Second Shetland Truck System Report

Author: William Guthrie

Baltasound, Unst, January 19, 1872, James Hay, Examined.

10,519. You are a merchant in Haroldswick?-I was. I sold groceries and some soft goods; but I have given up that business now and turned farmer.

10,520. Were you engaged in fish-curing?-A little. I had one boat at one time but not now.

10,521. With what class of people was your business chiefly done?-Just with the neighbours,-tenants and fishermen.

10,522. Was it a ready-money business generally?-It was that system I liked. I ran some accounts; but I rather liked ready money.

10,523. You were not extensively engaged in fishcuring, and in that way you had no security for long accounts?-No.

10,524. Was that the only reason why you preferred a ready-money system?-I preferred it, thinking the system would work better once it had had a fair beginning.

10,525. Did you find that it worked fairly well with you?-I had not enough experience of it to say that, because the other system had been so long in existence that it was difficult to make an exception.

10,526. You mean that the credit system has prevailed so long, and is so deeply rooted in Shetland, that it was difficult to carry on business in any other way-Yes.

10,527. Have you formed any conclusions on that subject which you are now prepared to state?-My own conviction is, that if a ready-money system was once in operation, and had a fair start, it would work better than the present system.

10,528. But how are you prepared to give it a start?-I think that if the men were paid their money monthly or fortnightly, that would make them feel their independence better. Perhaps they would husband their means better; and if there were those among them who were careless about it, they would be taught a lesson when the year was done, which would serve as a warning for them in time to come. There might, however, be a difficulty in beginning such a system. I can remember, and others present will remember it too, two or three years of bad fishing, followed by a year of blight, when the man who wrought most anxiously and was honest-hearted could not meet the demands upon him.
At such times, if there was no qualification or mitigation of the ready-money system, perhaps the men might get into difficulty.

10,529. But do you not think that with that system of fortnightly payments a respectable fisherman and tenant would get credit just as easily as he gets it now?-I believe he would.

10,530. From a greater number of persons, and on more advantageous terms?-I think he would.

10,531. Do you think there would be more places open to respectable fishermen, at which they could get credit if it was absolutely required in a bad season?-Yes.

10,532. I suppose in a bad season now no merchant would give credit to the fishermen unless he was secure of their services for next season?-I should suppose so.

10,533. Therefore the fishermen, as a rule, are shut up to the one shop?-Yes, it comes to that.

10,534. Where fishermen were paid monthly or fortnightly, and you knew a man to be a respectable man, would you, as a merchant, have any hesitation in a bad season in giving him a reasonable amount of credit for the support of his family?-I
would have no hesitation in doing that at all, and I have done it.

10,535. Even under the old system?-Yes, under the old system.
I have done so, from a charitable feeling for the men in their necessities.

10,536. Did you think that in such cases you were likely to be repaid?-In some cases I saw the urgency of the case, and I gave the man supplies from sympathy, whether I might be paid for them or not.

10,537. But do you think you would be more likely to obtain repayment if there was an open system, and the whole country was not monopolized by one or two great firms?-I think so; because if the men were paid their money I think they would feel more independent, and they would, so to say, eke out that money in the most economical way, and thus be better off.

10,538. Probably, also, they would not be encouraged to run so very much into debt with any merchant as they are at present?-
I think they would not. If the system were altered, and cash payments introduced, I think the men would feel that they could not ask credit to such a large extent as they do now, except in cases of urgent necessity.

10,539. So that, if these very large accounts were not incurred, the ordinary merchants, fairly competing, would not run so much risk?-I think so.

10,540. Do you think the large credits given by the fish-curing firms tend to increase the risk to the small merchant in the country who does not engage in fishcuring?-It may do so. I know that after the years of bad fishing, followed by a year of blight which I
have mentioned, or emergencies like that, the merchants, such as
Spence & Co., and others, had to lay out a great deal of money from the urgent necessity of the case, and to supply families who were almost starving.

10,541. Has it been your experience that it is difficult for small merchants to begin business and to succeed in Shetland?-I cannot say that I have had much experience of that.

10,542. Are you aware that some merchants have lately been obliged to give up their business in Unst, in consequence of the monopoly which had been obtained by a single firm?-I have heard that stated; but I had a lease of the place where I lived, and that did not apply to me.

10,543. You gave up business voluntarily?-Yes. I found a farm necessary for my family, and I thought I would be better with it.

10,544. Do you think there has been a great improvement in the condition of the people within the last twenty or thirty years?-I
think there has been.

10,545. Have they got more money in their hands?-I believe the present year has been a very good one [Page 256] for them; but there were some seasons, a few years back, when it was different.
A great deal depends upon the returns from the fishing.

10,546. But, apart from the variableness of seasons-because the seasons have always been variable-and taking the state of
Shetland now and twenty or thirty years ago, do you think there has been an improvement for the better?-I cannot say there has been much in the way of improvement. Perhaps there has been some.

10,547. Are the people more independent now than they were then?-I cannot say as to that.

10,548. Do you think they are as dependent now as ever?-I
cannot say; the thing is so much fluctuating, because it depends upon a year or two of failure in fishing and blight, and that brings them down.

10,549. About twenty or thirty years ago were not many of the people bound to fish for their landlords or tacksmen?-I think they were. That was the case twenty years ago fully more than it is now.

10,550. At that time they were actually bound by the conditions under which they held their land?-I understand so.

10,551. But now they are told they are free?-Yes. They know now that they are at liberty to fish to whom they please; but I don’t know if that was the general notion before.

10,552. That is, that they will not be turned out of their land if they comply with certain regulations on certain estate

10,553. But suppose Mr. Johnston were to start half a dozen boats,
would he get them manned?-I don’t know whether he would get so many as that, but he might.

10,554. Suppose you were to start half a dozen boats, could you get them manned?-I cannot say.

10,555. Has anybody tried that within the last half dozen years?-I
am not aware that it has been tried. I believe the men understood that they were bound to fish for the merchants who supplied them with boats, and who gave them supplies for their families, and they did not like to make a change. But now, when the men know that they have their liberty so far, I suppose they would be inclined to go to the merchant who offered them the highest price for their fish.


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Chicago: William Guthrie, "Baltasound, Unst, January 19, 1872, James Hay, Examined.," Second Shetland Truck System Report, trans. D’Anvers, N. (Nancy Bell), D. 1933 in Second Shetland Truck System Report Original Sources, accessed September 25, 2022,

MLA: Guthrie, William. "Baltasound, Unst, January 19, 1872, James Hay, Examined." Second Shetland Truck System Report, translted by D’Anvers, N. (Nancy Bell), D. 1933, in Second Shetland Truck System Report, Original Sources. 25 Sep. 2022.

Harvard: Guthrie, W, 'Baltasound, Unst, January 19, 1872, James Hay, Examined.' in Second Shetland Truck System Report, trans. . cited in , Second Shetland Truck System Report. Original Sources, retrieved 25 September 2022, from