Scotland: The Shetland connection

By Susan Buckland

Susan Buckland visits the remote and rugged Shetland Islands and connects with the birthplace of her great-great-grandmother.

Bressay Lighthouse rises at the entrance to Shetland's main harbour. Photo / Susan Buckland
Bressay Lighthouse rises at the entrance to Shetland's main harbour. Photo / Susan Buckland

One hundred and fifty years after my Shetland ancestor settled in New Zealand I set off to explore her island home - only to find Helen Clark had been there before me. A photo of our former prime minister, wrapped in a Shetland flag, was beaming from a wall in the Shetland Family History Society headquarters.

"Helen Clark has Shetland forebears, enthused Elizabeth Angus, secretary of the society. "And another of your prime ministers, Robert Stout, was born right here in Lerwick, capital of Shetland."

My look of surprise fuelled Elizabeth's enthusiasm. "You have at least 60,000 Shetland Island descendants living in New Zealand and seven Shetland Island societies," she added. "Members are descendants of the many Shetlanders who were forced by the harsh economic conditions of the mid-19th century to leave their homeland in search of greener pastures."

And it was a New Zealand Shetland descendant, John Arcus from Wellington, who inspired Shetland's rousing hamefarin (homecoming) events, which every few years see Shetland descendants from around the world returning to their homeland.

Hamefarins take place during the summer solstice when darkness is fleeting in Shetland's northern latitude. In the bewitching midnight twilight, Shetlanders go fishing and tee off on the golf course. "Simmer Dim", they call it in their distinctive language, a fusion of their Scottish and Nordic origins.

The Shetland flag wrapped around Helen Clark pays equal homage to the Nordic and Scottish heritage. The Wellington Shetland Society does its bit, too. In May every year it holds a Viking Ball to acknowledge the seafaring Vikings who settled the Shetland Islands hundreds of years before the Scots. It was only in 1469 that Christian I of Denmark, Norway and Sweden pledged Shetland and Orkney as a dowry for his daughter on her marriage to King James III of Scotland.

Shetland lies almost equidistant between Bergen in Norway and Aberdeen, the Scottish city from which I had set sail for the islands.

Thirteen hours later we reached the 60th parallel and the Shetland Islands emerged from the dawn, alone and steadfast in a restless sea. I imagined my great-great-grandmother alongside on deck, craning for a view of the island home where she was born in 1829.

I knew her only from a family photo, taken in her 94th year, half a century after she and my English great-great-grandfather, Joseph Herbert, had arrived in New Zealand and established a general store in Rawene in the Hokianga. A fearless little woman, Jessie Catherine had refused to be evacuated with the women and children of Rawene when told of a threatened battle among the Maori of Waima.

She had sailed with Joseph from the other side of the world for a better life and had endured the loss of their youngest child during the voyage. The Hokianga was now home. She was staying put.

And here I now was, walking in her footsteps in Lerwick, the small harbour town where she grew up. The Shetland Family History Society had launched me on my ancestry pilgrimage with a family tree, the address where my forebears lived and the disappointing news that the original dwelling had been replaced.

It was engrossing, nevertheless, to walk down the narrow, flagstoned street, bound on each side by stone houses. I pictured Jessie as a child in bonnet and long skirt, skipping over those same stones. Did she ever come across the boy Robert Stout, who would also leave home to seek his fortune on the other side of the world?

She and her family lived close to the port where her father was a harbour master. Some of the lodberries (loading bays) remain, as do most of the sturdy grey stone buildings. They group around the harbour as if to repel the lash of unforgiving winds.

I pictured Jessie's father assisting the comings and goings of fishing vessels and the weathered seamen who battled angry seas to bring home a catch. When farm clearances and failing herring trade forced many to leave Shetland from the mid-1800s, few would ever see their homeland again.

The rain-swollen clouds hanging over Lerwick threatened to burst, so I entered the Shetland Tourist Information centre.

A friendly assistant called Malcolm proceeded to fill the treeless Shetland landscape with layers of human habitation, stretching back more than 3000 years.

I could almost reach out and touch Shetland's prolific seabird colonies: gannets, fulmars, Shetland wrens, guillemots, Arctic skuas and eider ducks. Or sink into hotel feather and down luxury. Or warm to a peat fire camp in a camping bod (historic croft house)

Malcolm's virtual tour of Shetland moved to Scalloway Bay, famous for its 17th century castle and the secret World War II operation called the Shetland Bus, which saw small fishing cutters used to establish links with the Norwegian Resistance.

Arming me with maps, Malcolm's tips gathered pace. At the Scalloway Hotel Restaurant I could dine on fresh fish dishes and lamb enhanced by its partially seaweed diet.

"Shetlanders love music. You'll hear some of our finest fiddlers at the Lounge Bar. And while on the road, call in on folk story-teller Elma Johnson. She'll fill your head with Shetland legends about mysterious little beings called Trows, who appear only at night and are extremely fond of music and dancing and of enjoying themselves." (So it turned out, was Elma).

"And catch a Sunday bake when Shetlanders welcome strangers to their gardens with tea and endless cakes. It's a great way to meet the locals. There are 23,000 of us, spread among 14 of Shetland's many islands."

Malcolm was about to describe the islands of Unst, Yell and Foula when delegates from a Viking conference swarmed into the tourist centre. I left them buzzing round him and departed with a pamphlet advertising "Up Helly A".

The intriguing name turned out to be Shetland's annual Viking celebration when horn helmeted men hurl torches at a replica long boat and the incinerating vessel with its dragon prow roars into the bone-cold January night.

Shetland's hospitality wraps around visitors like a rug. On the road I met Shetlanders, John and Pearl. Within minutes there was an invitation to tea with lemon cakes and oat biscuits beside a fragrant peat fire. We met as strangers and parted as friends. Back in Lerwick I met New Zealander, Louise Irvine, co-owner of a woollen craft shop called The Spider's Web in Commercial St. A prize exhibit in the shop was one of Shetland's famously fine shawls that can slip through a wedding ring, the kind Queen Victoria had favoured. Louise lives half the year in the Bay of Islands and returns every year to Shetland for the other half.

"I love the community spirit of Shetland - even though people here sometimes know your business before you've started."

The discovery of North Sea oil in the early 1970s has given the Shetlands wealth that would have been inconceivable to those forced to leave in the harsh economic climate of the 19th century, fuelling one of the highest standards of living in Britain.

Now tourism is further enriching the islands as visitors lap up the infectious, fiddle-fuelled folk music, splash out in the craft shops, marvel at the prolific marine bird life and the dramatic sea and landscapes ... and delight in reforging lost connections.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Air New Zealand operates daily flights from New Zealand to London.

Frequent rail and air services connect London with Aberdeen. British Airways flies from Aberdeen to Shetland's Sumburgh Airport.

Northlink car and passengers ferry services operate between Aberdeen and Shetland.

Family history: The Shetland Family History Society is on the web.

Further information: See shetlandtourism.com.

Susan Buckland's travel to the UK was assisted by Air NZ.

- NZ Herald

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