Notes from a February Fair Isle Adventure
Wednesday 12th February
After a long time the dream is finally coming true - we’re going to Fair Isle!
‘A bright green spot like an emerald on the wide ocean, this place is quite a world in itself; covered with grass of a most vivid luxuriant verdure.’
The words of Catherine Sinclair in her book, Shetland and the Shetlanders (1840) are a fitting description of this beautiful island. In winter the colours are more muted and vary between gorgeous shades and hues of blue, turquoise, rust, brown and gold. The first sight of the isle from the air is spectacular, especially on a still frosty day like we travelled on.
I have been to Fair Isle in the past but only for a short one-day visit. So when Marie came to speak to me October about her plan to run her Fair Isle Knitting Holidays and asked if I’d like to come and be her first guest I said yes straight away. What could be better than spending a week in Fair Isle learning about the place, history of Fair Isle knitting and learning to use a knitting machine.
Marie who is originally from France first came to Fair Isle five years ago. She studied textile design at l' École Supérieur des Arts Appliqués et du textile in Roubaix and when she was looking for a work placement Fair Isle seemed like the perfection option. She perfected her hand knitting, machine knitting and finishing techniques working for almost three years with Mati Ventrillon. Marie is passionate about design and craft and she likes working with colours and designing and mixing traditional Fair Isle patterns. She is also keen to share the traditional island knitting skills and promote the heritage of the isle.
In 2018 Marie met Thomas and when an opportunity of renovating a house came along they decided to stay and become part of the close-knit Fair Isle community. Thomas is a relief crew member on the ferry, among other jobs and both of them are also part of the local firefighter crew.
After a short 25-minute flight we were met by Marie at the airstrip who took us to her beautiful home. The minute we stepped into Taft, a beautifully and sympathetically renovated old croft house at the south end of Fair Isle, we felt like at home. I loved the panoramic views and I knew immediately that my favourite thing would be watching the ever-changing light and skyscapes from the window. And the lighthouse... just wow, that was a complete dream for someone like me who grew up in a landlocked country.
Later in the afternoon we went for a drive around the isle and then we picked up provisions for the dinner including beautifully fresh locally grown parsnips. I know this might not seem like much to you but as someone who's been trying to grow vegetables in Shetland's challenging climate at 60° North, I was amazed by the size and perfect shape of these parsnips as Fair Isle is even more exposed than most parts of Shetland. They were simply perfect.
After a delicious dinner we spent some time speaking about the projects we would like to work on over the following days and then it was time for bed so we could start bright and fresh the next morning.
Thursday 13th February
Anne Sinclair showed us around the George Waterston Memorial Museum and shared some of her vast knowledge of Fair Isle history with us. Anne and her brother Stuart were the driving force behind setting the museum up in the 80s in the former school. The museum is packed with displays of the island’s history and the highlights are artefacts depicting Fair Isle life in the past, a beautiful collection of traditional Fair Isle chairs, information about shipwrecks, striking knitwear and much more. Anne designed the famous Fair Isle Fisherman’s Kep pattern based on the traditional hats of the isle and the proceeds from the pattern sales go towards running the museum. The museum truly is a jewel.
And as the weather was good, Stuart showed us to the top of the South Lighthouse which was an unforgettable experience. There are two lighthouses on Fair Isle the South (Skaddan) and the North (Skroo). The South Lighthouse was built in 1891 by David and Charles Stevenson and it was the last Scottish manned lighthouse to be automated. I particularly liked the staircase which is a complete work of art on its own.
After lunch (another delicious meal) Marie showed us how the knitting machine works. We chose colours for our projects we started with designing. I decided to make a snood as I like wearing them all year round in Shetland. I chose colours I like, there was grey (Sholmit and Granit), blue (Titanic and Nighthawk) and red with a splash of orange (Madder and Ginger), all in Jamieson's yarn.
Friday 14th February
After a cold night the day started bright, so we decided to go for a brisk walk to Malcolm’s Head as we knew the weather was to get worse over the course of the day. In fact this was the only chance for a walk as we'd learn over the course of the next few days as the Storm Dennis was on its way. According to Wikipedia Dennis became one of the most intense extratropical cyclones ever recorded and struck the United Kingdom and Ireland at peak intensity less than a week after Storm Ciara, exacerbating the impacts from that storm. So we were in for a very windy spell.
