Second Shetland Truck System Report

Author: William Guthrie

Lerwick, January 9, 1872, Robert Halcrow, Examined.

4646. You are a fisherman at Lasettar, in Dunrossness, and you hold land from Mr. Bruce of Sumburgh?-Yes.

4647. You are bound to deliver your fish to his factor, and you settle at the end of the year in the same way as William Goudie and the other men have described?-Yes.

4648. You have heard all their evidence?-Yes.

4649. Is there anything you wish to add to it or correct in it?-

4650. Do you know anything about the knitting which is done by the women in Dunrossness?-There is a little knitting done in my family. It might be more agreeable to some people to be paid in cash than in goods; but others again say that if they did not get the same price in cash for their hosiery as they get in truck, they would not be gainers.

4651. Do they want the goods they get for the hosiery?-Yes; and they might not get the same price for their knitting in money as they get for it in barter.

4652. Do you know the price which they get in goods from the merchants in Lerwick?-Yes.

4653. Would they not get the same goods at a lower price in money, at any of the shops in your neighbourhood?-I am not aware of that.

4654. You have never heard them say that?-No. With regard to the evidence which has been given by the other men, I may be allowed to say that perhaps I have had a little more experience than some of them, but the statements which they have given have just been what I would have made myself.

4655. How long have you been on the property?-For eleven or twelve years.

4656. Did you receive a notice, when young Mr. Bruce became tacksman, that you were expected to fish for him?-I did not receive any notice; but I was missed; he passed over me.

4657. Why was that?-I was taking in uncultivated ground to build a house upon, and I did not pay rent then.

4658. Were you aware that a notice of that kind was given to the tenants?-Yes.

4659. Is there any one here who received that notice?-I don’t think any one received the notice individually, but there was a public notice that they were bound to fish for Mr. Bruce, and that they would be removed if they did not do so.

4660. How was that notice given?-By a bill placed in a public place for the tenants at large to see.

4661. Did you see it?-No, I did not see it. With regard to the
Boddam shop, I have had dealings there, and also with Gavin
Henderson; but there are things I require which are not kept in the
Boddam shop at all.

4662. What articles do you want that you cannot get there?-I
want some kind of clothing which they do not keep, and several other things; but the things they have, such as tea, tobacco, cotton and canvas, I find to be somewhat dearer than at Mr. Henderson’s or in Lerwick.

4663. How much dearer is the tobacco?-It will be a penny or twopence a quarter lb.

4664. Have you bought tobacco at both places?-Yes.

4665. What have you to say with regard to the tea?-It is from 4d.
to 8d. dearer per pound.

4666. Have you tried it at both places also?-Yes.

4667. Do you think you get the same quality at both?-It is the same quality. I have had to pay sometimes 9d. and sometimes
10d. per quarter for tea at the Boddam shop; and when I went to
Mr. Henderson’s shop, I got the same tea for 8d.

4668. So far as you could judge, was the tea at both places of the same quality?-Yes, so far as I could judge, it was. Then for the cotton I would pay 2d., and sometimes more than that, per yard more in the Boddam shop than in Gavin Henderson’s, or at other places.

4669. But if the prices are so much higher at the Boddam shop than elsewhere, why do you go there when you say you are not obliged in any way to take goods from the Boddam shop? Why do you not go to Gavin Henderson’s for them?-I am obliged to go to the Boddam shop and take my goods there if I have no money in my pocket to buy them elsewhere.

4670. Does that often happen?-Perhaps not very often with me,
but it happens as a general thing among many of the men. I
believe there are as many men who have to go to Mr. Bruce’s store, and take their goods there, in consequence of the want of money to pay for them at other places, as there are who can go and open accounts with other merchants and pay them yearly.

4671. Is there anything else you can say about that?-There is nothing more concerning that; but I have one thing more to say concerning our bondage, or our liberty, in fishing to Mr. Bruce. I
have never had any help in paying rent or purchasing meal for my living, or such things as I required for clothing, except from what I
could earn myself. I have sometimes had little clear money to get,
and sometimes I have been from £2 to £6 behind in my accounts with Mr. Bruce, but he never charged me anything for that. I was fishing to him, and obedient to him, and he never interfered with me until my earnings paid up my debt account; but he would give me supplies although was in his debt, and if I got money from him,
even when I was in his debt, I was at perfect liberty to go where I
liked for the goods I wanted. If I ran up an account at any other shop, he gave me money and I settled it; and then at settlement time, if I had any money remaining to come to me, I got it in cash after he had deducted the value of any goods I might have got from his store.

4672. But when you were in his debt at the end of the year, in the way you have stated, were you obliged to go to his store for your provisions, and your supplies of cotton and clothing?-I would be obliged to do so, unless I could work at any other trade, or do any other thing during the winter by which I could earn money to purchase things at other stores. I may work outside, or do a little mason work, in order to get some money; and he will not bind me so much as if he were to see me earning nothing, but he would allow me to keep that money, and go to other stores with it, and purchase what I required. If I have a cow or a horse to sell, I can sell it, and he will never inquire or push me for the balance. I can get my money for it, and go to other stores for my meal and several things.

