Obituary: Fine auctioneer, crofter and sailor who revelled in company of other people

Harry Hay (1928-2010)

Harry Brown Arthur Hay was born in his grandfather’s home at Da Knowes, just outside Brae, on 18th August 1928. His grandfather, Jamie Hay, was to have a huge influence on the life of young Harry as they lived and worked together on the family croft with his mother Voilet. Jamie was one of the first to have a motor car in the district and this was used for local hires and the collection of goods in Lerwick. It was inevitable that sharp-minded young Harry would learn to drive the car at an early age and had even used it for couple of trips to school at Brae by the tender age of 11.

Although Harry was a bright pupil at school, he could not wait to leave and begin work. At the age of 14 he took up employment as a dumper driver during construction of the Scatsta aerodrome. He spoke fondly of the characters he met during this time and it was clear he enjoyed the camaraderie. During his late teens he moved to East Lothian to be with his mother and younger brother Brian, but his heart was in Shetland and he returned soon after to take up work at Scatsta Farm, where he remained for 20 years.

It was there he perfected his skills on a tractor. He enjoyed many a challenge on steep hills and was often found in the most precarious places throughout his tractor-driving career. Much of the farm work at Scatsta was carried out by hand and although the work was tiring, and the small band of workers tended thousands of sheep, Harry enjoyed the way that folk came together to get the job done. This was a theme that ran throughout his life.

Harry married Ina in 1948 and the birth of their daughter Shirley completed the family. The family home, at that time, at Trondavoe, was a busy place.

As well as helping to run the croft at Da Knowes and curing sheepskins, Harry and Ina supplemented the income from Scatsta by doing what almost every Shetland family did in the 1950s – work on “da makkin machine”. It wasn’t unknown for Harry to spend seven hours on the knitting machine after a day’s work at Scatsta and still be up in time for milking the following morning.

Trondavoe was also a popular dropping off spot for friends. Evenings of music and dancing were often the norm and once again Harry revelled in the company of people. As he was growing up, Harry had often accompanied his grandfather to many of the auctions he undertook as a part-time auctioneer. After observing his grandfather for many years, and months of practice in selling imaginary items to equally imaginary buyers, he struck out on his own and held his first auction at a house in Muckle Roe in 1954. This career was to last for over five decades. With his grandfather by his side, nerves were not too much of an issue for the rookie auctioneer, but he did have problems when someone set a tin bath near to his auctioneering “box” and he couldn’t hear his own voice. As time went on his auctions became an event and were true social occasions with Harry as the ringmaster. He developed a rhythmic auctioneering style that was easy on the ear.

He was renowned for his one-liners and pity help any poor soul who dithered or caught his attention in some way, for they were sure to be in the firing line of some of his sharp-witted banter.

His selling technique reflected his personality – quick, humorous and strong. In the auction-room, as in life, he put people at their ease and drew the best from them.

His services as an auctioneer were in huge demand throughout Shetland. As well as his regular sales at Mounthooly Street, Harbour Street and latterly Market Street, he also undertook displenishing sales and local sheep sales throughout Shetland. He was a popular figure at local “sales o wark” and his family often accompanied him to help out. For Harry the most important aspect of his auctioneering career was meeting the folk who attended the sales and the relationships he developed with them. The love that regular saleroom goers had for him was clearly evident at the last sale under his ownership at Shetland Auctions last July.

Although Harry had been unable to auctioneer due to increasing ill health, he decided to give it one last try and auctioned one of his gavels for charity at the final sale. A packed saleroom gave him a huge round of applause as he took the “box”. He started the sale of the gavel at £10, but by the time he had reached £40 there was hardly a dry eye in the saleroom. Emotion got the better of Harry too and he had to step down and allow Robbie Johnson to finish the sale of the gavel. The fact that the gavel eventually sold for £520 was also a mark of the esteem in which he was held. Away from his working life, Harry was involved with many aspects of community life over the years. He served on local committees and was involved with the hall at Brae for many years.

He was a keen sailor and, although he never learned to swim, he took part in many regattas with his fellow crewmembers. He still held a keen interest in sailing and dished out the drams to the sailors at the local regatta each year – although he thought that many of today’s boats were no match for the Maids.

