Times Past 18.07.08


Over £10,000 is to be spent on celebrating the Lerwick Town Hall centenary next month by Shetland Islands Council. Last Thursday the resources committee approved spending £10,293 on the occasion. The money will come from that committee’s contingency fund.

Mr Chris Dowle said he was not against celebrating the Town Hall’s centenary, but he did oppose spending £2,400 on a portrait of the Queen.

However, it was too late for Mr Dowle to save the money being spent on the portrait because it had already been painted, said Dr Mortimer Manson. The committee had approved this spending in May and after the full council meeting the artist had been instructed to start painting.

The whole cost of the painting – including a frame, packaging and transport to Lerwick – was £7,000, but the Sullom Voe Association was paying 60 per cent of this figure.


A business career encompassing more than the first half of the twentieth century and a long record of service to town and country is recalled with the death of Mr J. W. Robertson of “Scarpa”, King Harald Street, senior director of Messrs Robertson (Lerwick) Ltd. Aged 80, he had been in declining health for some time.
John William Robertson was one of five sons of the late Thomas Robertson. His parents came from Nesting and he was born in Quendale Lane but the family home was at Northness.

Mr Robertson commenced his working life as a clerk in the North of Scotland Shipping Company’s Lerwick office and later became purser of the old Earl of Zetland. From this start he went into business as a commission agent – an aspect of his business that continued long after he had branched into the shipping and fishing business.

It was Mr Robertson who was the mainspring of an effort to compete against the North of Scotland Company’s monopoly – the founding of the Shetland Islands Trading Company, which acquired the steamer Norseman and ran cargoes between mainland and Shetland ports. Mr Robertson was secretary of the company and the venture appears to have failed from lack of local co-operation rather than from lack of trade or efficient management.

Soon after this adventure in shipping Mr Robertson bought a coal hulk and built up a prosperous business serving the vast fleet of steam drifters which by then were working from Lerwick. His next step was to buy the property now owned by Malakoff Ltd., and there he did repair work and set up a carpenters’ shop. The slipway did not come until after the war when an engineering shop was established at the same time.
Although Mr Robertson made his name as a salvage contractor during the war, it was his first salvage job that set him on the way to another aspect of his business – as a shipowner. His first drifter was the Foxglove, later renamed Fitful Head, and he bought her when she lay on the seabed, successfully salvaged the vessel and put her to sea again. In a short time the profits from this risky undertaking had been ploughed back into two or three more drifters.

J. W. Robertson was a very wealthy man when the first war ended. He could, of course, have taken the advice of more cautious men and rested on his laurels but he chose instead to apply his capital, his energy and his unbounded enthusiasm to further developments which, had they succeeded, would have created prosperity and wealth for the entire community.

It was these far from merely personal ambitions that prompted Mr Robertson to buy the Garthspool property now owned by Messrs J. & M. Shearer. Here he planned to build a shipyard capable of taking trawlers and even larger vessels, for he saw, as others did when it was too late, that if Lerwick could become a trawling centre, with trawlers from the south ports landing catches and using the facilities he hoped to provide, the doors would open for the establishment of Shetland’s own trawling fleet.

Encouraged by wartime successes, and with the able wartime team of which his brother, Robert, and his cousin, the late John Robertson, were members, he formed the Scapa Flow Salvage Company, Ltd., and successfully raised four destroyers of the German fleet which had been scuttled in the Flow.

In 1927 disaster seemed to overwhelm this little empire, as it did so many businesses in these days. In the face of difficulties, however, Mr Robertson showed his mettle too. While almost everything else changed hands, the Scapa Flow Salvage Company remained and it was later re-named Robertsons (Lerwick) Ltd., resuming the business of coal merchants, drifter owners and salvage contractors.

In the midst of his hectic business life, Mr Robertson found time for public work. The list is imposing, starting with County Council membership in 1907. He was convener from 1917 to 1923 and returned in later years to serve as member for North Unst, finally retiring in 1949. He was a town councillor immediately before the second war and served for a term as junior bailie. He was for many years a member, and at one time chairman, of Lerwick Harbour Trust.

A member of Lodge Morton, Mr Robertson was at one time R.W.M. and had also been P.G.M. of Orkney and Shetland. He was the first Guizer Jarl, heading the procession 52 years ago when the title of its leader changed from that of Worthy Chief Guizer – a role he had also taken.

Youth work also attracted Mr Robertson’s attention. He was an early sponsor of the Scout movement in Shetland and as recently as the second world war period commanded the local Sea Cadets.

A staunch and vocal Conservative, he was at one time pressed to stand for the constituency.


On Wednesday a trial trip of considerable interest to fishermen, took place in Lerwick harbour, when a haddock boat with a motor engine installed went out for a trip.

The boat is the Skua, a Shetland model and belonging to Sir Watson Cheyne, the motor being the “Standard King” engine, 5 h.p., with magnito ignition, and running at 450 revolutions a minute. The boat was propelled through the harbour and went round Bressay, the trial being found to be in every way satisfactory. The measured mile was covered in 8.5 minutes against the wind.

This type of engine is the first to be used in a Shetland model haddock boat, and is very heavy, strong and reliable, and can work in all sorts of weather. The price of the engine is in easy reach of all fishermen, and would prove a useful friend, especially in calms.


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