Second Shetland Truck System Report

Author: William Guthrie

Lerwick, January 9, 1872, Peter Mouat Sandison, Examined.

5141. You are inspector of poor in the parish of Fetlar and North
Yell?-I am.

5142. You were formerly engaged in the fish-curing trade?-I was,
for a considerable time.

5143. Have you heard the evidence of any of the witnesses who have been examined here to-day?-I have.

5144. Was the mode of paying for fish, and the way in which the accounts of the fishermen were settled at the end of the year, much the same in Yell when you were engaged in the business as you have heard described?-Yes, the settlement was much the same.

5145. Was it made about the same season of the year?-It was generally made about 20th November on towards the end of the year.

5146. Does the fisherman who is employed there by a merchant usually open an account in that merchant’s books for provisions and soft goods and other things which he wants for his family?-
Yes, he does, almost invariably.

5147. In your experience, is that account pretty nearly even on the two sides, or is there a balance due on the one side or on the other at the end of the year?-That, of course, depends a great deal upon the party who is running the account. There is a difference in men as well as in merchants and fish-curers. Some have larger families and require a great deal more supplies than others. Some have smaller families, and the produce of their own farms can serve them for a longer period in the year than others. From various causes the amount of their supplies is very different; but for the last three years I should say there have been only about 20 to 25
per cent of them who have not had money to get at settlement.

5148. It has been said that it is an important thing for the success of a merchant to get his fishermen into debt to him, so that he may secure their services for the succeeding year: would you consider that a safe policy to pursue on the part of a merchant?-I was a fish-curer and merchant for twelve years myself, and I am always considered it to be the best policy to have clear men

5149. Did you find that, as a rule, the best men were clear in your books?-Decidedly. I never found that debt afforded me any hold whatever upon a man.

5150. Then you found the case to be rather the reverse of what I
have stated?-Yes; and the reason why I think it was the reverse is, that no man was in debt who could help it, and generally a man who was in debt was found to be an extravagant, careless man, or there was something wrong with him. Whenever a man got a certain depth into debt, he did not care how much deeper he went;
and if I refused him further supplies at the shop, then he just went to another merchant.

5151. Or he might go south?-Occasionally he did, but not often.
These kind of men don’t go south.

5152. But if he went to another man, you could charge him for your debt?-Yes; my only recourse was to summon him; but what was the use of doing that. I would only have lost the expense of my summons, because he had nothing that I could take from him;
or if he had anything, his landlord generally came in with his right of hypothec.

5153. Could you not arrest the proceeds of his fishing in the hands of the other merchant to whom he had gone?-No; I think that is not legal. I have tried it, but I could not succeed. A considerable number of the men who left me one year went to another fishcurer,
who happened to be their own proprietor. He had not been curing fish previously. I summoned several of them; and with one of them especially I had a case in court in Lerwick for a considerable time. It was ultimately decided that the merchant, as proprietor,
should pay the expense to which I had been at; but as to the account, I did not get one penny of it. I got my expenses and nothing more. I give it up as hopeless case.

5154. Had these fishermen been obliged to leave your service and go to fish for their proprietor?-Yes; at that time they were obliged to do so.

5155. He had regarded it as part of the obligation under which they held their land that they should fish for him?-He had not been carrying on the fishing previously; and he allowed the men to fish for me, or, least, for the firm which I was conducting; but when he took the fishing into his own hands, he required his men to fish for himself.

5156. I suppose he agreed to pay the expenses of the case you mentioned because he felt it was some hardship to you to deprive you of the services of these men?-It was his lawyer and mine, I
think, who agreed together about the expenses.

5157. Was the proprietor to whom you refer Mr. Henderson?-No.

5158. Was it Mr M’Queen?-No.

5159. Was he a proprietor in Yell?-Yes.

5160. How many fishermen did you generally employ?-At one time I employed 90.

5161. Would the whole of these men have accounts in your shop books?-Yes.

5162. Can you give me some idea of what amount of the proceeds of their fishing would be paid for by their account for goods?-
The lowest amount that I ever had in an account for goods, when I
settled with a man, was 21/2d. for a whole twelvemonth-the man got the rest in cash; and the highest, if I remember right, was somewhere about £10. 10s.

