Category Archives: Shetland

Shetland inspirations: a flash of another colour

I can be quite boring when it comes to colour choices – as I’ve often said, once a Goth, always a Goth. Bring me everything in black, and I’m quite happy. I’ll add colour flashes, and quite often can be seen in (shhh) a coloured cardigan but, basically and for myself, I like black and white.

When I was thinking about doing a Fair Isle after a billion years of no stranded knitting, I first of all thought monochrome. I was supported in this by the latest exhibition at the Bonhoga Gallery in Weisdale, Fraser Taylor’s Shadowed Valley, a response to the Clearances there.

Bonhoga

Two things stood out, though. First, when you turned and looked at the panels from the other direction they were all in bright colours; and second, how much emphasis there is with the monochrome on the brown of the wooden floor. Hmm.

Then I went back to looking at the landscape. I knew in my heart that I wanted to reflect that more than I wanted to wear black and white, at least this time. But I didn’t want to be too traditional – I did a lot of traditional Fair Isles once upon a time, and I’m all out – though any FI needs a spark, a zing. I went through my photographs, and then I started deliberately looking at neutrals (I don’t want to frighten too many horses) and sharp contrasts. And there are many, many, many. Here are a few.

window, Burra Isle

A window on Burra Isle. My goodness, it was searingly cold that day.

sea pinks

Sea pinks and lichen and greenery against rock.

lichen

More lichen, on a quern stone at Jarlshof (and the shadow of a fence, natch).

boat hullThe colours of boat hulls, a lifebuoy and a door on a grey day in Lerwick.

another boatAnother boat, on a considerably brighter day in Eshaness.

Red, I wonder? Wow…

beach stuff

Or orange, or blue or turquoise. Rust?

And then I came back to monochrome. But I haven’t really; I’m still wedded to the muted landscape with highlights, though – which ones? But I couldn’t resist adding this shot, which just seems to sum up Shetland. Seabirds, cliffs, sea and a foureen. At least I think the boat is a foureen: I’m sure someone will correct me if it’s a yoal.

St Ninian's Isle

It was taken one evening, at St Ninian’s Isle, turning away from the famous sand tombolo that appears in anything about Shetland. Low sun, so I had to turn in the other direction, and I’m glad I did because I’d have missed this otherwise. Maybe I am tending towards monochrome (though there’s a hintette of turquoise in that hull). May need to do two…

 

 

Shetland highlights, 3: taatit rugs

We were very lucky to fetch up in Lerwick just as an woolly exhibition had opened at the Shetland Museum, and it was fascinating. A post ago I mentioned taatit rugs very briefly, so now for a bit more….

rug show 1Taatit rugs are pile bedcovers, and follow a very northern tradition. Making them died out in Shetland during the last century, but they were relatively common in the nineteenth century and the Museum has some from the mid-eighteenth century too. They didn’t belong in the smarter homes; they belonged to ordinary people and were used, often heavily.

I’d heard of them, but I’d not seen one except briefly at the Crofthouse museum four years ago, and I was intrigued. They’ve got a woven base (a muckle wheel / great wheel was used for spinning the wool for taatit rugs; the wool is thick and usually 2-ply throughout),

rug groundand the ones in the exhibition were in a mixture of natural colours, not just white. I think I fell just as much in love with the grounds as I did with the rugs themselves!

One intriguing thing – they needed to be wide, but a big loom was impossible in the average Shetland establishment at the time. So the grounds were woven to double the length needed, then cut in half (I think this is how it went – one large piece of cloth rather than two shorter ones), and the rugs were actually worked in two halves which were then sewn together down the middle. They could then be unstitched for washing and restitched once dry, as well.

The pile is a bit different:

pile on rug

and generally looked to me as though it had been slightly more finely spun, but I may be wrong.

They were put together rather like a rag rug, with the yarns doubled up and sewn into the backing fabric, going round  a couple of yarns in the base – difficult to describe, but if you turned one over (which I did, discreetly), you see something that looks like a hyphen on the back. Apparently when they were new the pile could be as long as 4cm. Then the rug was then hemmed and the two halves sewn together along the selvedge. Some were hemmed as a whole, but that must have made the dismembering / reassembly process very awkward and it doesn’t seem to have been common. They differ from rag rugs or clootie rugs, of course, in that the pile is spun wool, not woven cloth.

Origins? Much speculation, but they seem to derive from shaggy rugs and cloaks present in Scandinavia and Iceland, and there was a recreation on display to illustrate the point.

repro rug

(I remember a Celt wearing one like this in Asterix Legionnaire, hee hee, though there’s no evidence of them ever being worn in Shetland, er, sorry about that diversion!)