4673. If you sell a beast off your farm, while you are in debt to him, he does not object to you applying the price as you like?-He has made no objection; but when a man is in debt to him, he expects to get the first offer of it.

4674. He expects that a man who is in his debt will offer his cow or his pony to him first?-Yes, he looks for that; he has always expected it.

4675. When that is done, who fixes the price?-He will state his price; and if the owner is dissatisfied with it, he will give him a chance of offering it at public sale.

4676. And when it is offered at public sale, what is done then?-
The sale is generally in Mr. Bruce’s own hand, and the purchaser gives him the money; and then the owner who disposes of the animal will go to him if he is in want of supplies, and he will probably get them.

4677. Are there sales in your district at certain times?-Yes.

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4678. Where do these take place?-At Dunrossness, near the church; twice a year, in the spring, and in the fall.

4679. Is it at these sales that you have a chance of selling your beasts, if you do not agree with Mr. Bruce about the price?-Yes.

4680. And at these sales is there perfect liberty to any person to bid?-Yes.

4681. You can sell them to any person who bids a higher price than the laird offers?-Yes; but the conditions of sale are that the purchaser has to pay the money to Mr. Bruce.

4682. Is that one of the conditions and articles of roup which are read over at the commencement of the sale?-Yes.

4683. Does that condition apply to every lot that is sold, or only to lots that belong to men that are in Mr. Bruce’s debt?-It applies to every lot that is sold. On all the properties there, on Simbister, and
Mr. Grierson’s estate and Sumburgh estate the cattle are called in;
people who have cattle to sell are asked to bring them in to the sale.

4684. But nobody is obliged to expose their cattle at these sales unless they please?-There have been cases where we were obliged to dispose of them: for instance, if a man was very deeply in debt, he would be so far forced to bring his cattle and sell them;
and the money went into Mr. Bruce’s hands, and was put to the man’s credit.

4685. You mean that it was credited to the man’s account that was settled at the end of the year?-Yes. When young Mr. Bruce first began to take charge of the Sumburgh estate he wished to have all the tenants clear; and for that purpose he published a sale, and forced one of the tenants to bring his effects there, in order that his debts might be paid off. At the sale, Mr. Bruce himself appeared and gave a far higher price than the current price for the material which was being sold, in order to bring the man out of debt.

4686. Who was that man?-Malcolm Irvine, Lasettar. That is the only case of that kind I am acquainted with; but I believe there are more cases of the same kind throughout the parish, where Mr.
Bruce paid a higher price for the articles than the market value of them, in order to bring the men out of debt. Of course, that was a favour to the men.

4687. Then, these sales are always fair transactions?-I think they are fair, so far as we can discern, because they do not differ in any way from other sales throughout the island. The terms and conditions of roup are the same at them all.

4688. Is there anything else you wish to say?-There is only forty days’ warning given before Martinmas. No doubt that may be well enough for tenants in a town like Lerwick, who hold nothing except a room to live in, but it is very disagreeable for a tenant holding a small piece of land as we do. As soon as our crop is taken in, we must start work immediately, and prepare the land for next season. We have to make provision for manure, and collect our peats, and prepare stuff for thatching our houses, and perhaps by Martinmas we have expended from £6 to £10 worth of labour and expense on our little farms. In that case, it is a very hard thing for us to be turned out of our holdings after receiving only forty days’ notice, and perhaps only getting £1, or £2, for all that labour.
Now, what I would suggest that instead of that short notice we should be entitled to receive a longer notice, perhaps six or nine months before the term, that we are to be turned out.

4689. Do you think you would be more at liberty to dispose of your fish, and to deal at any shop you pleased, if you were entitled to that longer warning?-I don’t think the warning would alter anything with regard to that; but if I knew that I was to be turned out at Martinmas, I would probably start fishing earlier, and I
might have a larger price to get for them instead of working upon my land.

4690. But you can be punished more easily by your landlord for selling your fish to another man, when he can turn you out on forty days’ warning, than if he could only do it on six or eight months’
warning?-I think it would be much the same with regard to that.

4691. You don’t think that would make any difference as to the fishing?-It might make a little difference, because if I received my warning in March, and knew that I was to leave at Martinmas,
if I saw that I was to have a better price for my fish from another, I
would not fish to my landlord at all; but I would go to any man I
would get the best price from.

4692. Do you think you would be better off if you had your fish paid for as they are delivered?-I don’t think that would serve me any better. It would serve young men who are not landholders better; but I don’t think it would serve landholders better than to allow the price to lie, and to settle once in a season, because sometimes our crops are so scanty that we have only perhaps two parts or three-fourths of a regular supply of meal for our living; and if I got the price of my fish paid to me every time when
I came ashore, or on the Saturday night, we might perhaps live comfortably for awhile, but then at Martinmas, when our rents were due, and our fishing earnings were spent, we would be in a hard case, because where would our rents come from?

4693. Do you think you would be likely to spend your earnings as you got them?-In some cases that would be so, because occasionally we have to live on a very small allowance of provisions, perhaps one-half or three-fourths, and we suffer from that. I think it is better if the money for our fishing is preserved for a time in our landlord’s hands; because, in the first place, we like to have our rents paid.

