In 2006/7 I met the textile curator of the local Shetland Museum Carol Christensen. She approached me to see if I could help her with a natural history project; namely, the Gunnister Man. The museum wished to reconstruct the clothing of the Gunnister Man and asked if I could I help identify the wool used from some of the remnants of his clothing.
I not only knew of the Gunnister Man from crofters in that area, but also when I was a child as my late uncle had told me his story. While at school in Hamnavoe, Burra Isle, his class went on a school visit to Lerwick and to our local police station in particular. They were shown to a cell where they viewed the actual remains of the Gunnister Man. There was no body to be seen but they saw his clothes, which were in surprisingly good condition. The officer talking to them explained that in fact the remains although from the 1700s were still part of a crime scene. This story fascinated me at the time all those years ago, and here I was helping recreate some of the Gunnister Man’s clothing, it was as if I was involved in our living heritage.
The official story is it was a lone burial at Gunnister, Northmavine which was discovered by two crofters casting peat. They unearthed the remains while cutting the peat from the turf in 1951. The remains date back to around the very end of the 17th century, early 18th century.
The bulk of what survived in the burial is the woollen clothing which is very heavily patched; so there are quite a number of different fabrics present. The non- clothing items were a wooden stick, small wooden bucket two other small pieces of wood, a wooden knife handle, a horn spoon, a quill and some Swedish and Dutch coins. Non fabric items included pieces of a leather belt with brass buckle and fragments of a rivlin type shoe.
Various theories were put forward to as how he would have met his end but no evidence was found to shed any light on his demise. Back in the 1700s, the burial site would have been in quite a remote area with no obvious roads and a peaty heather moorland.
At that period in time Gunnister Voe with its sheltered inlet, was one of a number of very small ports operating at the end of the Hanseatic League period traders from Holland and Germany visited our shores. The burial site is situated 2 miles from the port and at the top of a small valley bordered on the south side by hills and the north side Gunnister Loch. It is my theory that the unfortunate soul was a visitor with little knowledge of the area and was travelling on his own from the port in bad weather, possibly in the winter, and was caught in a blizzard with poor visibility and stumbled into the frozen loch. He then may have made it out as the loch is not too deep, and sought refuge under a peaty heathery overhang and succumbed to frostbite and hyperthermia. Over the years the peat and heather will have covered over his remains.
Our task was to help identify the wool used to construct his apparel, our only help being photographs of the original clothing and scientific test results which proved the items had been obtained over a considerable time and from different locations. I looked mainly at the coarser Shetland wools similar to the Scandinavian types of Norway and Sweden. The sheep brought over by the Vikings when they settled here had a distinctive coarser staple.
On seeing the original clothes brought up for the reconstruction presentation I saw kemp fibres hair which does not take to the dye. Older, more experienced sheep men told me I would not find kemp in Shetland, only in the larger mainland breeds. There were various items of clothing and it is more than likely Shetland wool would have been present in, for instance, garments worn next to the skin.
After three years the unveiling of the reconstructed Gunnister Man took place in the Lerwick museum before a large crowd, many of them were crofters. When I first viewed the “reborn” Gunnister Man I had the impression that I actually knew him. I had a measure of pride that I had been part of this unique natural history project. It rekindled in me an acute awareness of one of Shetland’s true strengths its vibrant textile heritage which had been an integral part of my early life. Perhaps as a business J&S did not gain commercially from this project; we gifted our time and the fleece to our local museum. What proved to be of greater significance, this project proved to be the stepping stone into a journey of exciting times working with Shetland Amenity Trust who were involved in the day to day running of the Shetland Museum and Archives.
The Gunnister Man was the beginning of a partnership with us at J&S and the Shetland Amenity Trust in developing new yarns and projects which would benefit knitters and textile workers and add value to the local Shetland wool clip.
Thanks to Carol Christensen and the Shetland Museum for the information and images, and also letting us take part in this historic event.