Blog One Hundred

I could scarcely believe it when Leon, who publishes my blog, told me your next blog will be your hundredth. I remember well when the coordinator of Shetland wool week Victoria Tait said I would have to have a social media presence something I knew nothing about. Victoria suggested I tell my story of my life with sheep and wool. Our grand-daughter Lynsey was a great help to me as well as introducing me to her friend Leon Riise who offered to publish my blogs. I cannot thank him enough for all the excellent work he has done for me over the last three years bringing my journey with Shetland sheep and wool to a global audience. I was very pleased and surprised by the reaction of people from around the world who have followed my story, thank you for all your support and comments on my life with Shetland sheep, wool, yarn and textiles.

I thought it only fitting that I pick out some of my favourite blogs to help celebrate my 100th posting.

Blog 1, Island Life

Island Life

Blog 5, My Early Years with Wool.

My Early Years with Shetland Sheep & Wool

Blog 8, ‘ Sheepie’ My First Employer.

John “Sheepie” Smith, My First Employer

Blog 8, New Directions at work.

New Horizons at Work and My Personal Life

Blog 28, Natural Undyed yarns.

Natural Undyed Yarns 1997

Blog 30, Papa Native Shetland sheep

Papa Native Shetland Sheep 1999

Blog 40, New Owners

New Owners

Blog 42, The Gunnister Man

The Gunnister Man

Blog 43, Jeemie Moncrieff And Wirsit Wool

Jeemie Moncrieff and Wirsit Wool, 2008

Blog 47, Wool week 2010

Wool Week, 2010

Blog 62, Real Shetland Yarns

Roadside Beanie – The Beginning

Blog 79, My Shetland Wool Week Experience

OoieOllie – Summing up my Year as Wool Week Patron.

Crofters at Work

Continuing with my life with crofters, I would like to add more detail of the work involving working on a croft. I have spoken about this in previous blogs however I feel it is important to have a closer look at some of the tasks the crofter has to undertake. My own experience of croft work was as a child on our family croft of a few acres of in by land and later on my holidays on a small croft in Vidlin. This period of crofting to me was more like a holiday the weather appeared to consist of glorious stress free sunny days. It wasn’t until my working life began at J & S and my daily contact with crofters that I began to understand and appreciate the commitment and sacrifices made in order to survive on a croft.

Ronas Hill Cliffs

I will begin with the round up for the annual shearing, of the Shetland sheep on Ronas Hill the highest in Shetland at over 900feet and one the most remote and wildest parts of our islands. Situated in the north of Shetland it and the nearby Collafirth Hill dominates the surrounding area its rugged steep slopes help form Ronas Voe a sheltered inlet of water in past times home to whaling stations it also help shelter fishing boats escaping the stormy seas of the North Atlantic. On the opposite shore and at the mouth of the voe is an area of land called Tingon in times gone by home to fourteen crofts and their families who worked the land and fished the rich fishing grounds to the north west of Shetland. Walking this coastline you come across the remains of fishing ‘bods’ booth where the crofter fishermen would shelter and store their gear.

Ronas Hill Courtesy of Alex
Fishing Bod Ruins Tingon

My first venture climbing Ronas Hill was in 1988 a group of us camped on the beach at the head of the voe and at first light began our ascent passing by the ruins of a former fishing station there were several along the seashore sheltered by Ronas Hill. As we travelled upward through the rocky terrain I recalled a tragedy which my grand-father witnessed in the 1930s, his fishing boat along with several other vessels were at anchor in the Voe. It was a Sunday morning and the Sabbath respected by the god fearing fishermen of that era as a day of rest. Some of the crews took advantage of the fine weather and made the arduous climb up Ronas Hill sadly for one crew member this proved too much for him and he took ill and passed away on the side of the hill.

Looking Up Ronas Voe
Ronas Hill Climb 1988

 On that climb we witnessed the wild sheep they reminded me of mountain goats with their ability to run up the rocky slopes. I remember thinking how is it possible to gather these sheep in such a difficult terrain. With the help of photos courtesy of local crofters and photographers Kathleen Anderson and Alex Williamson one can appreciate the difficulties the crofter face. Their images aptly sum up one of the most arduous tasks of the “ caas” {gathering} up the Shetland sheep from this desolate landscape.

Caaing Courtesy of Alex


Gathering the Sheep Courtesy of Alex

 In order to carry out this task it required many hands it was as in times gone by a community event each crofter would have a particular of hill to cover with their sheep dogs in order to drive the sheep to their final destination the sheep ‘ cro’ sheep pen this could take up to six hours to accomplish. Ronas Hill was divided up at one time into five separate ‘caas’ {gatherings}, Burrisness, Feal, Outer Feal, Clifts and North Shore.

Success Courtesy of Alex

Sheep numbers have been greatly reduced for various reasons my first recollection of handling the wool from this area, while it was all Shetland sheep the fleece had distinct characteristics it was fairly small around about one kilo in weight, The wool staple was a fairly long guard hair with a very fine under wool the handle the handle was surprisingly soft despite the coarse outer wool. I would say it resembled some of the small sheep I had seen in the west coast of Norway the Vilsau it is possible that they were brought over by the Vikings in the 8/9 th century when they settled here.

Alex Shearing Courtesy of Kathleen
Tea Break Courtesy of Kathleen

Once the sheep was shorn came the labour intensive task of conveying the wool bales and sacks down the cliff face to the seashore and then on to the boat which was the only means of transporting the cargo to the transport at the head of the Voe. Quite a laborious task all told and not for the faint hearted a way of life that has carried on for centuries and is testimony to the crofter and their hard work and dedication.

Dangerous Work Courtesy of Kathleen

It has been a great privilege for me to have known these crofters for over fifty years and have the greatest respect for their way of life we hope it continues in years to come with a younger generation of crofters. I would like to thank Kathleen and Alex and for their images and information on how they carry out this unique part of their crofting life.

