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Community / ‘Public service was his life’ – tributes paid to ex-councillor ‘Slim Jim’

Brian Smith has written an obituary for Jim Irvine, who passed away last month

James Christopher Irvine – “Slim Jim” on most occasions – was born at Sand in Sandsting on Easter Sunday 1937.

He was the only child of Katie Fraser and John Adam Irvine. They stayed at Little Kirkness, usually known as Baasgeo, a tekk-roofed house with a but and ben and closet.

Jim’s parents divorced when he was three, an unusual event in Shetland then. His mother went to Lerwick, and Jim stayed in Sand with his grandparents. Sand was a lively community, with two or three dozen bairns at the school.

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Jim borrowed books from the well-stocked school library and learned to go on a bike. The highlight of the year was a trip to the Reawick regatta. “I enjoyed me young years,” Jim told me.

Jim Irvine.

Katie married “Boosy” Leask, a churchman, trade unionist and socialist. Jim joined them in town in 1949 when he went to the Central School. He found the change hard at first.

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He suffered from scoliosis, and as a result found it difficult to do physical education. “I couldna do da sam acrobatic stuff dat my contemporaries could”, he said.

He had to be excused from the classes. That provoked derision from some foolish staff and pupils. Jim entered the “Commercial” section of the school. He became a favourite of Jim Clark, the English teacher.

He didn’t shine at maths, however, and looked forward to getting work. In May 1952 he skipped the school exam and did an interview for a job at the post office. He was successful.

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For a few years he was one of the town’s telegram boys. He pedalled a heavy bike to deliver messages to fishcurers and other businessmen in the town, for £2 9s. a week, plus tips. By the mid-fifties the days of telegrams were over.

Jim then passed the post office exam and in due course trained to be a driver. He always preferred outdoor work, delivering mail in Lerwick and Scalloway. He couldn’t do national service, because of his disability, so he joined the Territorial Army.

In discussion with comrades there, and at home with Boosy, he got interested in politics. At the post office he eventually became treasurer and assistant secretary of the union branch.

In 1964 he married Maureen Laird. They settled at Twageos and had three children. A few years later he got a new postman’s job in Bressay. He went across at 9.20 a.m. and drove around the isle with the mail in a landrover. Still interested in politics, in 1970 he stood for the Bressay seat on Zetland County Council.

He devised his own election address and delivered it during his mail-round. He defeated the sitting member, the landlord John Scott, and Tom Black, by a small majority.

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Alex Morrison then persuaded him to take a Labour Party card. Jim didn’t stand as a Labour candidate, and he gave up the party in the eighties, as we will see. But the labour movement was where his sympathies always lay.

“I could never see any purpose in da idder side,” he said to me once. He took up his Council work with zeal. In 1973 he and Edward Thomason headed to Edinburgh to argue, successfully, for vehicle ferries for Bressay Sound

“Jim was well up to the task himself”, Edward said. “In all my thirty years in local government I never met anyone who so quickly mastered the rules that governed our affairs.”

Jim was scunnered by the way that Council business in Shetland was carried out. He found meetings long-winded and often chaotic. He vowed at an early date that if he got the chairmanship of a committee he would change things.

In 1978 he became chair of the Transport and General Services Committee, and he fulfilled his promise. Jim’s committee was always managed to perfection.

The late 1970s was a confusing period in Shetland affairs. It was the time of the Grimond Amendment and the Shetland Movement, things that are hardly remembered today. (Roy Grønneberg’s little book Island Futures, 1978, is a good introduction to the subject.)

There was concern in some reactionary quarters that the Labour government’s forthcoming Scottish Assembly might not benefit Shetland. Jim found himself in a difficult situation.

He was a member of the Labour Party, and indeed put his name forward to be a Labour candidate for the Assembly. But in 1978 he joined fellow-councillors who were definitely not socialists in a delegation to London to lobby the government for special powers. Then he joined the Shetland Movement.

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In the event it was all academic. The assembly didn’t happen, and the Shetland Movement didn’t prosper. Then Thatcher arrived.

In 1982, because of the travails of Michael Foot, and the defection of “that dreadful Gang of Four” from the Labour Party, Jim gave up his party card. The 1980s and early 1990s were years of achievement.

First he gave up the post office and became secretary of the Shetland Council of Social Service, whose main interest was in social and economic development. Jim became a driving force there, confronted with Thatcherite cuts.