5163. What balance would remain due to that man?-Some years,
of course, he would be in debt; but in other years he would have something to get.

5164. Was it a very good year in which the man had taken ten guineas worth from your shop, or was that about the average amount of their shop accounts?-I am talking about the average accounts for the twelve years during which I was carrying on the business. In the last year when I carried on the business on my own account, the most money I paid to any man for fish was £22.

5165. What would be the amount of that man’s contra account for goods?-I think about six guineas.

5166. Would that be a fair specimen of the accounts?-No; that was an extra year. There was an extra quantity of fish taken, and an extra price paid for them; and that man’s boat, I think, was the highest fished boat an the whole station.

5167. But would that be a fair specimen of the amount of goods which a man took throughout the season?-No.

[Page 128]

5168. Do you think it would be more, or less, an average?-It would be more than the average. I should say that about £3, 10s.
would be a pretty fair average in our quarter, taking young men,
tenants, and non-tenants all together.

5169. Is it the practice in the trade in Yell to give the fisherman a state of his account at the end of the year?-No; it is not the practice.

5170. Or a pass-book?-We always wanted them to keep a pass-book, but they would very seldom do it. They could not be troubled with it. Sometimes they would take a pass-book and bring it for a few times, and then, perhaps, they would not bring it again for month.

5171. Does that arise from their own carelessness; or is it from a notion that the shopkeeper cannot be troubled entering the goods in a book as they are got, because he is too busy to do so?-I never knew that to be the case; but I have heard many of the men say they had confidence in their merchant, and that they would not be bothered to keep a pass-book.

5172. When that was the case, did you, at the settlement, read over the accounts to the fishermen item by item?-Yes, in most cases; but some men won’t be at the bother of even hearing their accounts read over. They just say, ’We know you won’t cheat us,’
and they hear the sum-total.

5173. Then it is their own fault if they do not know what their account contains?-Of course it is.

5174. Is it the men who make the settlement with you, or their wives?-The men, generally.

5175. Then they don’t know what they have got out of the shop, if it is their wives who have been dealing there?-Probably not; but there is a whole day given to the settlement with these men, and they have plenty of time to examine into their accounts if they think there anything wrong.

5176. Did you do anything in hosiery?-I did.

5177. When you bought hosiery goods, did you usually send them to the south?-Yes.

5178. Did you send any to merchants in Lerwick?-I generally sent knitted goods to the south; and the worsted I sent to Lerwick.

5179. You bought worsted yourself?-Yes; yarn made by the country people themselves with their own wool.

5180. What is the usual price for Shetland worsted?-From 2d. to
7d. per cut.

5181. That comes to how much per pound?-We never take it by the pound; we always take it by the cut. 7d. a cut would, I
suppose, be about 2s. 6d. per ounce, or 40s. per pound.

5182. Would not that be very fine?-Yes.

5183. Would it be the finest Shetland worsted that is made?-I
think it is. I have never bought any finer than that, and I have not been aware of any being bought finer.

5184. Then you sold that to merchants in Lerwick at some per centage of profit to yourself?-Not one cent. I never, in all my experience, got a cent for worsted beyond what I paid for it, and I
never asked it.

5185. Do you think the worsted you have mentioned is the finest and dearest worsted that is sold out of the island to any merchant?-I do.

5186. Did you ever know of any worsted being sold out of Yell as high as 80s. or 90s. per pound?-I may be making a mistake the weight. I was guessing 4 cuts to the ounce; but perhaps I may be below the mark. The 7d. worsted I know is very fine; but never weighed it, and I may be making an unintentional mistake in that respect.

5187. The 7d. worsted might be lighter than you suppose, and therefore a pound of it might be more expensive?-Yes.

5188. Is it a common thing to have worsted so fine as that?-No; it is the exception.

5189. The average will be a good deal lower?-I should think 3d.
would be about the average.

5190. In dealing with people in Yell, you keep an account with the fisherman?-Yes.

5191. Is there any separate account kept for supplies with the wife and family?-Yes; there are separate accounts kept with them. I
don’t suppose there are many families in the north in which each member, after arriving at a certain age does not keep a separate account.

