Shetland’s golden anniversary Hamefarin was launched in style at Clickimin on Monday afternoon with speeches, music, Vikings and a presentation.
The ceremony marked the official start of a two-week adventure for nearly 600 Hamefarers, who had made journeys of up to 12,000 miles to discover their roots, catch up with relatives and explore the isles.
Many spoke of their feelings of being at home, their sense of welcome and their wish to see and do as much as they could.
Addressing the gathering, convener Sandy Cluness said that at the time of the first Hamefarin in 1960, Shetland had been a very different place. The population had been only 18,000 and falling, the fishing industry had been in decline and people were leaving to seek a new life elsewhere.
Now, however, largely thanks to the oil industry, the isles had infrastructure and services to be proud of. He was proud, too, Mr Cluness said, of the young Shetlanders, some of whom, in the 50-piece traditional band Laldy, had been playing as the reception got under way and who would go on to thrill the audience with their music.
He was flanked by two large quilts, the suggestion of a “mad moment” by Ann Hill who created them from blocks made by Hamefarers – visible symbols of what Shetland means to them.
Dedicating the quilts to the event, Mrs Hill, who grew up in Lerwick’s Russell Crescent but who now lives in the Borders, said the project had brought back memories – “I’ll always be a Shetlander” – and had started many new friendships.
Originally Mrs Hill had expected around 16 blocks, she said, but ended up with 48. “I’ve loved every minute,” she added.
Mr Cluness was then presented with a gift from the Shetland Society of New Zealand – a miniature greenstone adze (arched-bladed cutting tool). It was “made from our old rock” said society vice-president Ross Mainland.
Mr Mainland said later that his father Tom, born in Gonfirth and who later lived in Dunrossness, had emigrated in 1928 under a scheme organised by the New Zealand government, the sheep producers and the shipping companies to give orphans (as Tom was) the chance of a new start in agriculture.
The 15-year-old had travelled alone and never returned to the isles. This was Mr Mainland’s third visit, he said, and it was “like coming home”.
A brief cheer on stage by the Jarl’s Squad was followed by dialect songs from girl band Laeverick, who performed a Hamefarin song, followed by Rowin Foula Doon by Vagaland and Evergreen by Rhoda Bulter.
It proved highly emotional for Robin Hunter-Smith from South Africa (who with his wife Nicky and daughter Sharon form the total South African contingent) who admitted to “getting his handkerchief out”.
Mr Hunter-Smith is the grandson of Shetlanders who emigrated before the Boer War and set up a building contractors business. He himself, with his brother, does stone quarrying (and has family connections with Shetland firm Hunter & Morrison) said being in Shetland for his fifth visit felt “like being at home”. Laeverick were followed by all 21 pupils from Nesting School, also singing dialect songs and who, like Laeverick, had been taught by Maria Barclay Millar.
Head teacher Anne Peters was “very proud” the pupils had been invited. She said: “They didn’t realise what a big occasion it was – they realise now.”
Their renderings included What Shetland Means to Me by Eddie Barclay, and were followed by pieces from the newly-formed Laldy, with more Hamefarin themes and compositions from great Shetland fiddlers such as Tom Anderson and Willie Hunter.
Hamefarin organiser and MC Douglas Irvine said the Forty Fiddlers would be proud of Laldy, whose members had been invited to play by Margaret Scollay.
The band impressed Hamefarer Jim Coutts, originally from Scalloway, now of New Zealand and in Shetland with around 13 of his family.
Mr Coutts said: “Those kids were just brilliant – how so many of them can play without a conductor – it was quite emotional.” Summing up the whole ceremony he added: “It was wonderful.”