Ian Clark, whose son is to take up the reins as SIC chief executive early next month, first moved to the isles as a young accountant in the late 1960s. A devoutly religious man whose hair turned white while he was still in his thirties, Mr Clark had initially come to Shetland as county treasurer and was promoted to county clerk after his predecessor left under a cloud, before becoming the local authority’s first ever chief executive.
In the midst of a chaotic political situation in the early 1970s, he took the far-sighted decision that Shetland “would have to acquire special powers from Parliament if the feared free-for-all with the oil business was to be avoided”, according to Jonathan Wills’ book A Place In The Sun: Shetland and Oil.
The Zetland County Council (ZCC) Act 1974 empowered the council to become port authority for Sullom Voe and gave it permission to set up special funds to be used for “the benefit of the inhabitants of Shetland”. There was also a provision for the council to levy harbour charges on ships, to invest its cash in the stock market and public companies and take on powers of compulsory purchase in the area of the oil terminal.
Mr Clark is credited with taking on the oil giants in the face of government opposition, rejecting an early offer from Shell and eventually landing a highly lucrative deal for the isles, bringing in millions of pounds in harbour dues and displacement payments every year until comparatively recently and allowing the community to build up substantial financial reserves and radically transform the standard of living and services available.
In the early 1960s Shetland had one of the highest unemployment rates in Scotland and the ZCC had only 150 staff and very little money, but thanks to the work of Mr Clark – along with politicians including Edward Thomason, George Blance and A I Tulloch – the council now employs more than 2,000 people and spends over £100 million a year. To this day the community’s various oil funds, even after taking a battering in the wake of the financial crisis over the past 12 months, are worth almost £400 million.
After leaving Shetland Mr Clark also oversaw the construction of Britoil’s Glasgow headquarters and was later awarded a CBE. It is thought that the famous movie Local Hero was in part based on his role in playing David to the oil companies’ Goliath. Recently-released documents dating from the 1970s suggest that Shell even regarded Mr Clark as more difficult to deal with than Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Gaddafi.
Convener Sandy Cluness is alone among the current breed of councillors in having been an active local politician at the time. “Apart from myself very few [councillors] can mind Ian Clark – I did actually work with him. My recollection was that he was a very single-minded individual. When he took something into his mind he went with it [and] did very well with his negotiations with the oil industry in the 1970s.”
Now aged 70, he is retired and lives in Campbeltown but still acts as a special adviser to David Clark’s Motherwell-based consultancy firm Dalzell Projects.