Anyway, as we climbed the hill the wind was gusting so strong that we struggled to walk at times and taking photographs was the ultimate challenge. We almost lost our hats and gloves to the Atlantic several times. But we thoroughly enjoyed it and felt rejuvenated and exhilarated.
After thawing out over a very welcome cup of tea we started designing our patterns which was fun. At this point I have to mention Marie's expert knowledge, and more importantly patience, as she lead us through the process.
We also went to see Kathy Coull and her textile workshop. Kathy produces her own yarn, spins, designs textiles, runs workshops and much more.
Another very inspiring day.
Saturday 15th February
We woke up to a wild day with spectacular views of waves crashing into the rocks. Although it would have been easy to just sit in front of the window and gaze at the beauty of the landscape, big skies and wild sea we had to get going as we had a lot to get through. Both Donna and I continued with our projects, this was the day I started feeling more comfortable and confident with the knitting machine.
Later in the morning we went to see Anne Sinclair again, this time to learn more about Fair Isle knitwear history. During our chat it became clear that in Fair Isle there’s an incredible amount of skill and talent and many people still continue to craft beautiful objects, be it knitwear, chairs or art.
The oldest known piece of Fair Isle knitwear dates back to 1857 and it is on display at National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. We spoke about the differences in design between Fair Isle and the rest of Shetland and colours. After a lovely cup of coffee, listening to many interesting stories and seeing some Fair Isle knitwear pieces from Anne’s private collection we left her house inspired, excited and energised.
In the afternoon we spent an hour with Eve Eunson and learned about her Fair Isle straw back chair making project. Eve showed us her wonderful and very precious sketchbook where she’s recorded many Fair Isle chairs she's surveyed. Eve is currently learning the process of making Fair Isle chairs with Stuart Thompson.
The making of Fair Isle chairs with a wooden base and a straw back, similar to the Orkney chair but with distinctly different frame construction and a unique technique of straw work created through knotting rather than stitching rows of straw.
Sunday 16th February
Baby, it’s wild out there! Lying in the bed and thinking about how life would have been in the past in the extremely exposed place in the middle of wild sea. The rain driven straight into our side of the house by southerly wind first thing in the morning sounds really loud. But after breakfast the sun comes out and we can venture out to take photos of the wild seas which turns out to be a truly exhilarating experience. The sea was virtually boiling and it was spectacular watching the waves crashing against the rocks.
When we got back we continued working on our projects and I felt like me and the knitting machine could actually be friends after all. I really started getting into the rhythm of it.
Later in the afternoon we went to see Bob Worrall who was taught how to make Fair Isle chairs by Stuart Thompson’s father the late Stuart Thompson. We had an opportunity to visit his workshop which used to be the Fairly Isle post office. The old tools were beautiful and I loved the workshop. The interesting feature worth pointing out was the windows which originally came from the lighthouse. Bob showed us the straw weaving technique and we spent an enjoyable and inspiring hour speaking about craft, provenance and sustainability. The biggest issue the current chair makers face is the lack of Shetland black oats (Avena strigosa) as not many people grow it due to the challenging climate in Shetland.
Monday 17th February
We were supposed to fly home today, but as the wind was gusting up to 60 mph it was sure we wouldn’t be getting home this day. But the good thing was that it meant more knitting on the machine and I finished knitting my snood. What an exciting moment taking it of the machine! The next step was learning to graft which seemed fairly challenging for me at the start but after both Donna and Marie explained the process and with a help of a written note managed to do it.
After lunch Marie had a surprise for us - a taatit rug workshop with Kathy Coull. Taatit rugs are part of a Nordic tradition of pile bedcovers which extended from Finland to Ireland. The woollen bedcovers were made using natural dyes to create bold, colourful designs. Some of the designs incorporate symbols used in Nordic and Shetlandic folklore. Carol Christiansen from Shetland Museum and Archives researched them extensively and wrote a book about them.
We really enjoyed our afternoon spent by learning about the rugs and making our own small one. We were warned that making taatit rugs is addictive and I completely agree. I’m looking forward to taking time to finish mine when we get back home.
Tuesday 18th February
In the morning the weather was still not looking promising for travel, so we were more or less prepared to stay another day. In the morning Marie helped me to press my snood and it was time for a photo shoot. I have to say I'm absolutely thrilled and with it I never imagined I could create something like this myself (of course with a lot of help from Marie).
At lunch time we got news from Tingwall - the plane would go after all so we quickly packed our bags and headed to the airstrip. It was really sad leaving but I'm certain I'll be back for more soon. Fair Isle is a very special and inspiring place and I fell in love with it. We came as guests and left as friends.