Harry also possessed a strong singing voice and enjoyed taking part in local concerts in his younger days. Around that time he was also a regular contender at sheepdog trials throughout Shetland and enjoyed success with many of his dogs. The trials also provided an opportunity to catch up with old friends for a yarn and perhaps a dram.

Throughout his life, crofting played a major part and in the 1960s he took over crofts in Sullom and Leon, Ollaberry. Once again this was not a pursuit Harry enjoyed in isolation. It was a real family affair and he loved to have the company of his crofting partner Frank or family members and friends as he went about the daily routines. He was delighted to be able to pass on his skills to the younger generation and help ensure that they could carry on the traditions. He was able to continue an active role in the croft until recent times. The family will sorely miss his animal husbandry skills and his early morning rounds at lambing time. He was up with the lark in the morning and always full of life and energy, demanding to know what jobs needed to be done for the day. Things had to be done immediately, if not sooner, to Harry’s way of thinking. He had a soothing, calming way with animals that was part of his nature and could be relied upon in any lambing emergency. Lambing and clipping times were a real highlight for him, as this was a time when extra family and friends came to help out. The fact that he did not attend the clipping at Sullom or Leon this past summer was a real indication to the family that Harry was indeed unwell.

Having a full and active life was essential for Harry. As if life were not busy enough, he also found time to set up several businesses during the 1970s and 80s. He owned the Camp Shop at Brae, the Welcome Inn at Mossbank and the Mossbank Shop.

He was never driven by the need to accumulate wealth or material possessions, just the desire to make sure that his family could grow up in a more economically stable environ­ment than he had. In 1982 he lost Ina suddenly and the support he received through his work, family and friends became even more important to him. After he sold the businesses, he continued to run the crofts and the saleroom.

Thoughts of retirement rarely entered his head. He did eventually have a fleeting notion that he would retire from auctioneering when he turned 80, but his passion kept him going into his 81st year when illness eventually forced his hand.

A party for family and friends marked his 80th birthday. It was his idea of a great night. He was surround­ed by the people who were important to him, some of whom he had not seen for some time, and he was able to catch up with their all news.

The wide age range of folk at the party reflected Harry’s ability to forge friendships with everyone. As Ewen Balfour said in his tribute at the funeral: “Even the bairns at the local primary school were discussing who was going to Harry Hay’s birthday party – as if he was one of their classmates.” On an occasional Saturday he could be found on a birthday bus or enjoying a pint with his great-grandsons. He was one of the boys whatever age you were. Some years ago, when he was in his mid-70s, it was suggested to him that he might like to go on one of the trips organised by the senior citizens’ club. “Nah” was his quick reply. “Yun’s for owld folk.”

Harry loved routine, was always punctual and a creature of habit. Part of his routine, in later years, was a regular visit to “The Friday Club” at the Mid Brae Inn. Harry and half a dozen friends would meet every Friday night at teatime to put the world to rights over a dram. The staff treated him like family and he enjoyed the banter with his fellow “club” members. The final six months of life for Harry were spent in marked contrast to anything he had ever known. After a lifetime of good health, the diagnosis of terminal cancer late last summer brought health issues that forced a radical change to his life.

He was finally forced to relinquish his independence. His inspiring nature shone through and in his usual firm way, he told the family he would be “bydin at hom”. No hospitals, no fuss.

His family, especially his daughter Shirley, rallied together with health professionals to make sure he would have his final wish, and this, together with the visits he received from his many valued friends, kept his spirit strong through the final months.

Folk always knew where they stood with Harry. He was never afraid to say what he thought and did not always suffer fools gladly, but if he thought someone was being treated unfairly or if he respected a person, he would defend them to the last.

He valued folk and the number of lifelong friends he made was a testament to that. He was a “people person” long before it was fashionable.

Ewen’s final words during his tribute summed Harry up perfectly. “Harry Hay was truly an institution. A man that valued his family above all but was a very well-respected friend to many more. That is why we will mind him with such affection for he was a true character dat was aert kyent.”

He is survived by his daughter Shirley, grand bairns Maree and Leslie and great-grandsons Sean and Mark.



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