History: Da Central van

“Da Central van” was at the forefront of the bakery and grocery trade in the south end of Shetland for 82 years. Graham Jamieson, the last “van man”, reflects on the period.

The name “da Central van” originally referred to the first retail horse-drawn van to operate a regular service from Quarff to Scatness from 1896 until 1919, when the service was motorised.

The shop and first bakery in the south end of Shetland at Moors, Sandwick, was established by my great-uncle, George Robert Jamieson, formerly of North Veister, Sandwick, and his brother and my grandfather William Jamieson. It was made possible through capital raised from the very successful business run by George in Jeffrey Street, Leith, consisting of a wholesale and retail licensed grocer, fish and egg merchant.

The firm also had 18 retail outlets between Portobello and Kirkcaldy. The partnership at Sandwick was named GR & W Jamieson, wholesale and retail bakers, grocers and general merchants, Central Stores, Sandwick.

The first van man was my grandfather’s brother-in-law, James Smith (Jim and Eva Smith of Berry Farm and Annabel Hepburn of Sandwick’s grandfather). He resided at Setter and was employed for a long number of years. As nicknames were very common in Sandwick he was well-known as “Van Jeemie”.

The longest van run took two days. The first day started from Sandwick, doing the east side, finishing up at Skelberry, where the van man took lodgings with the Johnson family and the horse was stabled at the Glebe. The next day’s route was from Skelberry heading towards the South Voe to Fleck, North Toon and Exnaboe, finishing up at Scatness and returning to Sandwick very late on the same evening.

At the turn of the 20th century, other businesses and different trades sprang up around the Central, mainly run by brothers, cousins and nephews. W. J. Smith, motor hirer and haulage contractor, including services, repairs and petrol pump, was better known as Tooshie’s Garage. There was Sandwick Meat Co. and also a smithy, cycle shop, radio sales and repairs, and cobblers shop.

In 1919, a long-wheelbase, one-ton Model T Ford truck was acquired and adapted for the van run by my uncle Willie Jamieson, who was better known as “Young Central”, and my great-uncle Robbie Jamieson, the famous boat-builder and building contractor. His nickname was “The Terror”, because he was such a quiet man!

The means of adaption was to construct a container which could sit on the flatbed and be used for the retail van run. The container could also be winched off by means of two double purchase block and tackles fixed in the garage roof, thus releasing the vehicle for the carting of goods from Lerwick, while in the meantime the container could be restocked with bread and groceries in readiness for the next run.

Items from van customers would be sent back with the van for repairs to the aforementioned businesses, including batteries and accumulators to be charged. This was an obligation to customers; it was no problem to bring these items to Sandwick as there was space becoming available through goods being sold en route.

Sometimes customers had a frustrating wait until enough space was available in the van to take the items back, as the van was leaving with a full load. The customers appreciated this service as most people had no public transport.

“Young Central” became the first van driver to operate a motor van from the Central; due to this experience he also became a brilliant self-taught engineer.

Many more van men covered the route over the years, including my father and myself, although we were both time-served bakers. I was on the vans for 12 years steady, whereas my father only filled in for short periods until a regular van man could be employed full-time.

After working in the bakery again for a further four years while we were merchandising and extending the bakery, I spent two years back on the vans before the van service was discontinued, so becoming the last van man.

The most famous and longest serving van driver was the very dependable and humorous Andrew Duncan, better known as “Suttie”. It was said by my father that my grandfather asked Andrew if he would come and help mend herring nets for a couple of weeks and he was there for over 30 years as a van man. Some of the bairns made up a rhyme about Andrew which ran: “Andrew Duncan fell a stunkin ower a rotten neep, first he stunket, dan he grunted, dan he fell asleep”.

In the early days and until the Second World War very little money changed hands, and goods were bartered for eggs, fresh butter or lamb. The eggs were washed and graded at the Central before being shipped to the business of George Robert in Leith, and in return goods were shipped back to the shop at Sandwick.