I really enjoyed learning to use the knitting machine and the whole design process as well. Overall I loved the week in Fair Isle and Marie is a wonderful and a very attentive host. The food throughout the stay was fantastic too and we really enjoyed staying at Taft. And of course the most important thing we were there for, the knitting and learning about the design process, was outstanding.
So if you are thinking about the next trip where you would like to spend time in a wonderful place, learn something new or deepen your knowledge and skill you might already have I can wholeheartedly recommend Marie's Fair Isle Knitting Holidays.
For more photos and inspiration from Fair Isle and Shetland you can follow my adventures on Instagram or on the Shetland Wool Adventures feed.
You can also sign up to my newsletter.
I had the privilege to be involved in organising Shetland Wool Week from its beginnings right until last year, when the time was right for a change and I left my full time job with Shetland Amenity Trust. As we celebrate the tenth anniversary of the event here are some highlights and notes about how it developed over the years.
A decade ago few people imagined that knitting would go through such incredible resurgence and that Shetland would once again become an important place in terms of textiles.
For a long time the isles had been associated with distinctive knitwear that reached the royal court as well as people in faraway places but in the 70s and 80s of the last century this tradition started to decline. This was due to many reasons but the main one was the discovery of oil in the North Sea and the boom that followed. This new industry offered many exciting employment opportunities with far higher wages. So the traditional industries such as hand knitting started to decline. So much so that one generation in Shetland almost missed the tradition of learning to knit from a young age all together.
There was also the change of the way people dressed - men and women no longer wanted to wear hand-knitted woollen garments. New designs and materials such as polyester came into fashion. Looking after man-made fibre clothes was far easier than washing and dressing Fair Isle jumpers.
This trend had a detrimental effect on the cost of wool. All of the sudden, the previously valuable and precious commodity, was lying beside the roads left to rot away, as it was hardly worth selling. In particular the coloured fleeces were no longer in demand. This was a depressing time for Shetland crofters and the textile industry.
But as everything usually happens in cycles, in recent years, thankfully, the situation has been changing and Shetland yet again attracts attention for its knitwear, striking designs and most importantly Shetland wool, a truly wonderful fibre. A lot of this can be attributed to Shetland Wool Week.
The first Shetland Wool Week took place in 2010 as part of the newly launched Campaign for Wool. The campaign was an initiative of HRH the Prince of Wales and it came at a time when wool prices were at rock bottom and generally this natural fibre was not in demand.
The Prince has a keen interest in the environment, agriculture as well as supporting heritage projects and sustainable businesses through his trust. His environmentalist beliefs in the natural, sustainable and biodegradable properties of wool firmly in place when he stimulated the whole wool industry by initiating the campaign in 2010. Whilst his primary aim was to improve the position for the sheep farmer by increasing wool returns for raw wool; the result is a global campaign that unites the whole industry from the sheep farmer through spinner, manufacturer to the retailer.
The campaign started with a launch event that saw London’s historic tailoring street Savile Row transformed into a pasture upon which fifty sheep grazed. It was a combination of working with high street stores, fashion designers, journalists and other high profile people with an aim to increase interest in wool and promote this natural and sustainable type of fibre and initially it was designed to run for five years.
Another facet of the campaign was launching Wool Week in different parts of the UK. Jamieson and Smith, Shetland Wool Brokers and their parent company Curtis Wool Direct have historically had a connection with HRH so it was only logical for one of the Wool Weeks would take place in Shetland. So the first Shetland Wool Week was launched in 2010 with a small programme knitting and felting classes and other events in association with Shetland Amenity Trust and Shetland Museum and Archives.
The launch of Wool Week proved to be the perfect timing for new textile initiatives as the interest in knitting and sustainable fashion started to increase. At this point it is important to mention the late Jimmy Moncrieff, the general manager of Shetland Amenity Trust, who had a great appreciation for Shetland heritage, wool and traditional knitting skills, in particular the fine Shetland lace. Knitting fine lace was another area which was in decline, especially as hand knitting has always been extremely low paid and gradually the number of lace knitters was reducing.
Jimmy was inspired by a project in Tamil Nadu, where local artisans were supported to develop their businesses and keep their silk weaving tradition alive. After spending some time in India on his return to Shetland, full of inspiration and new ideas, Jimmy launched the Shetland Lace Project which aimed to keep the safeguard the tradition and assure fair wages for the knitters. He approached Jamieson & Smith and asked them to produce fine lace yarn, which until then had to be hand spun. The launch of the lace project coincided with the first Shetland Wool Week.
