Scalloway-born Jim Coutts and his wife Rose are in the process of moving from their home in the New Zealand capital Wellington to the Bay of Plenty area, where Jim’s sisters live. Jim worked for Wellington Harbour Board for 27 years and more recently in the builders supply store where his wife was office manager for 30 years. The couple are staunch supporters of the Hamefarin movement; 15 family members will visit Shetland this summer. Here, Jim tells of his strong links to the Old Rock.
Although I have spent most of my life in New Zealand, I am Shetland born and bred. Born in Scalloway, I was the youngest of seven children to Magnie and Babsie Coutts. I grew up hearing about coming to New Zealand, which had always been part of the family plan, but the fact that the whole family emigrated here in the 1950s is nothing short of amazing.
Sadly, the story starts with the tragic death of dad’s parents in 1927 when both were drowned returning to their home in Trondra. Dad’s youngest sister Lily was so upset by the loss of her parents she vowed she could not live within sight of the tragedy, and a pact was made between her, dad and another brother, Peter, to emigrate to New Zealand. However, dad was courting mum, and mum would not leave her grandparents, who were both ageing and needed her help on the croft. So auntie Lily and uncle Peter made the trip to New Zealand in 1928, with dad and mum promising to join them as soon as circumstances made it possible.
Mum’s grandparents both passed away in the early 1930s but by then mum and dad were married with a young family, and the world was in the grip of the Great Depression. Dad, a seaman, didn’t dare sign off in case he lost his berth and at one time was away from home for over three years. Then came World War II, and by the time it was all over my oldest sister, Mary, was working and as a young teenager was enjoying her life far too much to want to leave. Mum wouldn’t emigrate unless all the family went too and it seemed less and less likely that mum and dad would ever leave Shetland, as Tom and Freda also started work, and Mary went to work in Aberdeen.
With regular letters from New Zealand, the talk of going there never went away, and it was actually Mary in the end who set the ball rolling. Mary and her husband John (Christie) wanted to join John’s aunt (Joan Blance) who had decided to emigrate to New Zealand to join her brother in Wellington. This time the tables were turned; Mary would only leave Shetland if mum and the rest of the family would as well. Although Tom was courting Bella (Johnson), and Freda was engaged to Jimmy (Irvine) they all agreed to make the move. Jimmy had been best man for John and Mary – a real best man and bridesmaid romance. John, Lillian, Mackie and I weren’t given any choice and at 12 years old I was young enough to be really excited about it. The family went in stages with Mary and John being the first to leave Shetland. It took nearly three years before we were all together again. New Zealand was a culture shock for me. I was the only one in our family to go to school there, and couldn’t understand why my fellow class-mates couldn’t understand what I was saying. Even worse, they played football with an egg-shaped ball! However, there was plenty of contact with Shetlanders, as visiting Shetland seamen always seemed to end up at Mornington where we lived. As I grew older I also began to appreciate the regular contact through the Shetland Society monthly socials, and even served on the committee while still in my teens. But football – the round ball variety – was my passion, and even after I met and married Rose (who assimilated into the Shetland community very quickly), my contribution then to the Shetland Society was limited to attending functions which didn’t clash with my football commitments.
I can honestly say that I never felt homesick for Shetland until after the 1985 Hamefarin, when Mary and John and my brother John returned with a video. Mum had died the year before and the combination of this, and seeing familiar faces and places and hearing the voices on the video, was too much for me – tears streamed down my face and I vowed then that Rose and I would make a trip “hame”.
In 1986 the Shetland Society of Wellington asked me to chair a sub-committee set up to raise funds for welcoming the 1987 Reverse Hamefarers, and I was subsequently persuaded to take over from Mary as president of the society in 1987. Although I stepped down in 2007 from being president, I am still very much involved and have enjoyed some memorable times. We made friends, not only with our Shetland visitors, but with the many New Zealanders who put such an effort in to making that visit so outstanding.
Touching Shetland soil again in 1990, 33 years after I had left, was made even more special by cementing friendships formed from the 1987 trip, and with the group that travelled to Shetland with Rose and me. In the 90s more groups from Shetland visited New Zealand and then we started planning for the society’s 75th anniversary in 1997. Our ambitions grew from printing a calendar to publishing our history, together with a full-blown celebration of Shetland culture with “Shetland Week”. The celebrations started with a parliamentary reception hosted by Helen Clark (former NZ prime minister whose great grandfather, Arthur Leslie, arrived in NZ from Shetland in 1874), and later in the day the Mayor of Wellington launched our publication Chips Off the Auld Rock. This was followed by a torchlit parade culminating in burning a galley on a lagoon in the centre of the city. Sound familiar? We were very fortunate to have Lewis Smith (the then convener of SIC) and Shetland’s Young Heritage Fiddlers with us for the week, and what great ambassadors for Shetland they were. The week was full on with several public exhibitions, demonstrations, workshops and concerts ending with a Final Foy! Also all the primary and intermediate schools throughout the Wellington district were invited to take part in a competition based on a complementary educational kit on Shetland which we had prepared for them. It has to be one of the most exhilarating and rewarding (not to mention exhausting) experiences of my life. In 2000 I led, with Lily Baker, a New Zealand group to the Millennium Hamefarin. This year again I’ll be bringing a group of New Zealanders to Shetland. Roll on 14th June – the celebrations promise to be fantastic, and I know that we will be met with the wonderful warmth and welcome that is so typical of Shetland.