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When Christmas paled into insignificance

'The real workhorse was the helicopter and the crews - they were never out of the air' - all photos Kieran Murray

IT’S NOW been 20 years since Shetland suffered a spell of winter weather dubbed the worst in living memory that left families without food and electricity over Christmas and roads throughout the isles blocked.

From around Christmas Eve 1995, Shetland was rocked by huge snow storms that left drifts tens of feet high.

The ‘Big Snaa’ saw islanders marooned in their villages and forced to make do over the festive period until it started thawing from around 28 December.

Amid the chaos, however, the Shetland community came together in typical style to help out those in need.

Leading ambulance paramedic (titles at the time) Peter Smith pushing a basket stretcher with a patient while with paramedic Davy Peterson, on the right, and probationer ambulance technician Michael Leask pulling the stretcher up the slope near Scarvister, at Wester Skeld. Also in the photo are family and neighbours of the patient.

John Webster was the station officer at the local coastguard at the time, with its crews “flat out for 48 hours” as they transported essential staff and airlifted people with medical needs across the isles.

The coastguard team got their first call early on Christmas morning and worked non-stop for the next two days.

“When we were out, that was it,” Webster said. “You never really got a chance to go back home again.

“Not only were we helping out the ambulance service, we were helping to transfer people who were needing to get to work – medical staff, coastguard staff.

'The team spirit was fantastic - everyone was working together, be it the ambulance service, the police, the helicopter crew,' recalls former Shetland Coastguard station officer John Webster.

“We would try to get our guys out to assist in any way we could throughout the islands and the mainland.

“At the end of the day, you soon forgot about it being Christmas Day or Boxing Day. It sort of just became a normal day – your priority became trying to help as many people as you could. Christmas soon paled into insignificance.”

Webster remembers at one point the coastguard having to use what amounted to a “massive sledge” as a stretcher to pull people across the snow after airlifts.

“The team spirit was fantastic – everyone was working together, be it the ambulance service, the police, the helicopter crew,” he recalled.

The same patient is about to be loaded on the helicopter for transfer to the Clickimin landing site, which at that time was on the north football pitch behind the goals.

“We got on with it. The real workhorse was the helicopter and the crews – they were never out of the air. I don’t think there was any place in Shetland that didn’t get a visit from the helicopter at some point.”

One family the coastguard helped out over Christmas were Laureen and Gordon Hay from Aith, who have a particularly unusual story to tell.

Laureen had just given birth to a daughter in Aberdeen, but they were stranded in Sumburgh after arriving back in Shetland with the newborn child on Christmas Eve.

The local hotel was specially opened by manager Mark Donaldson to house all of the plane’s passengers as the roads out of the village were blocked.

A day later, Laureen, Gordon and baby Lindsey were taken by helicopter to Lerwick for a stay at the Gilbert Bain Hospital.

“We landed at Clickimin and I think the ambulances were all snowed in, so Peter Leask with one of the small minibuses took us up to the Gilbert Bain,” Gordon reflected.

“We were up to our knees in snow – we had no boots or nothing as we’d been in Aberdeen for three weeks with just shoes and normal clothes.

“The helicopter was going to take us right home to Aith, which would have been excellent, but as we were leaving Sumburgh it got called to another emergency at Busta in Brae.”

Aith couple Laureen and Gordon Hay with their newborn daughter Lindsey boarding the coastguard helicopter Oscar Charlie at Sumburgh.

The couple’s other three children were staying with grandparents in Nesting. “Their Santie Claus was held up for a few days,” Gordon added, “but we all gathered at home on the Friday [29 December].”

The emergency in Busta involved an ill woman being taken to Lerwick, but the very next day, the busy helicopter returned to the same location. This time it was to collect Jenny Murray – who was due to give birth to her son Lewis – after picking up a man in Vidlin on the way.

“It was fantastic getting the helicopter ride to town – the daylight was fading to pink and the scenery below was stunning,” Jenny recalled.

“They thought about calling me Oscar after the Oscar Charlie helicopter that took them,” Lewis added.

Perhaps wisely, baby Lewis waited until the snow had cleared before arriving into the world in early January.

The Aith lifeboat was also kept busy during the poor weather, the Snolda tasked with taking essential supplies from Lerwick to the badly affected west mainland.

Three families in Brindister were left without food before the lifeboat arrived, while bottled gas was needed for sheltered housing in Aith and Walls.

It was believed to the first mission of its kind since 1947, with RNLI director Lt. Cdr. Brian Myles even contacting the team to offer his support.