They were real family pieces. As you walk into the foyer at the Museum you are greeted by one taatit rug which went to New Zealand with its family when they emigrated in the nineteenth century; it has been sent back to its homeland by the descendant of its original owners. They were used as bedcovers, generally in rural families, and often in a box bed – and there is considerable speculation (though no concrete evidence) that they were used upside-down: pile side innermost, for extra warmth and comfort. Certainly that’s so in Norway, and the grounds there often have designs on the ‘back’ as well so they would show up. They were also used there as warm covers for sailors in open boats; in Sweden they might keep you warm on a sledge.

The dyes are natural ones, often local or at least locally grown. In later, early twentieth-century rugs, there are some synthetic dyes, but straight fleece colours are also comparatively common. The exhibition has samples of the lichens and plants that would have been used to create colours like these, and research has shown that a huge range of dye sources were used – many more than had been assumed to be present.

rug 3

Some are marriage rugs, with the couple’s initials in the design; others have design elements designed to protect the sleepers from all sorts of nightly horrors, like the mara – the hag – who would sit on your chest and crush the breath out of you, but who could be easily be fooled due to her inability to count to more than three (so you put more than three elements in a design, presumably, and she counted again and again rather than suffocating you).

rug 4

That should do it (this is the oldest rug in the exhibition, from about 1760).

I love things like this. They are so ephemeral, the sort of things that disappear into the background and simply do not survive in any great numbers. And yet they are so evocative of a time and place and – ergh – lifestyle. It’s lovely to see such an excellent exhibition celebrating the ordinary – and also the extraordinary, for their very survival.

Time for a revival?

If you’re in Shetland before 19 July, do go along. It’s fascinating – more information can be found on the Museum’s website, here.

 

Shetland highlights, 2 – the sea

Sorry about the delay. Root canal part 2 followed by hefty antibiotics and an asthma flare-up left me feeling a bit crappy. That’s what you get for travelling. Should have stayed at home. Hm. I don’t think so.

This is why: Mousa OK, the view from my house is pretty good and I can see the sea, but not like this, not this sea. The island is Mousa, famous for its Iron Age broch, which can just be seen at the extreme(ish) right. It’s that thing that looks like a cooling tower. The only intact broch, it’s also famous for the Manx Shearwaters who use it as a roost.

(I’m not going to drone on about brochs; the Wikipedia entry is quite good and I can – and do – go on and on and on about what their function might have been. I’ve been broch hunting since I was about 12, a pastime which led to several family rows, lots of falling in interesting bogs, and an early encounter with someone who much later became a very good friend.)

Ahem.

Back to inspiration, particularly colour inspiration. I knew I wanted to knit a Fair Isle, something which I haven’t done for ages and ages and ages. But I’ve done lots of traditional ones and, quite frankly, I think I’m trad-Fair-Isled out, even still. So I wanted to do something a bit different. I decided to let the landscape work on me. And after about a day in Shetland, I began to feel the need to knit something in blues: Shetland 2a Can’t think why, really. That, by the way, is Dore Holm. Well, the island with the arch is; the foreground is part of Eshaness. That’s as far north as we got on this trip; Yell and Unst will have to wait for next time. But we did do a fair bit of exploring.

And as I did more and more, I became more and more convinced that a fundamentally blue Fair Isle would just have to be knitted. Shetland 2b Though perhaps green would have to put in an appearance (the lump is Dore Holm again, from a bit further round at Stenness).

But we had stopped for cake at the wonderful Braewick Cafe, and when I looked at my shots later I began to think about adding silvery greys… Shetland 2c So beautiful, and the pointy things at the right are the Drongs. Oh yes they are. They are spectacular granite stacks – the ‘main Drong’ is 60m high – and they have been climbed. This just confirms my opinion, formed with the help of not a few acquaintances, that almost all climbers are mad (says the woman living in Snowdonia). Heavy weather can cause problems (really?) and they’re surrounded by submerged rocks. Obviously you need to hire a boat as – and I’m quoting here – ‘there’s nothing to tie your kayak to’. Plus the rock is described as ‘quite friable’. They are rated as severe to hard/very severe. Oh, come now, surely not.

Maybe I need a bit more colour, because now I’m feeling slightly ill at the thought of climbing the Drongs. I just know it wouldn’t be so much climbing as hanging off with one fingernail while trying to take scary pictures. Eek. Ok, colour. Colour and knitting possibilities. Maybe I need some licheny yellows in my Fair Isle? Shetland 2d And maybe a hint of lobster pot.

