Research trip to Shetland, 2-7th August 2012

Steph and Jon were due to fly to Shetland on 2nd August and spend Thursday afternoon and all Friday with Ian Tait from the museum, looking at material in the stores. The plan was to follow this with a trip to Unst Boat Museum at the weekend, and then on to Tangwick Haa on Monday. In the event, our plane was cancelled due to fog at Sumburgh Head, so we transferred to the ferry and arrived on the Friday morning. This rather condensed the visit to the museum.

Ian Tait, the director of Shetland museum, has been a great correspondent during this project. Despite the great demands on his time, Ian devoted the whole day to us. This began with a tour around Shetland Museum, which has to be one of the most well set out and rich collections of material culture in Scotland.

I learned a huge amount during this tour. Ian has thought a great deal about Shetland’s basketry heritage and conveys it very clearly. The Eshaness basket – a 7th century willow basket – came from Shetland, although it is now held in Edinburgh. Ian was able to talk us through from the pre-Viking and Pictish era onwards to the ‘complete break with the past’ in Shetland’s material history which came with the Vikings. A key moment, he said, in Shetland and Orkney history, was the 15th century marriage of the Scottish prince with a Danish princess, through which event Scotland gained Shetland and Orkney from the Danes. From this time on, the lack of wooden imports from Scandinavia brought an increased us of straw, heather and grass in architecture and smaller artefacts, which may account for the number of basket items made from these materials.

Shetland Museum AGR 2012.125 straw bait kuddi

Our whole afternoon was spent in the stores with Ian, and we were able to see the magnificent collection of kishies, bødies, kuddis, toigs, ropes and other artefacts, in all manner of material, from black oat straw to docken, which the museum holds. It is difficult to imagine we could have achieved more in a day.

In the days which followed we also visited Unst Boat Museum which also has some great examples of fishing baskets, along with wonderful interpretation of the migration of fisher-lassies to this most northerly island in the UK. Tangwick Haa, in the north-west, has several examples of kishies and a flakkie (mat for winnowing oats) made by Lowrie Copland, all made from straw.

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