Shetland bids a fond farewell to seafaring Klondikers

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The Independent Online
All gold rushes come to an end but for some the loss is emotional as well as financial. So it is with the people of Lerwick, in Shetland, who this year have said goodbye to the Klondikers, thousands of eastern European seamen who brought colour - and money - to the northern town while buying up cheap herring and mackerel.

Over the past 15 years, as many as 100 factory ships from Russia, Poland, East Germany, Bulgaria and Romania have tied up outside the harbour for up to eight months of the year to buy the local fishermen's stocks. But this year, they have gone, driven away by reduced European Union fishing quotas that have seen prices double.

Local shopkeepers are suffering a minor recession with the absence of the Klondikers because, although the sailors had very little money to spend, there were as many as 7,000 in port at any one time, a figure that doubled the town's population.

"We knew it couldn't last forever, so no one really accounted for their presence in long-term business plans, but they did bring an added boost to the local economy," said Drew Tulloch, a director of Hughson Brothers wholesalers, which used to supply meat and vegetables to the Klondikers.

"They didn't have much money, but they would save up for electrical goods like televisions and videos.

"Aside from that, they were always very polite and friendly and colourful. They always went back to their boats by 6pm and they never caused any trouble. I think they will be missed for more than just their money."

With the reduction in the herring and mackerel quotas, local fish are too expensive for the eastern Europeans, who have returned to their own markets. The Shetland fishermen are now selling their catches in Denmark and Norway where they can demand around pounds 350 a tonne for herring, compared with the Klondikers' price of about pounds 120.

Sadly, the place on Commercial Street, Lerwick centre's main high street, where the Klondikers are being most missed, is a charity shop. Excited Russians were regular visitors to the Save the Children outlet, and would buy up the second-hand clothes for family members at home.

"They used to get shopping catalogues while they were over here and take them home for their wives," said Violet Laurenson, who runs the charity shop.

"Then they would come back with pages torn from the catalogues and buy the nearest thing we had to what their wives had chosen. They only earned about pounds 15 a month, so they saw us as a good source of clothing and we were pleased to help. We would often sell them items for about pounds 1 each.

"They were a lot of fun, never cheeky and they had no roguishness about them. Our sales are down about pounds 150 a week, so we miss them for that. But we also miss them for their friendliness."