4694. Would it be any advantage to you to have the price of your fish fixed at the beginning of the season?-It might and it might not, because here in Shetland we are paid for our fish according to a currency. The principal curers in the country arrange what the price is to be, and, so far as I know, they have it in their own power to make the currency whatever they think fit.

4695. Do you think the current price is fairly fixed?-I cannot judge of that, nor can any one outside, because I don’t know what has been realized for the fish in the south. It is a matter which rests upon their own conscience, whether the merchants fix a fair current price or not.

4696. But you think they have the fixing of it?-Yes, they do fix it.

4697. Do you think it right that they should have the fixing of it,
and that you should have nothing to say to it, when it is according to that price that you are paid?-We have no experience in the matter, or else we should have a voice in it.

4698. If you were at liberty to cure and sell your own fish, would you not have something to say in fixing the market price at which the fish were to be paid?-I think we would.

4699. Supposing the price of your fish were settled at the beginning of the season, and that you knew then what it was to be,
do you think you would manage your purchases during the season better than you do now, according as you took a large or a small quantity of fish?-I don’t think so.

4700. If you were only taking a small take of fish, you would see,
as the season went on, that you could not have a large balance at the end of the year?-I don’t think that would matter much for me.
It might do for a family in which there were two or three men but for a man who held a certain tack of land, and had to support a family, I don’t think it would be any advantage. In my case, there is only myself earning anything, and it takes the greater part of my fishing, year by year, to pay for my meal and land rent.

4701. I suppose what you mean is, that you are obliged to live at a certain rate of expenditure, and that you cannot reduce that rate any lower, however poor your fishing may be?-No, I cannot.

4702. So that you must take the bad years and the good years, and make up in a good year for what you have gone behind in a bad one?-Yes, that is what I mean.

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4703. Therefore the present system suits you as well as any other?-It does.

4704. You could not economize more, although you knew what you were to receive at the end of the year?-I don’t see that I

4705. And you could not manage your money any better, although you had it in your hands, and could spend it in Lerwick, or in any other store, except that at Boddam?-I don’t see that I could. I
have not taken any meal from Mr. Bruce now for three years, but I
have taken a good deal of things out of his stores.

4706. Have you got your meal from your own ground?-No.
During the past season I had to buy very little; but since I came to the place I am now in, I have sometimes had to buy seven, and eight, and nine months’ provisions, besides what my own labour upon my farm could yield.

4707. Where did you buy your meal then?-At that time I had some from Mr. Bruce, and some from other places.

4708. But I am talking of the last three years, when you did not buy any of it from Mr. Bruce?-I have had it from Lerwick, and also from a store at Sand Lodge. Lebidden is the name of the place where the store is.

4709. Whose store is that?-Thomas Tullochs’s.

4710. Why did you buy it from these stores rather than from the store at Boddam?-Because I could get it cheaper; I would pay some money for it at these other stores.

4711. What did you get it for there?-I don’t recollect the price.

4712. I suppose the price varied?-Yes.

4713. And you got it at that price by paying it at the time you got it?-Yes; I got it at as low a price as it could be got anywhere.
Besides, I took weaker qualities of grain as being cheaper than what Mr. Bruce had, such as second flour or third flour, and so on,
when Mr. Bruce, would have had nothing but barleymeal and oatmeal.

4714. Does he only keep one quality of meal at Boddam store?-
He keeps more than one quality, because he has had grain from his own farm to supply his fishermen and tenants with; and he has also had Orkney meal there, which was cheaper than Scotch meal.

4715. But you say that you could get weaker qualities than what
Mr. Bruce kept. Do you mean that the qualities were inferior?-

4716. Were they inferior to any that Mr. Bruce had?-Not to what grew on his own farm, but to any that he had at that time, or what he generally kept.

4717. But I am talking of the last three years during which you have had none from Mr. Bruce. Were the qualities at the other stores inferior to what Mr. Bruce kept?-When I was having none from Mr. Bruce I did not know exactly what qualities he had.

4718. But you knew that what you were getting was cheaper than what you could get at his store?-Yes, I knew that.

4719. Is there anything more you wish to say?-No; I think that is all.


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Chicago: William Guthrie, "Lerwick, January 9, 1872, Robert Halcrow, Examined.," Second Shetland Truck System Report, trans. D’Anvers, N. (Nancy Bell), D. 1933 in Second Shetland Truck System Report Original Sources, accessed February 4, 2023,

MLA: Guthrie, William. "Lerwick, January 9, 1872, Robert Halcrow, Examined." Second Shetland Truck System Report, translted by D’Anvers, N. (Nancy Bell), D. 1933, in Second Shetland Truck System Report, Original Sources. 4 Feb. 2023.

Harvard: Guthrie, W, 'Lerwick, January 9, 1872, Robert Halcrow, Examined.' in Second Shetland Truck System Report, trans. . cited in , Second Shetland Truck System Report. Original Sources, retrieved 4 February 2023, from