Thursday, 23 February 2012

Straws in the Wind

Coiled Shetland oat straw basket made by Jimmy Work
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.

Image taken from an old postcard showing large coiled straw basket 
These islands are thought to have been inhabited for at least 5000 years but there is little evidence to suggest that there was ever a strong tradition of weaving with woody plants. There used to be trees in Shetland but they disappeared a long time ago, so for centuries there were few indigenous materials for basket making, little willow or hazel, certainly no oaks, ashes or chestnuts. Consequently the baskets of these islands had to be made with the native materials that could be gleaned or grown, such as oats, dockens, bent, rushes and heather.There was no riving, skeining or plaiting of anything tree or bark like, just the softer more textile tradition of twining, and for sturdier items, coiling. No axes or woodworkers 'donkeys' were involved just hands and pocket knives and bone or driftwood needles.

The Shetland Islands have a long tradition of spinning, knitting and weaving the fine wool that the indigenous sheep provide. This was the job of the women; basket making was the domain of the men and was an activity for the winter when the weather and short days forced them indoors.

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.

Jimmy Work in his 'real' indoor  work place 

Jimmy and selection of his baskets in  a 'staged' work place made for  a 1998 Calendar .
Photograph by Bill Jackson  for The Shetland Times.

Jimmy started making baskets in 1958 and he hasn't stopped. He says he taught himself and today at 88 he still makes the fine simple elegant coiled baskets that have become his trade mark. These are not traditional agricultural baskets like the kishie or fishing baskets such as the budie, these are domestic baskets for laundry and knitting, to hold peats by the fire. These are 1960's post herring trade, oil boom baskets used to decorate the home with in a much less hard and more leisurely life.

Jimmy has made hundreds of them, he doesn't know how many, and they have been sent to all parts of the world - he is a one man industry. His hobby, for that is what it is, has created a tradition and people come from all over to film him, talk to him and buy his baskets. Jimmy sells everything he makes and selling them is very important to him, he has little time for people that visit and do not buy! Most of his working life he spent painting and decorating for a building contractor, with his basket making almost a second job. He worked at it for an hour in the morning prior to the day job and several hours in the evening on his return home after a long day with the paint brush.

Jimmy says he can always recognise his baskets because he makes them without adding extra lines of stitching on the sides. There is the same number of stitches at the edge of the base as at the top edge regardless of any outward flow of the form. They are beautifully crafted, sturdy, functional and elegant baskets. He has never had any desire to alter his technique or his materials and it is probably because he has always made them the same way that they are so good.
Base of the basket

I asked Jimmy if he had ever taught anyone else to make them. I had heard whispers on the wind that he had refused to teach a woman who had offered to pay him for tuition. Apparently he told her that a woman would never have the strength to do it. I didn’t ask him if it was true, nor did I dare tell him I make baskets but I am very glad to hear that he is now passing on his precious knowledge to a couple of people – both male!  

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Skeklers Hats

Lerwick Up Helly Aa 2012

Guizing is an important part of cultural life in the Shetland Islands. Nowadays it happens at Halloween, Newerday (New Year) and most famously at Lerwick Up Helly Aa on the 31st January. In the past it also featured as part of wedding festivities.

'Guizing' is the Shetland verb for the art of disguising yourself in 'fancy dress' which now can be anything from 'Teletubbies' to Elvis impersonators.  Traditionally an activity for adult males and children of both sexes, it is now acceptable for women to participate in local guizing events. Lerwick Up Helly Aa, however, still remains the preserve of males.

 In the Northern parts of the Shetland Islands i.e North Mainland, Yell, Unst and Fetlar once dressed in your guizing outfit you became a “skekler”.  These slightly devilish creatures had licence on these special occasions to visit peoples homes and to say and do things that may or may not have been acceptable without the disguise. It is not hard to imagine that in some of these small and self contained communities, sometimes ruled with an iron hand by the landowners, it acted as an important  safety valve allowing resentments and frustrations to be expressed without reprisal. In some ways it appears to still perform the same role as at the halls at the winter fire festivities  guizers perform comic acts that poke fun at people who, in some way or another, might have offended or amused the community. There is no hiding place for the victims they just have to accept their critique, in the knowledge that they have an equal right to do the same to others.

Before the arrival of new materials and a money based culture, the skeklers costume comprised   a pointed hat decorated with ribbons, a cloak, skirt and leggings all of which were made out of oat straw.  Terry Gunnel, Professor in Folkloristics at the University of Iceland, is an expert on the guising traditions of this part of the world and  notes in his paper  "Grýla, Grýlur, "Grøleks" and Skeklers: Medieval Disguise Traditions in the North Atlantic?"Arv: Nordic Yearbook of Folklore, 57 (2001), 33-54. the last practical recorded complete skeklers outfit as having been seen on Fetlar in 1958. Consequently, for the opening of the the new Shetland Museum in 2007 Euan Balfour was  commissioned to recreate a skeklers  outfit based on information in photos and recordings in the archives as by then only two  skeklers hats were known to still exist in the islands.
Euan Balfours re-creation of a skeklers outfit in the Shetland Museum
One of these two hats was made by my great uncle Andrew Anderson for his daughter. Its a fine example decorated somewhat quirkily with neck ties! 
Skeklers hat made by Andrew Anderson.

So in a bid to revive the tradition and to help me understand the processes involved I decided to make one this year for the male in the house to wear out guizing in North a Voe. I had oat straw given to me by Hazel Gray who is one of the few to grow it now and I decided to use rope found on the beach for the weaving and plastic bags for the ribbons. Without the original in front of me I worked from memory and consequently had to redo a few bits but on the whole it worked out fine, if a little improvised.

The first house on the guizing route ( there were over 20 on the route and in each house a dram is taken!) belongs to Robert Williamson, aka Robert o’Camb, who it turns out used to be a dab hand at making skeklers hats though he hadn't done one for years. He spotted my version straight away and told the brave wearer that whilst it was 'no’ a bad effort ' it wasn't in the North a Voe tradition but that he would be happy to enlighten me. A subsequent visit to Robert filled in some more detail. It turns out that each community had different ways of making it, the most significant difference being whether it was intended to be worn over the face like this...... 

or with a veil covering the face. Uncle Andrews from Cullivoe was to be worn covering the face and the North a Voe variety with a veil. There are other differences but suffice to say, for the moment, that as with most things the “devil is in the detail”!
Robert Williamson wearing his North  a Voe  hat - without the traditional  veil.