Waiting on the Boat Courtesy of Kathleen

I would like to thank Kathleen Anderson and Alex Williamson for the use of their photos also the information they gave me on their work in Ronas Hill, much appreciated. My next blog on crofting will be the role of the family cow and what it contributed to crofting life.

Crofting and the Impact it has had on My Life.

It would be fair to say my working life has revolved around crofting, after all at the end of the day they in fact pay my wages. Working at J & S since 1967 we have been responsible for the marketing of well over 80% of the annual Shetland wool clip so it stands to reason we have to strive hard to improve results for all concerned.

 To get a better understanding of crofting life I would like to add more detail to my work with the crofters some of their stories also how life was and still is on a Shetland croft. Over the decades I have learned of life on the croft and hardships involved first hand from the people who work the land. I will endeavour in my own way try to pass on some of the challenges, stories and way of life they have had and still face in crofting life in general.

Modern Shetland Croft

In order to have a better understanding of crofting life in our islands I will explain what a croft really is. This is a question I have been asked many times over the years by visitors calling along my work at Jamieson & Smith Shetland Wool Brokers. It is best to go back in time to help best understand the basic set up of crofting life.

Jamieson & Smith Shetland Wool Brokers

After Shetland became a part of Scotland in 1468 the lairds land owners put in place by the King of Scotland often his family or friends, were ruthless with the crofters who worked the land and living off the rent paid by the crofter which would mainly be salt fish, butter, and knitted garments, they then sold these goods to the German merchants who established trading posts in the isles known as Booths. The lairds also received income from the Dutch fishing fleet which harvested the bountiful seas around Shetland.

Fishing Booth Whalsay
Whalsay Harbour Booth in the Background

 A major change took place when the Dutch fishing fleet departed around 1700 the laird lost out on revenue in order to reduce this financial shortfall  they became merchants in their own right building shops and renting fishing boats “ sixareens” six oars, to the crofter who had now become a crofter fisherman. They could only sell their products croft produce and fish to the laird who made sure they were always in debt to him. I discovered only recently that in the past my family ancestry from the Walls area were in fact merchants who most likely obtained their wealth from the hard toil of the crofter fisherman.

Lairds House Windhouse Yell
Salt Fish Drying

Crofts were small tracts of land a typical size would be around 12 acres although they could be much smaller as was the case with the croft I grew up on as a child. The land was owned by the laird usually powerful cash rich merchants. When I was really young I remember walking down the road towards the pier with my grand- father, we stopped at the small building which was the milk shop where we would take our milk container each morning to collect the milk we required. With the absence of cattle in the isle all the milk would arrive on the small ferry Tirrick. I asked him what we were doing here without our milk pail he replied, “To pay Cussons for living on the Island “. For many years I thought this was some distant cousin who was the landlord, not the true owners Cussons Group the largest independent soap manufacturer in Britain!

Croft Layout in the Past
Traditional Shetland Croft House

 The crofter would improve the barren ground and turn it into rich green pasture the laird would then evict them from their croft, many were forced to leave the isles others tried to settle on impoverished land along the seashore or on the side of heather clad hills. I was told some of my ancestors were cleared off the land at a place called the Garths Banks at Fitful Head in the south of Shetland by Bruce the laird and travelled north settling in Burra Isle. They just had time to gather up their belongings and had not left the area before the smoke from their burning homes darkened the sky over Fitful Head. The story goes before the people left they gathered together in a group and one elderly person put a curse on the laird, that his line of the family would bear no children to carry on the lairdship and in fact the laird died barren of a successor. As you travel around Shetland you will see many ruins of croft houses many with a sad story to tell.

Croft Ruins
Fitful Head
Croft Remains Fitful

These clearances were common practise amongst lairds throughout the Highlands and Islands of Scotland and after decades of abuse and evictions this came to an end after seven years of fighting for crofters rights to be improved by the formation of the Land League movement. One of the main protagonists being John McPherson ‘ The Skye Martyr’ a crofter from Glendale in the island of Skye who took on the establishment of lairds, church leaders, sheriff officers and even the military, his vision and efforts brought much needed change in the crofting way of life throughout Scotland.

Oliver Shearing with Skye Crofters 1981

My next blog on crofting will show the arduous tasks involved in shearing one of our most remote and highest hills Ronas Hill.

Walls, My Past and Present

My first visit to Walls was in my very early childhood on a day trip to the district with the Hamnavoe Sunday School on a summer outing. I do not remember a lot about the day except for a visit to the Bayview tea room no doubt the food would have been to my liking hence my memory. It wasn’t until 1968 that I became more aware of Walls and the surrounding area when I met the love of my life Catherine Manson, a born and bred Walls wife. I didn’t have to travel very far to meet her as she stayed practically next door to the wool store in Lerwick. I in fact proposed to Catherine at the brae of Trulligarth Walls with the picturesque view of the island of Foula in the background very romantic and a place we often return to.

Village of Walls

Foula from Truligarth

Throughout our early married life we spent many a happy day visiting with her grand-mother who lived in the village of Walls approximately 25 miles from Lerwick in the west of the mainland. Her grand- mother would take us visiting out of the way places incredible places such as the Moorapunds a small enclosed sea loch where we would take our young family swimming.

Catherine & Clair Moorapunds 1981

Her grand-mother would reminisce of life on the family croft in her young days at Riskness, Walls tales of the peat hill, gathering in hill sheep and crofting in general where the community would help one another in these demanding tasks

Croft Walls

There were also stories of local folk lore and notable events from the past. One such story she told us that captured my attention was the presence of party Russian seamen some supposedly armed, that landed at a place called Footabrough, their reason was to track down one of their shipmates who had jumped ship and made his escape swimming ashore seeking asylum. He made landfall at the beach then set off in the dark and headed uphill towards Walls where on he eventually came across the lights of a croft house, the startled crofter took him in and hid him, when the pursuers arrived at his door he denied all knowledge of the stranger. This story was reported in all the major newspapers and was unofficially titled the first invasion of the U.K. by a foreign country. The story had a happy ending as the fugitive was granted British citizenship; this story was confirmed to me by a brother of the crofter who came to work with me at the wool store in the 1970s.

