Shetland Life Editorial: Goodbye to all that

I’ll miss the Chief Executive’s office. For the last 12 months or so I’ve been helping out the Council as ‘communications consultant’, and I’ve had a desk in the rather lovely suite, just below the Town Hall clock, which used to house the council’s top manager.

I remember interviewing the late Malcolm Green there, and it has traditionally been where the seat of executive authority in Shetland…sat. There are fantastic views over Lerwick and out to Bressay. It has a nice carpet. But when Alistair Buchan began his reign as interim CE, he decided to move down and out to Lystina House, which is connected to the Town Hall by a twisty corridor and a kind of glass tunnel. No longer would he be  reachable only by a breath-sapping trudge to the top of the stairs, in lofty seclusion. And, doubtless coincidentally, there would be an easier  route to  what has become known as Tobacco Closs.

So we – Peter, Elaine and myself –  communed with the concept of communications up in the heights, below the bells. I think we did a good job. The Communications Strategy document we came up with is a model of its kind, unanimously accepted by councillors, praised by those who have bothered to read it. Internal and external communications have improved. People are talking to each other. Now a senior communications officer has been appointed and it’s time for me to take my leave of the Town Hall.

Not in quite such a spectacular fashion as former Chief Executive David Clark, it must be said. But, in these very pages, you can see his return to Shetland public life, and I’m pleased about that. Because there’s no doubt in my mind that Big Dave was treated despicably.

The  ‘£300,000 Man’ tag, relating to the compensation he received after his departure, has obscured the appalling way he was hounded from office by, essentially, a tiny group of councillors and managers working in tandem. This community paid, and continues to pay, a high price for their activities. Yes, Dave’s in-your-face, aggressive, extrovert style and sarcastic sense of humour was ‘unShetlandic’ in many eyes. He consulted too little and was too isolated in that airy penthouse office. But now, among council managers, he’s widely regarded with warmth and his ideas with respect.

You can read in this issue his thoughts on the way the Council has tackled its finances since he left. It’s a fascinating piece. And if you’re thinking he lives in a castle, well, that’s just his little joke. It’s a flat. In Motherwell.

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Ronnie Smith’s announcement that he is to retire from his post as General Secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland provoked many warm and laudatory words in the national press. This Shetlander became and still is one of the most powerful figures in Scottish education, and it was a privilege to send a more recent product of Shetland’s superb education system, Chris Cope, to talk to an older one. Chris’s splendid piece provides many insights into this union boss, notably that he “cut his political teeth  as a teenager campaigning on behalf of candidates for Lerwick Town Council.” It’s a great read.

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Elsewhere in this issue there are two frankly jaw-dropping historical articles. Douglas Smith’s epic on the wreck of World War Two armed merchantman Chumleigh and the extraordinary fight for survival of her crew will have you on the edge of your seat. Saved by bannocks, made by a man from Mossbank! And bakery features again in Douglas Sinclair’s piece about an Old Yule meal in Victorian times that went horribly, disastrously wrong. Was a future prime minister of New Zealand involved in a nefarious plot to poison a headmaster? Read on and find out!

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Of more recent historical interest is the demise of the legendary North Star. Chloe Garrick’s stunning pictures document its sad end. There are plans to incorporate some salvaged elements of the venerable picture house in Shetland’s new and controversial Mareel, which, it was announced last month, would definitely open – at least in part –  at the end of May.

I regard Mareel with a kind of awed hope and despair. Yes, we must support it, and that means we must to some extent put our faith in financial predictions of its viability which look, frankly, like fantasy. But games are being played. Shetland Arts and its team of ‘Placemakers’ (note: Shetland was a ‘place’ and will be one long after the last arts executive ships out) have admitted there will be a financial overspend, but that the extent will not become clear until around a year after Mareel opens. Consultancy fees, architects, engineers, chickens coming home to roost, that sort of thing. Let’s say an extra million. Or two.

The game, or the gamble, is that by the time the debts have to be paid, we’ll love Mareel to the extent that living without it, seeing it mothballed, will be unthinkable. And the Council and/or the Charitable Trust will pay up. With help from a carefully cultivated Scottish Arts.

We’ll see. The next scenario to be punted will be that the Council, with its administration largely centred next door at the North Ness, could pay up, take control  and then use Mareel as a debating chamber and public space, with Shetland Arts as ‘spatial  management consultants for leisure and culture.’

Dearie me. As I say, I’ll miss the Town Hall.

Tom Morton


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