Something to ‘yell’ about

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Robert (left) and Lee Jamieson in front of Y22RGJ at Moarfield garage. JONATHAN WELCH

A recent acquisition in Unst made Yell-based RG Jamiesons the most northerly coach and bus operator in the UK. Jonathan Welch made the long expedition to the far north to find out the story

In late 2019, CBW’s news pages featured a short item that the operations of P&T Coaches had been bought by R.G. Jamieson & Son. In itself, that is not an unusual happening, but in this case, it meant that Jamiesons became the new most northerly operator in the UK, expanding from its base on the island of Yell, to the north of the Shetland mainland, across to the island of Unst, the most northerly of the islands which make up Shetland.
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Founded in 1922 by Robert (‘Bobby’) Gordon Jamieson, the business began as a taxi and car hire enterprise with a Ford Model T convertible, purchased new in Edinburgh for £250 along with sufficient spares to keep it running on the island. That £250 equates to a little over £14,000 today.
Over the next few years, the business grew at a steady rate, allowing Bobby to purchase his first new bus, a seven-seat Chevrolet, in 1930, taking the fleet up to four vehicles. It wasn’t until 1948 that the company progressed to a bigger vehicle, purchasing a 20-seat 1933 Bedford WLB. Bobby stayed in the business until retiring in 1957, aged 65, when the business transferred to his eldest son, Laurence (‘Laurie’) Gordon Jamieson. Trading as L.G. Jamieson until his death in 1979, the business passed to his widow, before being bought by cousins Robert, who was Laurence’s son, and Gordon, both grandchildren of founder Robert Gordon, and who re-instated the name R.G. Jamieson, which coincided neatly with their own initials.

Gradual expansion
The business today is based at Moarfield Garage in Cullivoe, on the island of Yell, which is situated to the north of the main island, and approximately 50 miles by road and ferry from the Shetland capital, Lerwick. The newly acquired P&T Coaches business is based at Baltasound on the island of Unst, a further 11 and a half miles and one more ferry crossing away to the north east, and where the former owners still run the Final Check Out café and local shop. The operating environment in this remote – but by no means isolated – part of the country is very different to that which most will experience, and brings with it many challenges and highlights. Lee Jamieson, son of Robert, and fresh from his role in the previous weekend’s Cullivoe Up Helly Aa celebration, took the time to explain a little more about what it takes to run coaches and buses here, and how his company took on the name of Britain’s most northerly.

“I passed my test at 18, I was too young to do a lot of the work but could do service runs and move empty vehicles around. I went away to study accountancy but then came back here. When I came back, I worked at a Salmon farm for nearly two years, and started here full time in 2009. I was never made to feel that I had to go into the family business, but decided it was the only thing I wanted to do.

“The work has changed a lot even since I started. We had fewer vehicles then, and only one full-size one, 53-seater Dennies Javelin with Plaxton Profile body, plus one around 40, one around 30 seats, along with the Transits and Plaxton Beaver service bus for a council contract. Instead of replacing the Javelin in 2013, we bought another Plaxton, this time an Elite. We kept getting more work, and went from one full size coach to four in just over a year. We bought a Plaxton Leopard in the December and a Plaxton Paragon 49-seater came the following year.

A varied fleet

A number of vehicles are based at the former P&T Coaches depot at Baltasound, including SW15YJE, which was sold to P&T just months before being re-acquired with that business. JONATHAN WELCH

“We had the Elite for a while, but it didn’t suit us. It was great to drive but the front overhang was too long, it would bottom out in places. With work at the Shetland Gas Plant declining, we decided to sell it on. We have nine larger coaches now, with 29 or more seats, plus 22-seat and 16-seat Sprinters, and two 16-seat Transits. We had a new Transit and a 2018 EVM Sprinter arrive last week, and we plan to have two Sprinters on Unst but vehicles will likely switch between the two islands according to what we need.” That need has to be carefully planned, though, as while ferries between the islands are reasonably frequent and the journey is short, it is not cheap, costing almost £60 for a coach of up to 12 metres.

“We have 14 discs authorised, and have 27 vehicles, from cars for self-drive hire, a pick-up and small van, up to the 53-seat coaches. We usually de-licence two over the winter to account for the reduction in work. It gets very busy in Shetland with the cruise liners in summer. We used to do a lot more touring work. We’ve done tours to Ireland, Eastbourne, Llandudno, Cornwall, and to the continent to places like Disneyland Paris, Norway and Legoland in Denmark, but we’ve found in recent years there were fewer and fewer people on the tours. For a few years, trips to music festivals were popular too. We have decided to stop any tours to the continent until we see what happens with Brexit. We still do quite a lot of school trips to the mainland of Britain, with Primary trips usually basing themselves in either Edinburgh or Loch Insh near Aviemore, with Secondary trips heading further South to London, York or Manchester.”

Drivers are not an abundant commodity in Shetland, with a finite pool to draw from. “Every driver we have is an asset. We have no full time drivers on Yell at the moment, but do have a new guy hoping to start at the end of the month. We have a lot of part time drivers. Most work shifts in other jobs, and do a bit of driving for us – for example the ferrymen have two weeks off in every five week period, so some of them fill some of that driving for us. In Unst, we have two full-time drivers, and another four or five who work part time.”