Footabrough with Broch Remains

What was so appealing to me besides the people were the views and rugged beauty of its costal walks which we enjoyed immensely. The village was protected to some degree by the westerly gales by islands of Linga and the larger island of Vaila, a short distance offshore. Vaila had quite a history Neolithic and Bronze age remains have been found on the island it also was home to a laird and in the early 1800s was home to a fishery business owned by Arthur Anderson of the P&O shipping company. In the late 1800s the very impressive Vaila Hall was built by a Yorkshire mill owner, who obviously wanted an exclusive home away from the hustle and bustle of the industrial world of that era.

Vaila Hall

A very prominent tower stands guard over the Western approach to the bay and the village of Walls. I was told it was a vantage point for the laird’s man to keep a watch on the coming and going of the crofter fishermen who fished the far ‘Haaf’ fishing grounds and were in service to the boat owners the laird.

Isle of Vaila from Walls

Its rugged rocky cliffs exposed to the westerly gales sweeping in from the Atlantic Ocean with the exception of the island of Foula which lay 22 miles offshore the next landfall was North America had seen over the centuries many shipwrecks. On a hilltop called the Scord, directly opposite the island of Vaila is a poignant reminder of unfortunate sea farers whose ship had foundered local folklore says they marked their names on a rock while keeping lookout for a ship coming to rescue them.

Compass Rock Scord Walls

Scord Ponies

Close by again by the shore is another impressive building is Burrastow House we had the privilege of spending a week – end in the house then a guest house, a gift from our family to mark a special wedding anniversary. Our room had a four poster bed and views overlooking the wester mouth and the island of Vaila. I have always imagined living in a stately home and I also have a very imaginative mind, I clearly recall saying to Catherine I felt a sense of belonging to the place as if I had been here before. I received the usual reply which is usually “honestly you cannot half make up stories”. Many years later in a talk by a local historian into the Henry family origins I was to discover that our family linage in fact travelled back to the Henry’s of Bayhall and of Burrastow considerable land owners in the area and also merchants especially in fishing and fish curing. The Henry family were decedents of Thomas Henry a highly educated minister who arrived in Walls in 1616 to take over the local parish, a direct descendent of his William Henry became the first teacher in the island of Foula where he eventually settled. There was another Henry family resident on the island from much earlier times with supposedly a strong Danish connection. The Burrastow Henrys’ had predominately black hair and the other Henry family with fair hair; they were known as the White Henrys and my ancestors the black Henrys’. My great- grandfather James Henry who was Hay and Company’s factor and supervisor was head hunted from his family the Henry’s of Burrastow to oversee their business in the Isles! At the conclusion of the talk I turned to Catherine and said “see I told you I had a special connection to Walls!

Burrastow House & Vaila Hall

At present following a lengthy period of lockdown we are very fortunate to visit with Catherine’s aunt who lives at Bardister House in Walls who keeps us in touch with life in the village and surrounding area past and present.

Catherine & Her Aunt Frieda at Bardister House

Shetland Sheep Around the Globe.

The first I had ever heard about Shetland sheep traveling out-with our islands was when P.B.A.Hunter, ‘ Benjie’ as he was known locally shipped a consignment of Shetland sheep to North America / Canada, which I have featured in previous posts.  While writing my blogs on my journey with Shetland sheep and their wool I have been very fortunate to have been supplied with information, from Hazel Syme of the Shetland Sheep Society but mostly from ‘ Benjie’s records on how Shetland sheep travelled further afield and also subsequently played a part in the development of other native breeds.


Founding Father (Courtesy Shetland Sheep Society)

I would always have liked to travel to the U.S. and Canada and would have liked to have seen the Benjie Shetland sheep descendants in their native lands. However I have had the good fortune of contacting Garrett Ramsay an avid breeder of native Shetland sheep who farms near Winslow Illinois and he has sent some me images of his Shetland rams. They look very impressive indeed and the images of their wool are of a very high quality, I am sure they would have met with Benjie’s approval. I would like to thank Garrett for the use of his photographs they are most appreciated.


Garrett Shetland ram
Garrett Shetland Ram 2
Garrett Shetland Ram 3
Garrett Shetland White Ram
Garrett Grey Fleece

Castlemilk Moorit

.In January 2019 I was approached by a group of Castlemilk owners and enthusiasts who are conducting research on the origins of the Castlemilk Moorit sheep since its development at the beginning of the 20th century at Castlemilk Estates near Lockerbie. They had discovered in their investigation correspondence between the Castlemilk Estate and a Mr John Smith Cattle Dealer Scalloway in 1929. They asked if this was in fact the same John Smith of Jamieson & Smith and if so could I supply any further information.  Unfortunately we did not find out any more details at this end, however the society provided me with copies of letters dated 12th March 1929 which showed a business transaction between my old boss John ‘Sheepie’ Smith and the estate had taken place in 1928c for the sale of “Shetland Mourat Sheep” sent to Castlemilk. I have now received information from the Castlemilk Moorit Sheep society that says Sir John Buchanan-Jardine bought 14 brown ewe lambs in 1928, and a further shipment in 1930, this time mature Moorit ewes from Scalloway. I think it is important to know that Shetland sheep supplied by Berry Farm had perhaps played a small part in the development of the Castlemilk Moorit.

Sheepie with Moorit Ram
Castlemilk Moorit (Courtesy Andrew Harwood)

There were perhaps earlier instances of Shetland sheep leaving our islands and being part of other sheep breed development, perhaps to be found in our archives; however this is the earliest contact that has come to my attention. Of course other breeds were brought into our islands in the early 1900s which no doubt influenced dedicated Shetland sheep breeders to form the Shetland Flock Book Society. I recall one renowned Shetland sheep and cattle breeder tell me that sometime in the 1920s two Siberian moorit rams were introduced to a farm in our islands, he said they would gather the ewes in a similar fashion to that of a stag rounding up its hinds.

