Review of the decade: 2003
Landslides rip apart South Mainland hills
A fairly high-profile figure made a pretty low-key visit to the isles at the beginning of the year. When Scalloway Museum curator Robert Johnson was asked if he could open the building specially for visitors he had no idea that one of them was going to be Helen Clark, the Prime Minister of New Zealand!
Mrs Clark, accompanied by her husband Peter, was in Shetland to visit relatives as her great-grandfather was Leslie Arthur, a Whiteness man who emigrated in the late 1800s. It is a small world of course, and a delighted Mr Johnson actually found out that he too was related to the premier. “They spent well over an hour in the museum,” he said, “and were especially taken with the Shetland Bus.”
The Moncrieff family won the first round of their bitter legal battle with the neighbouring Jamieson family in Sandsound, securing the right to park at their house.
Sheriff Colin Scott Mackenzie delivered a 130-page judgment in the long-running case, nearly nine months after hearings were completed at Lerwick Sheriff Court. The Jamieson family decided to appeal the decision and the case went on to the Court of Session in Edinburgh.
One of the first blows to Shetland Islands Council’s proposed bridge to Bressay came in the middle of January when Lerwick Port Authority insisted that the structure must stand 50 metres clear of the sea. The authority was to state later that it was not against the fixed link project in principle, but few believed that.
The simmering tension between the two authorities continued with the resignation of Bressay councillor Bertie Black from the port authority board, although he later reconsidered, saying it was in the community’s interests for him to continue in his position.
Councillors decided to place a £19 million cap on the bridge project. Costs stood at £17.5 million but that figure was thought too much of a straightjacket, with £19 million being more realistic.
People took to the streets in force in February to protest about the impending war in Iraq. Around 600 gathered at the Market Cross in Lerwick holding anti-war banners before they marched up Church Road and along the Hillhead to the War Memorial. Protesters also turned out for a peace march at Sullom Voe where organisers of the “No In Wir Name” campaign handed over a letter of protest to the terminal manager.
Local politicians began to gear up for the council elections in May, which would coincide with the second election for the Scottish Parliament. First Minister Jack McConnell, incidentally, made his first visit to the isles and visited the Anderson High School, North Atlantic Fisheries College and Dunrossness Primary School.
Nationally it was expected that MSP Tavish Scott, despite his difficulties with the fishing industry, would be comfortably re-elected, but at a local level the position of the Lib-Dem-controlled council was not so secure. The intent four years ago may have been admirable, but an old-boy network, which excluded many experienced councillors from positions of importance simply because of their independence, was going to have difficulty convincing the public of its ability to continue.
When they happened the SIC results were even more dramatic than anyone could have predicted. One by one the LibDem members fell, with the biggest shock of all being the eclipse of services committee chairman Peter Malcolmson by little-known Geoff Feather. Mr Malcolmson had been a high-profile figure, widely regarded as one of the brains behind the ruling group, and was heavily involved in educational restructuring.
It was believed that Mr Malcolmson’s backing of a proposal to close Quarff Primary School, which lay within his ward, with the transfer of pupils to Cunningsburgh, probably influenced a large percentage of voters. He had lived by his convictions and died by them, he said, and ironically many of the Quarff protesters later admitted that the closure was the sensible thing to do.
Other LibDem councillors to tumble included Rob Anderson and Christine Begg, while five hopeful new candidates were completely blown away. Gussie Angus was the only member of the ruling group to survive a contest, while his colleagues Sandy Cluness, Gordon Mitchell, John Nicolson and Frank Robertson were fortunate to be returned unopposed.
A fortnight later Mr Cluness was chosen as convener for the first time, defeating Bill Manson by 14 votes to eight in the battle for the top position. Florence Grains became vice-convener, and was also elected to the role of services committee chairwoman. Jim Irvine was chosen as infrastructure committee chairman while Drew Ratter took on the role of economic development forum chairman, which also guaranteed a position on the select executive committee.
Making their debut on the council, along with Mr Feather, were new members Eddie Knight, Barbara Cheyne, Jim Henry and Alistair Inkster, while returning after a four-year absence were Leonard Groat and Brian Gregson.
