Long-serving Hay & Company Buildbase employee Sydney Hunter was recently flown down to Glasgow, where he believed he was to receive some kind of presentation for racking up half a century with the company.
There might even be a trip to Ibrox thrown in, as accompanying him were Hays managers Jim Moar, Graham McAllister and Harold Swannie, all fans of the club. Not that Rangers are Sydney’s favourite team, but he reckoned he would enjoy it nonetheless.
So it was a great surprise to learn, on arriving at Glasgow Airport, that there was to be a second leg to his trip. He was to be driven a further 300 miles to see Manchester United, who he has been a fan of since boyhood, take on Fulham in an important premiership clash.
“Jim just said ‘fancy a trip away’ and I thought it would obviously be a Rangers game,” Sydney says. “We were outside the airport and Jim says: ‘I bet du tinks du’s going to Ibrox. But we’re actually going to Old Trafford’.
“It was brilliant. I’ve been a fan of Man Utd ever since the Munich disaster [in 1958]. There’s always been a Scottish connection with managers and players. Matt Busby and Denis Law, then Tommy Docherty and Joe Jordan. Now they have Alex Ferguson and Darren Fletcher.”
To Sydney’s delight the Red Devils defeated Fulham 3-0 with Wayne Rooney scoring twice and Dimitar Berbatov once. He also met Fulham manager Roy Hodgson who he describes as a “really friendly guy”.
Monday 4th July 1960 may have been US Independence Day but it was also an important date for Sydney, as it marked his entrance into the world of Hay & Company, one of Shetland’s busiest firms. Aged 15, the Whiteness boy had finished at Lerwick Central School on the Friday with a leaving certificate and his father got him fixed up with a job three days later.
At that time there were Hay’s branches all over the place. There was a shop in Scalloway and one had just closed in Whalsay. In Lerwick, as well as the lower shop at Freefield where Sydney began, there was the premises on Commercial Road which sold fancy goods, kitchen utensils, etc, and a number of stores around Freefield. There was the obvious wood, cement and coal sheds and other buildings where all kinds of different materials were kept.
“For instance there was the felt store and the shed for lum cans at the top of the road,” he says. “In the lower shop we kept tools, nails and smaller items. Of course life revolved around the fishing industry and we sold a lot of rope and other stuff connected with it. You heard nothing but the fishing in those days.”
Many of the items stocked back in the 1960s have long disappeared, such as Scotch glue, sail twine, course salt and Irish lime. The latter was used for whitewashing houses and Sydney recalls it well. There was “some stoor with that stuff” and absolutely no protection at all, he says. They also sold netting for corn screws and a lot of other things connected with crofting.
“I spent about a year in the lower shop and then I was two years in the upper shop on Commercial Road. Then it was back down to the lower shop, as an invoicing clerk I suppose. I dealt with the wages and also the dockers’ wages.
“Recently I’ve been responsible for the roofs and heavy site goods department. That’s the definition of my job now. But you have to turn your hand to most things. I’m just a jack of all trades really.”
One of the big differences nowadays is the amount of plumbing equipment available.
“The whole thing has changed, completely and utterly. Plumbing is one of our biggest items now, along with plasterboard and roofs. When I came here first there were about two baths in stock and half a dozen washing basins.”
Despite the changes, including being taken over by first John Fleming and then Buildbase, Sydney has enjoyed his time at Hay’s immensely.
“It’s been a good company to work for,” he says. “I better say that as I will still be working for them two days a week from now on. But no, seriously, they have been a very good employer.
“There’s always been a good bunch of boys. I did consider leaving a couple of times. I had an offer of a job at Norscot once and there was also the temptation at Sullom Voe during the oil boom. But I decided to stay put and I’m glad I did.”
There have been many memorable tales down at Freefield during the past 50 years, and a couple stick in Sydney’s mind.
“I mind once when Don Laurenson was working in the shop and this elderly wife came in and asked for a lavatory pan. At that time you could get either a P trap or an S trap with the pans, the shape depending on whether the pipe went out the wall or the floor.
“Don asked her which kind she would prefer and the wife smiled and said: ‘I suppose we will need both’. She obviously thought P and S meant something entirely different!”
There was also the story which Sydney thinks most folk in Shetland probably know by now.
For the benefit of the younger generation, a crofter came in one day and asked if they had any “yowe nuts”.
Animal feedstuffs were not stocked at Freefield, the man was told, and he was advised to try one of the agricultural stores.
“No, no!” came the exasperated reply. “I’m wanting kitchen yowe nuts!”
As already mentioned, Sydney won’t be leaving Hays for good, however, as he will continue to work two days a week part-time. He would have found it difficult to give up completely. And he will now have more time for the other pursuit which has dominated his life – music.
He has played bass guitar for many bands over the last five decades, one of the first being the Midnighters who performed mainly in Lerwick’s Planets Ballroom. Other members were his brother Stanley on accordion, Arnie Arcus and Jackie Sinclair on guitars, Douglas Sinclair on piano and Bobby Ganson on drums.
Sydney played in the Pionaires, the Grand Hotel’s resident band of the time, with Jimmy and Ronnie Burgess, Lowrie Sinclair, Willie Black and Frank Miller, then he moved on to Mark V, with a line-up including Leonard Cheyne, Drewie Hawick, Norman Goudie and Robbie “Dobble” Smith.
More recently there was the short-lived Four Amigos, along with Magnie Thomason, Stephen “Smirk” Gordon and Davie Robertson, and currently Sydney is a member of the Rumshack Blues Band, with Mike Batty on guitar, Rory Gillies on vocals/harmonica and drummer Davie Nicolson.
The Rumshack boys have a late night/early morning slot at this weekend’s Shetland Folk Festival and then next month are off to the Dundee Blues Festival, where they will play two gigs.
Having been involved with such a variety of bands, playing all kinds of music including Scottish, folk, rock and roll, jazz, blues and country, Sydney continues to lean towards the latter.
“I like all kinds of stuff, well all except rap, but country is my favourite. I was brought up on that.”
Apart from his love of music, hobbies for Sydney include home decorating and watching television, and he will now have more time for both of them.
“I’m going to redecorate the living room, have a good old clear out and get a new suite of furniture, and then I will have to get my new flat screen TV installed.”
The television was a gift from workmates and family, who attended Sydney’s retirement party in the Freefield Centre in Lerwick on Saturday. Adorning the walls in the old legion building were some of the catchprases for which he is renowned.
“The whole thing is. It was a great night,” he says. “Absolutely!”