Good old days – Bah! Humbug!

A letter in The Shetland Times last week repeated a theme I first heard at the public meeting held at Aith to discuss the Viking windfarm project – to wit, that in the 1950 and 1960s life in Shetland was really quite good.

I don’t remember those years as really bad, but neither were they good. It may seem back then that we were more content with our lot, but on reflection our lot was barely above subsistence living. I’m not sure that our parents would agree about how good it was. They were more pre-occupied with trying to hold our lives together. Youngsters were never fully aware of their daily struggle.

What are we missing from those good times, say in the early 1950s? Well, there was no central heating, a blue clod was as good as it got. Electricity had not arrived in many places, tilley lamps were the order of the day.

Water was carried from the well in a pail. No telephones to speak of. Radios were run off batteries and very sparingly used. No TV. An outside lavatory with a bucket eventually emptied into the sea, with an old newspaper for toilet paper.

Little work for women. Only the very well off could fly to Aberdeen. Less frequent boat journeys to Aberdeen. Holidays consisted of perhaps a day at the local regatta. I could go on.
I can’t hear the thundering sound of people rushing to board a time machine for that balmy age.

During the 1950s, a great number of men were away for most of the time, in the Merchant Navy or at the whaling. Wages in the fishing industry were poor. Men working in local industries were often in lodgings during the week wherever the work was – there was little personal transport as there were few cars. I recall about one car for every five or six houses in the mid-50s. A far cry from the present – virtually every house has at least one, or in the majority of cases, several cars.

During the week and especially in the winter many crofts were managed mainly by women, pensioners and children. By the age of seven or eight it was chores after school and at the weekend.

By a stroke of good fortune, we acquired a four-wheel tractor (the first in East Burrafirth) which I was driving on our own croft by the time I was nine years old, and working with it for other crofters by the time I was 13.

Imagine the hue and cry if that were done now. Social services and the Children’s Panel would have a field day, threats about prison and fostering would be made. But needs must, if you had a resource you used it, that’s how we lived.

In 2008 I attended a 50th reunion with classmates who started at the AEI in 1958. Out of that initial enrolment of 91, by the time of the 2008 reunion, 46 were still in Shetland, 32 were living outwith Shetland and 13 were deceased.

That was the general pattern during that decade. Many of the best educated did not return because of lack of suitable work. Shetland was the poorer for their loss. Generally the population was consistently decreasing throughout the 1950s and into the mid-1960s.

During the early 1960s the local economy did pick up, tourism did start to pick up, an improvement in the knitwear industry, more crofting grants becoming available, fishing had a revival which continued until oil arrived and propelled the comparative prosperity into a boom.

Now fishing is a shadow of its former self with little improvement in sight. Tourism is a hardly buoyant with the ongoing recession and cost of travel to Shetland. Crofting is a sideline rather than a viable business for most. Knitwear is virtually non-existent. The oil industry here is on downtrend. We need to look elsewhere to keep Shetland sustainable. A great variety of options are not available.

The rise in crime and drug problems cannot be equated to the arrival of oil; those problems would have arrived whatever. I remember strong opinion and heated argument for and against oil. But without it we would not have the same level of employment, nor the charitable trust and the comfortable life style those two partly enabled. As stated in the letter, there were many benefits, but it wasn’t all good.

The times of prosperity were built on exploitation (in some cases over exploitation) of available resources. We diversified to others as opportunities arose. We may now have to embrace the new again. Perhaps there will again be benefits, but probably not all to the good.

Don’t look at the past with rose-tinted glasses to give false impression of how good life was then. Focus on the present and how best to utilise our abundant resources for that future. Societies that run out of resources and energy do not fare well.

James Sandison


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