On the Monday morning of the 17th July 1967 I set off on my bicycle from my new home (a small caravan on the south side of Lerwick), travelled north across town and arrived for work at the premises of Jamieson & Smith situated on the outskirts of Lerwick on the main road out of town.
I was met by the manager, Mr Gilbert Johnstone, and he showed me around and told me what would be expected of me in my position at work. The main building itself was of corrugated iron with huge windows. My first impression was that it resembled a church and I soon found out that in its past it had indeed been a United Free Church, officially opened in 1914. The North Roadside Church, as it was known, had been a place of worship for the herring fishing community of Lerwick, the capital and main port of Shetland. At the peak of the herring season it was said the church could seat 450 people with fairly high attendances special services were held for the Gaelic speaking herring workers in the evening.
I was most fortunate to meet up with two individuals with first- hand experience of the church as it was. In 1973 an elderly gentleman came in the wool store and looked around, I enquired could I help him? He answered in a broad north east of Scotland dialect; “you are alright, and I am just having a look at where we were married.” It was in 1913 that he had married a lady from the south end of Shetland, the daughter of a fisherman. He told me he had been a fisherman, and had travelled to Shetland following the herring.
The second instance was an elderly man I met outside the store that told me as a child of four he attended the “Tin Kirk” Sunday school. His particular memory he said was of singing a solo hymn at the Christmas service, I will make you fishers of men. He looked at all the faces and burst out crying- his mother had to rescue him.
The herring industry, although on the decline, was still a major employer and along the shore were herring curing stations. At the back of the building were the gutters accommodation and overlooking the herring stations on the more raised north roadside the “cook” house a huge black wooden shed where the workers meals were prepared. A vivid personal memory of the cookhouse was one summer morning in 1969, a distraught herring worker came rushing into the wool store shouting in a strong north east coast accent “Can you help us our cookhouse is on fire“ I set off with our fire hose toward the cook house but could only reach half way. I ran back for a fire extinguisher and met the fire brigade who quickly put out the blaze.
At the back of the main wool store, were three smaller buildings. Two where coopers had made wooden barrels which were used to pack the herring and now used as garages. Access was by a smaller road which branched off the North Road; at that time in 1967 was the main road out of Lerwick. A larger corrugated building which housed the toilet, had served as a police station since 1905 till 1935. It was called the North Road Station and back then contained accommodation for a constable the last occupier was Constable Archie Nicolson and his family. Constable Nicolson was reputed to have been the last wielder of the birch in Shetland and this was issued to a Lerwick fisherman, his crime he stole a loaf of bread! This building was now used for general storage. The building was altered in 1936 and became herring workers accommodation.
In the summer months the herring stations were a hive of activity, the neighbourhood resounding to the rich dialect of the herring workers who mainly hailed from the North East of Scotland. Sadly by the early 70s this way of life changed due to more modern fishing practices such as the purse netting.
Directly behind the premises was a herring station formerly Palmer & Thompson. The station had recently changed ownership and the new owner lived in one of the older gutters huts his access was by the same road as the J&S buildings. He intended to sell the land to developers keen to establish a presence close to the sea front. This was my first signs of changes in the area and the herring industry I had come to know it, as the son of a herring fisherman.
My work place was a fairly large open space with a small office at the foot of wooden stairs that led to a balcony. The seating church (pews) had just recently been removed and looking out into the interior you could see the signs on the far wall where the pulpit had been. Before becoming the home for wool, in the early 1960s the building had been an auction sale room for which it was ideally suited.