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.