In 2011 Promote Shetland, a destination management and marketing organisation, got involved in organising the event under the auspices of Shetland Amenity Trust. Textiles and knitting seemed the perfect way to promote the place. With limited budgets for marketing and PR the obvious way to attract people was through niche markets. And back then, knitting was most certainly niche.
One of the key reasons for such the success of the event is that everyone, including competitors, works together. Along with local partners Shetland Wool Week brought together the local community of wool producers, knitters, manufacturers and craft workers and over the ten years it has become an acclaimed international event with participants travelling from as far as Japan, Australia, Alaska and South Africa.
Nobody imagined Wool Week would grow as much as it did and probably after Up Helly Aa it is the biggest event in Shetland’s busy social calendar. The participants love attending the event and many of them return on a regular basis. In fact if you want to book accommodation you need to be fast with many places booking up a year in advance. The same goes for the classes and events - when the tickets go on sale it is a stiff competition for securing your desired choice. But the wonderful thing about the event is that there are many drop-in events such as open studios or informal gatherings, where you don’t need a ticket and often these are free too. So there is always something to do for those who make their trip to Shetland without any tickets. Another thing that makes Wool Week stand out from similar events is that the programme takes place throughout the whole of Shetland including Fair Isle and Unst. Often similar events are held in one place such as a large conference centre, exhibition venue or a show grounds. So those who come to Shetland get a real taste of the place and they love the fact that they meet the locals. In fact, many friendships have been made over the past ten years.
So how is it that Wool Week became so successful? One of the most important decisions was asking Kate Davies to be the first patron of the event. Kate, a knitwear designer, researcher, writer and businesswoman, has always been a great ambassador for Shetland and thanks to her enthusiasm, expertise and support, as well as her contacts and a large following, Wool Week started being noticed outside Shetland.
Another significant development was the launch of the annual hat pattern which became the symbol of the event. The first hat was designed by Hazel Tindall and it was great to see the participants wearing their versions during the event. But it was the Baa-ble hat by Donna Smith that became a true sensation with thousands of people downloading the pattern, knitting the hat and sharing photos on social media. The first photo of the hat shared on the SWW Facebook page reached around 50,000 people which at that time was truly incredible and something to be proud of. So this way Shetland knitting went truly viral and the mailing list for the event became huge.
It’s wonderful seeing Shetland being noticed and featured in many national and international articles, blog posts and on social media. Many knitters are adding the isles at the top of their travel wish list and hope to attend the event in the future. Shetland has become a true knitting capital of the world and inspires other destinations in setting up knitting-themed events.
Another important fact about the event is that it has inspired many locals to start a career in textiles and make this a viable option. There are now many talented designers, knitwear and yarn producers as well as tour operators and guides who specialise in textile tourism.
Last year the Wool Week organisers estimated approximately around 800 attendees took part in the event and the income generated to the local economy was estimated at almost £800,000! But the most important is the promotional value of the event and people spreading the word about the place.
The dates for next year's Shetland Wool Week are 26th September - 4th October 2020. To find out more about the event check www.shetlandwoolweek.com
2012 - Kate Davies
2013 - Felicity Ford & Tom van Deijnen
2014 - Hazel Tindall (Shwook Hat)
2015 - Donna Smith (Baa-ble Hat)
2016 - Ella Gordon (Crofthoose Hat)
2017 - Gudrun Johnston (Busta Beanie)
2018 - Elizabeth Johnston (Mirrie Dancers Hat)
2019 - Oliver Henry (Roadside Beanie)
2010 - Launch of Campaign for Wool
2010 - First SWW
2012 - Kate Davies is the first SWW patron
2015 - Donna Smith’s Baable Hat becomes a sensation
2016 - SWW represented at Vogue Knitting Live New York
2016 - First SWW Annual is published
I was asked to write this article by Laurie Goodlad who is the editor of Shetland Life. The September issue of the magazine marks the tenth anniversary of Shetland Wool Week and celebrates Shetland's vibrant textile scene.
Shetland Life showcases Shetland culture and community through in-depth features, interviews and photography. If you're interested in a subscription please click here.