5192. Is that in consequence of their being employed in the fish trade, or from their having hosiery of their own making to dispose of?-I don’t think it is; but the husband or father is generally at the fishing, and he supplies the heavy goods that are required for the family-meal and such like-so far as he is able. Then the wife has wool, which she either spins into worsted, or perhaps may sell.
She comes to the merchant herself with it and makes her own bargain. Perhaps she may be due a little when she comes with this day’s supplies for stuff that she has been buying, and anything she is due may be put to her own account; the next day she may have a little over, and that is credited to her account. Then the girls, as soon as they are able to knit, go to the shop on their own account too with their knitting and with their spinning, and the merchant upon his responsibility opens an account with them, if he thinks proper; and they go on with these accounts until perhaps they are married.

5193. Then hosiery is generally paid for in Yell with goods?-
There is seldom anything asked for except goods.

5194. The account for goods is added up on the one side, and the account for hosiery on the other, and it is squared up now and then?-The value of the hosiery is generally given in goods at the time when the hosiery is sold.

5195. In Yell the hosiery is always sold; it is not made to order?-
No; there is no making to order in Yell.

5196. Is there a separate book kept for those dealings with the females from that in which you enter your dealings with the fishermen?-I think in most cases there is a separate book. At any rate I kept a separate book, but I cannot speak for others.

5197. It has been said that that book is called the women’s book: is that so?-That was the name I gave to it.

5198. But you don’t know whether other merchants give it that name?-No; but I gave it that name because I had no other entries in it except the accounts had against women.

5199. I understand it was only the home-fishing that you engaged?-Yes.

5200. You had nothing to do with the Faroe fishing?-No.

5201. Do you think it would be any advantage for the merchants or for the fishermen if the price to be given for the fish were fixed at the commencement of the fishing season?-I think that would be an advantage to the merchants, but not for the fishermen.

5202. How would the merchants benefit by that?-Because they would then have no bargain to make with the fishermen.

5203. They would have to make a bargain at the commencement of the year?-Yes; but suppose the bargain were to be, that the fish were to be paid for at 8s. per cwt.; in that case the fishermen would require to own his own boat and his own lines, and furnish them himself, and the fish-curer or merchant would have no risk and no loss, but would just pay exactly for what he got. But in the case as it at present stands, the merchant has to furnish the boat and lines, and salt, and everything connected with the fishing, and he has the chance in North Yell, as is very often the case, of losing
£5 or £10 or £15 worth of lines in one day in the deep water. The lines are often left there, and the men cannot get them.

5204. In what why does the merchant furnish the boat to the men?-He buys the boat, and hires it, as well as the lines, to six men.

5205. What is the amount of the hire?-£6 per season for boat and lines.

5206. And that sum is deducted from the credit side of the fisherman’s account?-Yes. The six men come forward to me as a fish-curer, and they wish me to [Page 129] employ them for the fishing. I do so, and I give them a boat which, if it is a new boat ready for sea, will cost £20. I also give them new lines, which,
along with the boat, will cost altogether from £35 to £40. They agree to pay me £6 of hire for that for the time they use it, and to deliver the fish caught by them with these lines and in that boat to me. No price is fixed for the fish, but it is the general understanding that they are to be paid at the highest currency of the country. Well, they go to the fishing, and perhaps the very first day, as I have known to be the case, they may have lost £15 worth of lines; and as soon as they come ashore, they come to me, and I
have to give them other £15 worth.

5207. Do they not pay for the lines they have lost in that case?-
Not one penny; I take the risk. The sum which I charge covers all risk, and that is all I get.

5208. Then the fishermen have not much inducement to be careful of the lines or of the boat?-Oh yes; because if they lose lines,
they lose fish; and if they lose the boat, they stand a chance of losing their own lives. I have not been a fisherman myself, but I
should fancy that no fisherman would willingly lose lines if he could help it.

5209. Is it not the case that fishermen sometimes buy the boat from the curer, and pay for it by instalments running over a certain number of years?-Not in Yell.

