Lower Guddon Croft Part 4 Preparing for Winter

Our next trip to Yell and the Guddon croft we saw many changes and not just to life on the croft due to coronavirus travelling meant ferry bookings were essential plus we had to have a ferry account card. Quite an important factor in helping to contain the spread of the virus, this meant no contact with the ferry crew was necessary as the card was scanned through the window.

We were met at the croft by the usual welcoming party of ‘ caddie’ orphan lambs, now much larger, inquisitive hens and noisy sheep dogs. Out before the house was a huge stack of Haylage bales, I had never seen this type of bales before, I was told by our daughter this was more convenient for them rather than the larger bales of silage, haylage bales weighed approximately 20 kilos and was easier to carry into the byre. Haylage reduces the risk of Listeria a bacteria which can be found in the soil, food sources, and even the faeces of healthy animals and which causes Listeriosis which is one of the main causes of death amongst sheep in the winter.

Making Haylage Bales

Close by was a more familiar site ‘ coles ‘, small stacks of hay built wooden tripods in order to allow the wind to help dry the hay. When dry enough the hay was then spread out into rows and baled into convenient bales. I remember building ‘coles’ of hay which was left for a while to dry and then made into a ‘dess’ a larger haystack. I recall carrying hay supported in netting on my back and storing it in the byre or barn, nowadays all that effort is replaced by machine, in my opinion this change although very necessary in this modern fast moving times has taken some of the fun out of the harvest.

Aidan Gathering Up the Hay
Coles of Hay

Our grandson Aidan took us for a walk up through their fenced in apportionment along the banks of a fast moving burn called the Green burn which winded its way down to the Swarister beach. Some parts of the burn were quite steep and dangerous to animals; fencing was another job that had to be done on this part of the croft. We came across a well- built stone structure which he told us had been a bridge across the burn and a pathway, which had been a right of way. This path went up the hill past the neighbouring croft of Hollygarth, a dairy had operated here until 1981 and supplied milk to the local area.

Old Footpath Bridge Remains

On both sides of the burn we came across the remains of water mills which had belonged to the Lower Guddon and Hollygarth crofts. When the mills were in operation the crofters would travel far up into the hills to a loch called Clodis Water, here they would build a dam preventing the loch water to escape downhill, after a period of time they would return to the loch release the water. A local crofter told me after releasing the water they could travel down to the crofts and have a cup of tea before the water reached the mills in time for milling of the corn began.  This ancient method of milling corn died out in this area in the late 1800s.

Guddon Watermill Ruin
Watermill Grinding Stone

One of the most important activities in crofting life is the selling of the livestock in this case the Lower Guddon lambs, the Guddon crofters travelled down to the marts in Lerwick on the 19th of September. Due to strict pandemic restrictions they were unable to attend the auction however they were delighted with the results of the sale and received the top price on the day for their Cheviot ewe lambs.

Part of the Guddon Flock
Drainage Before Winter

Our grandson Aidan recently celebrated his 16th birthday at Lower Guddon and for his birthday present Catherine and I gifted him a shearling Katmoget ram Monarch of Cockairney and two Katmogit ewe lambs we purchased these prized stock from F & A Hipwell from Kinross. We are looking forward to the offspring from the Katmoget ewes we purchased last year from a local crofter sired by Monarch.

Newcomers to the Guddon
Autumnal Look to Swarister Beach & Guddon

 My next blog on Lower Guddon will be life on the croft in the harsh winter months which at times seems to last forever before the sky lightens once again in the New Year.

Shetland Wool Week Patron 2019 – Some Images of the Many Unforgettable Moments.

We all know the reasons for the cancellation of our Shetland Wool Week; we continue to be at the mercy of this current Pandemic. We sincerely hope that the coming year brings more positive news and we can welcome all Shetland wool lovers back to our beautiful islands in 2021. I find it is hard to believe a year has passed since I was giving the honour of Shetland wool week patron a position I was extremely proud of and enjoyed my year immensely. I would like to share some of my memories of those special times with you and hope to see you all another year. Take care and stay safe.