Siberian Ram (Courtesy Shetland Sheep Society)

 Manx Loghtan.

In 2017 on a visit to the Isle of Man I was to discover the sheep breed the Manx Loghtan and first hand see the similarities between the two breeds which I describe in my past blog Isle of Man. I was presented with a moorit Loghtan fleece by the spinners’ guild and struggled to tell the difference between the two breeds from a wool point. The rams appear much larger than our native Shetland and have four horns which usually only have two. The Shetland, Castlemilk and Soay according to the Manx Loghtan story play an important part in the revival of the island breed.

Manx Loghtan Flock
Soay Sheep Lochend

While researching the first Shetland sheep to North America I talked to one of Shetland’s farmers and possibly the main local dealer in Shetland livestock. He informed me that in the 1950s his late father shipped Shetland sheep to our neighbouring islands to the north the Faroe Islands; perhaps this was to help improve their wool quality?

Faroe Islands

Shetland sheep and their owners have played an important part in telling the story of our distinctive native Shetland breeds highlighting special characteristics such as its exceptional fine wool which sets it apart from other breeds of sheep. The skill and knowledge of the Shetland sheep man was first recognised and recorded in a royal command no less in 1298 in the rettarboetr of the noble lord King Hakon. It was a detailed four page document sent to the people of the Faroe Islands which seemed to suggest they needed help with their sheep husbandry. This information was passed on to me by my late friend Jeemie Moncrief from the Shetland Amenity Trust.

Norwegian Sheep

“ Hakon, by the grace of God, Duke of Norway, son of King Magnus the Crowned, sends God’s greetings and his own to all the men in the Faroes who see or hear this document. Our spiritual father and dearest friend, Erlendr, bishop of the Faroes, and Siguror law-man from Shetland, whom we have sent to you, pointed out to us on behalf of the inhabitants of these things which seemed to be deficient in agricultural law”.

The document aimed at the Faroese sheep sector sets out in great detail how the sheep producers of the Faroes Islands can improve their animal husbandry. This attention to care of our Shetland island sheep flocks is on- going and acknowledged at present with Shetland having no sheep disease and is accredited with the highest status by agricultural officials.

Shetland Colours Clousta

Shetland Sheep, What ‘Benji’ Looked For

Following on from my last blogs on Shetland sheep to Canada and other places with information from P.B.A. Hunter ‘Benjie ‘records, I have taken some more of the most important and interesting points out of his extensive records pertaining to what he looked for in Shetland sheep and their husbandry.

His first contact with R.B.S.T. in 1975 Benjie states that he concentrates on small flocks of Shetland coloured sheep with special emphases on the “Blue Grey” which he said were fast declining. His notes follow on from that of the Shetland Flock book specifications of 1926/7. In his first letter to Colonel Dailley he will endeavour to supply stock which conforms to the Shetland Flock Book standards and makes special mention of the importance of a good conformation, a nice head, nice horns, alert and active appearance, and good wool. He often stresses the importance of good feet, when you take into account that these ewes often scale the sea cliffs to seek out the rich sea grass and also to travel down to the seashore and the ebb tide.

Blue Grey (Sally Wild)
Ebb Tide
Sea Cliff Grazing

 Benjie would put out his Shetland Rams to the Shetland hill ewes about the 10/12th of December and withdraw them again in the New Year. He mentions in one area of hill in North Nesting there were 8 share – holders, in my early years handling their wool clips and judging by the wool quality they would all have been in agreement on the quality of the rams to be released. I remember when the crofters of Cunningsburgh and Fladdabister would have a special gathering of the sheep off the far hills and take them back to their own pastures where they would select their own rams and thus control the quality of the offspring from their ewes, these districts had some of the finest wool clips in Shetland, perhaps North Nesting crofters did the same.

Caaing Hill Shetland Ewes
Crofters at the Sheep Pen

Amongst his records there is a special mention of the dipping of his Shetland sheep in a letter to the Lerwick Police Station notifying them that 21 Shetland Sheep and lambs had been dipped at Dury, Holding – Billister 877-6 on 22.9.79, with UpJohn Flymort dip diluted at 200 gallons of water to 1 gallon of dip. I recall helping with the dipping at Berry Farm and if my memory is correct a Police Constable attended to oversee the dipping. Changed days and with the use of spot on spray dip taking over from the original dipping where the whole animal was submerged through the dipper. It may be coincidental but I am now aware of more ‘keds’, sheep ticks, then in my early years handling wool.

‘Rooing’ and Shearing is mentioned quite a lot often in explanations to questions sent to Benjie by people out-with Shetland. I quote,” ‘Rooing’ plucking the wool of Shetland sheep died out in the early 1920s in Shetland with the introduction of hand shearing. Rooing was a very time consuming task and labour intensive; it also affected the value of the clip as that good, bad, and indifferent wool would be mixed together leading to graders down grading the wool. In earlier years plucking of the finer wool from around the neck and shoulders was done in order to obtain the very finest for hand spinning wool for the fine lace shawl. These would be about 5 feet square and could be drawn through a wedding ring. Pre – hand shearing, ‘Rooing took place in early June for fleecing hogs, wedders, and yield ewes. Milk ewes fleeced by the end of June. He goes on to say, “There are a few show sheep which are “ rooed” in early spring to show them to advantage but I am afraid this is a painstaking and long drawn out business and to say nothing of the discomfort caused to the victim. Today shearing takes place mid to end of July”. On the subject of wool, my first lesson on judging wool was with Benji in the 1970s, one of the main faults he said to look out for was kemp fibre as this fault did not appear in fine Shetland wool and was a sign of cross breeding.