Oliver Henry's brilliant blog about Shetland wool and his lifetime contribution to this sector
Shetland Wool Week
Knitting trips in Shetland - Shetland Wool Adventures
For inspiration, interesting information and beautiful scenes from Shetland follow Shetland Wool Adventures or My Shetland Garden on Instagram.
You know the feeling when you've been planning to do something for so long and it just doesn't seem to happen. You're always too busy, too tired or simply can't be bothered because you've had a busy week at work, there's all the housework to do, the garden...
I have a long list of ideas and plans and trust me, it gets longer every day. Because I love reading and daydreaming and I'm constantly coming up with new things to try and do. Some plans are bigger and more longterm and some are smaller, easier to achieve. I keep meaning to write everything down, take a note of what I'd like to do but again, usually life just gets in the way and I never get round to doing it.
But today seemed different and it feels like a start of doing things in a different way. In a way of making them happen, not just dreaming about them. Let me tell you why.
After many years of planning to do one Shetland's slightly more challenging walks - Fitful Head, today was the day . Fitful Head is a truly majestic looking headland and one of the first sights you'll see when you're arriving in Shetland by plane. I find it incredibly spectacular and I always keep an eye out for the rock face in its many shades of brown and green when the plane is landing with a thought: 'We really need to go there.'
Every couple of months or so I get together with Donna Smith to speak about work and to share new ideas and knowledge, as we both run our own small businesses, and being able to speak to someone in a similar position is always extremely helpful, inspiring and encouraging. Occasionally we'd decide to go for a walk and take photos, which we both enjoy while also having a 'meeting' outdoors and discussing work whilst walking.
So earlier this week I suggested we go to Fitful Head and I was delighted Donna was up for that. As neither of us have been there before we were really looking forward to it. And it didn't disappoint, in fact it was just as spectacular as I had imagined it. It also helped that it was a beautiful sunny day with pretty much no wind.
We set off for the walk at the end of the Quendale road and after admiring a secluded little beach for a while we puffed up the steep hill to be rewarded with the most specular panoramic views of the Shetland archipelago. As the visibility was really good today we saw Noss, Fair Isle and even Foula in distance.
Our reward for the hiking effort was a packed lunch at the top with the backdrop of glistening sea, blue skies, interesting cloud formations and the sound of waves and birds.
We came back refreshed and inspired and although we didn't spend the day working at our desks in a conventional way it felt really productive and fulfilling. So we made a deal to do this more often.
So I'd encourage you not to postpone your dreams and taking small steps to make them happen. Step by step. Right now, right here.
Today I’d like to introduce someone very special to you - Penny Armstrong and Alan Robertson from Transition Turriefield. Since the first time I met them, back in 2013 I think, they’ve had my utmost respect and admiration for what they do. Not only they grow fruit and vegetables in Shetland’s extremely harsh and challenging climate but they also do it organically and in a sustainable way. Their aim is for as many people in Shetland as possible to be able to access healthy, fresh, chemical free produce and they want their growing methods have as little negative environmental impact as possible.
Penny, Alan and their wonderful bunch of dedicated volunteers supply local shops with fresh seasonal produce and they run a very popular vegetable box scheme too. They also supply some hotels and restaurants so they can feature local fruit and vegetables on their menus. And their passion is sharing knowledge so they also organise workshops and work with local schools. There are many people in Shetland who have already benefited from their expertise and enthusiasm.
Transition Turriefield is a Social Enterprise and it was established in January 2011. Turriefield is the name of the croft where Penny and Alan are based and the Transition part is their contribution to what we can do on a local scale to tackle the global problems of climate change, rising food prices, increasing food miles and diminishing supplies of cheap fuel.
After meeting Penny and Alan, I was thoroughly inspired by their hard work and persistence in turning a relatively difficult and wet patch of land into a fairly productive smallholding. On four acres they grow a wide range of fruit and vegetables. Most of the crops are grown outdoors but they also have six polytunnels made from redundant salmon cage pipes for crops that need more heat and shelter. They make every effort to keep their fossil fuel use to the minimum. That means as well as no chemical fertilisers, herbicides or pesticides, they don’t use tractors or machinery either. Just plenty of hard graft using hand tools and lots of care and attention to keep plants healthy and the bugs a bay…
Penny and Alan would like to increase what they grow so more local folk can get more local produce, all across Shetland. They also want to be able to run more training courses and support more people to grow their own fruit and veg.
