Past Life: Editorial Comment – Shetland’s image

From Shetland Life, May 1985, No.55

For the second time in 25 years Shetland is celebrating the return of “exiles” from many parts of the world. For all of them it is the culmination of many months of planning, saving and dreaming. One wonders whether the reality will correspond with that dream! A lot has happened in the last 25 years and Shetland has changed more than even we who live here realise. First came the modest revival of the 1960s, when depopulation was stemmed for the first time in a hundred years; and then came the upheaval of the oil construction boom whose physical scars have still not had time to heal.

For some visitors no doubt there will be disappointment – regret at the passing of the subsistence crofting economy with its white-washed cottages, its rigs carefully delled by the spade and its boat on the beach to give a change of diet from time to time. That was Shetland as many emigrants remember but it was a hard existence for those who lived here. It must never be forgotten that it was poverty and the lack of employment that drove people from these islands in their thousands. The old crofting life was tranquil and picturesque but it could not provide an acceptable standard of living.

There are changes that all of us regret such as the decline in the herring trade. Shetland may have the most up-to-date pelagic fleet in the UK but the klondykers from Eastern Europe are a poor substitute for the curing yards that used to give Lerwick such an air of activity each summer.

The greatest difference, surely, is the living standards of the ordinary people. Wages are higher than in most parts of the UK and unemployment is lower than the national rate. We have to pay a penalty for this with a high cost of living which inevitably accompanies boom conditions, whether the cause of that boom is gold in Australia, diamonds in West Africa or oil under the North Sea.
Those who left Shetland many years ago would certainly rejoice if they could see the prosperity enjoyed by their modern counterparts. Little did they know as they sailed away on the first leg of their long journey that under the keels of the sailing packets and mail steamers lay some of the richest oilfields in the world.

There is no room for complacency on our part. Shetland is again at a turning point as the reservoirs of oil become steadily depleted and the planned peak activity at Sullom Voe rapidly approaches. The future is just as uncertain as it has ever been. We only know that some time in the next few decades Shetland’s involvement with oil will decline and Britain’s industrialists will begin to look the other way when they realise that the rich pickings here are coming to an end. Shetland will be left with its people and what they can produce from the land and from the sea. Let us hope that when the next Hamefarin comes round our visitors will judge that we have used the revenue from oil in the best possible way – it is a bonus that none of us expected and it will never come again.


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