He negotiated with the Citizens’ Advice office in Alness to provide telephone services in Shetland. In due course he provided an efficient secretariat for the Association of Community Councils.

In the Council he was equally driven. In the late seventies he was appointed Chair of the Blacksness Pier Joint Committee, and led a campaign for development of the pier. He attended eight meetings on the subject at the Scottish Office.

Jim was determined that Lerwick should have an excellent bus station, to serve people from the country, and folk who couldn’t afford a car.

Between 1985 and 1991 he fought against Council officers who opposed the project. “This is one example”, he wrote later, “where had Councillors meekly accepted advice from officials, people coming to Lerwick from all over Shetland would have had to use a wooden shack and dilapidated toilet and café facilities for the next twenty years.”

I sometimes wonder what Jim would think of the present state of affairs at the bus-park.

In 1986 and 1989 he negotiated no strike agreements with the TGWU and NUS on services between Shetland and Aberdeen.

He was responsible for the new shift system on inter-island ferries, which created fifty jobs. And in October 1993 he travelled to St Malo as a delegate to Permanent Committee of the Conference of Peripheral Maritime Regions.

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He was appointed by his colleagues to present 16 motions on safety at sea to over 100 delegates.

Public service and local government were Jim’s life. I spoke recently to a teacher who invited him every year to explain Council affairs to his pupils.

He said that Jim came well-prepared, and answered the bairns’ questions to perfection.

John Prescott came to Shetland in 1993, after the Braer went down. Jim had lengthy discussions with him. Prescott scolded him for leaving the Labour Party and persuaded him to reapply for membership.

“In some ways”, Jim wrote later, “perhaps I behaved as badly as that Gang of Four by running away from problems that required sorting out within the Party, both locally and nationally.” He became a member again.

But the Council election in May 1994 was a disaster for Jim. He was opposed successfully by Tavish Scott, son of his opponent in 1970. After 24 years in local government, Jim was devastated.

Writing in the New Shetlander under the pseudonym Baasgeo, perhaps with tongue slightly in his cheek, he said: “With a reasonable background in local affairs I felt Councillors with knowledge of my modest achievements for Shetland over the years would ensure I was not forgotten.

“Perhaps a special adviser to the many advisers, or a Transport Consultant with modest retainer, to assist whenever necessary. If I continued quietly with my work at Shetland Council of Social Service, I would soon be summoned to the Town Hall to hear a proposal. The phone never rang.”

Only Jim could have written that paragraph.

He took the first opportunity to return to the Town Hall. In 1995 Jonathan Wills resigned as councillor for Tingwall, Whiteness and Weisdale. Jim stood at the by-election, for the first time as an official Labour candidate. He was opposed by yet another landlord, John Macrae of Kergord, and by Derek Tulloch.

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Danny Jamieson and I canvassed for him. We were more radical than Jim on the doorstep. “You boys are good,” he said, “but mebbe you could tone it doon a bit.”

He won by a “Slim” majority, as the Shetland Times put it. Jim continued to work for the Council of Social Services for another seven years, and served on the Council for twelve.

He threw himself into a campaign for new premises for SCSS, and persuaded the Shetland Charitable Trust to give £2.2 million to renovate a building at the top of Harbour Street. In due course he secured £0.5 million from the Lottery and HIE, and gave it back to the Trust!

He came back from retirement in 2005 to open Market House. Jim’s final campaign in the Council was in some ways his most impressive.

He had long since given up any interest in special status for Shetland, in the form that the Shetland Movement had argued for it. But he was determined, following the Transport (Scotland) Act of 2005, that Shetland should have its own Regional Transport Partnership.

The result was ZetTrans, founded in December 2005, responsible in due course for Shetland buses, inter-island air services, and ferries. Jim was its first chair.

“I am proud to have led the Partnership in this first year of business,” he said, “and I believe we have laid a strong foundation and given a clear direction for the future. I would take this opportunity to offer future Members my best wishes in carrying out their functions over the coming years”.

He was thinking about retirement. He left the Council in 2007. Maureen had died a few years previously, and Jim went to live in Edinburgh.

I met him in Stockbridge one day. I was pleased to see the old familiar figure, animated in discussion as always. We reminisced a little.

I am very grateful to Alastair Hamilton, Gordon Johnston and Jan Riise, for discussion and information.

Brian Smith

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