The future is suddenly looking brighter for those in the agricultural industry who have been calling for improved slaughtering facilities in the islands. With the demise of the No Catch cod company earlier this year, their former factory at Blydoit in Scalloway has now become available, and it would seem to be ideal for the purpose.
As Neil Riddell’s article in the September issue of Shetland Life highlighted, there are very strong arguments to be made in favour of a new abattoir, and contrary to the claims of one councillor it is far from being “a white elephant”. The new facility would be of great benefit to a native industry that deserves and requires support at this time. Blanket opposition from a tiny but noisy minority is an expression only of self-interest, and has absolutely no bearing on the validity of the proposals.
But with a suitable site for the abattoir now identified, a further, more significant group has now spoken out against the plans: local residents.
There will always be some people who will oppose any change, no matter how trivial, so unanimous support was hardly to be expected. But I must admit that I was surprised by the level of opposition that has apparently been shown among some Scalloway residents. This, after all, was a factory that had previously been processing dead fish, so was already being used for industrial purposes.
Some of the fears voiced have been understandable – issues of cleanliness and health that are both sensible and easily assuaged. But it appears that the core of opposition to this project revolves around one simple and undeniable fact: that this will be a place where living animals become dead ones.
It is often suggested that we in the modern world have become detached from the realities of food production; that we have become embroiled in a system of dishonest consumption – eating meat but pretending that we bear no responsibility for an animal’s death. But we do bear responsibility, and to ignore that is to show a lack of respect for the creatures that we eat. As Gary Snyder rightly pointed out, “Our distance from the source of our food enables us to be superficially more comfortable, and distinctly more ignorant”.
Here in Shetland, crofting has long been, and remains, a significant element of our culture, and the killing of animals has always been a part of human life in these islands. So it is surprising to hear such arguments being made against these plans. We should not be disgusted or horrified by an abattoir, nor should we lie to ourselves about what goes on inside. We do not change the facts by hiding them.
Anyone who wishes to become a vegetarian is entirely free to do so, but mass vegetarianism is not what is being suggested by the opponents. What is being suggested is a kind of pretence: animals should continue to be killed, but it should be done in secret, away from those who wish to eat them.
But if we do allow this project to be halted for reasons of squeamishness and self-deception, then what does that say about us? What does it say about what Shetland has become? I am not sure that I like the answer.
* * *
As Vaila Wishart this month points out (page 10), the council’s first attempt at creating a “public performance calendar” for 2009 was a bit of a shambles, with days missing from several months, and other errors besides. Most of these calendars have now been rounded up to be destroyed, but I have a copy here in front of me, and though most of the accompanying text is about as dry and snooze-inducing as you might expect, there are a few gems to be found.
My own personal favourite is a splendid quote, quite plausibly attributed to pin-up of the month for May, councillor Allison “Flea” Duncan. “The housing staff have again worked hard” Mr Duncan informs us, “to ensure that Shetland has the lowest housing management costs in Shetland”. Well, that’s certainly one achievement we can be proud of! And below Mr Duncan, in the space where Chris Medley’s mugshot should be, is a note explaining that the head of housing “was unavailable for a photograph”. I suspect “was too embarrassed to be associated with this nonsense” might be more accurate.