Commuters, shoppers, tourists and schools
Talking of ferrymen brings us to discussing the ferries and this island’s public transport system more generally. “We have quite a good bus service,” continued Lee, “the ferries have a good set up, and we get lots of commuters from Yell, Unst and Fetlar. In an ideal world we’d have a bus meet every ferry but we have to be realistic. All buses do tie in with meeting ferries though. One of our services is dial-a-ride, it used to run daily but after the one regular passenger stopped using it, some days there was no demand. There’s no point going out on a cold frosty morning for nothing. It still goes every Friday, and gets used some other days too.

“We have a morning service to Lerwick, that then ties in with a bus that comes down from Unst to take people to Lerwick. It arrives there at 1020hrs, and leaves again at 1435hrs. It is aimed at shoppers and people with hospital appointments, and meets the ferry to and from Fetlar as well – we operate a dial-a-ride service there too. The services are well used in summer with people who base themselves in Lerwick and travel up to visit Unst or Fetlar.”

Whilst the service may operate in an environment that is very different to most, technology has kept pace with what is going on elsewhere. “We’ve had Ticketer across Shetland since last March. The machines are far better that what we had previously, and the new contactless facility is proving very popular. There are also Shetland pre-pay cards too. You can store up to £60, and get a 20% discount for using them, which can make a big difference. The fare from here to Lerwick is £4.40 each way, including the ferry, which is quite decent but 20% is a big saving.”

Practicalities

The views around Jamieson’s base are spectacular, as seen here looking across to Unst from Yell. JONATHAN WELCH

Being situated so far away from suppliers and service providers could be a problem, but Jamiesons accept that that is the cost of doing business somewhere like Shetland. Robert took up the story: “For parts it’s generally fairly good. We can ring one day and have them sent the next – so long as the breakdown happens early enough! Nortruck has a depot here, they keep a stock of common parts such as discs and pads. The big brands like Volvo and Mercedes are easy to get hold of.”

“We currently have four Mercedes-Benz (two Sprinters and two Cheetahs), five Volvos and two MANs (one Barbi, one MobiPeople),” continued Lee. “Ideally we’d run all one type but things happen over time, and that’s not always possible. We ran a King Long for a while, they were the only people who could supply a 33-seat DDA coach when we needed it, but it became difficult to get spares, and they weren’t built for the Shetland weather. We could have bought a second but went for the MobiPeople Midi Explorer instead.

“Warranty work can be a problem though,” added Robert. “It can mean going to Aberdeen, you don’t know how long it might be there or how long it’ll be off the road. Volvo offer good back-up. If they’re coming up they usually give us a shout, but if they’re flying there’s only so much they can bring with them. There’s only the Ford agency here, in Lerwick.”

A number of vehicles over the years have been supplied by BASE. “They had our MobiPeople on display at the NEC show when it was new. When you’re a small operator, it’s quite an honour for a small family-owned company to have your vehicle displayed,” said Lee. As with many small family-owned fleets, touches such as personalised number plates are in evidence here too. All the vehicles carry registrations ending in RGJ, including Y22RGJ, reflecting that the business started in the year 1922 and GJ05RGJ in memory of Gordon Jamieson.

P&T take-over
Having expanded gradually over the years as work grew, what prompted the expansion into Unst with the take-over of P&T Coaches? “It was a bit of a shock really,” continued Lee. “We know them well but haven’t really worked together a lot as most of their work is on Unst, and ours is here on Yell. We’ve put a few coaches across for the last few years to help them during the cruise season, and Pat contacted us to ask advice about buying a new coach. We said we might have one to sell, and eventually sold them our 43-seat Barbi. It’s the perfect size, it has 43 seats and has space for 43 cases. The shorter length makes a big difference on island roads – the quality of roads here is generally good, but there are some tight spaces. That sale went through in June.

“P&T was a partnership and unfortunately Pat’s business partner Charlie Priest passed away in 2017 so this left Pat running the transport, garage, shop and café and I think she thought this may be a good time to sell some of the business to someone local. Pat sent me an email wondering if we would be interested in taking over the transport and garage side of P&T Coaches.

“Me and my wife, Elizabeth had recently moved to Unst from Lerwick and bought a house there, as Elizabeth is from Unst and we were expecting our first child, Bobby, who was born on Christmas Day 2018. Pat thought it might be a good idea for us. We had a lot to weigh up, especially since there is a shortage of drivers across Shetland. Lots of the runs meet each other at the ferry, though, so it made sense in that way. We’ve kept the workforce and the garage business. The timing was good as the contracts were coming up for renewal anyway, which meant we would only have a few months to run on their terms, before we could negotiate our own.”

Robert continued: “It has been good for us in lots of ways. It means we have a base of P&T drivers we can call on. It has all been very amicable. Some people said why not just wait until the contracts came up for renewal but you just don’t do that, you don’t go to another island and take on someone’s contracts. We respect each other’s territories. Their work is quite different to ours in some ways, they have a very busy garage. Everybody on Unst uses them, and we have a bus in Lerwick every day where there’s a motor factors, so we can pick up everything and have the parts there by the evening. We’re still learning though, you never stop. When you think you know it all, it’s time to get out – and it’s my ambition to see 100 years of the business.”

100th anniversary
Whilst no one can know what the future holds, Lee mentioned that there has been a proposal to locate a space centre on the far north of Unst, near the former RAF station. If it were to go ahead, this could lead to an uplift in work. But in the shorter term, although nothing has been planned as yet, Jamieson’s is looking towards its 100th anniversary in 2022, which will be cause for a big celebration among the family, staff and islanders who rely on the company, day in, day out. In typical island community fashion, this will no doubt be even better than 2002’s 80th anniversary celebration, when the firm hired the local hall and invited the whole of Cullivoe to join the party – and CBW looks forward to the invite!
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