Edinburgh Yarn Festival Launch
Opening Ceremony
Wool Week Talk Woolstore
Harriet, Jarl Nicolson & Me, MRI Scanner Appeal
Wool Week Hub at the Museum
Shetland Flock Book Show & Sale
Shetland Flock Book Prize Giving & Dance Tingwall Hall
My Class Sorting Shetland Wool
Wendy & Me with Burra Bear Peerie Olie O Roadside
Makkers Market, Anderson High School, Lerwick
Peerie Makkers & Me
Roadside Beanie Granddaughters Erin, Elise & Me

Lower Guddon Croft Part 3 First Trip Post Lockdown

Our first trip to visit our daughter and her family at the Lower Guddon croft since February due to lockdown and shielding saw many changes we were greeted by several “ caddie” orphan lambs that they had managed to accumulate, one or two the result of predator attacks, the rest gifts from neighbours. Gone was the damp muddy ground the land was a very rich green mixed in with beautiful wild flowers in vivid shades of blue, mauve, and yellow, it did help that on our return it was a glorious day with a gentle northerly wind.

Welcoming Party
Looking Toward Lower Guddon

We had missed the shearing because of the travel restrictions as we were not residents of the island of Yell or essential travellers. I was disappointed to have missed the event I would have liked to have sheared one of my Katmogit ewes and seen the fleece coming off each sheep to see first-hand the wool quality. One of the fleeces I did see shorn was a beautiful light grey with dark fringes, and with a very fine handle and well-defined crimp.

However to make up for missing the shearing our grand-son Aidan took me through the flock of newly shorn sheep and I could see the Romney cross offspring from my Katmogits up close I was very impressed by the size of the lambs most were as big as their mothers. I had never noticed before one of the Katmogit ewes had a set of horns, I wondered how common this was. Aidan not only works on the Guddon croft but also helps out friends and neighbours especially at this time with the quite arduous task of shearing. He tells me he is seeing quite a lot of the island, unseen places unless travelling through the hills and in his case helping “ caa” gather in the hill sheep with his dog Gody. His latest trip was to the uninhabited island of Hascosay which lies of the east coast of Yell. They travelled there in a landing craft type boat which he called the “Papa” boat. Certainly a blast from the past as this boat was built by my old boss Jim o Berry; if my memory is correct my first trip in her was in the early 1970s on route to Papa to work with the Papa sheep.

My Katmogit Ewes with Romney Cross Lambs

The Guddon house is typical of many of the traditional crofter’s dwellings to be found in the islands, built mostly by the hands on crofter and his family. Materials used in times long past were often built from sea driven wood, parts of the Guddon home was wood recovered from a shipwreck out along the coast. The unfortunate vessel was a German sail training vessel which sank at the Ness of Queyon in 1924, with a crew of 39, many of them young cadets and the loss of four lives. The reconstructed figurehead of the Bohus, known as the White Wife looks out over the bay the scene of the tragic accident.

White Wife of Otterswick

We travelled down from the Lower Guddon to the beach at Swarister and out along the shore marvelling at the views and the wild life. The resident seal colony put on a show for us in the crystal clear waters below the cliff face their outlines fairly visible against the sandy sea bed. Just around the headland from the Guddon you come upon the aptly named “Otterswick” no doubt named after the abundance of otters to be found in the area, unfortunately for us they appeared to  be taking their mid- day siesta out of sight.

Swarister Seal
Catherine & Aidan Seal Watching

 There were birds in abundance, waders included “Whapp,” Curlew, “Shalder” Oyster Catcher, “Saandiloo” Ringed Plover, and we were constantly dived bombed by “Tirricks” Artic Terns with their piercing calls which forewarned you of their attack. Out at sea we saw “ Solans”, Gannets, diving for fish, “ tysties” black guillemots, “ rain-goose” red -throated diver with its mournful cry and the “ Dunter” Eider Duck, busy protecting their young from the “ Bonxie” Artic Skua. A mix of gulls, Common gulls, “Swabbies” Black Back, “Mallies” Fulmar Petrel, and Kittiwake were busy searching offshore for whatever food source they could find.

