I am in Shetland!
My friend Hazel mentioned she would be in Eshaness today, visiting at the Tangwick Haa Museum. In what turned out to be something of an understatement, she said I might like it there. As I really wanted to see Hazel and had never been to this part of Shetland before, I headed up first thing this morning.
The scenery en route to Northmavine is stunning and one must take care not to be distracted from the serious business of driving. However even whilst looking ahead and keeping my wits, I was unable to contain a huge whoop of excitement when I saw the enormous road sign welcoming travelers to this part of Shetland. I recognised it at once from Kate’s blog and from her book, Colours of Shetland…
I WAS IN THE FABLED LAND OF NORTHMAVINE!
I drove onwards to the Museum where I spent a very happy time sat beside Hazel, looking through old school photos and tracking the trends and comparative popularity of Fair Isle sweaters throughout the years. Brothers and sisters could almost immediately be identified by matching or similar sweaters and to our consternation, many of the boys and men featured in these photographs had buttoned up their jackets so that only the merest glimpses of their wondrous Fair Isle vests could be seen.
Afterwards we went upstairs where I gawped in amazement at the stunning hand-spun, hand-knitted 2-ply lace bedjacket made by Miss Mary Tulloch, Crugens, Northmavine. (Apologies for the poor quality photo – I only had my phone on me today.)
We also looked through a beautiful book of swatches by a canny knitter who tended to knit only half of the bigger motifs. We suspect she used a mirror to check how they looked when knitted in their entirety and lamented not having brought a small square pocket mirror so that we could do the same! Some of the motifs were worked in full, and Hazel suspects that this is because the knitter was especially enjoying these ones. There was a lot of blue and natural shades among her studies, and I found myself thinking of how personal and individual each knitter is with tendencies and inclinations that are as unique as one’s own handwriting.
Afterwards we went upstairs to see some of the Fair Isle garments on display.
This is only a small subsection, but there are details revealing the curiosity and skill of their makers such as those beautiful cables on the black and white sweater and the very different ways in which colours have been blended for allover patterning. The gilt edging you see is from the frame of a painting of Tom Anderson which I now regret failing to photograph. When I was working on my project Listening to Shetland Oo in 2013, I came across many folk tunes in the Tobar an Dualchais archives recorded by Tom Anderson for posterity. From Eshaness, “Tammy” was a fiddler and a folk music archivist and enthusiast. He passed on his keen musical skills to successive generations of Shetlanders and his recording folk songs from all over Shetland means they will be played and remembered for many years to come. You can hear him playing in this recording which also featured in my presentation at Shetland Wool Week in 2013 because Elizabeth Johnston explained to me that this tune’s unusual time-signature is derived from the rhythms of spinning wheels. You have to hear the track at double-speed to hear it, but once you get it fast enough, the rhythm is unmistakeable. One of the highlights of working on Listening to Shetland Oo was making discoveries like this which speak to how deeply Shetland wool is embedded in the culture and memory of these isles.
If you’ve not yet read the Shetland Wool Week Annual you are in for a treat. It presents a very tempting collection of knitting patterns from Shetland’s brilliant designers, but when I read it yesterday I found myself thinking that it is also a testimony to the strength and brilliance of the women of Shetland. Laurie Goodlad’s essay on the epic quantity of socks knitted for men in the trenches in the First World War is an inspiring discussion on the significance of knitting at this time, and reveals the formidable competence of the knitters of these isles. Interviews with contemporary designers convey the breadth of knitterly knowledge held by female relations and friends here. And Kate Davies’ superb essay about Betty Mouat explores her survival and legacy with an illuminating, feminist respect. In all these wonderful pieces, the croft and its work are never far from discussions of knitting, and it is impossible to forget that knitting was done as well as all the other work that needed doing on the land. I was thinking of all this today in the museum, and I confess that this photo of Annie Anderson with hens, taken in the 1930s, really speaks to me. It speaks to me of strength and competence; of the relationship between women, land and work that is evident everywhere here*.
There are many like it at Tangwick Haa Museum, and one could spend hours looking at such photos and finding the place of knitting within the bigger picture of life and history in Shetland… but Hazel thought it would be a terrible shame for me to miss the cliffs and the Lighthouse whilst in these parts and so we left the allure of the museum to brave the squally conditions by the sea. I was so happy we did.
Then we headed to Hillswick for a spot of lunch and knitting, and a potter on Hillswick Beach. We got there in the nick of time to flick a couple of stranded silver fish back into the water where they swam away, and the weather started to turn before our very eyes. There were many colours to look at and enjoy in the light and the sky and in the rocks and bones and seaweed washed up on the beach…
A seal came to see what we were up to and we watched him a while before heading up the hill to see a garden decorated with ancient whale bones, so old they look like trees that have grown into the land.
In Hillswick we also looked around a recent community project in which a beauteous garden is being created around the public toilets. The public toilets in Shetland are a useful and threatened convenience – many are being closed – and it is hoped that the added attraction of a fantastic garden will spare the Hillswick toilets from this fate. The garden is coming on beautifully!
One of the women involved with the garden was also instrumental in rehabilitating two baby otters sadly orphaned earlier this year. Hazel met the baby otters in June and we were very happy to hear that they have now been released back into the wild and are faring well by all accounts. If you are on Facebook you can see the baby otters and learn about the Hillswick Wildlife Sanctuary here – they are extremely cute.
The day was wearing on but since the weather had turned so nice, Hazel suggested we head to a lovely spot near to where the Gunnister Man was found. As if to confirm the genius of this plan, a large rainbow appeared in the sky and followed us all the way. Then the sun began to set.
It was beautiful.
A gift, really.
The sky turned the water orange and mauve and purple and blue and gold and sheep regarded us, unfazed, as we picked our way over the rocks and back to the car.
We finished up at Frankie’s famous Fish & Chips shop, a little too late to eat indoors, but glad for something hot and tasty to enjoy in the car before parting ways. I think this was officially – in the words of my Pops** – “a super, super day” which is why I wanted to share it with you.
Thank you for today, Hazel x
*If you want to read more about this relationship between history, women, land and knitting in Shetland, I thoroughly recommend Myth and Materiality in a Woman’s World: Shetland, 1800–2000 by Lynn Abrams
**When we were little our Pops always used to say to my mum, as he was leaving for work, “bye pidge, have a super, super day! Hope it’s the best day EVER!” which I have always thought to be an excellent mantra for life