Second Shetland Truck System Report

Author: William Guthrie

Brae, January 10, 1872, Rev. Duncan Miller, Examined.

5974. You are a clergyman of the United Presbyterian Church at
Mossbank?-I am.

5975. You have been there for a number of years?-Yes; this is my fourteenth year.

5976. You are well acquainted with many of the fishermen and with their families?-Yes.

5977. You are aware of the system which exists, of the payments for the fishermen’s catch being settled at long intervals, and of accounts being run for shop goods with the merchants who buy their fish?-Yes. I think it is necessary to make a distinction with regard to the long accounts, because what I suppose is called the winter fishing is paid for immediately on the fish being landed.

5978. These are the small fish taken in the winter time?-Yes.

5979. But for the summer fishing there are these long settlements I
refer to?-Yes.

5980. Have you formed any opinion as to the effects of that system upon the habits and character of the people?-I have.

5981. What conclusion have you arrived at on that matter?-I have arrived at the conclusion that these effects are very injurious. I
think the men are brought to depend too much upon the shop and too much upon [Page 148] the merchant, and that in consequence they rely too little upon themselves. One result of the system therefore is, that there is a want of prudence amongst the men generally. I think the pass-book system affords a fatal facility for men getting into debt, and that many rush into it in that way who think very little of the debt they incur. Besides, I think the present system fosters, and has a natural tendency to produce a deceitful character in the people. For example, they are bound by their agreement to deliver their fish to the factor of the merchant for whom they fish, and the result is pretty much as has been stated in the examinations to-day, that a good many smuggle away their fish. They think the men who purchase them-I believe they are called yaggers-give them, a higher price, in many cases, than they would get from their employers, and therefore they dispose of fish which really belong to the proprietor of their boats; and all that is done in an underhand way.

5982. Have you any knowledge about these yaggers or factors who come about the country purchasing fish?-I have no knowledge of them except from the fishermen’s own statements.

5983. Do you understand them to be strangers travelling about the country?-I understand them to be men-many of them, at least,- who have boats of their own. They have perhaps a single boat upon a station, and that gives them a right to be upon that station; and then they can buy as many fish as they please from the men belonging to other boats and other proprietors.

5984. Are they men who cure for themselves?-Yes; they cure for themselves to a small extent, and increase their means by purchasing from other boats.

5985. Do they occasionally reside in Shetland?-Yes.

5986. Are they fishermen themselves?-Yes; they are what are called small merchants. Possibly they are not able to furnish out a large fleet of boats, but they get one; and that one is little better than an excuse for giving them a right to be there, and to make purchases.

5987. Is the opinion you have arrived at with regard to the habits of improvidence that prevail among the fishermen the result of your own experience of particular cases.?-It is the result of general impressions, from a comparison of a multitude of individual cases that have come under my notice.

5988. Do the fishermen or their families with whom you come into contact, complain or make you aware that they run into debt to the shop to a larger extent than they ought to do?-Yes; many of them do.

5989. Do you find, as a rule, that the ordinary fisherman is in debt to his shop more than he is fairly able to pay at the end of his fishing season?-I think in my own neighbourhood that is probably the case, but of course Mr. Pole is more able to speak to that than I am. I don’t know the state of their books, but I have a general impression that that is often the case. I think the majority of the fishermen round Mossbank are deeper in debt than they can hope to pay in one year.

5990. Would your opinion on that point be altered by discovering from the books, or from the fishermen themselves, that a considerable sum was paid to them annually in cash at settlement?-I cannot say for the present how they stand, but I
have known when there was hardly a fisherman who was not in debt.

5991. Was that after a bad year?-No; it was for a succession of years. I remember about ten years ago of a very large home fishing in the way of sillock taking, when a couple of men in a boat were realizing upwards of £2 in a night. At that time a great many of them got themselves out of debt who were perhaps about
£20, or from £20 to £30, involved, and I presume they have not been so much in debt since. I cannot say exactly how long that was ago but I think it was perhaps eight or ten years.

5992. You spoke of the men being too much dependent upon the fish-curer under the present system: would you explain, in what way that dependence is evidenced?-It is evidenced in a variety of ways. There is one way in which it is pretty evident, viz. that they never think of making any provision for the future. They know when they go to the work, that if their character is such that they can be expected to pay, or if they have property of such an amount as will pay their debt, they can get goods; and it is a kind of maxim, ’Well, there is plenty of pens and ink, and they can mark that down.’ I have known that answer returned by men when they were accused of running too far into debt.

5993. Does that indicate a want of self-dependence?-Yes; a want of self-dependence, and too great a dependence upon the shop.

5994. It does not prove that they are under the control of the shopkeeper?-They are under his control.

5995. A man who is deeply in debt to a shopkeeper is of course under the control of his creditor to, certain extent; but in what way does that operate against the fishermen?-I think they become dispirited. They never think of paying their debt, and it paralyzes their energies.

5996. Do you think a fisherman who is in debt in that way is induced to engage for the season with the fish-curer on disadvantageous terms, or that he is induced to continue his dealings at the merchant’s shop, when he might do better for himself otherwise?-Yes, I think that when he forms an engagement in that way his energies are paralyzed in prosecuting his calling, and that he will not fish with the same energy as if he were free men. He knows that whatever amount he may earn at the fishing, still his debt will hang about his neck. He will not be able to pay it. But I am not quite sure that I apprehend your question. I am speaking rather of the way in which the fact of a man being in debt paralyzes his energies.

