The last meeting of the season for the Althing Social Group on Saturday was a special event to commemorate the life of the late Lollie Graham.
The evening was chaired by Florence Grains who explained how Lollie, along with a small group of like-minded individuals, including his brother John, founded the social group nearly 60 years ago.
A meeting was held on 16th September 1950 in Tingwall to see whether a social discussion group could be set up. That meeting was the beginning of the Althing and it has continued ever since.
For 29 years Lollie was secretary of the group, organising all the meetings and finding all the speakers, while pursuing his teaching career, maintaining his crofting interests and keeping involved in numerous voluntary and community activities which he willingly undertook.
Lollie spoke at the very first debate, seconding the motion that the “church is responsible for its empty pews”.
Brian Smith paid the main tribute to Lollie, talking about his life as a young man growing up in Tingwall valley before heading off to university in Edinburgh. On his return he became headmaster at Urafirth school before moving to Scalloway.
At the Anderson Educational Institute he taught English and many of his former pupils remember his enthusiastic style and his passion for his subject.
Lollie always appreciated the lives of poor people and the struggles they had to endure. In Edinburgh he witnessed the wretched bairns of poverty-stricken families contrasted with the children of wealthy textile merchants whom he tutored for a while. This added to his empathy for his fellow man and his constant desire to always help where he could.
Lollie was also passionate about politics, and never shied away from his Labour views and left wing ideals. He made many friends in local politics during the 1950s and he was never afraid to voice his political opinion.
Lollie came to politics at a time when Shetland was certainly going through the economic doldrums and he wanted to do something to drag Shetland out of this decline. He wanted to restore faith in traditional industries and culture and he was fundamental in setting up the Crofters’ Union in Shetland in 1961.
But Lollie was also well known for his interest in literature and he was extremely well read. Not only did he read, but of course he wrote. He wrote many wonderful poems and plays too as drama was another interest. He attended a writing group set up in Lerwick and he was a very active member.
Lollie encouraged many local people to write too. He was very keen that dialect should not be forgotten and much of his work was in dialect and to this end he encouraged others to write in dialect too.
In terms of literary achievement, surely the Graham brothers must have set some sort of literary landmark by editing The New Shetlander magazine for 45 years, amounting to 160 issues.
Lollie recognised that in the 1950s Shetland had little in the way of cultural platforms and he hoped that The New Shetlander could redress this. Lollie thought that the magazine as part of a cultural programme that could alter life in Shetland.
Lollie’s interest in literature ranged from his beloved Lewis Grassic Gibbon and Sunset Song to the works of Virgil or the political writings of Trotsky or the poetry of Pablo Neruda, and he could talk at length on any of these.
In the 1970s Lollie could see that new challenges were about to come to Shetland in the shape of the oil industry and that this could mean boom or bust for Shetland.
Some people at that time, fearful for the future of Shetland, mooted a “home rule” option for the islands but in the editorial of issue 112 of The New Shetlander, he asked: “What kind of home rule? Would Shetland become just another pawn in the flotsam and jetsam of the already mentioned economic boom or bust?”
“No man is an island”, said the poet John Donne, and as Lollie Graham said: “Neither are these islands.”
Brian concluded his tribute with some amusing anecdotes, namely about Lollie’s driving which it seems was well-known throughout the isles. As snow and ice made the roads treacherous Lollie would happily set out, thinking nothing of negotiating the Brig o’ Fitch at 60mph!
Pete Glanville spoke briefly to give just two examples of the contributions that Lollie made specifically to the community of Tingwall. The Tingwall Messenger was first published in 1984 and came out monthly, listing local news and events. He also helped to set up the Tingwall and Cruester Development association.
Lollie’s love of poetry could not be overlooked and the audience was treated to recordings of him reading from the Vagaland poems. There was silence in the hall as Lollie’s voice filled the room reading poems that included The Three Isles and The Swan’s Gate.
It was easy to hear from the readings how Lollie could have well held his own as a teacher with a class of teenagers, a point that was emphasised by Jonathan Wills who explained that Lollie held court in the classroom and kept order by force of character.
“He was a man,” said Jonathan, “that could not be disliked. Because he was so well liked, the children were always well behaved for him”. He was endlessly good humoured.
Jonathan also spoke of Lollie’s passion for writing and his determination to preserve Shetland dialect. This was quite a bold thing to do the 1960s, especially in Shetland schools where some of those most vehemently opposed to encouraging Shetland dialect in schools were native Shetlanders.