“It wasn’t bad conditions at the time,” said crew member Jim Nicolson. “Using the boat was appropriate at the time – you just couldn’t get supplies into the westside villages.”

Colleague Kevin Grant added that the lifeboat also ventured out to Papa Stour with goods during its trip.

Thousands of homes were left without power over the festive period as a result of ice building up on overhead lines.

Lerwick, Christmas 1995, not a car to be seen.

Jim McPhilimy, who was Scottish Hydro’s Shetland district manager at the time, said the weather was “unprecedented” and reconnecting electric supplies proved a “massive logistical” nightmare.

“It was a hell of job to get the power back on. I think it took seven days to get the last power on. It was a real eye of a storm type moment,” he said.

“It started on Christmas Eve and I think we worked right through seven days, and there were months of permanent repairs after.

“At that time we were doing major refurbishment of the lines in the isles, and they stood up quite well. We spent £10-20 million on refurbishing the lines, and the network has been in good nick ever since.”

McPhilimy, who is now the managing director for SSE Enterprise, added that he was surprised by the amount of global media interest in Shetland’s weather.

“I was interviewed on ITN News at 10, while Sky News were there, and all these sort of people,” he said. “People phoned me from Australia saying I was on the telly.”

Bressay man Davie Gardner meanwhile recalled his brother-in-law using an ex-army jeep to save the day by bringing his two sons back home on Christmas Eve after being snowed in at their uncle’s.

“It literally climbed over the snow drifts in true army style,” he said.

“Luckily my father had a Rayburn and they actually had Christmas denner by cooking everything on it. We used it, but it took 14 hours to cook the turkey.

“Later on the house was full of neighbours because there was some warmth. It was all shared around while a copious amount of dramming went on.”

Shetland Islands Council was kept busy throughout the period, with the local authority bringing in a snow blowing machine from Aberdeen after its own snowploughs failed to break through drifts in the north and west mainland.

An aerial view of Cunningsburgh - Shetland enjoyed some glorious sunshine following the blizzards.

The SIC also stocked up its North Isles ferries with supplies in Lerwick to take to outlying islands due to the blocked roads.

It was a time when just about everyone in Shetland was affected by the weather, making living conditions challenging.

Locals got stuck in villages and towns, while livestock became stranded in fields.

Oil firm BP even shipped workers home for Christmas in helicopters after they got marooned in Sullom Voe.

Igloos were built in gardens, while one local remembers her dad chilling his glass of rum with icicles from outside the house.

The failing services and freezing temperatures saw the Shetland community at large come together as one and celebrate Christmas in a unique style.

As coastguard boss Webster remembers: “It was a massive community effort. You can always rely on the Shetland folk to pull together.”


Please share your ‘Big Snaa’ experiences with us. You can e-mail (news@shetnews.co.uk) or Facebook us with your stories and pictures, and we will add some to either this page or share them on our Facebook page at www.facebook.com/shetlandnews 

Many thanks Cllr Jonathan Wills for assisting our reporter Chris Cope (who was eight at the time) by sharing his 1995 Shetland News Agency copy with him, to Kieran Murray for digging up these fantastic photos while moving house and to ambulance technician Michael Leask for helping with captions and locations.


Some comments and memories from our readers:

Susan Timmins: “Freya’s first Christmas. It was challenging! The cats kept hogging our open fire, our only source of heat and way of cooking for five days. Davy buried the contents of the freezer outside and made a map of where everything was. We still have it somewhere.”

Roger Ford: “ITN News came into Lunning with the Hydro and interviewed us while our dog got busy behind them digging up frozen food stored in a snow drift.A friend in the south of England saw us on TV; he was just saying he knew someone in Shetland when we appeared on his screen.”

‪Judith Hothersall‬‪: “I remember Christmas lunch of soup heated on a Prius stove and smoked salmon sandwiches. No electricity for five days.‬‬”

‪Alison Irvine‬‪: “I was working night shift in GBH all over Christmas. Busiest Christmas I’ve ever worked but also the most fun. Great feeling of everyone pulling together‬‬.”

‪Vivienne Nicolson:‬‪ “It was a fantastic Christmas for us. No electricity, Sammy and Janice to the rescue, turkey and table carted over to theirs, lovely food lovely people, lots of games and fun. No TV. Still don’t put the telly on.‬‬”

‪Sue Peaker:‬‪ “Remember it well as I had just started working as a community nurse/midwife at Levenwick Health Centre. It was a worrying time but it was lovely how all the communities came together in helping each other. Amazing xxx‬‬”