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Community / ‘The good man of Bigton’: Willie Tait obituary

Former SIC vice-convener, whaler and crofter passes away at 92

Former SIC vice-convener Willie Tait, who passed away aged 92 last week.

WARM tributes have been paid this week to Willie Tait, former Shetland Islands Council vice convener and a stalwart of the South Mainland community, who has died at the age of 92.

The Bigton-based crofter spent over a decade working in the whaling industry in South Georgia before going on to serve the council for a total of 29 years – beginning in 1978 and ending with his retirement in 2007.

He was vice-convener serving under the late Edward Thomason from 1986 until 1990 and his time as a local authority politician coincided with a major expansion in council services and activities thanks to its newfound oil wealth.

Willie was also party to the signing of the community’s second deal with the oil industry, the Busta House Agreement, in the late 1980s.

South Mainland councillor Allison “Da Flea” Duncan said he had known Willie most of his life and described him as a “true gentleman”.

“It is my pleasure to pay tribute to Willie Tait, who was a devout family man, member of Bigton Church, footballer, whaler, crofter and councillor serving the South Mainland for 29 years,” Duncan said.

“As a councillor, which included being vice convener and other important positions with the council, he served Shetland and this community with dignity, devotion to duty and professional commitment.

“Willie was weel kent and respected throughout and outwith Shetland, and will be sorely missed by all who had the pleasure to know him. At this sad time my condolences go to his family, relations and friends.”

Another South Mainland member, George Smith, said Willie was “much respected” and he valued his “encouragement and wise words” when he first stood for the council, adding he was “always very courteous and a great supporter of community life”.

The flag at Lerwick Town Hall flew at half mast on Friday for Willie’s funeral. Convener Malcolm Bell got to know him through his involvement on the police board. He described him as a “true gentleman”, adding he would “never forget his many acts of kindness, support and encouragement”.

Born in May 1928 in Ireland, Bigton, Willie and his twin sister Ina were the last two of five children to Willie Tait Senior and Robina Ann Wishart. He had two older brothers, Bobby and Peter, and an older sister Joan.

He attended school in Bigton before leaving aged 14, initially finding work in a quarry at Sumburgh Head in 1942, breaking rocks to help build a new airstrip during the Second World War.

Shortly after the war he took up an offer to go to the whaling in South Georgia, where he spent some 11 seasons. On a couple of occasions he wintered (during Shetland’s summer) in the southern hemisphere – meaning he was away for 18 months at a time.

In 1954 he married Bella and they remained together until she died in 2000.

Tait was a father to long-serving Shetland Times news editor Jim Tait and another two sons, Raymond and Steven, who now live in Cambridge and Newcastle. He also had nine grandchildren and one great grandson.

He gave up the whaling in 1959 and returned home to start up an agricultural business in the south end. After building a house in Bigton in the fifties he bought land and ended up keeping around 20 cattle and 500 sheep.

In 1978 he was asked to stand for the council. Up against well-known incumbent councillor Prophet Smith, his son recalls that Willie “never thought he’d have much of a chance”. But he canvassed widely in the Dunrossness North ward and ended up winning quite convincingly.

A Liberal Democrat member, in public life Willie had a lot of time for those of different political persuasions. Despite being no fan of the SNP he was good friends with the party’s matriarch figure Winnie Ewing, while he also admired Tory politician Ken Clarke and Labour’s steadfast socialist Tony Benn.

Wille did not believe party politics belonged in the Lerwick Town Hall chamber – in the late 1990s standing as an “independent Liberal Democrat”, taking the view that some of those on the Liberal Democrat ruling group from 1999 were “pretending to be Liberal Democrats”.

In his time on the council he was chairman of the then-powerful policy and resources committee for many years and was also heavily involved on the harbour board.

He was “quite proud” of the second oil deal which was agreed during his time as vice-convener alongside Thomason, feeling the agreement was “the best deal they could get” under the circumstances.

Captain George Sutherland worked with Willie in the aftermath of the Braer oil spill in January 1993, which happened on the shores of his own constituency, and told BBC Radio Shetland this week he had been an “altogether great representative” of Shetland.

He was also a “staunch supporter” of Captain Sutherland in efforts to reinforce environmental protection measures around the islands in the wake of the Braer.

Willie’s final two terms, after boundary changes did away with the Dunrossness North constituency in 1999, saw him serve a bigger constituency which included Sandwick and Cunningsburgh for eight years.

He had planned to stand down in 2003 but after Bella passed away in 2000 he decided to stay on for another term, eventually retiring ahead of the 2007 election.

Willie sold most of his agricultural land following two knee replacement operations in his late 60s, but kept on two parks at the front and back of his house.

He was also chairman of the local Citizens’ Advice Bureau and remained on its board until only a few years ago. Likewise he was a kirk elder and bell-ringer at Bigton Church until his health began to deteriorate latterly.

The family staged a big party to mark his 90th birthday in the Bigton Hall in 2018 – one of the last major social events he attended.

The satirical Ken Speckle papers often had harsh words for Shetland politicians in the late 20th century, but referred to Willie simply as “the good man of Bigton”.

Indeed, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone with a bad word to say about the man, with terms such as “fairness”, “caring”, “diligence” and “a gentleman” repeatedly cropping up among those who knew him since the sad news of his death last weekend.

As Da Flea adds: “Rest in peace, Willie – you deserve all these accolades and many more.”

Neil Riddell

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