Lessons of history?

Listening to the recent BBC Radio Shetland windfarm debate I was surprised to hear myself criticised by Mr Wishart, Viking Energy’s project co-ordinator, for having the temerity to write a letter to the Herald newspaper. I’m not sure what upset him most, the fact I’d written to a national newspaper or the fact that the vast majority of the Shetland public oppose Viking Energy’s ruinous project. However, I was glad to learn that Mr Wishart has taken to tramping the hills with his binoculars – no doubt he will be keeping an eye out for da Rain Gus as he blazes a trail across what he sees as bleak scattald for his legions of bulldozers and trucks.

But then I shouldn’t be surprised – there is an old adage “the one lesson of history is that we never learn the lessons of history”. About 150 years ago Shetland folk were writing in the national press about the condition of Shetland and in particular on the activities of a Mr John Walker. Aberdeen-born John Walker was the self-styled benefactor of Shetland that sold a hitherto generally benign Scots laird a cunning plan. The upshot of this plan was that Major Cameron of Garth gave Walker a free hand to act as factor to his estates in Delting and the North Isles. Then with Cameron’s licence in his pocket Walker set to work with messianic zeal clearing Cameron’s estates of crofter tenants and replacing them with sheep.

Walker was a great persuader and a serial con-man with the gift of making the implausible seem plausible. His forte was persuading others to invest huge sums of money they couldn’t afford in high risk schemes then moving on, leaving a trail of bankrupts in his wake. Another of his great Shetland schemes was the Sandlodge copper mine that he leased for about eight years. He sold this lease to investors whom he must have convinced were on to an economic winner since they set up a new company with a share capital of £60,000 in £1 shares (a staggering £6 million in today’s terms). One year later this new company went bust.

Walker of course involved himself in domestic politics and was convinced that he knew best what was good for Shetland and Shetlanders – his obit in the Shetland Times of 1917 says it all: “What others had failed to do by persistent effort extending over a long period, he accomplished in a very short time by sheer force of character. Crofters were evicted by the score, and many acres which had furnished the means of livelihood to numerous families, were conveyed into sheep runs, and the people turned out ‘to sink or swim’. His views upon the land question were extreme, even for his day, and in his desire to promote what he considered ‘the right’ he allowed nothing to stand in his way … but before he left the islands, many a smiling township was represented by the falling remnants of houses and office-houses, with the inhabitants scattered to the four winds.”

One hundred and fifty years after Walker’s failed schemes of sheep ranching and mining someone else has come along with a cunning plan. This time the generally benign “landlord” is Shetland Islands Council as owner of the Busta Estate and the cunning plan we’ve come to know as the Viking Energy Project. This time the factor’s role is being played by Shetland Charitable Trust with all its expensive project officers, project co-ordinators, PR companies, consultants etc. And like Cameron, the landlord of old, our SIC elected representatives are failing to engage with the Shetland public on the windfarm project and failing to acknowledge the overwhelming public rejection of the project. Our elected representatives are seemingly happy to leave everything to the “factor”. The silence of our “landlord” is deafening.

Why then should this infelicitous situation exist? Why should our “landlord”, the SIC, be happy to accept on our behalf public lies and broken promises from the “factor”, e.g. the lie “a health impact assessment is being carried out” and the broken promise “If the Shetland public don’t want it, it won’t happen”. Is the reason actually a parallel of Walker’s when it was said of him: “in his desire to promote what he considered ‘the right’ he allowed nothing to stand in his way”?

Perhaps the answers lie with the architects of the cunning plan, with backdoor political pressure and with secret arrangements the SIC has been persuaded to sign up to. Like Cameron of Garth they may be well and truly signed up to something they can’t get out of.

John Walker left a £6 million project bankrupt in his wake, an almost commonplace figure in Shetland today when you look at the likes of the Bressay Bridge fiasco and Smyril. This figure pales into insignificance when set against the amounts of money Shetland could lose by buying into this high risk project – a project with a price tag to Shetland of £60 million upfront plus borrowings of £246 million. If they haven’t learned the lessons of history then this “landlord” council could go down in history as the one that bought into the cunning plan that bankrupted Shetland.

Allen Fraser


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