Second Shetland Truck System Report

Author: William Guthrie

Baltasound, Unst, January 19, 1872, John Spence, Examined.

10,556. You are the senior partner of the firm of Spence & Co?-I

10,557. You have heard the evidence which has been given by Mr.
Sandison and Mr. Mouat?-Yes.

10,558. Is there anything which you wish to explain further, or to add to their evidence?-Perhaps I may be allowed to read a letter which I wrote some time ago, and which shows my views and the company’s views with regard to the state of matters. It is a letter which was written by me to the other members of the company,
and it is dated 29th January 1870. It is as follows:

’Dear Sirs,-I have often spoken to you about adopting a cash system in all our dealings with the people but none of you seemed to think it would do. I of course would not press it in the meantime, though I am always more convinced that it would be a much better system than the present, and we should be gainers by it to a very great extent, if wrought as it should be; and, depend upon it, it will have to come in, and that not long to the time,
whether we will or not; so I would advise you to consider over it more than you have done. It will take no more capital, but even less than the present system does.

’If after further consideration, you still think it would not do, could it not then be possible that the price of fish could be fixed at the commencement of the fishing? Be assured that we will be forced into this, whether we will or not; and certainly it would be the proper way. The price of everything else that we deal in is generally fixed or agreed upon when the transaction is made, and why not do so with fish? We do it with winter fish, and what is to hinder us to do it with the summer ones? In no other part of the world that we know of is there such a system as we have. Look at the herring-curers south: I believe herrings would never keep at such a high price were it not that the price is fixed at the first. If we were to do the same with our fish, I have not the least hesitation in saying that we should have them all away and into cash as fast as they could be dried, because we should never keep them on hand when we could get a safe price for them; and the fact that we had got a certain price before we could be safe, would prompt us the more to seek to obtain it, and buyers would come to terms more quickly; indeed, the moment we agreed with the fishermen, we could at same time almost enter into a contract with a buyer or buyers for all our catch. It is often seen what a disagreeable thing it is to keep a large parcel of fish hanging on in the face of a fluctuating market, the chance being oftener against us than in our favour; and fish, in particular, being such a perishing article, the risk is very often great. Many other things could be brought in in support of our fixing the price of green fish when the fishing begins. If you do not think we could begin to it alone, it could only be a trial to correspond with all the other curers, and see if they would not join with Hay & Co., Adie, Anderson, Pole
& Hoseason, and any other you know of, and make the proposal.
Have a meeting of all the curers, say at Voe, or wherever it might be thought best, and try the thing. I am fully persuaded that circumstances, and that not long to the time, will compel us to it, if not to the cash system.

’Notice around you even and see how things are tending, and see how opposition is creeping in-of course against us. The old system we keep is the cause of it, to a good extent at least. Mr.
Sandison should correspond with some of the other curers; or could you not ask Mr. Adie to come to Unst? I think we often spoke of doing that before. I suppose he is friendly enough to us.
I am almost sure he would join us in the movement, and Pole &
Hoseason would do it, also Mr. Henderson. I trust you will give this matter your consideration, if it should come no further.
Shetland is behind it long long way, and a new kind of political economy is needed for it; and why should we not make the trial?-
When we formed into a company, everybody was made to understand that there would be improvements in many things-
which I hope there is-but we should go forward, and not stand still.’

The whole of us, as a company, were very anxious to adopt this system, but there were a great many difficulties that came in our way which we could scarcely control.

10,559. Were these difficulties raised on the part of the men?-
Not exactly. The men were anxious for the change, but they were misled and influenced, and we could not get a fair start. With regard to the old system of what may be called truck, I have looked into my books about forty years ago, and I see that it was the habit of all the fishermen then to prefer putting their produce into the hands of the dealers, and leaving it there till the end of the year for settlement. That has been altered by various things. I
object to the great number of small dealers, because I don’t think they develop the resources of the island to such a degree as they might; but if a large firm or firms, with the tenants in their own hands, and who are possessed of capital were to set about doing that, the resources of the island could be far more easily developed.

10,560. Would a large firm of that kind, engaged in fish-curing,
not make a fair profit, and carry on business in a satisfactory way,
if it left the supply of shop goods, draperies, and provisions to other dealers? Is it impossible in Shetland to separate between the fish merchant’s business and that of the drapery or provision dealer?-I think it is perfectly possible; and I think it would be the proper plan, that the fish-curing and dealing [Page 257] should be perfectly distinct; but then there would require to be special arrangements made for that purpose, in order to get it into working order for the benefit of all classes.

10,561. I suppose that at the summer stations, however, it is quite necessary that the fish-curer should keep a supply of provisions for his men?-Yes.