5997. I was rather anxious to see how the fact of him being in debt operated to put him under the control of a fish-merchant so as to induce him to make a worse bargain than he would otherwise do,
or to continue dealing at the merchant’s shop, and to get his payment in goods, while he might be doing better with ready money?-The way in which I would understand the system operates injuriously in that case is, that if man is in debt to a merchant, the merchant, if he wishes the man to fish, has no more to do than to say to him, ’I will roup you off: you will be without the possibility of holding land, and your cows will be taken. You will get no manure; you cannot cultivate your land profitably without it, and you will just have to begin the world again a new man.’ Now a man with a family, and probably a pretty large family, cannot afford to do that.

5998. Is there a feeling among the fishermen that they are in any way under an obligation, either a tacit understanding or an actual obligation-to deal at the fish-curer’s shop for their goods?-
There is a tacit understanding, at least, that they must do that; but I
believe that is induced by the circumstance, that for large portion of the year their money is in the merchants’ hands, and that again affords the kind of facility for running into debt which I have spoken of.

5999. Do you think that makes them incur larger debts than they otherwise would do?-I think so.

6000. Can you suggest any remedy for this state of things?-The remedy I would suggest is this: that the payments be as prompt as possible, and that they be cash payments. I am quite ready to state how I think the cash payments would operate. At present the fishermen’s money is all in the merchants’ hands; but he is requiring goods in the meantime, and he has no money to procure them with, and therefore he goes to the merchant and procures his goods. The merchant is under no constraint,-he can put his own price on the articles which he sells; and of course, where there is a credit system like the present, there are a large number of defaulters. These defaulters do not pay their own debts; but the merchant must live notwithstanding, and therefore the honest men have to pay for the defaulters. The merchant could not carry on his business unless [Page 149] that were done. He must have his losses covered; and system of that sort tells very heavily upon the public, because the merchant must charge a large margin of profit.
Now I think the ready-money system would be more favourable for both parties,-because, suppose I were a merchant and dealing in ready money, I might turn over my capital three times a year,
and I might have a profit every time, or three several profits; but if my money is lying out in debts, then it is perfectly clear that I must have as large a profit upon one turnover of my capital as under the other system, I would have upon the three, only I might have a little more trouble in turning it over three times instead of once.
That is the reason why I think it would be beneficial to the merchant. On the other hand, I think it would be beneficial to the fishermen, because if the merchant turns over his capital three times, and has a profit on each time, then the profit which he could afford to charge would be less, and the men would get their goods cheaper.

6001. Are you in a position to state, as a matter of opinion, from your own experience, that the prices charged at the shops of these merchants are higher than they are at others where that system does not prevail?-I am not personally cognisant of that. I have bought some things at the shops here, and I thought they were charged higher; but I get my goods from Edinburgh-half a year’s provisions at a time-so that I cannot testify from personal experience as to the difference in that respect.

6002. Is it not a very common thing in Shetland for families to get their supplies from Edinburgh?-I don’t think it is general.

6003. I don’t mean the families of fishermen; but is it not a common thing for people of a higher class to get their supplies from the south?-Yes, from Edinburgh or Aberdeen; but in my own case there is reason for sending to Edinburgh, over and above any difference in price. There are many articles I require which are not to be had here, and I have to send south before I can get such articles as are suitable for me.

6004. Have you anything to say with regard to the system pursued in the hosiery business here?-I don’t think it is conducted with that amount of discrimination which it ought to be conducted with.
In my neighbourhood there is very little done in hosiery; but the hosiery goods are just like a penny piece,-you know what they are; it does not matter whether the article is good or bad,-there is just a fixed price for it. That being the case, people don’t put themselves to much trouble in order to procure a good article.

6005. Do you think the women would be better off if they were to get payment for their goods in cash?-I think so. I think it would be beneficial to have transactions in cash in hosiery as well as in everything else.

6006. Do you know any cases of women who have been making hosiery, and who have been in distress for want of money although they were able to get goods for their hosiery?-I know that they prefer money. I cannot say about their having been in distress.
Many persons have come to my wife and have brought hosiery goods because they would get money from her for them. They often require money for purposes that goods will not answer, and in such cases they frequently come to Mrs. Miller and endeavour to get her to buy them.

6007. Is it a common thing in Shetland, that the women would rather go to a private party and get money for their goods than take them to a merchant?-Yes; there are a great many purposes for which money is required. Suppose a parent wished to pay his child’s school fees, or anything of that sort, of course cotton goods would not pay for that; only the money would do. But the hosiery is a very unimportant branch of business in our neighbourhood.



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Chicago: William Guthrie, "Brae, January 10, 1872, Rev. Duncan Miller, Examined.," Second Shetland Truck System Report, trans. D’Anvers, N. (Nancy Bell), D. 1933 in Second Shetland Truck System Report Original Sources, accessed October 4, 2023,

MLA: Guthrie, William. "Brae, January 10, 1872, Rev. Duncan Miller, Examined." Second Shetland Truck System Report, translted by D’Anvers, N. (Nancy Bell), D. 1933, in Second Shetland Truck System Report, Original Sources. 4 Oct. 2023.

Harvard: Guthrie, W, 'Brae, January 10, 1872, Rev. Duncan Miller, Examined.' in Second Shetland Truck System Report, trans. . cited in , Second Shetland Truck System Report. Original Sources, retrieved 4 October 2023, from