Hand Shearing

Weather, it was very interesting to note in correspondence with Ash Farm on 26th April 1978 in response to a request for placing an order for Shetland sheep the following reply from Benji. “The possibility of meeting your requirements by early June is I am afraid, is rather remote, especially as far as Gimmers are concerned as this year few if any breeders will have many surplus young sheep to dispose of. Incidentally the Secretary for Scotland is at the moment considering the evidence collated and presented by the N.F.U. is at the moment considering the evidence collated and presented by the N.F.U. and it appears farmers/crofters worst hit are to be are to be compensated to some degree for losses sustained and there are several in this category in Shetland some breeders having lost from a third to a half of their total stock”. In further correspondence with Ash Farm 6th December Benji mentions the severe weather earlier in the year. “Incidentally the DOAS paid compensation at the rate of £23.00 per ewe to owners whose flocks were seriously depleted as a result of the spring blizzards. Ten percent of the numbers of ewes claimed were treated as natural wastage and £23.00 paid on the balance which will help those who were worst hit”.

Winter Grazing

There were many more details in Benji’s records which I found most interesting studying them took me on a trip back in time to my days over the hill from North Nesting to Vidlin and my joyous summer holidays as a child. Benjie mentions crofters sadly long gone who I first got to know in my early years at the wool store, people who I knew as customers but also friends and shared many a story and laugh with them through the decades. As I began writing from his records I felt it necessary to travel again to North Nesting and explore the surrounding hills to renew and appreciate what was his domain. Catherine and I visited the settlement of Billister and what had been Benji’s croft, however I needed to have a better understanding of the ‘scattald’, (common grazing) home to Benji’s sheep. Approaching the Billister hill from the south east we came across a place of great interest to us, Stavaness, known locally for supplying granite stone to build the lairds house on the nearby island of Whalsay in the 19th century. Travel west from the Stavaness beach you come to the Billister hill fence, sadly there were few sheep to see. Still it gave me a better understanding of the type of hill pasture used by Benji in times gone by.

Stavaness Beach, Quarry Workers Former Home
Billister Ayre

It has been a great honour and privilege to share with you some of Benji’s writings, a man held in high regard amongst Shetland crofters and people further afield and someone I had the good fortune to know and also learn from him. I now can say I have a direct link to Benji through Monarch of Cockairney, Kinross and two ewe lambs we bought for our grand-son, that have a direct pedigree back to a ram called Island Benji which was exported to the U.K. mainland in the 1980s, going by its name I would presume of Benji stock, it is good to say the blood line has been brought back home to our native island shores.

Monarch and The Lambs

I would like to thank Peter Hunter and his family for all the information and allowing me to have access to the records and images from one of Shetland’s revered agricultural ambassadors who brought Shetland sheep to far flung shores and brought pleasure to countless people, P.B.A. Hunter ‘ Benji’.

‘Benji’ on his Croft at Billister Nesting

Jamieson & Smith Buildings Through the Years 1952 – 2021

I have recorded in a previous blog how and where John ‘Sheepie ‘Smith first became involved in wool trading on his farm at Berry Farm in 1930. The wool was handled in a barn attached to the farm house the wool was sorted upstairs in the barn before being packed up on the ground floor.

The first recorded address for J & S at its conception in August 1951 was Mounthooly Street situated in the centre of Lerwick & almost on the waterfront a stone’s throw away from Victoria Pier the berthing place of the P&O Ferries that was the lifeline for freight & passengers arriving & departing from the Islands on route to Aberdeen on the Scottish mainland. Very convenient for the company in shipping the wool clip out of the islands.

Due to the confined area and lack of parking & storage facilities the company moved to the outskirts of the town to larger premises at North Road, a former church hall known as the North Roadside Church which was a place of worship for the herring fishing workers of Lerwick, it was built in the early 1900s. With the decline of the herring industry in the 1960s the premises became an auction saleroom. At the rear of the building was a smaller building which since the early 1900s until 1935 had been occupied by Zetland County Constabulary. In 1936 the building was converted into fish workers accommodation, attached to this building to the north were two former coopers sheds where wooden herring barrels were made. There is uncertainty of the exact date of J & S relocating to the North Road, however an image taken in 1965 shows the building being in the process of being altered to accommodate the wool store, one of the former church windows has been taken out and part of the outer wall removed to form a doorway where the wool sacks were shipped out. In 1967 an extension was to be added from the former church building to the old Police Station, I helped carry the materials down to the back, where a concrete foundation wall was erected, sadly this project stalled in 1969, the same year as the old boss John ‘Sheepie’ Smith passed away.


J & S wool Store 1965c Photo J.Mcnab
Herring Station North Roadside Church Top Left

In 1969 the former church building was refurbished with the addition of an upper floor put in to create offices, toilets and extra storage area. On the ground floor a shop and yarn storage facilities were added. It should be noted that the refurbishments were all carried out by one of the owners the late Jim Smith and I, this work all took place in the off season. In 1970 due to the increase in yarn sales a large wool warehouse was built adjacent to the original building on the site of a former car park. At this time our first wool press arrived prior to this all wool bale packing had to be done by packing with one’s feet!

Wool Store with First Wool Press
Early Years Yarn Shop

In 1979 and increase in yarn sales and wool handling led to a new middle store which connected up the former church building to the wool store. The basement became a home for the finest hand spin fleece which was sold to visitors as well as by mail order. Again the bulk of the work was carried out in the off season by Jim Smith and assisted by me Jim Smith’s explanation for carrying out the work in-house was, ‘it is the Berry way we do things’.

The Old Shop Front

In 1980 due to ever expanding business, another floor was put in the middle store to accommodate yarn storage. Meanwhile at the rear of the buildings the former herring workers sheds were connected up to the former police station in order to store more yarn. Again these works were carried out by the wool store staff in the off season.

