The National Museum of Scotland has in its archives the remains of a basket which was found preserved in a bog in Eshaness in Shetland. It has been dated as being around 1500yrs old and is thought to be the oldest basket found in Scotland. Alisdair Davidson made a replica of this for what was the Royal Museum in the 1990’s.
The original basket was found in the 1920’s. It was made from willow and at this time it was described as being 14 inches (36cm high) (1). Copy of note made about basket when originally acquisitioned by museum.
It seems however that it was then put in a box and forgotten about until the late 1990’s when it was found again and Alisdair was contacted and asked to make a reproduction of it. (2) The basket was very fragile and by this time it had caved in on itself reducing the height to 22cm high and obscuring the base from view. The other dimensions are described as 43cm long and 31cm wide (1) making it oval in shape. Alisdair was sent pictures of the basket taken with a photocopier so that he could try and work out the weaving technique but the photocopies weren’t clear enough and he went off to Edinburgh to have a look himself. He wasn’t allowed to handle the basket and as all basketmakers know how the base is constructed is an important part of making basket. As this was obscured from view by the sides that had caved in Alisdair said he ‘asked them to raise it just a bit just so as I could see in but they refused. It hadn’t been touched’ (2). He ended up lying on the floor under a glass table with the basket on top trying to work out how it was made. Alisdair told me that because he wasn’t able to get a good look at the base;
‘in the end the way I made it isn’t the way it should be made because I couldn’t see the bottom of it. I reckon it’s made the same way as these (Orkney Cubbies)……..but it looks the same on the outside. It’s only another basketmaker who would realise’ (3)
The basket was made with very fine willow strands ‘the smallest I could find’ Alisdair said, and he used sample fragments from the original basket as a guide. (2)The basket was paired all the way up and
‘it bellied out and came in the way and it came in so steeply that they had actually taken…. the likes of these stakes would have been bound together with the next ones, to get the mouth narrow’. (3)
It also had a handle for carrying it. Small feathers were found with the basket and it is thought that it was used for gathering eggs from cliffs
Alisdairs replica should still be on display in the Royal Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh
by Julie Gurr
(1) Letter from Royal Museum of Scotland to Alisdair Davidson 14.02.97
(2) Interview with Alisdair Davidson 16th August 2013
(3) Interview with Alisdair Davidson 28th June 2013