5210. You have had no experience of that system of dealing?-I
cannot say that I have.

5211. Do you think it is of great importance to a fish-curer here to have fishermen bound to fish for him? Does it tend greatly to ensure his success in the fishing trade?-I don’t know very well how to answer that question. I had fishermen bound to me during the period of my lease-about sixty of them I suppose.

5212. Was that a lease which you held of an estate in Yell?-Yes;
Major Cameron’s.

5213. Did you lease the whole of Major Cameron’s property in
North and Mid Yell?-Yes.

5214. Were these men all bound to fish for you?-They were leased over to my brother, and I wrought out the business for him,
but the men were never compelled in any way. About one-third of them were south-going men, and I should think about one-sixth of them fished to others.

5915. You did not enforce the obligation which you understood them to be under?-No; I never enforced it in any case but one.

5216. Had you always enough men to man your boats with?-We had men belonging to other proprietors, and other proprietors had men belonging to us, and none of us ever enforced that obligation except in one case, and that was merely in order that we might put out a boat to sea. There were five men engaged for the boat, and we could not get another free man, so we had to take one.

5217. Was that long since?-Yes; it was in 1855. But I know of men who have been offered this year and last year to get their money every Saturday night, or every day when they landed fish,
and they would not accept it. These were men who were thoroughly clear.

5218. Was it wages they were offered, or a price for the fish they delivered?-A price for the fish they delivered. Suppose they delivered 20 cwt. of fish to me, I would pay them for these fish.

5219. How was the price to be fixed in that case?-It would be fixed at once.

5220. Would it be fixed at the beginning of the year?-Yes.

5221. Is it long since you proposed that arrangement to any man?-It was at the settlement of 1870.

5222. Did you offer to pay certain men in that way at that time?-I
did not do it, because I was not in the fishing at that time, but I
was present when it was offered. It was the parties for whom I
was curing fish at that time who offered the money.

5223. Was that Spence & Co.?-Yes.

5224. The offer was made to men in Yell?-Yes.

5225. And the men declined that offer?-Yes; they declined taking it. They said if they had as much money as would carry them through the year, they would rather not take any more, but that they could trust to the merchants.

5226. Was that offer made to many men?-To all their men in
Yell. There were 30 boats, with six men in each boat, and that offer was made to the whole of them at Cullivoe. The same offer was repeated this year, and they still would not accept of it. They accept of not take their cash until the end of the year.

5227. Was that because they wanted to have something at the end of the year with which to pay their rent?-I suppose that would be one of their reasons; but they were afraid that if they got their cash every Saturday, or every fortnight, or every month, they would spend it carelessly and thoughtlessly, whereas they did not have the money, they could not spend it.

5228. Are there any leases in Yell now?-Scarcely any.

5229. Have there been leases introduced lately?-No; but there have been some offered-on Major Cameron’s estate, and on Mr.

5230. Do these leases contain any conditions as to fishing?-No.

5231. Were the conditions such as would interfere with fishing, or do you know anything about that?-Mr. Irvine’s leases were not such as to interfere with the fishing in any way, and I think there were three persons who accepted them. With regard to the other leases, I do not say they were such as would interfere with the fishings. There was a certain amount of work required to be done on the farms during the year, but I think all that was required could have been done when there was no fishing being prosecuted. At that season, what I would call the fishing was not going on.

5232. But the tenants have not accepted that offer?-There are two on Major Cameron’s property who are under lease, I believe,
or who understand they are under leases. I am not aware if the lease has ever been signed; I think not.

5233. The poor-rates in your parish, I understand are not so high as in some parts of Shetland?-I suppose not. They are 3s. for
1872-1s. 6d. on the proprietor and 1s. 6d. on the tenant.

5234. Can you say, from your experience as an inspector of poor,
that pauperism is promoted in any degree by the system which prevails of settling only once a year?-No; I should not say it was increased in any way by that.

5235. Does not that system of long settlements induce people to be a little careless about their money, and improvident?-There are a certain class who, if they had money, would spend it. That class are pretty well looked after by the fish-curer; they are only allowed advances in such small proportions as enable them to get through the year, and to be as little in arrear as possible at the end. If these same parties had the money in their hands, I am certain it would not last them so long as it does in the fish-curer’s hands.