Fairly recently somebody said to me that she couldn’t see the point in travelling. I didn’t quite know how to respond, and I’m afraid I just goggled at her instead of leaping to a passionate defence of broadening your whole outlook on the world and counterattacking narrowness and provinciality. I suppose that’s what happens if you never leave your village and have a lot of first-cousin marriage over many generations (six fingers are also a possibility). Maybe my family – seafarers for generations – are unusual. Doubt it. Really, really doubt it. People have always got up and moved about, going right back to the very few (it could have been as few as seven individuals, some researchers have speculated) who left Africa in the deepest prehistory, and to whom we owe our existence. We’re just fidgety. You’ve got to see what’s over the horizon… er, unless it’s the Drongs and a kayaking lunatic hung about with ropes. If it is, run away. There’s another horizon in the opposite direction, that’s what I say….

Shetland highlights, 1 – The Crofthouse Museum

I could go on about Shetland at length, but that would probably not be very exciting – and would probably largely consist of me raving about Fjara, a newish place to eat and have a drink near Tesco in Lerwick; it’s very good. The seals come up around it too – outside Tesco was one of the best places to spot seals, and I was a bit worried that they might have moved on. Nah.

still a good rock

Once you’ve got a good rock, you’ve got a good rock.

Ahem!

I’ve decided to highlight a few aspects over the next few posts, often photographically, and end with a slightly hysterical look at what I bought. (One of the bags was quite overweight, cough, cough, can’t think why that should have been.) For anyone who knows Shetland, I hope they’re evocative; for anyone who has not yet been…

My first short focus is on the lovely Crofthouse Museum near Boddam, just off the main road between Lerwick and Sumburgh. (Nice link, but it does repeat the ‘no trees’ myth.)

crofthouse museum

(The ropes are coir, and we were told that it’s getting very difficult to find the real McCoy when they need replacing, as they do.)

I’ve been before, and knew what to expect: a feel for past life in Shetland – albeit a comparatively well-off life, by mid-nineteenth-century-in-Shetland standards.

crofthouse museum1

It is so evocative, from the box beds to the scent of the peat fire, from the mousetrap (ouch) to the deep windows and the earth floor in the ben end – the sleeping part. One of the box beds was away in an exhibition of taatit rugs at the Museum in Lerwick (what’s a taatit rug? watch this space). This gave an almost sculptural prominence to a wheel:

croft house museum 3I’m not quite sure it was ready for action; I tried it tentatively, but…

Spinning and knitting, of course, were a vital part of the economy (check out this post on knitting to ‘pay’ for basic commodities from my last visit), and there is a hap shawl on a stretcher in the but end (the main room) to emphasise the point.

hap

There are baskets (kishies and others) on top of the box beds and rivlins (sealskin or hide wrap-over home-made shoes) hang from the ceiling. There’s a big black kettle and a cruisie lamp. And there’s usually someone on duty who can enlighten you about the mousetrap, talk to you about peat cutting, and bring the reality of the past to life (and reveal, to our mutual surprise, common links to a small village in Sutherland).

Outside, quite apart from being very cold, it was blowing a hooley. As a result we didn’t walk down to the little mill or explore the stone-built shed with a roof formed from a boat’s hull, but we couldn’t escape the fish drying outside. Almost ready, apparently.

fish

Personally, I think I’ll stick to the Fjara version. What softies we are now!

This was bound to happen…

I’m not really here. Well, I am, but I’m trying to write a quick post on my iPad which is driving me a bit mad. I’m also ensconced in a cosy but Scandi-smart cottage in Hoswick, about 12 miles south of Lerwick.

So – Shetland is, as usual, fab. The wool is amazing, I want to buy every single thing in the revamped Jamieson of Shetland’s shop in Lerwick and take it somewhere quiet… where I can knit the first serious (if somewhat unconventional) Fair Isle that I have had on the needles for ages and ages. More later, but for the moment here are my colour choices:

Jamiesons DK for fair isle

They were chosen to reflect – allegedly – the colours of the Shetland coast. Startling highlights of blue and bright green, mossy greens, peaty colours, the almost black and monochrome of the rocks in places and – natch – blues.

And it’s a DK. A fine DK, but a DK nonetheless. I hope this implies a certain realism about my hands, but actually it’s just because the pattern I’m going with – Orkney, from Rowan – is also knitted in a fine DK. Fingers crossed! Er, not tooooo tightly…

Nearly, nearly!

This time next week I’ll be somewhere else. That somewhere else will probably be the M6 northbound, but I’m heading further.

There will be boats:

boats

There’ll be places for boats to tie up:

mooring

That’s because there’ll be rather a lot of sea:

sea

There will be a fair amount of archaeology:

archaeology

There will be, I expect, quite a lot of this sort of thing:

eating in the car

and this sort of thing:

sunsetThough the sunsets are going to happen very late at night indeed.