Eider Ducks with Young at Swarister

This area and Yell in general had its fair share of ruined croft houses relics from bygone times where hard working crofter fishermen inhabited the area surviving from the bounty of the sea which was  hard earned and the produce from the meagre crofts which were worked from mainly poor land. The better pastures were the property of the land owner or “laird”; we came across the remains of larger properties which no doubt housed the better off. Not far from the lairds house at the Ness of Gossabrough was the outline of a Broch which over the centuries no doubt had been the source of building materials for the nearby houses.

“Haa” Lairds House
Broch Remains Gossabrough

 Travelling by road through Yell you fail to see the hidden gems of this island, which on first sight appears to be mostly heather clad hills and peat moors, in order to truly appreciate the surroundings you have to travel out along the coast line to appreciate the natural beauty on offer.

Swarister House Ruins with Beach of Gossabrough

Our next trip to Lower Guddon and my next blog will see preparation for the long winter months get underway, such as the harvest coming in, the building of the peat stack and other more general croft work, before the weather takes a turn for the worse.

Shetland Sheep Exported to Canada at Long Last Part 3

Following on from the unfortunate cancellation of the shipment on route to quarantine in Prestwick and then on to Canada, ‘ Benjie’ writes to Colonel Dailley 12th November 1979.

“However, to return to the stage where the export of the sheep was off Mr McNair Divisional Veterinary Officer from DAFS was satisfied that there was no reason to stop the sheep from being shipped to the mainland. I assume this information was elicited by Miss Storey and passed on to you and fortunately your telegraph arrived a day or so before I intended to turn them loose”.

 A very close shave indeed to the premature end of the epic journey to the new world, there is no record of the telegram in the documents but thankfully it made it just in time. With the arrival of the telegraph which advised ‘Benjie’ of the next step ‘ Benjie ‘took the decision to send the shipment down to Devon in the care of the Rare Breeds Survival Trust who would take care of the sheep, whereon they would eventually be transported to Canada. On the 2nd of November 1979 the hardy flock of 28 ewes and four rams left their native shores on what turned out to be a remarkable journey following in the footsteps of their human counterparts who set sail to settle in the New world. The shipment details were 5 Blue Grey ewes, 3 Black ewes, 9 Moorit ewes, 13 White ewes, 2 Grey Rams, 1 Moorit Ram, and 1 white ram. All inspections satisfactorily completed including classing by two of the leading Flock Book sheep breeders, and in the company of the eventual owner Colonel Dailley who had travelled over from Canada to inspect his investment.

Shetland Black Ewe & Lamb
Shetland White

On the 3rd of March 1980 the Rare breeds Survival Trust advised ‘ Benjie’ “ As you know, we have agreed to maintain the sheep purchased by Colonel Dailley for export to Canada, due to the slight outbreak of Orf just before they were scheduled to go into quarantine last autumn. My arrangement with Colonel Dailly was that we would arrange the mating of the sheep, and keep them until shipment next summer, and would receive the 1980 lamb crop by way of payment”.

Bonnie Moorit Ram Lamb
Colourful Lambs

There now follows a fairly lengthy exchange of letters regarding lambing percentages on the hills in Shetland, and the more fertile greener pastures of the U.K. mainland. This whole project of exporting Shetland sheep was a quite unfortunate prolonged and no doubt stressful experience for all concerned. However due to the fact that the sheep were maintained by the R.B.S.T. and that their expertise and access to their Shetland rams surely meant that there was a greater selection of blood lines and colour to colour, for example ( Moorit to Moorit), available to all interested parties involved in the well- being of Shetland sheep on the mainland.