But Penny and Alan can’t do it all this on their own so they’ve launched a Crowdfunder campaign to make Transition Turriefield more sustainable over the long term. They have continuously reinvested almost all the income generated by the sale of vegetables however now they need to raise funds for materials to build more polytunnels and raised beds. Their first target was £5,000, which they already reached, but they have a second ‘stretch’ target of £10,000 and they will only receive the money if they achieve these targets.
So I wanted to share this story with you and if you feel you’d like to support this fantastic and extremely valuable enterprise please consider making a small donation. You can access the Crowdfunder campaign here.
To find out more about Penny and Alan you can read their story here.
The most photographed building in Shetland must be... The Lodberry. If you are one of the Jimmy Perez's fans you will recognise this iconic scene. And for those of you who don't know Jimmy yet, he is a detective inspector from Ann Cleeves' drama Shetland, that has become a worldwide sensation
I get often asked about the story of lodberries, especially when I post photos of these iconic buildings on Instagram. It's my favourite area of Lerwick and I always wonder about the history and function of these beautiful buildings as I walk past them too. So I asked a local historian and author of several interesting books on Lerwick's history Douglas Sinclair to share the story of lodberries with us.
And the great news is Douglas has agreed to write about various aspects of Lerwick's history for the Shetland Wool Adventures blog on a regular basis so if there's anything that interests you in particular you can let me know. And so you don't miss out on any of the posts you can also subscribe to my newsletter.
Lodberries are an integral and indeed unique feature of Lerwick's waterfront. They stand proudly in the sea and early guidebook writers gave the town the fanciful title of "The Venice of the North" despite only having a vague resemblance to that iconic city.
The word lodberry derives from Old Norse, hladberg, a landing rock, but in the Lerwick context it applied to a stone store built out into the sea, at which goods could be directly transferred to or from vessels and boats. Other lodberries consisted of two stores with a courtyard in between with an opening in the wall facing the sea. Merchants had them built as a convenient means of unloading supplies and goods, which had been transported by sea in the days before public piers were built. Lodberries had another purpose too – namely to facilitate the covert practice of smuggling Dutch gin, tobacco and tea. The merchants who lived on the landward side of Commercial Street had tunnels built from their lodberries, with whalebone roofs, to exit either in their house or a skilfully concealed outlet in a convenient garden.
The first lodberry was built about 1730 by Patrick Scollay at the back of his house at south Commercial Street. By 1814 there were twenty-one, along with several small piers, that stretched along the waterfront from there to where Harry's Department Store and Westside Pine shop is now situated.
Work commenced on creating the Esplanade and Victoria Pier in 1883 with completion by 1886. As a consequence the small piers were no more. Lodberry buildings were retained but their contact with the sea was lost. Some were converted and today, for example, Tait's Lodberry is in fact the Thule Bar and Grieg's Lodberry is the popular Peerie Shop and Cafe.
Those situated at the south end of the town however stand in the sea as they have always done. Three former lodberries are incorporated into the Queens Hotel.
The neighbouring lodberry named "The Lodberrie" is virtually unchanged since its construction about 1772 by a merchant named George Linklater. Still surrounded by the sea on three sides, it stands between Bain's Beach and the Craigie Stane. It was described as having steps leading down to a boat noost, (Old Norse naust- a boat shed or dock), at the Craigie Stane with an entrance leading to a kitchen and office; a store for boats and gear; a wet fish store; also an area for storing masts and spars. North, east and south facing sea doors allowed the transfer of cargo to and from boats at all times depending on the tides. At Commercial Street level there was a shop above a cellar, leading to a parlour, bedroom, a sail loft with dry goods store and a skeo, (a hut for wind-drying fish and meat).
It was said that Dutch fishermen used to come ashore here in the late 19th century to obtain drinking water from the Draw Well that was at one time situated nearby. They then rolled their water barrels down past the Craigie Stane from where they loaded them directly on to their vessels.
Over the years "The Lodberrie" changed hands several times and was used for various functions. At the present time it is a private residence and is now a Class A listed building.
It has become well photographed, popular tourist attraction following the screening of the "Shetland" crime series on television. "The Lodberrie" is portrayed as the fictional home of Jimmy Perez, the main character.
The everlasting attraction of the lodberries can be summed up by poet Laurence J. Nicolson who wrote in 1894 -
Lodberries lie like anchored ships
and they are anchored well,
Ah, if their oaken doors were lips
What stories they could tell.
