25th May 2018
Established 1872. Online since 1996.

Times Past

, by , in Features

25 Years Ago

When the blue doors of Solotti’s cafe and sweet shop close in the next week or so it will mark the end of an era not only for the proprietors Walter and Molly Robertson, but for their many regular customers.

The building was put up on the site of a lodberrie in the late 1700s and was used as a co-op store, but was later sold to a committee, which set up a home for seamen on the top floor. This was, according to Manson’s Lerwick During the Last Half Century, an attempt to provide accommodation for RNR men who came to Lerwick in the winter months, but for several reasons it proved a failure. It was then used as a drill hall in the last days of the 1st Zetland Volunteer Corps before becoming a public library and reading room and private homes. This upstairs part of the building is now being turned into the new Alcohol Resource Centre.

Perhaps the most significant change to the building was made when Church Road was built – part of the building was knocked down to make way for the road.

Molly and Walter have worked in the cafe since the war. Molly started in February 1941 when the shop was owned by Alec Solotti, and Walter started two years later just before they got married. The Solotti family, like other Italian families, came to Shetland in the time of the fishing boom, and worked first in Balta­sound before moving to Lerwick.

At that time the cafe was split from the shop by a middle door, with stairs going up to the reading room. Molly’s routine was a hard one – she would come in at 7 o’clock each morning and get the fires on and getting coal she would prepare a huge urn for tea for the soldiers who came in at 8 o’clock. She remembers about 80 soldiers all wanting a cup of tea at the same time – and a close eye had to be kept on them as several of them were not averse to going off with the cups after they were finished.

In 1950 Alec Solotti retired and sold a quarter share of the business to Walter and Molly who gradually took over the business. The cafe and shop have remained almost the same since then, although the doors dividing the premises have been removed and the middle door bricked up.

Solotti’s ice-cream is well known throughout Shetland and the recipe is up for sale with the rest of the business. It has changed over the years, though. Originally it was made with milk, but regulations have changed and this is no longer acceptable. Recently Walter made a batch of ice cream to the original recipe. Was it better than what is produced nowadays? “It was certainly different – the old ice cream was virtually a glorified custard powder.” He did not think it would go down well today, especially was it was very yellow.

The Robertsons hope to be able to sell the business to someone local who will continue it much as it is now. Over the years they have seen many generations of locals coming in for tea – sometimes it was the only place in town where country folk could get a good cup of tea while they were in town to do their shopping. Many of the town’s characters could also be found in the cafe whiling away a morning cuppa, and looking out the window which gives a perfect view of the small boat harbour.

The shop will close down shortly when builders arrive to carry out work on the ceiling which is necessary to comply with fire regulations now that the top floor is to be occupied.

The Robertsons are now looking forward to retirement, but whether or not Solotti’s will continue remains to be seen.

50 Years Ago

How grand it is to holiday in Yell under the magic spell of sunlit grey skies. Life here, away from the rush and din, is strangely more real. The very sight of the waves as they spread themselves out at the foot of the peaceful hills has deep symbolic meaning, as if the hand of nature has made a special shrine of rest in this lovely, ancient island.

Viewed from the bend of Whale Firth, where tidal currents ebb, and strong forces are tamed in a pocket of calmness, one can learn the greatest secret of solitude, peace of mind. Sitting here alone unbound by task or time one can watch the futile anger of the sea die out in its own unrest. It has a message to all who seek to join in the swirl of things, for the answers in the storm they helped to make, and only they can end!

Thus in a voice to the wise does quiet nature speak of the intrinsic peace and rest to be found in the lonely haunts of storm-bound Yell.

John Goldthorpe, Edinburgh

100 Years Ago

Wild Weather in Shetland – Worst April Storm for Years – Beginning late on Tuesday night last, a storm broke over Shetland and the north of Scotland, which was the wildest and fiercest that has been seen in spring for many years, and worse than any which occurred during last winter.

The wind grew in violence early on Wednesday morning, and continued at greatly increasing pitch from an easterly direction, although occasionally shifting, till about 3 o’clock on Thursday morning, when it gradually fell. It was accompanied by a heavy and continuous downpour of rain, which quickly flooded the streets and roads, and made them in many places impassable. Travellers in the country state that at some of the exposed places on the hills, the wind and rain made it quite impossible to proceed, and some had to turn back for fear their vehicles should be driven off the path and overturned by the strength of the gale. At Gulberwick and other places the telegraph posts are down.

The sea rose rapidly along the coast, displacing huge boulders all around the shores. Very fortunately, as it happened, the haddock fleet had not gone out on Wednesday morning, otherwise there would have been casualties to report, as no boat could have lived through the storm. About a score of trawlers and steamers were forced into Lerwick harbour for shelter, where although protected by the hills of Bressay from the full force of the gale some dragged their anchors a considerable distance.

In Lerwick the wind whistling round the corners of the more exposed streets made it a difficult business to proceed, and the spray broke with great force and volume over the Esplanade and piers, both at the north and south ends of the town. At Garthspool the waves tore several stones out of a retaining wall and flooded the pier, while at Messrs Mitchell & Co.’s factory a number of barrels were swept into the harbour.

In the lanes the water came down and flowed in great volume into houses with low doors, and it was practically impossible to keep it out. Chimney pots were flung to the ground by the wind and slates carried away, so that the rain penetrated the roofs of some houses and destroyed the ceiling and furniture. Such a deluge of rain has not been seen for a long time and on Thursday morning when the weather had broken and it was possible to survey the damage, all buildings that were in the least degree exposed presented a draggled and more or less damaged appearance.

: : : : : : : : False “Shetland” Wool – In the House of Commons last week, Mr Cathcart Wason – To ask the President of the Board of Trade if he is aware that it is a constant practice on the part of certain woollen manufacturers to offer articles of wear labelled Shetland and real Shetland, using the word ostensibly to mean grey, but practically to obtain the extra price which a customer might pay believing he was getting articles containing the special attributes and advantages of real Shetland goods; and if he will, after due warning, institute pro­ceedings against such offenders.

In reply to Mr Wason, Mr Huxton said – If the hon. member is in a position to submit evidence as to the existence of this practice in a specific case constituting an offence under the Merchandise Marks Acts, I shall be happy to consider it with a view to being advised as to whether the circumstances are such as to justify an official prose­cution.