There is one among the merry throng of hamefarers this week who is already a very well-kent face in his homeland: Davie Thomason is a veteran of all four hamefarins since attending as a schoolboy at the first event in 1960 with his dad Magnie.
This time, along with six-year-old son Magnie-Che, he is the proud bearer of a message of solidarity and congratulation from over 100,000 union members in Australia, represented by a colourful flurry of union banners which now have pride of place on show in the Shetland Museum and Archives.
Of course, the irrepressible Davie is not just an occasional visitor, having spent several years living back in Lerwick with his native Australian partner Tanya Koolmatrie – and memorably getting involved in several demonstrations and protests – before the family headed back to Oz in 2006. He now lives in Belmont, near Melbourne, in the state of Victoria.
Sporting his Crocodile Dundee-style hat and bearing small gifts from afar for his friends, he was delighted to be back once again as one of the hundreds of hamefarers.
“I’m very proud of what Shetland has done to welcome us home,” he said, “and I’m proud of how the town looks.”
Fifty years ago it was a very different Shetland that the exiles, mainly from New Zealand, discovered with many islanders enduring a tough time amid economic stagnation, poverty and unemployment. But Davie said he would never forget the happiness that surrounded that homecoming and he remembers all the hamefarers speaking away in broad Shetland dialect.
He was back again at the 1985 event with his eldest son Davie and for the third event in 2000 with Tanya. This time he has a programme of events and presentations lined up for his trip, including the obligatory visit to the ancestral home at Copister in Yell and a presentation to the Anderson High School of a large Australian Aboriginal flag and a DVD and book on the story of Australia.
Davie has been a staunch union man since signing up in Aberdeen, aged 15, encouraged by his dad Magnie and another Yell man, union official Basil Jamieson. Fighting for civil rights and workers’ rights is still a major part of his life and the union flags he has brought over with him he evidently holds in great reverence.
On display in one of the museum’s exhibition spaces near the foyer, they convey the good wishes of unions in Australia to the organisers and participants of the 50th anniversary hamefarin. Davie also has letters and posters from union leaders congratulating Shetlanders and union members in particular.
He said: “It was an idea that came to me a couple of months ago, when I was ready to come home.”
Several of the flags have Shetland connections including that of the Maritime Union of Australia which has provided two flags and a pledge from Melbourne-based activist Paul Wilcocks to help any Shetland mariner wishing to work in the booming western Australian offshore oil sector. Mr Wilcocks’ sister Wanda happens to be married in Wellington to a Shetland man, Laurie Gifford.
The Eureka Flag, brought over from the Geelong Trades Hall, is dominated by a Southern Cross. It is widely used by trade unionists as a symbol of protest, originating from the 1854 battle at the Eureka Stockade in Ballarat in Victoria which was the result of a gold miners’ revolt. Davie said it was the first revolt against British rule and saw the deaths of 22 protesters at the hands of the army.
Two flags are from tower cranes which stand over big construction sites in Australia, including one from Davie’s union – the Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union – and the John Cummins Memorial Fund.
Davie himself wears a T-shirt emblazoned with Cummins’ picture. A legendary union organiser in Victoria, some Australians consider the twice-jailed activist to be their greatest union leader ever. He died four years ago.
The big red flag he has brought has been flown from reputedly the world’s oldest trade union hall in Melbourne. There is also one from Tanya’s union, the National Tertiary Education Union, signed by the aboriginal organiser Adam Frogley and several Scottish members.
All the banners have been gifted to Shetland and Davie intends handing them and the accompanying letters over to local union stalwart and historian Brian Smith. He hopes they might find homes with the local unions.