J & S Old Police Station at Back

2005 /6 under new ownership Curtis Wool Direct saw a restructuring of the buildings, the lower floor of the now yarn store became an open plan yarn display area, combining a point of sale counter and mail order handling facility. Part of the middle store upper floor was removed in order to create extra space for wool handling and a new wool press.

Yarn Shop 2006
Wool Sorting Middle Store 2006

The former police station had a complete make over and became home for a Shetland wool carpet display stand and carpet whipping machine which turned carpet off cuts into floor mats and carpet runner’s. It was also home to two Vispring Shetland wool beds as well as Shetland wool duvets. All these works were again carried out by the company staff in the off season.

Police Station with Vispring Beds
Carpet Display

2015 /17, further refurbishments took place with the addition of yet another loft area in the former church which provided much needed storage space for company mail order files and such like. In 2017 major changes took place in the middle store with a joining up of this store to the wool store, this involved putting in a new floor as well as taken down the separating wall. Also at this time a proper disabled ramp was built in order to provide wheel chair access the shop.

Middle Store 2006

Also major changes took place in the wool store with the arrival of a more efficient wool press which meant a saving in wool handling. Alas this new arrival had seen hard times and it again had to be refurbished, again by Derek and the wool store staff.

New Arrival
Derek Repairing New Wool Press

 The parent company decided to invest in a new extension connected to the back of the existing stores. This indeed was a much needed venture and was a huge boost for the staff of J & S, and also the wool producers of Shetland, that investors had acknowledged the importance of genuine Real Shetland Wool.

Unfortunately due to factors out-with the control of  J & S the building works was delayed until 2019, when at long last over 50 years after the initial foundation wall had been erected, building work commenced only to be halted by yet another ‘virus’ this time Covid 19!

There will be follow ups and images when the new extension begins to take shape, I am confident that in 2021 we will finally see the finished article. As in one the late Jim Smith’s famous quotes states “ It will all come good in the end if anyone or ill fortune happens to J & S, we will come out positive on the other side, there is like a divine protector of all involved with our company”. Perhaps this is to do with the fact that J & S are housed in a ‘Godly ‘building latterly the North Roadside Church!

Guddon Croft in the Winter.

Continuing my blog series of life on a Shetland croft, unfortunately due to the continuing Covid outbreak I am unable to travel to the north isles, therefor I am very grateful for the help given to me by the Guddon crofters, our daughter, her partner and our grandson Aidan who have provided me with images and their comments on crofting in these winter months.

Our daughter sums up life on the croft in the winter so far – “It’s a very long winter. It’s been particularly hard as our son Aidan is at high school on the mainland of Shetland all week. We both work full time so the animals need fed early morning before we leave and checked when there’s daylight at my break time”

Aidan at His Forge

“The parks are in better condition due to ongoing drainage works to improve them. Also we reduced our stock quantities and now have 40 head including 9 lambs kept. A mixture of Shetland, Shetland Cross, and Texel cross Shetland, pure bred Cheviot and also Romney Katmogit cross lambs

The Two New Katmogit Lambs
Katmogit Lamb & Cheviot Ewe

“The weather has been remarkably good for a few weeks and Aidan is home as the schools are shut due to Covid so things are a bit easier as we have more hands on deck. We also baled haylage rather than silage and are finding much less wastage and the bales are so much easier to handle. The tups are inside now after having done their work for the year. ‘Monarch’ and ‘Reel’ both are very able and very well behaved and get a rich tea biscuit every day!”

Monarch & Reel The Cheviot Tup

“We have never had much snow in Shetland for years and the cold snap is much appreciated as it helps kill off any unwanted bugs in the ground or indeed on the stock! The days will be getting longer and lighter soon and although there’s a long winter ahead yet, springtime doesn’t feel just too far away. We look forward to our lambing which starts around the middle of April. We have some lambs wintering in as one broker her leg in storm Aiden a few months ago so has required monthly bandage changes which had proved successful and she is back to weight bearing and has good use of it, they will remain in now until spring.”

Guddon Snow
Looking Down on The Guddon Croft

A summary of winter life on the croft so far, an additional problem this winter has been the national bird flu epidemic which has meant providing secure accommodation for the Guddon hens. There was also an unwelcome visitor which appeared amongst the Guddon flock, a stray unmarked Black ram which Aidan had to catch it with help from his dog Gody.

Aidan & The Stray Black Ram

 One thing I can relate to with Aidan’s schooling is the fact I also had to travel from my home isle of Burra to Scalloway and on by bus to Lerwick. Unlike the super ferries of today our ferry was much smaller, our Sunday night trip to the mainland was in a small wooden vessel that could perhaps carry a dozen people crammed into a small cabin very close to the water line with only one entry and exit point. The ferry the White Launch left from a small jetty called the Nurse’s pier, in the south of the isle very close to the Methodist chapel making it easier to convey the preacher back to the mainland.  One indelible trip that is imprinted on my mind never to be forgotten, us children were always seated before the preacher came he was always last aboard. I recall the boat sinking lower in the water which signified the boarding of the main passenger the minister. The little daylight that filtered into the cabin was blotted out by this giant of a man, he declined the offer of a seat and retained his position and immediately began to preach to us, after all he had a captive audience there was no escape! He began his sermon which was quite appropriate considering our surroundings the story from the bible of Jonah and the whale, a tale I knew quite well from Sunday school. He proceeded to start at the beginning and continued in great detail how Jonah had not listened to God and had been punished by almost drowning and being swallowed by a huge fish which after three days on God’s command vomited Jonah on to dry land. By the time the minister came to the conclusion of the story we were on the rougher stretch of water between Burra and the mainland. At the best of times I struggled to overcome sea sickness and just managed to push past the preacher and on to the deck before emptying the contents of my evening tea over the side of the boat.

White Launch (Courtesy of The Burra History Group)

Our daughter’s partner is a ferry man as well as part time lobster fisherman so I suppose one could class him as a fisherman crofter following on in the footsteps of my ancestors and many Shetlanders. During the recent fine weather they took the opportunity to supplement their diet by catching fresh fish, with a trip to the most Northerly outcrop of the U.K. mainland Muckle Flugga and the Ootstack. In days gone by this was part of the fabric of the crofting fishing way of life sadly becoming a distant memory.