5236. That is to say, he will only allow them a certain amount of supplies from the shop?-Yes; so much a week or a fortnight.

5237. Or cash if they want it, but to a limited extent?-Yes; I
should think that cash would be given to a free man.

5238. But not to a bound fisherman?-Not unless it was for a necessary purpose-to purchase something, for instance, which the merchant cannot supply.

5239. If a man is bound to fish to a proprietor or tacksman in Yell,
is that man bound to deal at the shop of his employer?-By no means.

5240. By a free man, do you mean one who is not in debt?-Yes.
I don’t mean to say that cash would be absolutely refused even to a man who was in debt, but it would not be given to him unless it was for a necessary purpose.

5241. Can you explain how beach boys are generally employed in
Yell?-Yes, I ought to have a pretty good idea of it.

[Page 130]

5242. Is an account opened at the shop at the same time that the engagement is made in the beach boy’s name, from which he can get supplies if he wishes them?-Yes, sometimes.

5243. So that when he becomes a beach boy, he is virtually independent of his father?-Not always. The fish-curer would prefer not to open an account with him until the end of the season,
because generally, when a beach boy gets an account opened, he will overrun it if he possibly can. Therefore we prefer not to open an account with the boys themselves, but to deal with their fathers,
which we very often do. In the case, however, of an orphan boy,
or a boy who has got extravagant or helpless parents, we open an account with himself.

5244. Is there any difficulty in procuring the services of beach boys?-I never knew of any difficulty. I have cured fish since
1859, and I never had power over one, and I never wanted to have it.

5245. You had not power over them even where you had the fishermen bound to you?-No; they have not been bound for the last seven years while I have been curing.

5246. Is it seven years since those fishermen on Major Cameron’s estate were bound?-Yes.

5247. At that time did the obligation apply to their families?-No.

5248. Then the boys were not obliged to be engaged to you as beach boys?-No; we took any boy who was most convenient for ourselves, without taking into consideration whose tenant his father was.

5249. It has been said that there is an inclination on the part of the fish merchant to get the beach boys into his debt, so as to secure their services in the following year: is there any foundation for that statement?-I have heard it said, but I never could believe it was the case.

5250. Are the boys always quite ready to engage for that work?-
They are always very anxious to engage for it, because always before they enter on hard labour they are able to take a turn on the beach, and they get something for that.

5251. But what they get for it is generally settled for in goods at the end of the year?-No, not generally. If a boy runs an account himself, it is settled in goods; but if it is an account with his father,
it is settled in cash.

5252. May the proportion of the boys who have an account of their own be about one-half or about one-third of them?-I should say that for the last three years three-fourths of them have got an account of their own; but then they were not boys. Although they get the name of boys, they were old men and women.

5253. You mean that women are employed in that part of the work?-Yes.

5254. What are their wages?-In 1870 the parties under my control had from £4, 10s. down to 35s. according to age and ability; and in 1871 the people employed were all boys except one man: the boys had from 25s. to 35s., and the man had £3.

5255. Are you still in the fish-curing business?-Yes; I cure their fish for Spence & Co.

5256. Have you a shop now?-No.

5257. Then you simply manage their curing business?-I merely dry their fish for them.

5258. And the persons you have spoken of just now are still employed by you for the purpose of curing?-Yes.

5259. How are their wages paid?-As I was curing Spence &
Co.’s fish, if they chose to go to Spence Co.’s at Uyea Sound in Unst, they got supplies there in an account, but only about one-fourth of them did so. The others got their supplies perhaps in the neighbouring shops. I cannot say where they got them,
but they got cash from Spence & Co. at settling time.

5260. Was that cash advanced during the season, or was it all paid at settlement?-It was all paid settlement. If they asked for an advance, they would get it, but I was not aware of any being advanced.

5261. But such advances as were made by Spence and Co. were made by taking goods from their shop?-Yes, so far as I know. I
also bought kelp for Spence & Co.

