By JOHN ROBERTSON
THE PEOPLE of Skeld are to launch a drive to revive the economic fortunes of their community, including finding new uses for the empty Shetland Smokehouse buildings.
The first step is to be a community day, pencilled in for Saturday 20th September, to glean opinion and ideas before settling on a course of action. Among the suggestions to emerge already at an initial public meeting in the Skeld Hall on Monday are:
- a community shop;
- a group of micro-businesses perhaps involving information technology or engineering;
- a heritage centre;
- a classic car museum and workshop;
- a Shetland genealogy centre;
- a slaughterhouse.
It was agreed the ideal use for the main smokehouse would be to remain as a manufacturing base, possibly processing fish or meat. But the SIC is to hold off re-advertising for a new tenant until after people get their say at the community day. Locals are keen to avoid a repeat of the nasty recent experience of Cluny Fish coming in from Buckie, quickly shedding jobs and stripping the business of its assets and the Shetland Smokehouse brand name. The premises were advertised in The Shetland Times for two weeks recently after the factory closed in May but drew little response.
The panel listening to the views from Skeld on Monday was an impressive one, suggesting there is no danger the West Side will be ignored and treated as second-class, as its representatives have long complained.
Joining the meeting chairman, councillor Gary Robinson, were eight others: fellow West Mainland member Frank Robertson, SIC vice-convener Josie Simpson, who is chairman of the development committee, development vice-chairman Alastair Cooper, head of economic development Neil Grant, development project manager Wendy Goudie, acting asset and properties manager Alan Rolfe and head of Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) Shetland Ann Black along with her head of business growth, Rachel Hunter. The third councillor for the area, Florence Grains, was unable to attend.
During a constructive meeting lasting nearly two hours, the 18 locals and residents voiced their initial thoughts on what had gone wrong and how it might be fixed. Their worries come after a period of four years which has seen failed bids to operate the smokehouse by Shetland Catch and Cluny Fish and the shifting of other salmon processing jobs from the Scottish Sea Farms factory at nearby Sand to one in Scalloway. Skeld has also lost its shop in recent years.
In last week’s Shetland Times, Cluny boss Louis Paterson criticised some of his former workforce at the factory, accusing them of racism and being reluctant to adapt to his requirements. Despite such provocative claims there was surprisingly little recrimination at the Skeld meeting, although one or two pot shots were loosed off in his direction and towards the council.
Dave Hammond, who with his wife Debbie set up the pioneering smoked fish business in 1983, said he had little respect for the man. The Hammonds sold out to Shetland Catch in 2004 but when Cluny Fish came along the couple invited Mr Paterson along to their house for a meal and to offer their help in promoting the company and securing the 18 jobs. They still owned expensive vapour-pack packaging equipment kept in the old factory building, which they had allowed Shetland Catch to use. Instead of reciprocating the goodwill, he said Mr Paterson went to the SIC and threatened to pull out of the smokehouse deal unless he was given use of the old building. “He put a gun to their heads,” Mr Hammond told the meeting.
In those circumstances there was no way Mr Hammond would allow the equipment to be used. He said he had told Mr Paterson: “I’ll use it as a god-damn mooring before you get your hands on it!” Next, Cluny Fish started charging the Hammonds rent for keeping their equipment in the old building. He said the loss of the Shetland Smokehouse brand and the trust in the products that had gone along with it had been “a hard lesson”.
Mr Hammond also shed some light on the circumstances that led to Shetland Catch buying Shetland Smokehouse in 1994. Two directors of the Catch, including the late Arthur Laurenson, had told him the company was considering a value-added fish factory and it had been at a time when the Hammonds were looking for a way out.
He said a tie-up with such a successful local company sounded like “a marriage made in heaven” with the Smokehouse a profitable business at that time and the Catch looking to invest in it and its brand. But Mr Laurenson died and factory managing director Derek Leask left “for internal reasons”, leaving a vacuum. “The Catch decided, for reasons of its own, to dump Shetland Smokehouse.”
The Hammonds had been in Ireland at the time on their yacht when they got a call from Shetland Catch announcing: “We’ve liquidated the smokehouse – those four words.”
They had been told the deal was done with no time for the Hammonds to seek a solution, perhaps by bringing in a suitable company or organising a management buy-out. Instead, “a few days later”, Cluny Fish was brought in by the council.
Mr Priest said the community was indebted to the Hammonds for what they had done over the years. “They gave us an economic base that we don’t have now.”
Graham Quarmby, who moved from England five years ago, said the council had been told what was going on during Cluny’s reign at the factory and it had been ignored. Now the council was throwing the ball back in the community’s court, expecting it to come up with answers to the problem.
Sandsting and Aithsting Community Council chairman John Priest, who was instrumental in calling Monday’s meeting, said the asset-stripping had been known for six months. But councillor Robinson said it had not been the council’s place to intervene in how Mr Paterson was running his business and there had been little it could do. He deplored the loss of another brand name, also voicing anger at the way the Shetland Spirit Company and Blackwood have exploited the name and reputation of Shetland to trade their alcohol products.