As Spring has officially arrived I thought I’d share something special with you. I wanted to introduce you to my friend and former colleague Chris Dyer who has a croft in Bressay and he is very passionate about working the land in a sustainable and sensitive way. Chris used to contribute to the 60 North magazine and he kindly gave me permission to share this piece about his crofting beginnings he wrote five years ago. A lot has changed since then so the next installment will bring an interview with Chris and we’ll find out how things have progressed and what he’s up to now.
Living in Shetland provides the perfect opportunity to immerse yourself in a landscape. Natural heritage and elements of human history are immediately apparent; some are visible, others lie tantalisingly over the horizon while yet more can be evocative sounds of calling moorland birds or the smell of coastal flowers at the banks on a warm summer evening.
It is one thing to appreciate the environment but another to have direct responsibility for an area, however small, and to work with it on a daily basis. Over the past year in Bressay, a friend and I have been fortunate enough to begin our crofting lives, replete with enjoyment, challenges and variable weather!
The east side of Bressay is a world away from the magnetic pull of Lerwick. Fine coastal walks can be taken over hill and heather to the Great War guns at the Bard and Aith, passing generations of historic settlements, while a familiar stomp in summer months takes you to the inflatable ferry across to the National Nature Reserve of Noss. The croft of Bruntland overlooks the Voe of Cullingsburgh, out towards an Iron Age broch, historic chapel site and early twentieth century Admiralty watchtower at the summit of Ander Hill. Just under 40 acres in size, it’s a grand place to run two dozen Shetland sheep and concentrate on breeding interesting colours, good quality fleeces and, of course, something for the freezer.
Having formally decided that we were going to acquire a few animals, there was a disconcertingly long list of “things to do” in advance of the first trailer and clatter of hooves arriving. A succession of Sunday mornings early last year were spent with cups of tea and notepads endeavouring to detail what we wanted and what was truly needed. Listening to advice from those with years of experience was, and continues to be, vital and influenced the guiding idea which has been to keep stocking levels low to ensure animal welfare while mitigating for the absence of a good sheepdog. A small flock is much more likely to get to know you and once the mental connection is made between you and the rattle of a bucket containing ewe nuts or barley blend, they will follow with enthusiasm.
Fences are of paramount importance, as any stockman, farmer or crofter will tell you and represent the difference between resting easy at night and worrying about potential escapees! A summer job was the replacement of several stretches of fencing at the croft which were in danger of imminent collapse should “a coo sneeze” on them. Strainers were dug in and braced before the wire could be unrolled, tensioned and stapled to new fence posts. Note: the hard bedrock is nearly always where you try to dig and generally does not yield to a fencing mallet! A galvanised field gate was also purchased which would provide a point of access between two of the larger parks at the croft. This would enable us to bring the sheep within view, closer to the house, for tupping and lambing, while letting them out of sight, if not out of mind, at other times of year to get to the banks and graze ad infinitum.
But what if there was snow? While not a conventional question for late July, this pre-emptive concern was the catalyst for haymaking to provide supplementary winter fodder and bedding for lambing pens. The smaller park was cut with a traditional scythe which brought a sweating brow and a feeling of nothing but respect for the pre-industrial age. Fortunately, for the larger park, the loan of a Massey Ferguson 35 complete with driver and finger bar mower, in return for several bottles of beer, achieved in 20 minutes what would otherwise doubtless have taken a day. The sweet smell of the grass on the first evening after being cut remains an abiding memory. After a couple of days of dry weather, the grass was manually raked into long rows which, the theory intimated, would be turned as and when the weather permitted until the greenish colour had faded and the hay could be baled. The practice was very different as frequent mist coupled with occasional heavy downpours conspired against agricultural ventures and necessitated a number of rueful “back to the drawing board” journeys with the hay rake into the parks to spread out the damp grass.
A window of potentially dry, if not overly warm weather in early August was a cause célèbre for all Shetland haymakers. What mattered was the constant, gentle wind which, with repeated turning, permitted the hay to be stacked and then baled manually by compressing in large fish boxes through which twine was fed to create a small, handheld bale. A time-consuming and slightly Heath Robinson approach but one which, in the absence of machinery, provided the means to an end which was gleefully consumed by the flock during the short-lived snow cover of last December.
The Bruntland flock arrived in three journeys from two sources in September and was preceded by copious reading of the rules and regulations concerning tagging, medical records and movement documents. A friend at Cuckron, Stromfirth, had 16 while another in Bressay had a further eight which, in lieu of payment, could be taken in return for clipping giving a total of 24 Shetland sheep, some white but the majority displaying forms of colouring. These two flocks, one from the Mainland Shetland and the other the island, continued to keep their distance from each other when brought under the yoke of a single holding, each unsure of the other akin to the girls and boys at a school disco. It has only been with the onset of winter, and the allure of extra feeding, that a merger has taken place and a single grazing identity formed.
