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Tom Morton: 'I wasn't supposed to get elected - I only stood because Anas Sarwar asked me to'

Tom Morton by Stewart Cunningham

Tom Morton: 'I wasn't supposed to get elected - I only stood because Anas Sarwar asked me to'

Labour councillor Tom Morton, who represents the Shetland North ward, talks to Holyrood about being a reluctant politician and having a rather famous son.

Describe the area you represent in one sentence

I’m one of three councillors on Shetland Islands Council who represent the Shetland North ward – it's quite an important part of Shetland because it contains the Sullom Voe oil and gas terminal, which is currently the subject of potential alternative energy developments and one of the biggest employers in Shetland.

How long have you lived there?

I'm from the west of Scotland – I was brought up in Troon in Ayrshire. I first came here in 1978 on a journalistic job but have lived here off and on since about 1987. Susan, my wife, was working as a GP in Shetland at the time and there was a job going at the Shetland Times so I applied for that and got it. That was one of the main motivating factors.

Tell us something we won’t know about your local area

It has one of the biggest land-based wind farms in Britain, which is yet to be commissioned. It’s been developed by Viking Energy and stretches from my ward into the adjoining one. It’s a massive imposition on the landscape, some would say, but it’s symbolic in Shetland of our route to net zero.

Who is the best-known person from your area – is it your son [James Morton appeared on season three of The Great British Bake Off]?

James Morton is quite well known – he has a new book due out, James Morton’s Big Book of Bread. There’s also Steven Robertson, who stars in Shetland. But one of the figures from here that I'm most fond of talking about is Jenny Gilbertson, who was a pioneer filmmaker in the 1930s, 40s and 50s. She was an extraordinary person. She was the local schoolteacher in the community that I live in and, along with John Grierson, pioneered documentary filmmaking, first of all here and then in the Arctic. There was a retrospective showing of her most famous local film, The Rugged Island, at Hippfest in Bo’ness in March, accompanied by a special commission from local musicians Catriona Macdonald and Inge Thomson.

Tom Morton with his son, the cookery writer James Morton | Alamy

What challenges are unique to your part of the country?

It's probably something everyone says, which is the cost of living, but it’s particularly acute here because everything is much more expensive anyway. A study last year reckoned that if you're earning less than £40,000 per year, per family, in Shetland you're technically in poverty. There's a surcharge on nearly all the food that comes here and then there are energy prices in what is a very cold and windy environment.

What made you stand for election?

I'm a member of the Labour Party and my wife is chair of the local constituency Labour Party but I had absolutely no intention of standing. At the local elections Labour didn't have a single candidate standing in any of the Shetland wards. I was down in Glasgow and got a phone call from [Scottish Labour leader] Anas Sarwar, who asked me to stand “just to be able to put forward Labour values and Labour policies”. I thought I had absolutely no chance because most councillors here are independents and I thought it was very, very unlikely anyone would vote for a party. I put myself forward as an official Labour candidate and lo and behold nobody stood against me. I’m one of three councillors for this ward, but nobody voted for me.

Are you happy to be a councillor?

I have mixed feelings about it. It was a surprise and there have been moments when I thought it was the worst decision I ever made, but there are issues where we've been able to make a difference. For example, we're going to get a new school in Bray, which is the main population centre for our ward. It's been really good, against some opposition, to help push that through.

What’s the one thing Holyrood politicians could do that would be of greatest benefit to the area you represent?

Recognise that Shetland is not just some outlying oil-rich lump of rock in the middle of the North Sea, but part of Scotland and that we have real problems with things like transport. The ferry connection to the mainland is not too bad at the moment, but within Shetland itself we have a real crisis as regards inter-island ferries. A lot of the ferries are 30 or 40 years old and need replaced. The Scottish Government needs to have a look at this because it is its responsibility.

What’s the best bit about living where you do?

Shetland has a really strong, flourishing musical tradition in all kinds of styles – contemporary music to traditional fiddle music, which it is best known for. But I really love the light. In the summer you have this thing called the summer dim, which is in June, when it’s light nearly all the way through the night and I love those moments. But I also love the winters. I’m very fond of the darkness in the sense that it draws people together and you have a lot of socialising.

Is there a particular word you love using that only people in your part of the country would recognise?

The Shetland dialect is pretty much a language of its own, a form of Scots mixed with Old Norse. My ultimate favourite word is jamp, which is the past tense of jump, but I also love hearing reest. In some ways the identifying dish of Shetland is reested mutton. Reest is a form of salting and drying meat. You take a piece of mutton and soak it in brine and a mixture of herbs and spices and then you dry it over a fire or over a stove before it’s turned into a soup which is the absolute staple of winter in Shetland.

If you could live anywhere else, where would it be?

I was originally brought up in Troon and a few years ago we bought a little flat there to spend time visiting grandchildren and children on the mainland. I would probably choose Troon and my wife, who is originally from Rutherglen, would probably choose Glasgow, so maybe somewhere in between the two. Stewarton?

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