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Letters / Appalled and ashamed

As I have been dealing, in the memorable words of the late Michael Marra, with urgent business on the mainland, I missed last week’s setting of the council’s budget, which came complete with the agreement to spend £700,000 inventing a business plan for tunnels to Foula, Skerries and the suggested Smyril undersea passage to Faroe.

And the cutting of part-time janitorial jobs, a ban on sunglasses for inter-island pilots and only three tatties per school meals portion.

Joking? Well, I thought somebody had to be when I heard that the education and families committee had agreed a review into the provision of swimming lessons as part of the PE curriculum in Shetland schools.

But no, it was a serious, if utterly cynical suggestion; and a shameful one.

SIC budget given ‘sticking plaster’ description as call made for further in-year savings

Shetland, if anyone needs reminding, is an island group. That means there is a great deal of seawater surrounding us.

Fishing is our traditional industry and, with aquaculture, a mainstay of our economy. But the merchant navy, offshore oil and and gas, and other marine activities remains crucial to our way of life an indeed our survival.

I was once told that there was a tradition in some fishing communities in the past that crew should not learn to swim as the likelihood of survival was slight anyway, and it was better to die quickly.

That is most certainly not true in modern Shetland. I know there were strenuous efforts to teach swimming in Whalsay for safety reasons long before the advent of its excellent leisure centre.

When I mentioned to my daughter that swimming lessons may be withdrawn from schools, she was aghast. Now a doctor, she is a past competitive swimmer and she remembers the bairns she was at school with in Brae whose terror of the water was overcome by kind, careful, free and compulsory lessons as part of the school day.

And I remember the time as a Shetland Times reporter I was sent to the [Fishermen’s] Mission after the particularly horrific sinking of a Peterhead boat, where I spoke to a surviving crew member.

This was before the wearing of floatation devices was commonplace in the industry. A strong swimmer himself, he had held one of his fellow fishermen up for a long time, keeping them both afloat while they awaited rescue.

Eventually, though “he just slipped through my arms”.

Maybe that poor soul would not have survived, had he been able to swim. But then again, maybe he would

Whatever, confidence in the water is key to survival today and it is essential that lessons in water safety and swimming continue as part of Shetland’s educational provision.

There were imaginative and far-reaching approaches to setting a budget for education in Shetland that could have been considered.

The radical deployment of remote learning is one obvious measure which could save millions and was not even considered.

And yet we seem willing to put the lives of children and adults at risk for the sake of a few thousand pounds on the kind of survival measures that any sensible person would see as crucial in a maritime community.

I am appalled and ashamed that this should even have been suggested.

Tom Morton
Councillor
Shetland North

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