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Fishy institution comes to an end this week

James MacNab

A FAMOUS Lerwick fish shop is to close its doors for the final time on Friday, signalling the end of involvement with fish for several generations of the McNab family.

When Shetland News spoke with managing director James McNab at Gremista on Wednesday, he had just put his last batch of kippers on the smoker – a poignant moment for a man who has spent over 40 years in the fish business.

He celebrated his 62th birthday the previous day. “Some birthday present,” he said.

McNab said that cash flow problems had reluctantly forced the family to close the business and go out with their heads held high rather than wait for bankruptcy.

He said that all the business’s employees had found jobs at Blydoit fish shop and that all debts would be honoured.

McNab said: “It’s cash flow and the price of fish. The price of fish has gone through the roof. We are paying more for haddocks than monks nowadays.”

That has been bad news for a company that traditionally was based on buying and selling cheap fish.

McNab added that when customers were slow at paying the company had usually been able to “weather the storm” but margins had become so low that it was no longer making money.

“Some people have to realise that you have to pay on time, because you are on a knife edge, and I hate being in debt.

“It just got to a head where we could not carry on and it was better getting out with the shirt on our back rather than on the erse of our breeks,” he added.

“We did not want to declare bankruptcy because we want to get everyone paid, but it is a grain of money. It is a sad day but it just has to be. We have not got a red cross on our backs.”

He said that the commitment of the McNab’s staff had been fantastic over the years and they had pulled the company out of many a tight spot. He also thanked Shetland Catch, Lerwick Port Authority and fishing agents LHD for their “excellent” cooperation and understanding in the difficult period.

The McNabs’ involvement with herring goes back at least five generations and in relatively recent times the McNabs were involved in the seasonal migratory herring fishery with their time split between Shetland, Great Yarmouth, the Isle of Man and Dunmore East in Ireland.

McNab and his sister Gena, who is the other partner in the business, were born in Great Yarmouth.

“We just happened to be there at the time. We never stayed long in one place. It was wherever the herring was we would go,” he added.

McNab’s present processing business and the shop at Gremista date from the 1990s, and were established after the partners’ mother Rita set up a processing business in huts near the Lerwick Hotel that the family called “Emmerdale”.

McNab’s grandfather “opened up” Dunmore East for the herring and James can remember sitting eating tripe or pigs feet at the family table as a “nipper” with people coming in to buy kippers that were stacked on the table.

The bairns were also involved cleaning and gutting the fish when “they could hardly walk”. Gena, the youngest, was put in a barrel while the others worked and would even sleep in it – something that would horrify the social services of today.

Before that McNab’s great grandfather had been at the herring in Unst. One day the buyers mysteriously disappeared, leaving behind a “ghost town” and a lot of unpaid debt. That was just before the outbreak of WWI. His penniless grandfather made it back home to Fraserburgh with difficulty.

McNab, who says he has been used to starting work at 6am and working till 4pm or later, says he has no plans for the future, but is open to offers. “It’s going to be hard, because I am used to working seven days a week,” he said.

“I cannot say it has been a bad life. It has been all right. There’s been a lot of folk saying ‘sorry to hear this’, and that puts a lump in your throat,” added McNab.