Home from New Zealand, ‘via’ Arizona

New Zealand-born Ronnie McPherson, whose grandparents emigrated from Shetland in the 1920s, is looking forward to coming to the Hamefarin with his American wife Nancy. The couple and their New Zealand-born children have lived in Flagstaff, Arizona, for more than 20 years, moving from Wellington in 1989. Ronnie is in regular touch with his Shetland relatives and in spite of his globe-trotting the place his mother regarded as “home” is never far from his thoughts. Here, he shares his story.

My grandfather and grandmother and their six children, including my mother, emigrated to New Zealand in the 1920s.

John William Irvine, my grand­father, was born at Grutness, Dun­ross­ness, in 1874. The family moved to Cunningsburgh around 1875, living at Westhouse and later at the Post Office at Starkigarth.

John went to sea – in 1899 he was aboard the steam whaler Esquimaux on a trip to the Davis Straits area.

In 1902 he married Ursula (Celie) Halcrow from Hoswick. They had six children: Elizabeth (Lizzie) 1902, Laurence (Nicol) 1905, John (Donnie) 1908, Malcolm 1915, my mother Jemima (Minnie) 1917 and Marion (Maisie) 1919.

When John’s father died in 1913, he came ashore and took over the running of the Post Office and croft with his wife Celie and children.

In late 1924 John signed on the steamer Konini for her maiden voyage out to New Zealand. The vessel was wrecked near Bluff, at the bottom of the South Island, when she ran aground. The crew all man­aged to get off safely. After the shipwreck, John stayed on in New Zealand working on coastal boats and tugboats in Wellington Harbour.

Then early in 1926, Celie and the rest of the family left Shetland for New Zealand. My mother, Minnie, remembered saying farewell to her classmates at Cunningsburgh School. They sailed from South­ampton to Auckland on the SS Waimana. From Auckland, they travelled by train to Wellington, where they were met by my grandfather.

Celie died in 1928. In the short time she lived in New Zealand she missed her folk in Shetland terribly. In letters she wrote back home she mentioned how homesick she was. John outlived her by nearly 30 years, dying in 1957.

John and Celie’s family all married in New Zealand and had families, from which there are many descendants today, living not only in New Zealand, but Australia and the United States.

The eldest daughter Lizzie (my aunt) married George Tulloch, a Cunningsburgh man from Wilhoul, at Wellington in 1926.

The family kept up contact with kinfolk back in Shetland by letter writing, which I try to keep up these days. Relatives also came out as seaman on ships, so news from home was heard from them.

The 1985 Hamefarin saw the return home to Shetland of my mother Minnie McPherson and her brother Donnie Irvine, after a time away of nearly 60 years. And what a time they had, meeting relatives and friends again, visiting places from their past, they said it was a dream come true, and you could tell it in their faces. Other New Zealand born descendants of John and Celie Irvine, including myself, also visited Shetland for the first time that year.

In 2002 my wife Nancy and our teenage children Rory and Megan and I visited Shetland from Arizona. It was good to catch up with my Shetland folk and show Rory and Megan the places of their ancestors.

I like to do the genealogy, I think this comes from listening to uncles and aunties talking about kinfolk and places in Shetland, when I was young. It always seemed so interest­ing. Then in the 1980s some relatives really got me going on it.

A few years back I tried playing the fiddle as my Irvine folk had, they were very musical. I was thinking the Irvine talent might rub off on me, but that never happened! I still love the sound of the fiddle though.

For my grandparents and their children, my parents’ generation, Shetland was always “home”, even though they lived most of their lives in New Zealand. It is much the same today, with New Zealand being home to myself and my children, but never a day goes by that I don’t think of my home and the folk, from here in Arizona. But you know, Shetland is never far from thoughts and memories either.

This 2010 Hamefarin, only Nancy and I will be coming and we both are looking forward to it.

As told to Rosalind Griffiths


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