5262. Is there much done in kelp there?-Yes, good deal.

5263. What is the nature of that trade? Do you employ a number of people to gather the sea-weed?-It is women who do that.
They form themselves into companies of two or three or four;
they gather the seaweed and make the kelp, and then bring it to a merchant to sell. I had a lease of Major Cameron’s kelpshores,
but I transferred that lease to Spence & Co, and afterwards I
bought the kelp and delivered it over to them.

5264. Did the women pay anything to the proprietor for leave to collect the sea-weed?-No; but I paid 20s. a ton, or rather Spence
& Co. did.

5265. You paid that money for the exclusive right of purchasing from these women?-For the exclusive right of manufacturing kelp., We can employ people to collect it if we choose, but we think it better just to allow the women to do it themselves, without being forced in any way; and then we paid them 4s. per cwt. in cash for it, while we paid 20s. a ton to the proprietor and taxes.

5266. What taxes are there on the kelp?-Poor-rates, both as proprietor and tenant.

5267. Then 4s. per cwt. is the whole payment which these women receive for gathering the kelp and manufacturing it?-Yes.

5268. They manufacture it and bring it to you?-Yes.

5269. Are they paid entirely in cash?-They have been paid almost entirely in cash this year, but not altogether.

5270. They have the option of running an account for it at the shop?-Yes, if they choose to do so; but if they ask cash, they get it.

5271. Are you aware of any restriction being imposed upon tenants in Yell with regard to the disposing of their cattle or other stock on their ground?-I have known an instance or two of that during my experience in North Yell, but very seldom.

5272. Has that been done when they have been in debt to the merchant?-Yes; if they were in debt, almost beyond redemption.

5273. Then the merchant has interfered as a creditor merely?-Not the merchant, but the proprietor.

5274. Was it for his rent that he interfered?-Yes.

5275. In these cases was the proprietor a merchant as well?-Yes,
in some cases.

5276. And he has interfered both for his rent, and for the account due to him as a merchant?-I cannot say about him being a merchant. I always understood it was done for rent. I have known of cattle being taken according to law for a shop account.

5277. You mean that they were poinded?-Yes, by a Sheriff’s warrant.

5278. But is there any practice in Yell of a man marking his cattle as belonging to a merchant to whom he is in debt?-No; I never knew that done.

5279. Or coming under an obligation not to sell them to any one except that merchant?-I could quite believe that a tenant would offer his cow or his pony, or whatever it might be, to the proprietor; but I am not aware of any one being compelled to do so in North Yell. I have myself marked a cow of a defaulting tenant when I was acting as my brother’s agent, and as lessee of Major
Cameron’s property, but that was for the rent.

5280. Did you mark it and allow it to remain on the ground?-
Yes; I allowed it to continue in the tenant’s hands until I might think fit to remove it.

5281. Was that man in debt to you as well?-He was in debt as a tenant only for rent.

5282. Was he not also in debt for goods supplied?-No; because he was not a fisherman; he was a sailor.

5283. Would you give a higher price for kelp than 4s. a cwt. if the women had taken payment of it in goods?-No; there was an understanding at one time that parties would get 6d. less if they took it in cash, [Page 131] but for the last two years, in my experience with Spence & Co., and formerly with myself, the women have been quite at liberty to take cash or goods, and 4s.
was the price. According to the terms of my lease, I was bound to pay nothing less than 4s. to the parties who made it.


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Chicago: William Guthrie, "Lerwick, January 9, 1872, Peter Mouat Sandison, Examined.," Second Shetland Truck System Report, trans. D’Anvers, N. (Nancy Bell), D. 1933 in Second Shetland Truck System Report Original Sources, accessed March 18, 2019,

MLA: Guthrie, William. "Lerwick, January 9, 1872, Peter Mouat Sandison, Examined." Second Shetland Truck System Report, translted by D’Anvers, N. (Nancy Bell), D. 1933, in Second Shetland Truck System Report, Original Sources. 18 Mar. 2019.

Harvard: Guthrie, W, 'Lerwick, January 9, 1872, Peter Mouat Sandison, Examined.' in Second Shetland Truck System Report, trans. . cited in , Second Shetland Truck System Report. Original Sources, retrieved 18 March 2019, from