Rambling around Shetland, 3–flexible planning

The key to success for my recent trip to Shetland consisted of two parts: (1) a series of goals, defined yet amenable to constant modification, and (2) a very flexible schedule.

For example, on my first visit to see a particular flock of sheep at Burland Croft Trail, it was raining; I didn’t have the right boots on (because I didn’t actually think I was going to find the location); and while we had an "any time" agreement, my inadvertent arrival coincided with a time when the people I meant to see had needed to run into Lerwick unexpectedly.

So between raindrops I met some other members of the extended community.


And we had some nice conversations.


Including a bit of group discussion, as the weather permitted.


Although even the Shetland natives ran for cover when the sky-water got more enthusiastic.


I went into the shed, where there was information on the croft and its activities, and a pile of beautiful fleeces. I got answers to a few of my questions just by looking at the fleeces.


And I went back another day, shortly before I left Shetland, and enjoyed a lovely visit with Mary and Tommy Isbister and their sheep. I also got to see photos and the actual garments for a number of one-of-a-kind creations made by their gifted daughter Sanna Isbister, who lives in West Cork, Ireland. (I bought giclée prints of two of Sanna’s paintings, one of Gypsy—an image you can see on the site—and one of a young Shetland ram. Ah, it can be found, too: “Kenny,” here.)

Then there was another day when I set out to do something . . . right now I don’t remember what it was, but it wasn’t possible, and that impossibility may have involved rain . . . so I went to Jamieson & Smith to peruse the fleeces downstairs in the room that has the handspinners’ selection.

This time of year is part of the shearing season. As I arrived, a truck pulled up with a trailer full of wool.


I’m not entirely sure where they offloaded the bags, because every available cranny was already crammed. In fact, it wasn’t so easy to get to the wool room downstairs, because of the massive piles of wool. J&S could use some more space. They might get it some day, but it sure isn’t there now.


So instead of heading down to the wool room, I spent the morning with wool buyer Oliver Henry while he worked on mostly grade 2 wools (grade 2 going into the baler, with some grade 3 behind him, and grade 4 and also the finer fleeces going into nearby baskets). 


I hope I was somewhat helpful with activities like moving bales around and/or out of the way, including at one point assisting in digging the scale out from under a small mountain of wool so it could be used.



A couple of hours later I made my way between bales to the downstairs and found a bit of wool to ship back for workshops.

At the end of that same day (not raining much right then, but my energy was lagging), I went to the Shetland Library to see what interesting things they had. I'd already made my first couple of trips to the archives, and in the course of my rambles had learned about a couple of documents I wanted to see that were at the library. I found some others, too.


One of them was a document about a marketing scheme that was never implemented. Nonetheless, it provides insight into some of the history of Shetland sheep and wool.


Sometimes what didn’t happen can be as important as what did.

On another day, I simply needed to take a break, and it was a gorgeous day for a change, so after visiting Jarlshof I ended up at Sumburgh Head, at the far south end of Shetland’s Mainland. I missed the annual puffin visitation by a few days, but it was beautiful with gannets and fulmars and shags, among other avians.


There’s a lot to see and learn at Sumburgh Head about natural history and lighthouses and more. And even more.

Although I need to stay focused on sheep and wool to make progress with my work, I also need to understand the contexts and cultures of which sheep and wool are a part. That means a certain amount of serendipity is useful—the trick is always figuring out how much is enough, and when I’m being pulled off track instead of just deepening my thought processes.

This visit was definitely in the latter realm—the good kind of peripheral excursion—because bits of knowledge I’d accumulated previously clicked into new thought-constellations. One of the exhibits where that happened was the radar hut, about the then-new technology and its importance in World War II. Last year on my trip to Orkney—the group of islands between Shetland and mainland Scotland—I had learned about the British fleet being at Scapa Flow in 1940. But being in the place where the intelligence was discovered that prevented its total and sudden destruction—a tiny building, staffed by young people with equipment so new they weren’t entirely certain how it would work—connected a lot of dots for me and stands out as a non-fiber highlight of this trip. 


There are more dots of this type that I would like to connect in the future, some of them having to do with the Shetland Bus, an important part of the Norwegian resistance movement (also during World War II).

As is becoming very apparent, I did sort my ideas of where to go and what to do by what types of weather would accommodate the activities. And on another drizzly day, I made my way to the Shetland Crofthouse Museum, representing a croft of about 1880.


I learned a lot on this trip about crofting, which (to oversimplify) is the traditional agricultural/residential portion of many Shetlanders’ lives. It’s not farming, in that crofting represents only a portion of what a family would do for a living. And crofting has a lot to do with the ownership and management of sheep and of different parts of the landscape. I have a post in process that will provide a bit of information on what sheep I saw in which locations. Crofts are a big part of comprehending what goes on with sheep breeding, and therefore wool production and textile crafting.

Speaking of which, there were sample garment stretchers hanging by the fireplace in the croft house museum.


Up on top of one of the box beds was a spinning wheel—and, over on the right, a sweater frame.


Looking UP in historic residences of this type often results in the discovery of textile equipment. It’s nice, though, when the textiles themselves are a significant and appropriate part of the eye-level setting as well, as is this hap (everyday) shawl on a stretching frame.


I stayed a bit longer at the museum than I planned—and didn’t get down to the water mill—because it was pouring. But when the rain let up, I got another reward for looking UP.