succeeded in biting “the hand that fed” without retribution. Robert Bruce had to settle for a lesser return in the creation of Twageos Road.

William Laidlaw McDougall redeemed his reputation, for he worked very hard to create Robert Bruce’s gift to Shetland – the Bruce Hostel, completed in 1923. Later, he was closely involved in the establishment of what became Sumburgh airport, converted Sumburgh House into a hotel, and ended up as convenor of the County Council.

Today, the Lerwick herring-curing boom of a century ago is history; the mess, smells and squalor long gone. The last redundant stations were swept away over 30 years ago in another boom, leaving only a few crumbling concrete seawalls along the shores of Bressay. Given the current planning process and the high level of regard for amenity, our environment and heritage, a development that damages either should in theory never proceed – or could it? It nearly did in the 1990s, for it took very determined opposition to prevent the same Twageos foreshore being disfigured by a sewage pumping station – but that’s another tale, for another time.

Charlie Simpson