Light Moorit Ewe with Lamb

In September 1980 ‘ Benjie ‘ had to provide more detailed information for the Ministry of agriculture the flock had to be blood tested once again prior to shipping, from England to Canada. I am pleased to say that the flock of ardent travellers, minus 1 who sadly passed away due to an accident, finally arrived at their new home in Canada on 2nd December 1980.

“Margaret” Sally Wild

 In a letter to ‘Benjie’ 22nd October 1983, Gordon Dailey writes, “despite losing one season when the flock was left in Devon we have now 177 in our flock. They are doing wonderfully well and more and more wonderful colours are appearing”.

Coloured Shetland Ewes (Sally Wild)

July 20th 1984 ‘Benjie’ replies to a request from the Colonel for more stock to be sent from Shetland, “I am afraid that I would not be able to supply ewes next year even if it were possible to short circuit the official ruling, which I doubt, as I have been obliged for health reasons to transfer two of my crofts and stock to my son. That leaves me with only a small unit which is more or less a hobby. I trust that the R.B.S.T. will meet your requirements for 1985. I am very pleased to know that the sheep which eventually got to Canada are doing so well and if I can be of any further assistance by supplying a few ewes of any particular colour to the R.B.S.T. in order to meet your colour requirements, these could go with the rams if required and subject to arrangements being finalised”.

Katmogit

Studying the numerous letters and documents pertaining to this project one can only have the highest regard and respect for the hard work and dedication of ‘Benjie’, Colonel Dailley and the Rare Breeds Survival Trust in their prolonged but successful completion of introducing our native Shetland sheep from the heather clad hills of North Nesting and Vidlin to their new home in Canada a truly remarkable fete.

Katmogit (Ashby Flock)

I will put together a blog based on ‘Benjie’s’  archives of what one should look for in native Shetland sheep plus some interesting points at a later date. I would like to once again thank Peter Hunter and his family for giving me the opportunity to put in writing the words and deeds of one of Shetland’s most able sheep men; it is a great honour and privilege to bring his work to a much wider international audience.

Peaceful Moorit Ewe with Twins

Shetland Sheep Exported to Canada

According to ‘Benjie’s’ records the first contact regarding shipping Shetland sheep to Canada was on the 3rd of March 1979. It was from Colonel G.D. Dailley president of the African Lion Safari and Game Farm Ltd, Rockton Ontario Canada. This connection came about following the Colonel visiting the Rare Breeds Survival Trust in 1977 where he observed the Shetland sheep supplied to the Trust in 1975 by ‘Benjie ‘. The Colonel wished to purchase a flock of native Shetland sheep from the trust they were unable to do this because they could not meet the Canadian Authorities conditions. The trust recommended very strongly that the Colonel get in touch with ‘Benjie’ who could meet the Canadian government requirements.

Flock of Native Shetland Coloured Sheep

 I shall quote directly from the correspondence between ‘Benjie ‘and Colonel Dailley regarding this trailblazing epic journey of Shetland sheep from our islands to their new home in Canada. It was to be quite an eventful journey involving strict export and export regulations as well as adverse weather conditions.

March 3rd 1979 Colonel Dailley in his first letter to ‘Benjie ‘states one of his requirements. “I wish to make the point that we want unimproved stock and we are most interested in the fleece, especially with the variety of colours rather than and moorit breed. Rare Breeds Survival Trust were very complimentary about you and felt that you could give me the best possible advice about supplying Shetland sheep of a satisfactory standard and quality.

Fine Shetland Wool Ewe & Lamb

I am enclosing a copy of the conditions which Canadian Agriculture requires. One of the conditions which R.B.S.T. could not meet was that the sheep had to be 42 months or older. There is also the need for quarantining in Scotland which I would assume to be would be in Prestwick before shipment to Canada. We would be looking for 5 to 6 rams and about 25 to 30 Shetland ewes; we would leave it to you to advise us about the possibilities, price, shipping arrangements, etc.”

April 9th – ‘Benji’ response to opening enquiry from Canada – “The conditions which the Canadian Health of Animals Department imposes are fairly stringent but from this end while the regulations may create problems these should not be insurmountable.

