Use of Oat Straw in Shetland

Oats were the staple grain in the Shetland Islands prior to the 20th Century and as in all rural communities at that time their use was completely sustainable, nothing was wasted. The threshed grain used for porridge, flour and animal feed was ground by small water mills set in the burns. The remaining straws were then used for things such as roofing, stuffing mattresses, wrapping the feet in cold weather, mats for threshing, animal bedding and costumes for festivals. And, as in so many other rural communities all over the world they were also used for making baskets.The oats that grew here in the 19th and 20th Century here were different. They were fine and stayed green and softer for longer making them ideal for basket making unlike the nitrogen-fuelled cereals of today, bruisers by comparison, short, muscular, and brittle. Now there are few people who grow these oats and those that do provide specialist needs such as value added local oatcakes, the roofing of a few listed buildings and the last semi-professional basket-maker Jimmy Work who only uses Shetland oats.

By Lois Walpole

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