Muckle Flugga Lighthouse
Ootstack Most Northerly Part of The UK
Successful Fishing Trip

This trip was a welcome change to the daily chores on the croft and not only that a successful fishing also an opportunity to cleanse and enrich one’s soul and to absorb the natural beauty of our island’s and our unspoilt environment. One can only hope this fine weather remains but I fear in my next Guddon visit we will encounter our customary gales and rain.

Thank you to the Guddon folk for their comments and their photos much appreciated.

Shetland Sheep to North America the First Pioneers.

Continuing my research into the records of the late P.B.Hunter ‘Benjie, I was intrigued to find a single page with information about a small shipment of Shetland sheep exported to North America on July 1st 1948 for the Flett farm, in Saskatchewan. This came as a great surprise to me as I had never heard mention of this in all my years involved with Shetland crofters and farmers. I simply had to discover more, I contacted Benjie’s son Peter and he too had never heard about this. I spoke to a friend of mine Hazel Syme Vice chair of the Shetland Sheep Society from Glenrothes in Fife if she could make enquires. I am very pleased to say she came up trumps and for that I am truly grateful, she discovered an article in the Shetland Breed magazine from 1994 titled Historic Shetlands – The story of the Flett flock in North America adapted with permission from the article by Lanette Scapillato in the Black Sheep newsletter, winter 1994.

Monarch Fine Wool Shetland

The article is quite fascinating and deals with all the stages the Flett family go through with their small flock of Shetland sheep, I will not go into all the details and select the information on the supplier of the Shetland sheep to the Flett family and the characteristics of the sheep they acquired.

When I first saw the name Flett in ‘ Benjie’s’ records my first thoughts that is not a Shetland name more like a common name in Orkney. The latter turned out to be the case George A Flett who resided in Fort Qu Appelle, Saskatchewan after emigrating in 1912, enlisted a friend of his from Orkney, John T Flett to source native Shetland moorit sheep. As there were no Shetland sheep of this type in Orkney he turned to George Keith Anderson livestock agent for the Shetland Marts in Lerwick. When I read this I recalled conversations with my old bosses Jim and Eva Smith who had mentioned his name quite a few times and I also found in the Berry farm archives a statement showing a list of the five farmers/crofters who sent wool from Shetland and sold at possibly the first British Wool Marketing Board sale on 28th September 1950, the top of the list is G.K.Anderson. Incidentally the prices received at auction by the Shetlanders did not match the returns they could receive from private buyers so a decision was taken not to join the B.W.M.B.; the same is true to this day.


Moorit Ewe & Lamb
Moorit Ram

I now had a name and to satisfy my curiosity needed to find out more about G.K.Anderson and in particular his place of residence in the isles. Talking again to Peter Hunter he put me in touch with the nephew of the shepherd of G.K.Anderson who also put me in touch with the farmer who now is co-owner of Seafield Farm Lerwick former home of George Keith. The information I received from them provided me with background knowledge of G.K., his family owned the Globe Butchers in Lerwick where he helped out in the retail shop side of the business. He was also employed by the Shetland Marts as auctioneer, the marts was part owned by my old boss John ‘ Sheepie’ Smith, this was the connection Jim and Eva Smith would have had with him and why they mentioned the name to me.

Seafield Farm Buildings
Seafield as in the Name Close to the Sea

There was no doubting George Keith’s pedigree and knowledge of Shetland sheep hence why he would have been selected to supply the sheep in the first place. The type of Shetland sheep he was to supply is detailed in the article which I will quote from. ‘Pure bred Shetlands were becoming hard to find, as the clamour for larger meat and wool sheep had made crossbreeding a better financial move for most farmers. And white wool was in demand. Anyone breeding sheep to supply the wool market would tend to cull Moorits. The ewes were dainty and shy. The ram was a handsome reddish brown colour, with perfectly coloured horns. He also showed considerable long fleece around his neck and shoulders, similar to a Lion’s mane. This feature is called ‘ scadder’ and had been all but eliminated in the more modern “ Shetlands” by 1948 ‘. I can relate to some of the points made over 70 years ago, white wool and cross breeding is still the case. However I am pleased to say in my years in the J & S wool store I have come across ‘scadder ‘ fleece and in fact seen first- hand such an animal owned by a family of Shetland coloured sheep enthusiasts . The fleece from this ram, very much a character I may add, was similar to the ram described in the article the neck and shoulders and down the back were indeed a very long guard hair with around the neck resembling a Lions mane or ruff collar. However throughout the fleece you could fine small areas of superfine wool staple. This was aptly described in the report General view of the Agriculture of the Shetland Islands drawn up by the Board Of Agriculture by author John Shirreff  published 1814. On some of the wool quality of the Shetland sheep he reports and I quote. ‘And, though some of it is fine, it is of a quality unfit for any general purpose of manufacturing and the price low in manufacturing districts, the wool is partially coarse and hairy’. We find even to this day a fleece can be of mixed quality containing superfine wool and a much longer coarser guard hair staple.

Scadder Ram
Scadder Fleece

In January 2015 I received a collection of Shetland sheep samples from a farm in North Carolina, on viewing these I can clearly see similarities to fleece I have seen in my time at the wool store, superfine  soft crimpy staple and a longer coarser guard hair staple.. The person describing her sheep said she could see diversity in her flock from soft crimpy fleece to longer coarser staple length, in my mind that is typical of some of the Shetland sheep we can find in Shetland, and is aptly described in the fore mentioned article Historic Shetlands.