Although tolerant of the human presence that surrounds them, the flock routinely needs to be brought together. The overgrown turf floor of an old outbuilding at the croft was stripped out, drainage installed and a recycled flagstone floor laid to accommodate the flock which may be caa-ed together for a variety of purposes such as trimming feet, dosing for fluke and worm and administering a copper and cobalt supplementary mineral drench. There seems a grudging acceptance of the need to be periodically gathered, for the greater good, similar to a trip to the doctor.
Significantly, a flock cannot remain static, it must grow and with this maxim in mind, a ram was sought and purchased. “Nero”, or “Stinky Jim” as he has been christened by the bairns of the family with which we share him, is a three-year-old black Shetland tup with a muckle pair of horns and the strength to pull me along on my knees when trying to catch him prior to loading into the trailer. He took an instant liking to the flock with which he spent six weeks from early December. By the New Year, he seemed more interested in grazing than spending time with his admiring harem, a sure sign that things had come to their logical conclusion. This serenity was only broken once when a ewe from the hill that borders the croft came to the fence seeking an introduction with the ram who made clear his disdain for the fence that kept them apart. Fortunately the fence held firm and he was caa-ed into a park away from temptation.
We are expecting lambs from early May which is essentially no more than a few weeks away. The principal jobs in the interim will comprise feeding and routine animal care but the hardiness of the Shetland sheep makes this a lighter task when compared to the bigger-framed, more demanding first-cross Cheviot, Texel and Suffolk breeds. The intention is to retain ewe lambs for future breeding stock and possibly seek to replace some of the older ewes in the flock come Hairst and the marts. However, even by this time, our agricultural year will be covering ground previously encountered in terms of clipping and haymaking.
Our crofting aspirations have not been without challenges and disappointment. Starting from scratch has necessitated capital investments and every day of rain on saturated ground and winter gales pose questions of where best the animals should be moved through the short hours of daylight. However, with so many folk to ask for advice and guidance, we have never felt that we were completely on our own and the satisfaction of keeping sheep and managing the land is both a responsibility and a privilege. Our first lambing is sure to be an experience to remember!
Walking the banks in early October last year, having recently acquired our animals and watching them graze, a basking shark surfaced in the Voe of Cullingsburgh and silently explored the bay against the silhouette of the Ander Hill watchtower. Nature and history, past and present were intertwined wherever the eye was cast, as they always are in the peaceful, open spaces of Shetland.
Next time we will catch up with Chris and we'll hear about his latest developments. And those of you taking part in this year's Knitting & Hiking tours will have the opportunity to meet Chris in person as we will be visiting him in Bressay. Can't wait!
You can also follow Chris on Instagram at @garthscroftbressay.
What an exciting year it's been so far! We've been working hard on planning our tours and we just wanted to give you little update on the season ahead.
The first trip is going ahead in May and we are absolutely thrilled that some of the participants are coming from as far as New Zealand, Canada and the USA. We'll make sure to take plenty photos to keep you posted. Or you can follow our adventures on Instagram where we share our Shetland inspiration on a regular basis.
Our tours are designed to give an insight into Shetland's knitting traditions and local textile industry and we are proud to be working with some of the most talented and acclaimed knitters, designers and manufacturers such as Donna Smith, Wilma Malcolmson and Anne Eunson. We will learn about Shetland lace, Fair Isle, finding inspiration and blending colours, as well as using Shetland knitting belt.
We will also visit many interesting places such as Ronnie Eunson's Uradale organic farm, home of Aalmerk yarns, the Sandness Spinning Mill, where Jamieson’s of Shetland yarn and knitwear is made and Britain's most northerly island Unst, where we'll have an opportunity to view their world-renowned collection of fine lace knitwear which will inspire us to knit our own samples.
And we will take inspiration from some of Shetland’s most scenic locations as well as sample delicious local produce such as Shetland lamb or freshly caught fish, prepared by local chefs and food aficionados. So there's a lot to look forward to indeed!
The tours are now almost fully booked, with just three spaces left on our August tour. So, there is still a chance to enjoy Shetland and its fantastic textile heritage this summer with us. If you are interested, please contact us to find out more.