Quite a lot of the sales were on a credit basis to customers who could only hope to settle their account once or twice a year, after settling up at the summer fishing or when they sold livestock. Sometimes customers could not settle accounts in full, but supply continued as in the early days there was no unemployment benefits or assistance from the government. Set working hours in those days were practically non-existent.

Lowrie Stove, better known as “Plunk”, was employed for many years at the Central, eventually becoming shop manager. In reply to someone’s question, “What is it like to work at da Central?”, he was quoted as saying: “It’s the nearest thing to heaven you can get – there’s no night there!”

Another shop manager who had to double up as a relief van man was Andy Smith, better known as “Andy o da Wirlie”. When news got around of Andy’s departure from the Central to start a hen farm, a female customer and relation of Andy, from Cunningsburgh, asked Suttie, “Who’s runnin da Central noo?” His reply was, “Da Central is runnin itself – an Roosty’s runnin efter it!”

During the 1950s and 1960s the Central had three vans, calling at most homes two or three times a week. In the early 1970s one of the two remaining vans was discontinued because drivers were unavailable, mainly due to higher-paid oil-related jobs. The one remaining van covered an area from Rerwick to Bigton, and from Levenwick to Cunningsburgh and Quarff. It carried on until 1978 when the service ceased.

* * *

I can recall many stories from my days on the vans, some of which may be of interest to readers.

One Bigton customer, who had already been at the horse van at Mews, after putting her errands in her house walked towards Brake where she met a neighbour waiting for the van, who asked her, “Wha’s wi da van da day?”. Her polite reply was, “I ken da horse but I dunna ken da driver!”

My father told me that while on the van run he saw a local character mucking the rig out of the brew of his gansie!

When I complained about the time spent waiting for customers getting to the van, my dad said, “You’re lucky, because in my day most customers bartered their eggs for goods, and only went to the hen house when you pulled up to collect their eggs, sometimes flitting a cow on the way!”

One van customer, who in early life as well as having a big family was very often racked with pain from what was commonly known then-a-days as rheumatics, which made him crabbit sometimes, was very pleasantly asked by his wife what he would like for breakfast. He replied that nothing would be better than a boiled egg, but to his surprise she said that was the one thing she couldn’t give him. He was very surprised because the hens were on the lay and asked why not. She replied that she had bartered them at the Central van. He got into a rage and shouted, “Dat Central van is a trapdoor to iniquity . . . da eggs ir nae sooner oot ida hen’s erse is dir in da Central van!”

Winter time, accompanied by heavy snow, made for very late arrivals home and one hair-raising experience comes to mind:

While on the Sumburgh run, during a heavy fall of snow, the last stop was the Sumburgh Lighthouse. If in doubt a phone call from Grutness Post Office determined whether the trip would be possible or not. On this occasion the advice was that it would be okay, and they would open both gates to avoid having to stop.

Everything went fine until, while spinning most of the way up, I was almost at the top when one of the well-worn snow chains came off. It took the hydraulic brake pipe with it, and as the van rolled back I discovered that I had no brakes to stop it as the handbrake couldn’t hold. All I could do was to go on to hard lock to get the back corner of the van to dig into raised ground on the inside of the road. Phew!

Then, with the help of the lighthouse keepers, shovelling, sanding and pushing, I finally made it. With the heavy demand, as was usually the case for bread and groceries during snowy periods, after selling at the lighthouse the van was virtually empty. But I still had to drive down and get back to Sandwick with no brakes and one chain. The van was a Morris Commercial, one-ton PV type, which had sliding cab doors, and was in very poor condition.

Before starting my descent I opened both sliding doors, which could be locked in an open position, in case I lost control and had to jump out before crashing through the protection dykes with a drop of hundreds of feet into the sea. I finally got home, driving at a snail’s pace as you had to drive in the lower gears.

I enjoyed my time on the vans, and as well as being a great education and experience I still have a yarn with many old customers about the old days on “da Central van”.


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