10,562. But when the men are in their own homes, would it not be quite possible for them to get their supplies from the ordinary shops supported by private enterprise throughout the country,
without having recourse to the man who was employing them?-
Of course it would; and if that system was honestly carried out the men would benefit by it, but if the trade was carried on by small shops, looking only to pounds, shillings, and pence, that would do the people injury.

10,563. In what way?-Because it would increase the number of small shops; and, as I say, these cannot develop the resources of the island as they ought to do. They would only be drawing means from the people which they could not apply in a proper way. For instance, take the herring fishing: Messrs. Hay & Co. are the principal herring-curers, and no small dealer could carry on that business in the way they do. They are carrying it on just now at a very heavy sacrifice, year after year, in the expectation that the herring will come; but if Messrs. Hay & Co. were to give up the business, and it were to fall into the hands of small dealers, there would be nobody to receive herrings when they did come.

10,564. Is not the herring fishing carried on only from Lerwick?-
It is sometimes carried on from here, when there are herrings on the coast.

10,565. But could not the fish-merchant make his arrangements so as to derive a sufficient profit from the sale of his fish without depending upon the profit that is derived from the sale of his goods?-It would be perfectly possible to make an arrangement of that kind; but the case of Shetland requires special arrangements in consequence of its peculiar position. If the fish could be sent off fresh to the market whenever the men came on shore with them,
and we had no more outlays upon them, then there might be a profit; but, as things are now, we must lay in heavy stocks for the incoming year.

10,566. Heavy stocks of what?-Of fishing materials and salt.
Spence & Co. must now order perhaps 150 tons of salt; and if we did not make arrangements with the men, that would become a loss.

10,567. But you could make arrangements with the men as early as you please, although the men were not dealing with your shop?-
We expect the preference, because I hold, and can prove in various ways, that the arrangement made with Mr. Walker was with a good intention. I think co-operation in the Shetland Islands is far more beneficial than competition. Competition between two poor merchants does not do any good, but an immense deal of injury;
and I think that, before it cash system is entered into, a full and thorough investigation should be made by the proprietors and the principal dealers, in order to see how it can be made to work best for the general good. The change can be made without injury to any one, but it must be done a certain way, and that can only be found out by such a special investigation as I have referred to.
Shetland is far behind, and I think the adoption of a cash system would be the means of increasing the number of dealers who would draw away the people’s means and be a bar against developing the resources of the country in a proper way. Some of these dealers would be rubbed; the people would be poorer; and no dealer even with capital would be inclined to go into the field in such circumstances. If they did, it would need to be under some sort of protective system; or if a dealer with capital came forward he would have every chance of obtaining a monopoly, and he might do great mischief.

10,568. Is there not a monopoly at present?-No, we don’t want it.
We only ask the fishermen to give us the preference, and any man who has cash to get can get it at any time he likes.

10,569. I don’t doubt that; but is there any competition in the shop trade in Unst just now?-There is no monopoly.

10,570. Is there not a monopoly on Major Cameron’s estate at least?-It is not a monopoly. I say that what we aimed at was rather co-operation; and if we got a fair chance there was a prospect of the fishermen, if they had money, participating along with us.

10,571. Is there any further statement you wish to make?-I
should like the men, if possible, to find boats for themselves.
It is not our fault that they don’t own them.

10,572. Do you encourage them to buy their boats?-Yes.

10,573. Have you not succeeded in that?-Since we have formed the company, we have had a great deal to contend with, and I have been in ill health, and so many enemies have been created against us, that with bad years we have found it difficult to go on; but I
hold, and can prove in various ways, that the arrangement we made was for the good of the tenants.

10,574. But in what way has the opposition excited against you prevented the men from buying their boats?-Any change in
Shetland, whether for good or ill, is sure to create opposition.

10,575. Has the opposition you have met with been among the fishermen?-No. If they are taken in hand properly, and made to understand matters, I have always found them quite reasonable,
but they have been badly influenced.

10,576. Has that influence been exercised by rival merchants?-It has arisen perhaps from want of knowledge, and from parties not knowing how such business should be carried on. It would be our aim to allow the men to receive cash for what they earn, but there are many difficulties which can only be rectified by proprietors and us and the tenants together.

10,577. Do you mean that the proprietor should place the fishermen altogether into your hands?-If the motive is good, I
think that should be the case. At least we should prefer to have the tenants to transact with us.

10,578. But would it not be far better that the tenants should stand on their own legs, and not be so entirely dependent on the large companies?-It would be better; but that should be gone into with great caution.

10,579. Don’t you think the fishermen are less independent now,
when there is only one large firm in Unst to whom they can deliver their fish, than they were when there were three competing merchants?-They may be in the meantime, but that always tends to harm.

