In Days Gone By
The Shetland Times (2021)
Buy it here
In Days Gone By, Charlie Simpson’s latest book is a newly published collection of essays that Charlie has written over the years and published in the Shetland Times newspaper. Across 20 pieces, Charlie covers much of 20th-century life in Shetland, from salt herring and wartime sinkings to developing the islands’ infrastructure and services.
From a social history point of view, I found the book fascinating. I also really enjoyed that you can dip in and out of the book at leisure, without having to read it from cover to cover. This is a book you can pick up and put down between other reads as each chapter can be read as part of the broader island narrative or as a stand-alone deep dive into a particular aspect of our island history. It sat on our coffee table throughout the festive period, where I dipped in and out at leisure and between food binges and seasonal films.
Several of the chapters stood out to me as favourites. I found the chapter on Communications fascinating, as well as the look at the islands’ Utilities – it’s just mind-boggling how far technological advancement has come from those first telegrams that were sent through the wires and the eradication of dung heaps that were the hallmarks of every lane in Lerwick before the introduction of sewage and drainage systems.
Another stand out essay for me was looking at R & C Robertson general grocers that operated from where the Camera Centre now trades. It gave an idea of what the ‘halcyon’ days of Lerwick’s Commercial Street looked like in the 50s and 60s when the street was thronged with butchers and bakers rather than empty stores. Building on this was the chapter simply called Going Shopping that traces the history of commerce across the isles, from town to country and beyond.
I also really enjoyed reading more about Hay’s Dock. After working at the Shetland Museum for 10 years, I’m familiar with – and attached to – the area and often wondered what it might have looked like in its heyday.
Charlie includes several chapters about the various Nort’ Boats that have plied our northern waters and his time working on them in the 1960s. Shetlanders hold such feelings of nostalgia for the old steamers. It was lovely to read Charlie’s recollections from his time there – especially as I only remember the last Clair and Sunniva but, again, working in the museum, there was a sizeable collection of artefacts from the North of Scotland, Orkney & Shetland Steam Navigation Company. Hence, the old boats were all too familiar to me, despite them being ‘before my time’.
Looking through the contents page, the book may appear to be a random collection of memories, stories and recollections – and that it is – but it’s a terrific snapshot of a time that is falling outside living memory and one that, for my generation, is a time that we will only ever read about in books. I, for one, am grateful to Charlie for putting pen to paper and for his diligent research and for the many interviews included in each essay. If poked to be critical, I’d maybe suggest reordering the essays/chapters a little, possibly more by theme and or chronologically – but that is nitpicking. As I said, one of the great things about this publication is that the reader can pick it up and choose any chapter to dive into.
Most of the essays are based around maritime topics and the sea or shipping, with at least three articles based on the north boats alone. This is definitely a book for anyone with a seafaring past or a close association with the sea. However, there is something for everyone with chapters that look at the social history of the isles throughout the last century and interesting and unexpected topics such as the life and work of the great musician Dr Tom Anderson.
Today, we are a people obsessed with reducing our carbon footprints – and rightly so – yet this has not always been the case. Charlie’s chapter examining the days of steam gave an interesting insight into what Lerwick looked like in the 1950s at the end of the age of coal and steam – particular for us younger readers who have no recollection of a town that more often than not, lay under a blanket of thick coal smog and clotheslines that required a wash before washing was hung out to dry! I found it quite hilarious to read that the paddle steamer Ann & Jane had a sailing ship filled with coal follow her as she made the round trip to Shetland to ensure that she had enough coal to complete the journey – the irony!
A few of the essays – particularly the one about Steam Power – were a little technical for me, and I did glaze over a little. This is no reflection on Charlie’s research, rather my ignorance on the given topic. As I said, the detail would be welcomed for anyone with a maritime background, and it’s an invaluable piece of social history for future generations.
Like many books that look at the past, it’s hard to read Charlie’s book and not feel a twang of sadness for what’s been lost through the passage of time. I felt this most when reading the Steamer’s Store chapter when he describes the activity around Victoria Pier as “organised pandemonium” daily. It’s hard to imagine a Lerwick that’s bustling with activity, goods moving around, shop boys delivering to boats, and the smell and chaos of a thriving herring industry. Today, despite the marketing campaigns of Living Lerwick, the street can be as dead as a dodo – even on a fine day.
One thing that struck me as I read – particularly when reading the chapter Lerwick of 1963 was just how much Shetland has changed in the past half-century. In the 1960s, there were still areas of Shetland that had no electricity or piped water – now people greet about broadband speeds being slow in rural areas. If we stop and think, just for a moment, it’s incredible how far we’ve come within the space of a generation. Yet, it begs the question, how much have we lost too? To read that Papa Stour still had no electricity in the year I was born scares me – either I’m older than I feel, or modernity has marched in at a tremendous pace!
When I read about the graceful Earl of Zetland that trucked her way around the isles for almost 100 years, delivering passengers, mail and goods to our rural and island communities, the modern world, with all its technological advances, seems an awfully lonely place. We don’t have the same interactions that we did in the past; the hustle and bustle of unloading boats on a busy pier, the throngs of well-wishers waving of the steamer every night, and the trips to da Street for airrents every day. Today it’s all click and collect and next day delivery. The boat is out of town, and, except for when weather causes cancellations, we’re relatively unaware of its comings and goings.
I have to be careful about how sentimental I may sound when I speak about this book. I remember archivist Brian Smith telling me my writing was “too sentimental” – I think that was after I reviewed Charlie’s last book, Shetland’s Heritage of Sail (another excellent publication). I can’t help my sentimentality – I studied history and spend lots of time working in museums. I think long for those days of yore that I never saw.
Now, that’s surely a suitable amount of nostalgia, but, in all seriousness, despite Charlie’s book being slightly too technical for me in parts (and this is by no means a criticism!), it was jam-packed with information of all sorts about a Shetland that’s just out of my reach, one that my grandparents were very much at the heart of, and that I only read about in books or hear from stories. This work is sure to stand the test of time and will form a vital piece of social history for the last half-century and more.
My special thanks to Charlie – again – for another crucial piece of Shetland reading.
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