Hamefarer Bill Gardner, a Scotsman now living in Canada, is both an immigrant and an emigrant. Last week he made a sentimental journey to the isles he has not seen for 46 years.
Bill has strong Shetland links – his father William was born in Fetlar in 1902 – and he heard last week that the first Gardner may have come to the isle in the 17th century.
Bill was brought up in Dalmeny, near Edinburgh, and has been coming to the isles since 1948. In those days he stayed with his grandmother Andrina Gardner and cousin the late Alastair (father of music promoter Davie Gardner) at Clickimin Road, Lerwick, and took the Earl of Zetland to stay with his father’s cousins at Funzie in Fetlar.
In 1959 as a young teacher he returned to the isles with his wife Moira and baby daughter to be the teacher and missionary in Papa Stour, while Moira, who died two years ago, became the district nurse. There were 16 families there at the time, with eight or nine pupils in the school.
Last week Bill returned to Papa Stour and was delighted to meet his last pupil Gordon Jamieson (son of former mail boat operator John Jamieson) and hear news of other former pupils. He was impressed by the developments that have taken place in the isle but saddened by the population decline.
He said: “It was quite emotional going across by ferry from Burrafirth, in my day it was the mail boat from Sandness and the airstrip happened after I left.
“It threw me, seeing cars on the ferry. When I was there I had a motorised bike, the only other motorised thing was a tractor owned by Alec Jamieson.
“The living conditions have changed so much for the better now but the people aren’t there – it makes me sad.”
Conditions were very primitive when he was there, he recalled, with no electricity or running water: “We had to walk to the well 100 yards from the school house. It would dry up in the summer and we would have a yoke with two pails on to get water from the loch.”
Soon after arriving in Papa Stour the family suffered a setback – Bill developed a brain tumour, suffering headaches so bad that he could not stand up. The mail boat made a special run to take him to the Mainland and the Gilbert Bain Hospital pronounced him so ill he went straight to Aberdeen.
Moira, who had accompanied him to Lerwick and by this time was pregnant again, was left pushing a pram around Lerwick, unsure as to where to go. The 22-year-old told a taxi driver she was thinking of checking in the Queens Hotel, but he insisted on taking her to his friends, the Cheyne family.
She lodged there for the next three months until Bill had finished radio therapy in Aberdeen. The family would take no payment – proof, said Bill, of the “absolute hospitality” of Shetlanders.
The Gardners left Papa Stour in 1961 for Bill to take a teaching job in Scotland. His last contact with Shetland, until last week, was when he brought a party of schoolchildren to Shetland in 1964. They went to Papa Stour and saw a Tammy Anderson rehearsal. “Everything was an adventure to them.”
In 1967 Bill, Moira and their growing family, eventually to number eight children, emigrated to Canada where they thought there would be more opportunities for their offspring.
Bill, who could speak French, opted for the French-speaking province of Quebec, where he became the director of the only English-speaking school in the district. The children became bi-lingual and the family now boasts 23 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren, all in Canada.
Bill had always been interested in exploring his family tree and had wondered where the name Gardner came from. He heard last week from a fellow Hamefarer that John Gardner, allegedly a survivor of a shipwreck (having possibly been press-ganged) might have been the first of the family to reach Fetlar in 1683. Bill said: “It was a complete and utter revelation to me.”
This story confirms his opinion of Shetlanders, whether emigrants or not. “They are so adaptable, the original DIY people.”