Coarse Wool Shetland
Fine Wool Tups Gremista Farm

I now am satisfied and glad I now know the origins of the first Shetland sheep brought over to North America they were supplied by two highly respected Shetland sheep men P.B.Hunter (Benjie) and G.K.Anderson. Thanks once again to Peter Hunter and his family for granting me access to ‘Benjie’ records and being able to share with those interested how the original flocks of native Shetland sheep journeyed across the ocean to their new homes.

Collafirth Ness ,at Long Last 60 Years on.

One of my favourite pastimes has been hill walking, always wanting to know what is over the next rise; this interest was a direct result of my childhood holidays in Vidlin. I am pleased to say that my wife Catherine also shares the love of exploring our islands. I still recall place names from that era mostly associated with summer sheep ‘ caas’, gathering them in for the shearing. One area of hill eluded me a remote part of Vidlin, Collafirth Ness which I was told had to be accessed by a narrow path high up on the side of  a steep hill called the club of Swining, put one foot wrong and you had a free fall into the sea!. Perhaps my minders at that time felt this journey would be too dangerous for me at such a young age?

Lunna House and Farm, Vidlin from Collafirth

Throughout my years at Jamieson & Smith I have had the privilege of handling the wool from most of the areas of Shetland including Collafirth Ness. The clip from there was typical fine Shetland fleece with all the classic native Shetland breed wool characteristics especially its handle (softness) brought on by decades of selected breeding to achieve the finest wool quality. Contributing to this was also the type of pasture the animal was on and in the case of the Collafirth Ness wool you could tell by the ‘blue grey’ shade of the fleece that the sheep were grazing on the native peat and heather hills.

Collafirth Sheep

Working daily with crofters one could also learn first- hand the, layout of a particular area also listen to the stories handed down over the decades. In the case of Collafirth I have had the good fortune to have workmates who have had strong family ties to the area. All were descendents of people who lived and crofted there. One colleague in fact owns and works a family croft previously the home of his grand-uncle. So over the years I have been furnished with many facts of life in this beautiful lonely remote valley.

Grostane Croft and the Remains of a Weaving Shed

Collafirth in the mid eighteen hundreds was home to over 100 people, the life blood of the community was mainly fishing and crofting, the crofts were small and usually fashioned out of the native peat and heather moors and hills. With its location along the steep shores of the voe (inlet) there was ample seaweed used as a fertiliser along with an abundant supply of peat in which to improve the land, even today you can still see the greener shoots of grass along the shoreline, the result of hard labour by generations of crofters. The man of the croft was the main earner most often a fisherman crofter, some were also seafarers journeying around the globe as merchant seamen or as in some cases press- ganged into the navy where they were often away for years at a time, many sadly didn’t return. In their absence their wife would have to provide for the family, in some cases as many as eleven children. Not only responsible for the well- being of the children but also the crofting chores as well, many supported the family by hand spinning and knitting travelling over the steep hills to the settlements of Voe and Vidlin to sell their knitwear.

Collafirth Croft Ruins

In 1946 extra employment came to the area when a weaving shed was built on my workmates croft at Grostane and employed up to 4 people. The shed was built by the Stewart family formerly of Levenwick, they were textile merchants and also were a wool broking firm operating out of Leith and Galashiels in the borders of Scotland. When I joined J & S in 1967 quite a lot of the wool we purchased locally was shipped to Leith and then on to Galashiels, I had the good fortune to meet and assist in judging Shetland wool with one of the Stewart brothers Mark in 1968 at the wool store. The weaving shed ceased to operate in 1978 this coincided when Mark Stewart retired from the company. This was a blow to the community leading to more families leaving the area in order to seek employment, as had happened with changes in fishing leading to the decline of the smaller inshore fishing boats.

Weaving Shed Ruins

Due to the almost vertical hills on each side of the long narrow inlet of water known locally as a voe, arable land was at a premium, however when you eventually scale the steep slopes you will come across the aptly name Mill Loch a large stretch of water enclosed by even more hills also except for a shallow narrow valley that meanders down in an easterly direction toward the sea. Here you will find the remains of the community water mills which drive the mill stones by the force of water to enable the grinding of corn grown by the crofters to provide them with basic flour for baking.

The Mill Loch
Water Mill Ruins Collafirth

There are quite a few stories about the area down through the decades mainly of hardship and misadventure, in some cases sadly with the loss of life on these steep hills caused by a slip of foot. There was one such story that that enthralled me so much that resulted in Catherine and I visiting and exploring Collafirth, 60 years on since my aborted visit as a child when on my summer holidays in Vidlin, over the other side of the hill to the East.

Callafirth’s Steep Slopes

My former work mate, who like me had spent his summer holidays with his grand-parents on their croft at Collafirth, told me the story of the furthest out croft along the shore called Camperdown. My immediate reaction to the name was that is a strange name for a croft in Shetland which are usually local dialect or Norse connection names. The story he began was of two brothers with the surname Duncan and originally from mainland Scotland, had taken part in a major naval battle fought on October 1797 between the British North Sea Fleet under Admiral Duncan and the Dutch fleet off the North West Dutch coast not very far from the village of Camperduin, it ended with a decisive victory for the British fleet. On their return to Shetland one brother made his home in Collafirth the other in the south of the isle in the village of Sandwick, calling their properties Camperdown after the battle.

Camperdown Croft
Camperdown Residents

Camperdown is the last croft remains along the shore, although on the map at the very point of the Ness it says there is a ‘homestead’. These ruins are rather large to be a croft dwelling; I asked an elderly former Collafirth crofter about the ruins he said it was the remains of what had been a Pictish broch.

As we neared the completion of our journey along the shores and hills of Collafirth we looked down on the remains of what was a thriving crofting community, home to over 100 people at present populated by a handful of people. One could only reflect that this was a perfect example of the demise of crofting in our Islands, in my early years at the wool store there were several resident crofters in the valley sadly none remain there now.

Mid Lea Croft Remains
Collafirth Valley

 At least I still have the memories and stories of these hardy people and for that I am very grateful to all the crofters and workmates who have passed them on to me over the years.