But Lollie was undaunted and he encouraged many writers, showing them that good writing was all about choice of words and having something interesting to say, and he had a lot of very interesting things to say.
Jonathan spoke about Lollie’s opposition to the UK entering the Common Market and while he was no fisherman he fervently supported the local fleet because of its symbolism of a way of life, and he feared greatly for what the Common Market might do the local fleet if European fishing boats were allowed to fish nearby and destroy fishing grounds.
In 1972 when Jonathan stood as a Labour candidate, Lollie gave his utmost support and he would drive him all over the islands to local rallies. Jonathan also remembered some pretty hair-raising drives as again Lollie seemed to be oblivious to the dangers of snow and ice. Jonathan recalled arriving at some venues literally shaking at the knees. By the time he stood as a candidate again he made sure he had passed his driving test!
In February 1974 Jonathan and Lollie went to a Labour Party rally at the old Brae hall. They arrived to find the place in darkness. Half an hour later the key holder arrived with his dog and that was the audience. Nevertheless Lollie insisted that Jonathan should give his speech and the next week it was duly reported that Dr Wills had called for a moratorium on oil development at a public meeting held in Brae!
Jonathan concluded by saying that Lollie knew all about and took a keen interest in the Veensgarth crofts which were set up as part of a post war initiative to establish “homes for heroes”. Lollie was indeed a hero for many.
In tribute to Lollie’s love of and support for drama the next item of the evening was an extremely funny sketch acted out by members of the Althing committee and friends.
Picture the scene: a meeting of the SIC finance committee. Finance of £225,225 was approved for the development of a banana plantation on the islands and a further £8 million was approved for the purchase of a liner and the setting up of a sea training school on Sandwater loch.
However, the purchase of a new toilet brush for the lavatories at Fladdabister Girls’ School provoked huge debate, with one councillor asking: “Since when has Fladdabister school had a lavatory?”
It was established that a grant could be applied for to offset a percentage of the costs, amounting to 57p. The council would agree to fund another 6p leaving 2p to come out of the public purse. In the end it was decided that a committee would have to be formed to oversee the purchasing of the new lavatory brush if indeed the brush should be purchased at all.
The sketch caused much hilarity in the hall and was made even funnier later in the evening by Drew Ratter’s comment when he said: “I thought that council meeting was uncanny.”
Before the break Ivor Smith and friends played a selection of traditional fiddle music to give the audience a time to reflect on their memories of Lollie.
After the break Laureen Johnson and Mary Blance paid a very fitting poetic tribute. Laureen read several poems including The Retired Crofter which tells the rather sad story of the man who has left the croft and moved into the town.
There is plenty going on in the town but the crofter misses his croft so much and the closing lines about lambs going away on the boat never to return and the man watching this, shows how intuitively Lollie knew the crofting folk and how it must feel to give up a way of life.
On a lighter note, there was Lollie’s Letter to Maggie, a humorous response to a letter informing him that he was to be awarded the MBE. Lollie replied saying that he would not accept the MBE and signing off “your humble servant, never!”
Mary read Leaving Waverley which conjures up wonderful images of the train heading northwards and then she too remembered Lollie’s Rasmie poems and read Rasmie’s Guide to Mariners about the joys of finding a good woman and the last line: “Lasses are like legs o’ lamb, they neither saa’t nor keep!”
Then there was the very touching poem For a birthday in which Lollie recalls that he has all the gifts he needs right beside him in his family and loved ones. Mary finished with the very short and very apt Nae Mair.
As the evening drew to a reluctant close Drew spoke of Lollie’s huge commitment and contribution to crofting in Shetland. He played a significant role in setting up the Crofters’ Union to help and support crofters, and while he was never so much interested in livestock as part of crofting, he still had all the time in the world for those who did work with sheep and cattle.
One day Drew and Lollie went to Sumburgh to collect a Charolais bull together. Lollie was delighted to get out for a run and chatted happily on the journey. The bull had one stump of a horn on one side of its head and on the journey it had turned round and round in the trailer so much so that it had scored a line along the inside of the trailer with its horn. When Drew dropped Lollie off back at his house the men saw what the bull had done and Lollie left Drew with a parting shot: “Mind you!”
At the end of the evening Lollies’s daughter Jenny thanked everyone for attending and making the evening so special. Then she read a poem that her father had written for her, called Nae China Doll.
This was indeed a very special evening and Florence said in conclusion: “Everyone thought that when John and Lollie passed away so would the Althing but the Althing will continue as another tribute to them.”