How great it was to return to this wonderful collection, made by Isobel Grant in the 1930s. On our initial visit, Dawn and I looked through this unique collection of baskets from the Highlands and Western Isles, and they revealed a very different kind in Scotland from the Museum of Rural Life. Most of the collection is either from the Western Isles – creels in the Irish style – made from willow or heather; the last known creel from Harris (there are none left on the island itself), artefacts made from marram or bent grass, such as beautiful plaited horse collars, a woven grain bag, a saddle pad, and ciosans – coiled meal measures. There was a wooden arm chair with a twined marram seat, sold for very little ‘by a woman lone and very poor’…
Dawn found it very poignant that these baskets are here when there are so few on the islands themselves, yet it is also very remarkable that they are here at all, since without having been collected by Isobel Grant, they probably would have been long thrown away, since people in the past were ashamed of their rustic culture, so Grant reported.
The other part of the basketry collection from the Highlands included Traveller-made artefacts – frame baskets and small brushes made from heather, woodies or horse halters and bridles made from twisted or cranked willow. There were artefacts for Highland sports– trout fishing baskets, salmon creels and grouse panniers. There was a great multitude of thraw-crooks here and a huge quantity of rope. I visited a second time to work with volunteers to learn how to use a three-strand rope twister, that was great! Amidst the jumble of rope, I came across a wonderful thing. A horsehair rope for guga (baby gannet) hunting on St Kilda. And a puffin snare hidden away in a box just marked ‘rope’. Written inside was a note saying that at the time of writing, 1920, this was probably one of only three in existence.
What did we do here?
Again we demonstrated. Dawn made a beautiful creel, and donated it to the museum for the outdoor displays in the township. Steph made a long rope with a thraw-crook with one of the reminiscence groups. Lucie helped everybody. And we held a workshop in Traveller frame basket-making, not as easy as it looked, since the ribs were positioned down the side of the vertical frame rather than radiating from where the handle meets the horizontal frame.
Who did we meet?
Travellers, the visit was organised by the inimitable Michelle from MECOPP. Five Traveller women came and of these only one, the older called Isa, had made baskets herself., along with making wooden flowers, which she had sold door to door. All the others had also seen them being made, however, and the father of one had ‘basket-maker’ registered on his marriage certificate.
What did we learn?
This was mainly historical information. We gained some insight into Traveller life and to their ideas about baskets, and made some good friendships. This included that baskets are very rarely made now by Travellers, and that Traveller knowledge of baskets is held in the hands of elders. When they work it, they have a respect for willow, and thank the tree. They also respect the skills that people have and they pass this on this orally. They told us of boiling willow to dye it with the skin of the bark, and how twining rope double strengthens it, which is important in making snares.
Other than meeting the Travellers, we found no one who really remembered the use of baskets in the Highlands. There may be paintings of Highland women wearing creels in museums and galleries, but there was no tell of it from people who visited us this time. This is a museum which attracts a national audience, however, so there were less local people, and visitors came from all over Scotland. Thus we also learned as much about life in the east coast fishing villages, as we did of the local area.