“The great responsibility of telling a story of one great maritime community to another.” Brian Lavery’s keynote lecture at Shetland Museum and Archive

University of Hull alumnus Dr Brian Lavery, author of The Headscarf Revolutionaries and The Luckiest Thirteen was invited by The Nautical Institute (Shetland Branch) to deliver the keynote lecture at Shetland Museum and Archive‘s Boat Week Festival. He proved a perfect ambassador for Hull, recounting the 1968 Triple Trawler Disaster, which resonated with his audience, showing the two great maritime communities to be intertwined in spirit, even if geographically apart.


As a writer, you are often made aware of the responsibility you carry for the stories you tell. My visit to the Shetland Isles was such an occasion.

An overnight sea-crossing from Aberdeen gave me plenty of time to ponder as I both appreciated not only the honour of that the invitation of the Nautical Institute had given to me as a keynote speaker, but also the great responsibility of telling a story – probably the story – of one great maritime community to another.

I arrived in the manner that generations had before me to these great islands. From the ship’s deck the vista of Lerwick was revealed from the lifted morning haar like a life-sized postcard photograph.

Twelve hours later I was at the venue. It was a full house at The Shetland Museum and Archive’s main auditorium. Behind me a cinema-sized screen displayed the PowerPoint presentation that announced the lecture: The Headscarf Revolutionaries – the story of the 1968 Hull Triple Trawler Disaster – and the subsequent fishwives’ uprising for better safety led by Mrs Lillian Bilocca – as told in my 2015 book.

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Whenever I lecture on the fishing industry I always make it clear that I just write about these things and have neither the courage nor skill to have lived it – as generally many of those in my audiences have.  Many in the auditorium that night were not only involved with the sea, but also remembered the Dark Winter of 1968 and were an appreciative and inquisitive group. Maritime communities are apart in distance only. Shetland folk made it clear that they not only remembered 1968’s disaster, but also shared in Hull’s pain shoulder to shoulder – as with all maritime tragedies past, present – and – God forbid – those of the future.

I have given this lecture across the UK but I am always extra nervous in any maritime community. There was no need to worry – the Shetland audience was keen and engaged.

From the moment I was introduced by Museum Curator Dr Iain Tait, I had one of the most focussed group of people I have ever encountered.

Shetland had come together to make Boat Week – and my lecture – happen. Business, public services and academia combined to sponsor the many events put on across the week. And I would like to thank; DH Marine, Lerwick Port Authority, Malakoff Limited, KGQ, NorthLink Ferries, Simpson Fish, LHD, the Shetland Fish Producers’ Organisation and Bolt Car Hire for that support. (Business people take note.)

signing

I would also like to thank Mr Jim Ratter and Mr Michael Irvine from the Nautical Institute for their outstanding hospitality ­– and for being my ‘chauffeurs’ for the duration of my visit.

Shetland Boat Week is an excellent example of business and public sector co-operation and long may their success continue.

The day after the lecture I was honoured to be a guest at the Shetland Times Bookshop in Lerwick where I spent a few happy hours meeting new readers and signing their books. One reader, Mr Sandy Begg, a retired seaman travelled 30 miles for a signed copy of The Headscarf Revolutionaries. Sandy (pictured) was a natural storyteller and I could have spent the rest of the day with him. There was another book there for sure!

Sandy Begg

A highlight that competed with giving the lecture (certainly in the mind of my ten-year-old self!) was my visit to the bridge of the ship that took me home – thanks to Third Officer Amber Johnson for the invitation and to Captain Ian Williamson, Chief Mate Richard Wild and AB Chris Connor of NorthLink Ferries for the perfect end to the perfect trip.

On the bridge1

The Shetland Isles now has not only another happy tourist but also a new ambassador.

Dr Brian W Lavery is author of The Headscarf Revolutionaries (Barbican Press 2015) and The Luckiest Thirteen (Barbican Press 2017). He is also a creative writing tutor with the University of Leeds and the Workers’ Educational Association and runs a community writing project in Hull.

Twitter – @brianlavery59

Website – brianwlavery.com

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