History: The first Hamefarin

James W. Irvine recalls another Hamerfarin, 50 years ago, and the part he played in organising that celebration.

Even at my age I am extremely pleased to see in The Shetland Times that preparations for this year’s Hamefarin, from 14th to 26th June, are going ahead with clear enthusiasm and considerable ambition. This time there is a very significant number of people coming from all over the world. I have no doubt that this period of nearly a fortnight will be a time for the visitors to treasure, but it will also be an occasion for Shetlanders to recall with a great deal of pleasure. I say this with certainty for I have very clear and pleasant memories of the first Hamefarin, 50 years ago. At the risk of boring some of my readers, I will share some of my memories with you.

It was J.L. Arcus of Wellington, New Zealand, after a visit to Shetland in 1958, who wrote to our civic authorities suggesting a grand return of Shetlanders to their native isles on some suitable date in 1960. “Smashing idea”, our big boys told J.L., and signalled action very soon thereafter by setting up a large committee to organise all the preparations for presenting a programme that would honour and delight the hamefarers – for that is what they were being called already. Perhaps the most important thing that happened first was the appointment of G.W. Blance (Dodie Willie) as chairman of the organising committee. He was the perfect chairman for this kind of job. Eddie Thomason was secretary and Harry Drever treasurer, while I was an unimportant vice-chairman.

Early resolutions were that, as far as possible, this was to be an event for all of Shetland, and hopefully to facilitate that aim a pageant of Shetland life would be the final item of our programme. Although we were still a long way from the magic dates which had been set in 1960 – 20th to 27th May – we started going out to country areas right away to tell the people our plans and solicit their support. We found our country cousins to be both willing and eager, and in the end they contributed a great deal to the pageant.

Remember, this was 50 years ago; travel was very different for one thing, with our visitors all coming by sea, and we sent a welcoming party, all in Viking dress, to Southampton, to greet the hamefarers and travel north with them. We were highly gratified with the willingness with which the travel companies provided free travel for this little band.

By 7am on the morning of Friday, 20th May, 1960, Victoria Pier was the most crowded I have ever seen it. Everyone was awaiting the arrival of the St Clair, carrying the hamefarers, and as she berthed the Lerwick Brass Band played the tune Beloved Thule, which had been chosen as the theme for the visit.

At the risk of more boredom I must tell how the provost, R.B. Blance, had delivered an address of welcome from the pier before the official party went on board, comprising convener T. Henderson, the provost, organising committee chairman G.W. Blance, county clerk J.N. Sinclair, town clerk R.L.C. Manson and organising committee secretary E. Thomason. As I look at that list now I realise that not a single one survives.

The visitors were the last of the passengers to disembark, and they were in the main New Zealanders. They numbered in total 55 in the main party, though others arrived independently, plus a few from Canada, America and Australia brought the total number to nearly 90.

A programme which had been organised for them kicked in right away. For instance, much of the hugely successful show Tell Wiz, which had recently wowed packed audiences in the Garrison, was laid on in the same venue for the evening of their arrival day. On Saturday they went to Scalloway, and on Sunday there was a packed congregation in St. Columba’s for a United Service. On Monday the Burgh Courtroom was opened as the hamefarers’ clubroom; that evening and on Tuesday a Shetland concert was presented by the Folk Society in the Garrison; and on Tuesday the hamefarers visited Sandlodge and Dunrossness. It was on Thursday of that week that visitors and Shetlanders heard for the first time the fiddlers henceforth to be known as the Forty Fiddlers.

Friday saw the presentation of the most ambitious item on the programme, entitled Shetland – A Pageant. Because I was very much involved in this I will probably be long-winded, but here goes.

It was held on ground between Clickimin and South Lochside, and covered quite a space. A round area was marked off near the main South Road as the setting for the various tableaux, many of which were to be mounted on lorries. Chairs were borrowed from a number of town halls and were priced at 3/6 for seated spectators (17.5p), while standing viewers paid 2/- (10p). There was a large car park farther north,  admission 1/- (5p). Shetland Federation of W.R.I. had a large marquee from which they dispensed snacks and cups of tea for 1/- (5p) in very large numbers. We had taken a power line into the site, and the tape recorders and other equipment were housed in a caravan.

The pageant, comprising 40 items, commenced, and each item, for the whole of its circumambulation of the amphitheatre, had a broadcast sound accompaniment. The narrative part of the accompaniment had all been recorded by Tammy Anderson at his house, and I think I was there at all of it probably, because in the end it was I who wrote the whole of the script. That was not enough on its own though; we had to fill in with music, poetry, etc. to the extent that five or six recorders were in use all the time, requiring extremely careful switching on and off of the recorders, and here we had the expert assistance of Ronald Conochie, Tom Anderson, Drew Robertson, James Halcrow, Snr, Frankie Sinclair and Billy Kay, while throughout, our two Viking princesses (sisters Margaret and Joyce Sinclair) charmingly occupied the seats of honour outside the caravan.

I will simply say that the pageant was a complex piece of work to present, with items from all over, e.g. voar scenes from Dunrossness, spring and peat scenes from Tingwall, and hairst from the same source. Home life 70 years ago was portrayed by the S.W.R.I., a Shetland wedding by a considerable posse of Cunningsburgh people, with weaving, knitting and tweed from John Tulloch Ltd. The numerous items portraying the sea appeared in succession. Here we had had tremendous co-operation from a band of young men who had built a number of models – no mean products, for on average they were about 20 feet long – each filling the back of one of the big trucks. They included a Ness yoal, a sixern, a Faroe smack, a Dutch bom, a sailing Fifie, a motorised Fifie (75 h.p. Gardner), a steam drifter, a dual-purpose herring/seine-net boat.

All of them had their places, and as they passed the sound track contained many traditional items with a sea background. Not last, but coming near the end, was the Papa Stour Sword Dance, presented by Gilbert Pottinger and a team of boys.
I remember, as the last item in the pageant made its exit (it was the sword dance team), and we sang the inevitable Beloved Thule, I couldn’t help thinking how smoothly it had all gone – just the way I had hoped it would – but more importantly this had been a night for Shetlanders from every ert along with their guests. And so many had made a contribution, though I couldn’t help feeling that the boys who made the models must rank pretty near the top, if not right there.

The pageant finished, there was a short delay to allow our simmer dim to give at least an aura of authenticity to the Up Helly A’ boys’ fire festival, which they were staging on the loch and round the broch. This was rounded off in traditional manner, with the galley consigned to the flames on the waters of the loch.

Thereafter the scene shifted to several of the halls in the town where dancing sped the hours away for the remainder of the night. The organising secretary decided to make a call on each hall, and on his rounds he discovered rather too late that his feet were somewhat inadequately shod in a pair of old smucks. My memory leaves a lot to be desired these days, but, so far as I can recall, Jack Moar, Jerry Andrew, a stalwart of the first Hamefarin, and I are the only survivors of the original committee.


Get Latest News in Your Inbox

Join the The Shetland Times mailing list to get one daily email update at midday on what's happening in Shetland.