Island Life

Hamnavoe 2

I grew up in Hamnavoe, Burra Isle on the west side of Shetland, the largest of a group of Islands offshore from the village of Scalloway, former capital of Shetland.

Home in my early years was with my father and mother and we lived with my grand- parents.  My grand- father was a retired fisherman and had a small croft with perhaps a dozen sheep. He along with several other crofters would also have sheep roaming the village which caused no end of problems especially when the human residents would find their gardens scavenged by hungry sheep. I can quite clearly recall quite a few oaths and threats issued to the crofters by irate house holders.

I found out later in life that it was the human residents that had invaded the sheep’s traditional pastures as the village of Hamnavoe was legally a common grazing (scattald as it was known locally) and still is to this day.

Hmanavoe Home

Hamnavoe Lighthouse

My father was a fisherman and then later a crofter, this I was to find out was very common throughout not only Burra but the whole of Shetland. Fishing was the main provider, however, as in times gone back fishing was a hard life and very much at the mercy of the weather even in summer months the sea around these remote Islands could turn in the blink of an eye. Most of the vessels when I was young were larger than the traditional open decked “sixareens”, six oars per boat, that fished the far “Haaf“ fishing grounds some decades before. I spent my young life close to the sea and would go off to the hand – line fishing with my grandfather I loved the sea and catching fish, however, I could never over- come my sea sickness and most often would come ashore cold wet and miserable. I was told later on in my life it was not uncommon for a fisherman to be sea sick his entire fishing life, unlike me there were no other job opportunities to be had. I only ventured off twice to the drift net herring fishing, with our family boat the Dauntless.  My second and last trip after being sea sick the entire night was to be told by an old crew member we were the only boat that caught no herring, ‘you’re a “ Jonah” go ashore and never come back’, I was very keen to take his advice.

Dad Dauntless

Dauntless hailing nets 1962

There was no other employment to be had, our croft as was common place in Shetland provided a small amount of lamb, salt mutton (reestit) and some eggs. In the North of Burra I can only remember one croft with a single cow. The extra income which helped keep our family alive came from the skilled hands of my mother and her knitting (by hand knitting and on the hand frame knitting machine). Our wool clip was sent off to Hunters of Brora in the North of Scotland and spun into yarn which was posted back. My grannie told of walking from the north of the Isle to the more fertile south of the Island to barter (trade) fish for wool.  She would then walk back home carrying the bag of wool which she posted off to the mill.

P.T.Robertson Staff

Selling the finished hosiery involved a boat and bus journey around about two hours to Shetland’s capital Lerwick.  I can clearly recall my first visit to Lerwick, at the age of five this was an experience never to be forgotten coming from such a tight knit community into the wide world. Mam had her brown paper parcel, inside her precious knitting which I was to see first-hand had being sold. Our first hosiery shop was H.C. Adams, 167 Commercial Street, the merchandise was inspected, word and money was exchanged but not all the knitwear went. Mam told me later on in life that often this was the case, it depended on the buyer. Our next and thankfully last shop was Tulloch of Shetland, 108-110 Commercial Street, where the final garments exchanged hands. Our next stop and one that stands out was to Sollotis sweet shop for my first ice cream.  Then across the street she took me for my first hair- cut by “Feeger” Tait another experience never forgotten. We walked to the north of the town and went into Irvine’s wool shop where she purchased knitting yarns and I first saw my first significant amount of greasy fleece spread out on the floor in the store at the back. We caught the bus home from Grantfield Stores directly opposite the wool shop, all in all an unforgettable experience!

2 thoughts on “Island Life

  1. My goodness. I’d love to hear more of your child hood experiences it’s such changed days. Having cars to nip round the island, the choice of foods available now in comparison!! WhAt was your diet like day to day then? Where did your food come from…. not popping in the car over to Lerwick Tesco I’m sure!! What did you play etc
    Is the photo of ladies knitting a family one or just one of the time?
    Im very glad you were so sea sick or shetlands wool industry may have had a very different story. Thankyou so much for sharing I’m looking forward to hearing more morag x


  2. Wonderful, Oliver! I love memoirs. I wonder if you could identify the people in the photos. Especially you and family members. Is one of those lovely knitting ladies your mother?


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