Councillor Simpson revealed he had said when Cluny arrived: “I hope it’s not another Iceatlantic”, referring to the saga of the Hull-based Hughes Food Group which pulled out of a big fish factory in Scalloway 20 years ago, stripping equipment with it and becoming a byword in the SIC for asset-stripping southerners.
Reluctantly, he had felt Cluny was the smokehouse’s only chance but it did not turn out that way: “It was another Iceatlantic.”
Former smokehouse worker Ruby Gray said the workforce had mostly moved on now and she could not see it ever coming back together again after the experiences of recent years. “We’ve been left kinda deflated,” she said.
Councillor Robertson declined to respond in public to a question about why Cluny Fish had not been stopped from getting public grants after it was known there were problems at the factory. He said it was “quite a delicate situation” with Cluny. Now the community is left with “a couple of hundred thousand pounds of real estate” for which a new use might be found. He favours forming a task force of community representatives and different public bodies to weed out the bad ideas and present the runners to the community for consideration. Praising the Skeld people, he said: “If there’s anything that happens, this community hauls together extremely well.”
Some prominent people in the area want a concerted response from the authorities to the economic problems, similar to that which met job crises in Unst, Scalloway and the Ness in recent years. Mr Priest persisted in his view that the SIC and HIE should employ someone full-time to do all the “legwork” required to mount an economic revival, as was done for some of the other areas. Unst has had two people engaged on its resurrection. But it was pointed out that there had been no sudden job losses on a large scale on the West Side unlike in Unst when the RAF pulled out at short notice.
Mr Priest criticised agencies like the SIC and HIE for pushing ahead with bringing Cluny Fish in to Skeld rather than listening to the community first. He was also unhappy that the agencies had allowed the problem to “stagnate” in the three months since the doors closed. He felt there had been a gulf between the two sides and hoped the wrongs of the past could be put right in a positive future.
The community believes there was interest from a mussel farm company before Cluny bought the assets from the liquidator called in by Shetland Catch and then obtained the factory lease from the council. However, Ms Goudie said according to the liquidator there had only been interest in bits and pieces, not taking the business over, as Cluny had done.
Ms Black of HIE Shetland said it sounded like the community’s confidence was a bit low after the events of recent years and she repeatedly offered her agency’s help to anyone with a business idea. If there had been a breakdown in trust and communication she wanted to start putting that right. But she added: “I think we need to be clear – the agencies don’t come with jobs. That’s the reality.”
She praised the community for its positive features, including the hall and the excellent marina and its recent developments, including the caravan and camping park.
Among the ideas that came forward from the audience, there was general agreement that Skeld needed to reopen a shop. The nearest ones are at Walls or Bixter. It was felt there could be some merit in copying the co-operative model used by Ollaberry and Aith. Robert Reid from Skeld said he had thought about a shop for the old factory building for years. After the meeting he thought a pub might be a success too.
Mr Hammond suggested a genealogy centre for tourists and locals to research family history, like one he has seen in the Hebrides which also has a computer centre, cafe and shop.
Mr Priest said perhaps a Lerwick-based company might be looking to expand and could do so in Skeld. One suggestion was to turn it into a slaughterhouse to process lamb.
Mr Cooper still favoured keeping the big building as a fish factory and suggested advertising it nationally to see if anybody wants to process some of the increasing amount of whitefish being landed in Shetland which is still mainly shipped out whole. He said there was not a real hunger in Shetland for people starting businesses because of the island’s prosperity and lack of unemployment. However, if the two factory buildings could be filled he said there was no reason why the community’s efforts to bring about economic recovery should stop there.
The meeting heard that the premises have three-phase electricity and broadband communications which could be attractive to firms in the engineering trade or perhaps in information technology. The buildings might also be offered free by the council or at a very low rent for a period, depending on what the business is.
Ms Black said there were all sorts of people now living and working in Shetland in a variety of occupations, including running global magazines and stock exchange businesses. She also mentioned the possibility of workers from offices in Lerwick working from “hot desks” in a Skeld centre rather than having to drive to town every day. The SIC has a policy of devolving jobs to rural areas.
Mrs Gray argued for a heritage centre and visitor centre because Skeld is steeped in history while Mr Isbister said the Shetland Classic Car Club was being put out of its warehouse store in Lerwick and its members have spoken about getting a museum and restoration centre.
Mr Priest said these suggestions were good ideas but what Skeld needed was primary industry.
Ms Hunter of HIE Shetland said: “If somebody’s got a hot shot business idea, come and tell me about it da moarn!”
There is a concern that Skeld’s remoteness (it still has a winding single-track main road) at a time when Lerwick is sucking in ever more jobs and people, makes the task of regeneration a difficult one. But Ian Isbister of Sand said people would travel far for good jobs. “You really need to light the fire,” he said. However, Mr Priest said people needed to spend around £1 an hour from their wages just to drive to work due to fuel costs these days. Many agreed a better bus service is needed, not just to Lerwick but to enable workers to get to the West Side if work was available.
Councillor Frank Robertson then introduced a chilling vision of Shetland’s future, saying “commuting in probably 20 years time is going to be impossible”. He said the clock would be turned back 100 years in terms of travel with people only moving as far as they were able to by foot or bicycle, working not in town but within their own small communities.