Shetland Life Editorial: Ursine activity spotted Nort!

The bears are back!

I remember when that headline popped up in The Shetland Times, back in early 1988 I think. The CUI (Corrosion Under Insulation) project was kicking off in earnest and hundreds of workers had arrived in Shetland to rip out Sullom Voe’s rusty pipes and replace them with ones that wouldn’t corrode quite so quickly.

Hotels and off-season holiday cottages filled up, and an accommodation barge was towed in. There were concerns for the welfare of the men stored aboard, and a concert was organised for them. There was the Lerwick Pipe Band, me and a lot of surly Glaswegians, one of whom eventually saved the evening by performing a series of  filthy ditties leaning heavily on the works of Roy ‘Chubby’ Brown.

I don’t know if we’re even allowed to refer to the incoming workers of today as ‘bears’. That would surely insult the hundreds of folk from all over the UK and beyond who are arriving daily to work on SVT and the the adjoining Total development, not to mention the new hotel in Brae and the redevelopment of Scatsta Airport. But one thing is for sure. There are so many of them that at one point late last month, there was simply no more accommodation in Shetland, and some were being sent back to the mainland to ‘commute’ up and down until somewhere could be found where they could lay their weary heads.

Which is all very well in the darkest depths of winter. However, come spring we will have an influx of tourists attracted by the strange accents and murderous excitement of the BBC’s Ann Cleeves series Shetland, not to mention the odd Simon King impersonator and otter-obsessive, some frenzied fiddlers and Bonxie-fanciers. As for all those folk who watched Channel Four’s berserk and disturbing thriller series Utopia, and who think Fetlar is (a) full of disease-ridden corpses and (b) very like the Isle of Wight, best not to encourage them. Add to that even more construction crews involved in the planned refurbishment of the terminal.

So. There seems set to be a lack of bedspace here in the Greater Zetlandics. I mean rentable bedpsace, for tourists and transient workpersons. There are loads of big houses in Shetland inhabited by small families, couples or single folk – something identified a couple of years ago by an SIC housing survey as posing a serious problem, potentially, for the future.

I know that, as in the original SVT construction phase and during the CUI project, at least one and possibly two accommodation barges are being brought in to temporarily alleviate the situation. But maybe folk with a spare room or two could make some cash out of this by offering b&b. Or those with spare houses; there must be dozens of unrented cottages carefully hoarded away in Shetland against them being inhabited by ‘the wrong sort of person’. I recommend the website airbnb.co.uk if you want to get into the semi-pro hotelier game.

Back in the days of the Toft and Firth workers’ camps, the notion was to protect the ‘real’ people of Zetlandia from the thousands of incoming workers and their sinful ways by keeping the bears – sorry, large furry men – separate. It didn’t work. Shetland folk fraternised in the camps and outside them. Some of the workers fell in love with Shetland and wished to stay. Eventually, after passing stringent tests formulated by members of the Up Helly A’ committee and the Morton Lodge, they were let out of the camps and allowed to live in carefully controlled settlements dug out of the peat or the faces of soapstone cliffs. Where many reside to this day, eating puffin eggs and smoking the occasional shag.

Things are different now. And very much the same. The other evening, I was in Brae, queuing with many remarkably ursine folk for chips. There was much jocularity and swaying, taxis were being hired at vast expense for trips to the fleshpots of Lerwick and Scalloway. Gutteral Liverpudlians could be heard asking for ‘baps’, helpful Airdrieonians were translating this as ‘rolls’, and I swear one chap was earnestly demanding that he and his pals ‘go that gay bar, just for the one pint.”

I wonder how they got on?

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Tom Morton

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