It has been an integral part of island life for decades, but by the end of this month Shetland’s much-loved fish van will be a thing of the past.
High fuel costs and repair bills combined with rising fish prices at the market are forcing the one remaining van operator, Hunter’s of Scalloway, to put its vehicles up for sale.
Once the final run to the West Side has ended next Friday the vans will be sold off and the service consigned to the history books.
Instead, Hunter’s will focus its efforts on the shop in the village’s Main Street and the processing factory at Blacksness, where around a dozen people are employed.
The move, which will result in two of Hunter’s workers paid off, will come as a bitter blow to loyal customers who have relied on the vans coming down their road over the years.
Gibbie Hunter, the founding father of the company’s fish van service who bought his first van 20 years ago, said he very much regretted the decision. However pure economics had dictated the move.
“You were never going to become a millionaire out of it. But It’s gone on and on, and as years have gone by things have gotten dearer,” he said.
“Everybody knows the cost of fuel in Shetland nowadays. Fish prices at the market in Shetland here now are as dear as they have ever been.
“We’ve increased our prices on the vans, but the more you increase the prices the less you sell. People who were buying six fillets a year ago are only buying four now.
“Fish is now coming to be like steak. Steak is cheaper in fact. If you’re running a van it burns a lot of fuel – and mind, we’re doing a lot of mileage.”
Mileage has certainly been a big issue for Hunter’s. The company, which only bought a second van last year following the demise of the other fish van service provided by Alistair Fullerton, covers most of Shetland. It only fails to reach a handful of the outer isles.
Its strong level of outreach has helped cultivate a loyal customer base, with many left disappointed by the news.
Gibbie’s son Andrew, who for the last 10 years has been running the firm with his wife Vivian, said many customers regarded the vans as an essential service.
“I’m disappointed because some people look at it as a lifeline service – they depend on the vans,” he said.
“Some of them treat the van like their shop. Forby the fish we took a lot of stuff from Gray’s and we bought milk and rolls.
“People had stuff ordered that they were waiting to get every week. There are definitely a lot of older people who are going to miss it.
“A lot of folk are really disappointed. We’ve had a few phone calls. It’s not because we want to do it, it’s because we’re having to do it.”
He said the company was faced with a stark choice of ending the service or standing by to watch it drag the rest of the business down.
The company had looked at various ways of replacing the vans to improve maintenance levels.
Options included buying a new van – at over £40,000 – or leasing one, however there was no realistic way of carrying on with the service.
Gibbie said: “If we could have seen any way at all of making it profitable we wouldn’t have packed it up. Andrew’s got advice from accountants and even the banker and they are all saying the same thing. They’ve looked at the figures and said the vans are pulling us down.”
Hunter’s has also been an unfortunate victim of state aid regulations. Gibbie said the council had provided the company with assistance to help buy a van some years ago. However, when it came to buying its second vehicle last year the company discovered the same assistance had been withdrawn.
Although the service is ending the company will still deliver fish orders to hotels, restaurants, schools and care centres.