This month, hundreds of Shetlanders and Shetland families from across the world will be arriving in the islands to take part in the Hamefarin celebrations, 50 years after the first such event (see James W. Irvine’s article).
The occasion is a useful reminder of just how much things have changed here since the days when many thousands of islanders were forced to emigrate, often to the other side of the world, escaping poverty and hardship, leaving behind family, friends and homes. Today Shetland is a prosperous community, with jobs, opportunities and amenities. Today people leave only through choice, not necessity.
But the question of why the islands continue to draw so many people back, even if just for short visits like these, is an interesting one, and not entirely easy to answer. Some of this summer’s visitors will be the descendants of emigrants and so may never have seen the islands before, while others will have left Shetland themselves in more recent years. Yet despite these very different experiences, all have decided to make the voyage north. So why are they coming?
In part, the Hamefarin will be an exercise in nostalgia – in the broadest sense of that word. For many it will represent a desire to reconnect with the past, and to establish or re-establish roots. And that desire is understandable. In a contemporary world that celebrates rootlessness above almost anything else, the idea of having come from somewhere can be a very powerful and important thing. It offers a sense of depth and the promise of an identity.
For some of these visitors though, modern Shetland may seem just a little disappointing. It may appear, at first, rather too similar to modern everywhere else. People’s lifestyles here are little different from those of other rural and small town areas in Scotland: the shops are the same, the jobs are the same, and the social problems are the same. But the echoes of the old Shetland are still here, and they will no doubt be emphasised for the sake of our visitors.
Shetland is pretty good at recognising those things that still make us a unique and fascinating place, and it is always worth keeping them in mind. But it is impossible, however, not to notice the irony in the fact that, just weeks before the hamefarers arrive, the council decided to cut knitting and free music tuition from our schools. Such things are always easy targets when savings need to be made; culture and the arts are usually considered to be expendable by decision makers obsessed by money alone. But the change does mean that two of the pillars of our cultural identity suddenly appear rather less solid than they have done for a long time. The council’s strong support for Shetland’s heritage and local distinctiveness has been one of the defining features of the post-oil period, and if this support is now beginning to wane then it is likely that major changes lie ahead.
I hope that this month’s visitors do enjoy their time here, and that they leave the islands with a strong sense not just of what has made Shetland special in the past, but what continues to make it special today.
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This year, Westside councillor Florence Grains has won the prize for the highest expenses claim of all 22 councillors, and once again it is her astonishingly high taxi bill that is to blame for the figure. Over £13,000 on taxis, given a basic working year of 260 days, means that Councillor Grains has spent an average of £50 of public money a day on taxis, which is pretty impressive. Particularly since she only lives in Whiteness.
I think what offends people most about this situation is not just the cost itself, but the shoulder-shrugging attitude Mrs Grains has shown towards the expense. £13,000 may not seem like a huge sum of money to her, but it is more than many of us earn in a year. And this is a cost that recurs (and rises) every single year, with never the slightest effort to reduce it.
If government ministers are willing and able to find ways to cut their own personal transport expenses, surely it is not beyond the ability of a councillor (or the council itself) to do the same thing.