As expected, Mr Scott was returned to the Scottish Parliament, albeit with a much-reduced majority. He polled 3,989 votes, followed by the SNP’s Willie Ross with 1,729 and Tory candidate John Firth with 1,281.
The biggest surprise was the performance of the Labour Party, runners-up in the 1999 election, which slumped to fourth place, Peter Hamilton’s 880 votes just holding off SSP candidate Peter Andrews, who polled 766.
The laying of the 70-mile pipeline from Sullom Voe to the huge Clair oilfield west of Shetland began in June. Phase one of the Clair development was expected to add 60,000 barrels of oil a day to the terminal’s throughput, increasing the level by around 10 per cent. If all went well, it was predicted that future phases could triple the field’s flow into the terminal.
Having been awarded the staging of the NatWest Island Games in two years’ time, Shetland sent a larger than usual number of competitors to Guernsey for the 2003 event. The travelling party also included a number of people who would be involved in organising the 2005 games.
The Guernsey games were good for local sportswomen in particular, with athlete Claire Wilson doing the double in winning both the 800 and 1,500 metres and archer Sara Leith also picking up two gold medals.
At the end of August seven whitefish boats decided to accept a new decommissioning package from the government and leave the industry. Representing almost a third of the local fleet, those who decided to call it a day were the Heatherbelle, Auriga, Zenith, Donvale II, Fear Not and Sarah Joan. Two others, the Ardent and the Defiant, were offered decommissioning but rejected it. It was indeed a sad time for Shetland’s once prosperous whitefish industry, with the irony that the deal was accepted during the same week that Whalsay’s latest new pelagic boat Research made her arrival in the isles. The history of the fishing industry had always been one of ups and downs and the men who took the gamble on the pelagic industry had undoubtedly seen it pay off.
“The day the earth moved” was how The Shetland Times front page headline described the worst landslides and floods in living memory in the South Mainland at the end of September. The five-mile stretch of road between Cunningsburgh and Levenwick was blocked in various places by massive quantities of mud and rubble, cutting residents off from the rest of Shetland.
Houses in Sandwick and Hoswick were badly affected by flooding, gardens were obliterated and power and water supplies lost. Bridges and fences were brought down while at Channerwick the hard shoulder and crash barriers collapsed and a pumping station and sheep cro were completely swept away.
The Burn of Meal at Cunningsburgh was swamped, with large quantities of peat which had begun moving further up the hill at the Burn of Russdale. The swell brought down fences all the way past Vadsgarth to the Villans croft near the main road, before ending up on the Mail beach.
It was widely believed that an unusually dry summer which caused peat in the hills to dry out to a greater degree than normal, along with a lengthy period of torrential rain the like of which had rarely if ever been seen, had combined to cause the landslides.
Windfarms began to be talked about in a big way, and there would be talk, talk and more talk in the years to come. Following an earlier proposal by Scottish and Southern Energy to build a 200-turbine, 250 megawatt windfarm west of the Lang Kames, plans for a second such project were revealed at an energy conference in Lerwick held to mark the 25th anniversary of oil arriving at Sullom Voe.
The council was backing the plans for the second windfarm, which was likely to cost over £200 million. Most of the start-up finance would be raised through loans, the idea being that when the loans were paid off the profits would be ploughed back into the Shetland economy.
Both the proposals were dependent, however, on the laying of a subsea electricity cable to the mainland, needed to deliver power to the National Grid. UK energy minister Stephen Timms, who gave the keynote speech at the conference, said he was keen to see Shetland connected to the National Grid, but ruled out any government finance towards the project.
The end of 2003 saw more bad news for the salmon industry, with Hennover Salmon and SSG Seafoods both going into receivership, both casualties of a severely depressed market for farmed salmon. Norwegian-owned Hennover operated a farm at Sweening Voe, while SSG Seafoods, which Shetland Development Trust had ploughed millions of pounds into, was an umbrella company for the Shetland Salmon Growers which contracted farms throughout the isles to grow salmon on its behalf. This was another story which would run and run . . .