Guessed yet?

There will, undoubtedly, be an awful lot of weather, and when I say ‘weather’ I mean weather, and that’s weather with knobs on, from mist to rain to howling gales to bright sun and back to mist, all in one day:

weather

The place where a calm day is a day ‘between weathers’…

Noss and Bressay

Wooo!

I’m going back to Shetland, I’m going back to Shetland, nah nah, nah nah… (dances round room). It’s OK, I’ll calm down soon. The M6 will probably dissipate a lot of my enthusiasm.

Pics, from the top: Leebitton; Hamnavoe; St Ninian’s Isle; Jarlshof; a pit stop at Frankies, the best fish and chop shop in the known universe and also Brae; sunset looking north from Leebitton; the Drongs; and the sea with Bressay and Noss on the horizon. And, incidentally, the matriarch on the blog header was photographed near Hamnavoe, between Meal beach and Hamnavoe.

And I must not buy too much wool. Or fluff. Or books about wool. Or books about fluff.

(Define how much is too much…)

On not being remotely predictable

Oooh, no, not at all. What, moi?

It’s colour again. I thought I’d made – finally – an original choice for my first serious spinning on my new wheel. There wasn’t any black involved; purple did not feature. OK, I’d managed to blend something similar a couple of weeks ago, but that included black. This doesn’t. It’s vibrant, it’s cheerful, it’s something I’ve not been anywhere near before or, come to that, seen in nature.

Hmm.

(Ignore the state of the yarn on the half-finished bobbin, by the way – me and the wheel just had words.)

Last year I went to Shetland. It was wonderful and I took about 5,000,000 photographs. I was looking through them the other day (work? pah) and I nearly fell off my chair. No, I’d definitely not seen that combination of colours in nature, no sirree.

This is at St Ninian’s Isle:

It may look Caribbean, but it wasn’t the warmest place with turquoise sea and silver sand I’ve ever been. About the best, though. But who needs the Caribbean when you can have the little beach at Hoswick?

After all, this has kittiwakes. And a knitwear factory. And an amazing independent designer. Ahem.

And the same colour combination persisted throughout our stay, as soon as the sun came out and the mist lifted. Here is the astonishing sea at Meal (near the place I snapped the Shetland sheep on the blog header, by the way). There was a porpoise here. Plus the usual debris of island life – fish boxes, a rubber glove, old bits of rope. Who cares?

There’s no doubt about it.

I’ve been spinning Shetland, unawares.

It all made me wonder about colour preferences, and just how deeply they are entrenched even, and probably especially, in those of us who consider ourselves creative. I’ve always been partial to green and liked black – I was desperate for a black party dress (with long sleeves, if you please) when I was about six, but my mother put her foot down and placated her Mini Morticia with one made in a flower pattern that included black. I never, ever went through a pink phase and though the long-sleeved party dress did involve some pink, the effect was mitigated with black and grey and a white background. But the blue / turquoise / green combo is a new one on me. I know it staggered me in Shetland; I must have been unconsciously storing it up for later use.

And then I was working up at the top of my garden on a sunny day recently. We cleared a load of rubbish and had the giant Bonfire of Doom – we don’t waste fine weather here in Snowdonia – and I suddenly had a new view (for about five seconds, until the heap for the Even Bigger Bonfire of Doom builds up).

There it is again. OK, the blues were more emphatic in Shetland (though we can beat them on the greens – it’s all down to west-coast wetness), but this is a general effect. Particularly bright sun on a combination of sea and greenery – it’s everywhere. Once you start spotting it, you realise that it is all over the place, and then that you don’t even really need the sea, either. Or, come to that, the relatively clear sky; interesting light effects can produce something similar. So this colour combination can’t be a recent, Shetland-acquired tendency; it must go much further back.

Don’t care, I like it.

Evidently. Because I bought this shawl while I was in Shetland, from Neilanell at Hoswick:

Wonder why I chose those colours? I can’t think…

So how many of us, I wonder, are really aware of our colour influences – rather, that is, than our colour preferences? And where do they come from, how far back do they go? I was essentially brought up in the country, so it’s not surprising that I’m drawn to the combination of green and blue, of leaves against the sky, of grass running down to a blue sea. Would it be different if I’d spent all my childhood in a city? Would the colour of the stone of the Palais de Luxembourg have had the same effect? Hang on, maybe that’s why I was happy with the muted shades of my party dress… or perhaps that is more down to the usual grey colour of the North Sea.

Whatever, for the moment I’m happy to be spinning Shetland, knitterly (and all-sorts-of-other-thingserly) paradise. Maybe next year…

Now I must go and talk to my wheel again, firmly this time. I’m getting there.