10,580. What tends to harm?-Too much competition, because the country is too poor for it. It would be far better for the proprietors to take the men into their own hands to fish than to allow them to go to number of small dealers.*

*Mr. Spence afterwards wrote the following letter to the
’Lest it may have been thought that in giving my evidence before you I had approved of a monopoly, I now beg to send a written explanation of what I meant, as I afterwards said to you I
’There is nothing in a dealing way I so much dislike as a monopoly. What I wished to be understood was, that no number of small dealers, however willing, working as they do, can improve Shetland as it would really need; but that in order to develop the resources of the country thoroughly, it must be done by quite different means. There is no doubt but that a change is needed, but it should be merged into with caution, or it will do harm to some class. Shetland appears to be so far behind, that the people must serve an apprenticeship, as it were, to any change for their good. It occurred to me that some good might be done by all the dealers in Unst amalgamating, and by their united capitals and efforts carrying on business and the fishings on at sort of co-operative system; but it did not seem to be in accordance with a free-trade system, and was never tried, though, if properly conducted, I have no doubt it could have done some good.
’In reference to the cash system, you would see in the letter I
read, and left with you, the views I have held. We have hitherto,
for various reasons found some difficulty in adopting it fully, but we trust, ere long, to get it fairly introduced. One hindrance to us getting it fairly wrought, is owing to the way we are bound to the proprietors for the fishermen’s rents. This also appears to those who do not know the nature of the business, to be a monopoly;
because while we are thus bound we are compelled to a certain extent, to restrict such men who, from extravagant habits or other causes, cannot preserve their rents. It cannot be supposed that to such [Page 258] men we can hand over money-perhaps to be made a bad use of; and then, when rent time comes, have nothing to get from them, and often not having got any rent for boats and fishing materials. This is one thing in which there is great room for improvement in Shetland.
’As a member of a firm having the principal business in this land, I would beg to state that our mode of dealing seems to be greatly misunderstood by many; and it would be most desirable that an impartial investigation into the books and transactions of every other dealer in the island should be made, when, I have no doubt, matters would look something different. With regard to the fishermen, they are not bound to fish, and they were never told so.
I, for one, have urged upon them to improve their farms, so as to enable them to be independent of fishing, which I consider to be a most dangerous employment in such small boats. We pay them cash whenever they want it and have it to get. We do not monopolize our dealings. Could a proper investigation be made in other shops, I can venture to say that, on the whole, we sell cheaper than any other. Besides the other dealers in the island, the steamer runs twice a week in summer, and once in winter, from
Lerwick to here; and if the people wish to avail themselves of it,
they can get their supplies as easily from there as here. A public roup, advertised all over Shetland, is held once every year for the sale of cattle and ponies, where there is perfect freedom to buy and sell. There are many things we do for the people which are not generally known. I shall only mention one thing, to show what we have to combat with. 1868 and 1869 the fishings were small, and the crops so blighted, that seed and meal had to be imported,
and given out on credit to a great many, or else they would have starved. The effects of these two years tell against both the men and us for some time, but such occur occasionally; and it is dealers, standing as we do, that feel it most. We hold, as you are aware, a lease of a large portion of this island, and we are bound to see certain improvements carried out, which, being new here,
raises a hostile spirit against us by those who are not inclined to see our island made better. We try to introduce any other improvements that can be thought of, feeling assured that if we can get them accomplished, the people will be in much better circumstances than they are. While we are pressing these improvements, small dealers draw away the means of the people,
preventing both them and us from getting so fast on as we would otherwise do; and while we are using all reasonable means to try to get the indolent not to sell what, of their own farm produce, they really need themselves, as is sometimes done, the report is often got up that we want to monopolize the business of the island, when there is nothing of the kind ever thought of by us.’


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Chicago: William Guthrie, "Baltasound, Unst, January 19, 1872, John Spence, Examined.," Second Shetland Truck System Report, trans. D’Anvers, N. (Nancy Bell), D. 1933 in Second Shetland Truck System Report Original Sources, accessed December 4, 2023,

MLA: Guthrie, William. "Baltasound, Unst, January 19, 1872, John Spence, Examined." Second Shetland Truck System Report, translted by D’Anvers, N. (Nancy Bell), D. 1933, in Second Shetland Truck System Report, Original Sources. 4 Dec. 2023.

Harvard: Guthrie, W, 'Baltasound, Unst, January 19, 1872, John Spence, Examined.' in Second Shetland Truck System Report, trans. . cited in , Second Shetland Truck System Report. Original Sources, retrieved 4 December 2023, from