The Merchant Navy’s official flag, the red ensign, was flown throughout Shetland yesterday to mark Merchant Navy Day.
The day aims to raise awareness of the UK’s ongoing dependence on merchant seafarers, to support their future and remember the sacrifices of those lost at sea, including in two world wars.
At the NAFC Marine Centre in Scalloway staff, students and visitors celebrated the day with MSP Tavish Scott.
Mr Scott hoisted the red ensign there as part of a UK-wide series of events to mark the day. Piper Gussie Angus provided a musical accompaniment and the accommodation ship Gemini berthed in Scalloway Harbour sounded her siren.
Fishermen’s Mission superintendent Aubrey Jamieson then offered a prayer for seafarers past and present.
Guests heard from a number of speakers who reflected on aspects of the Merchant Navy, both past and present.
Captain George Sutherland spoke about the history of Shetland’s involvement and the training of seafarers locally. Some of NAFC cadets spoke about their own experiences on board merchant ships in different trades, illustrated with photographs taken at sea in many parts of the world.
Nautical lecturer Siddhartha Paul spoke about the problems of modern day piracy, and Joe Kay from Whalsay shared some of the information he had collected on Shetlanders’ careers at sea during the age of sail.
Mr Scott said: “The men and women of the Merchant Navy underpin Shetland’s economy. The local seafood industry is worth £351 million to our economy. That is exported by seafarers.
“The Marine Centre’s cadet and marine engineering programmes are about Shetland’s future as islands surrounded and dependent on the sea.
“Merchant Navy Day began in September 2000, providing an opportunity to remember the sacrifices of the seafarers of the past, to show appreciation for present day British shipping and to look ahead to the future of British shipping.”
The significance of 3rd September, also the date of Britain’s declaration of war in 1939, is the sinking of the SS Athenia which was the first UK ship sunk during the conflict.
According to Shetland Library, Shetland lost a higher proportion of men than any other British county, obviously most acutely felt at sea.
In one year of the conflict alone, 4,500 ships sailed from Lerwick – 248 of Shetland’s 357 war loses were merchant seamen.
Mr Scott said: “Shetland has made an enormous contribution to the Merchant Navy over many decades. Today is an occasion to reflect on the past and look forward to the future and I am delighted to be part of this special day.”
Shetland Islands Council flew the red ensign at Lerwick Town Hall to acknowledge the day.
Convener Malcolm Bell said: “I am delighted once again to support Merchant Navy Day, something that Shetland Islands Council has done every year since its inception.
“As an island community, of course we all have such a close connection with the sea and we rely on merchant shipping for many aspects of our life.
“This day is also about recognising the sacrifice made by those brave seafarers who have fought to maintain our supplies during periods of conflict. We have lost Shetlanders to the sea too and on this day we should remember them, and others like them.”
The red ensign, also known as the red duster, was also flown in Unst at the leisure centre as a mark of respect to the many Merchant Navy personnel who gave their lives in the last two world wars.