Women who became penpals after Braer disaster come face-to-face

Lond distance friends of 16 years Luch Whitehead, left, and Gemma Manson. Click on image to enlarge.
Lond distance friends of 16 years Luch Whitehead, left, and Gemma Manson. Click on image to enlarge.

A Ness woman who first made contact with a pen pal at the time of the Braer recently met her long distance friend.

Gemma Manson, 27, originally from Scatness but now living in Lerwick, was 11-years-old when the oil tanker disaster brought media attention from all over the world to the isles and made the South Mainland in particular a hive of activity.

As well as hosting a visit from Blue Peter presenter John Leslie and naturalist David Bellamy, Dunrossness Primary School pupils were encouraged to write to child­ren around the world to tell them about life after the incident.

As part of her primary six class at the time, Gemma and her fellow class mates were given the chance to write to a school in Leicester­shire.

“[My pen pal’s] teacher had Shetland connections and got in touch with our teacher. All I mind is there was a big box and you had to pick out a letter.”

The letter Gemma chose was from Lucy Whitehead, then also 11. That was in early 1993 and while the girls first began writing simple letters to each a couple of times a year, they were soon exchanging mail every couple of weeks.

Gemma, now also a primary teacher at Sandwick Junior High, said: “It started once every six months then progressed, and the letters progressed too. When we started veering off the basics we knew we were good friends.”

They realised they were more than simple pen pals when they began sharing more about their lives: “If I had something to moan about I’d write about that. It was nice looking forward to a letter and hopefully some advice!”

They became close friends; however in all the years of writing, the girls have only spoken on the phone twice. The first time was when they were quite young. “She did call once but I heard her voice and put the phone down, it freaked me out!” Gemma said.

The girls had once made a pact to meet up if either of them got married. However, three years ago Lucy went out to New Zealand to travel, and while she planned to come home again after six months she never has.

They also felt it would be too emotional to leave their first meeting to such a big occasion, so when Lucy made arrangements to come back to the UK for a few weeks this year, they decided to take the opportunity to meet up.

Gemma said: “It was her idea to meet up – she was really excited but I was terrified. I was worried we wouldn’t get on and I thought it might ruin what we had, but it’s made it better.”

Lucy and Gemma arranged to meet in Glasgow, which was roughly half way for both of them. Gemma said when they finally met at Glasgow bus station it was “surreal”: “It was very emotional. We just cuddled each other and couldn’t stop saying ‘oh my god!’”

Having already seen photos of each other there were no major shocks, however one of the first things they did notice was each other’s accents.

Gemma said: “She sounded a lot posher than I had been expecting and she had expected me to sound a lot more Scottish.”

The girls then spent three days together which Gemma said was “a really good experience”, shopping, eating and drinking, as well as visiting Loch Lomond.

Finally meeting a friend of 16 years would be strange enough, but added to that was the spooky realisation that they are very sim­ilar.

Gemma said they chose the same types of clothes when out at the shops and even the same goodbye card to give to one another, which, considering the chances from the choice in Glasgow, is quite bizarre.

“There were quite a few strange similarities,” she said.“Someone – I can’t remember who it was – did actually say, ‘Oh great, another Gemma!’”

Since their meeting the girls have kept writing and have no plans to change to emailing, favouring traditional letters as they are “more personal”. They plan to meet up again, and Lucy, now living in Australia, will visit Shetland next year. Gemma hopes to go to her the year after.

Gemma said: “It’s all thanks to the Braer. To be honest when I first started, I didn’t know if I would keep it up. Looking back at our first letters, they’re not very exciting!”

The effort was obviously worthwhile however as both girls now have a close friend for life: “Lucy said that I was her best friend on paper, and now we’ve met it’s even better.”


Add Your Comment
  • Volker Willschrey

    • June 6th, 2020 15:40

    Sorry if I use this form to ask you a favour. My name is Volker Willschrey, I am 71 years old and a passionate collector of postcards from all over the world. For many years I am trying to find a penpals from Shetland (Lerwick etc) with whom I can swap postcard and correspond. Would be nice if you could help me. Thanks so much for your understanding


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