First of all I would have preferred to have offered younger stock 1/3 years old but to meet the Canadian conditions all the sheep would require to be rising 5 years. As Shetland lambs are normally born during May, the 42 months age stipulation could not be met before about 1st December. I am sure you will appreciate that this would be a risky venture to undertake in mid- winter.

Shetland Ewes (Sally Wild)

However, provided quarantine arrangements can be arranged at at Prestwick I would be prepared to select 25/30 Shetland ewes, some of which would be coloured – Moorit, Black and Blue Grey and the balance white – and it would be possible to supply four rams, probably one coloured. There would be no difficulty in supplying any colour of ram if it were not for the age restriction. However I would endeavour to meet your requirements and suggest about mid- September would be the best to ship from Shetland.

Moorit Ewes & Lambs

As far as price is concerned it is rather difficult to give a firm offer as veterinary examination and transport to Lerwick would have to be included in the price. Prices are likely to be high in Shetland this back-end as we have had the worst conditions since 1947. If you feel we should progress the export/import proposals further kindly let me know and I will do everything possible to facilitate movement from Shetland”.

April 25, 1979 – In the Colonel’s reply accepting Benjie’s letter of terms, acknowledges that the conditions required by the Canadian authorities are quite strict but are put in place to protect the qualities of various livestock in the Provence.” As this has never been allowed before the upmost care must be taken”. The Colonel outlines the type of sheep they require with special emphases on wool quality and natural shades such as blue grey, grey and moorit.

Shetland Black Ewe

There now follows a fairly lengthy and detailed correspondence with ‘Benjie ‘with all the agencies involved in exporting the sheep to Canada. They included the Department of Agriculture & Fisheries for Scotland, the Ministry of Agriculture, and divisional Veterinary Inspector for Shetland as well as our local vet. The Shetland Flock Book Society sheep inspectors passed the sheep as suitable to meet the trusts 1927 flock-book criteria. The Colonel was in attendance at this inspection. The consignment was to travel to Prestwick to be put into quarantine for 14 days prior to shipping to Canada where they would spend a period of 30 days in the approved quarantine station at Sydney Nova Scotia (Point Edwards).

Shetland Ewe & Lamb

Prior to shipping the consignment of sheep toward the end of October 1979, ‘Benjie’ states in his records to the Colonel, “I did observe a trace of what I assumed was orf (a minor ailment) on two ewes. When I gathered the lot for the vet’s inspection I penned them separately and the vet confirmed my diagnosis. On Wednesday 24th October the local vet and Mr McNair, a divisional veterinary officer from the DAFS, inspected the “orf” victims and confirmed the complaint. As you probably know orf is a minor disease – warts appear round the mouth and can easily be treated by aerosol sprays. However the vets deliberated thoughtfully on the situation which had arisen and eventually decided it would be unwise to put these sheep into quarantine in case other cases developed and I must I felt this was a wise decision as it probably could have meant the total consignment being put down”.

Bad Day Lerwick Harbour
Coarse Day Burra Isle

“Up to this point it had been a rather frustrating exercise as all the stops had been pulled out to get the results of the blood samples and get the sheep into quarantine on time. To digress here this was probably fortunate as the weather broke and shipping was disrupted and it could not have been possible to get them into quarantine on time”

Quite an unfortunate chapter in this saga, one could not blame ‘Benjie ‘if he were to call it a day and put the sheep back on their own native hills. I will continue with the next episode of shipping to Canada in my next blog.

Shetland Sheep Exported to Canada, the Beginning.

Over the years in my job involving wool at Jamieson & Smith Shetland Wool Brokers, I have met Shetland Sheep Breeders from the U.S. and Canada also I have received samples of their fleece some of which were quite impressive. Although I had heard stories of how Shetland Sheep had first arrived in North America, details were very vague. I can recall it was a Colonel but I had forgotten his name. I could remember who had shipped the sheep, the late P.B.A.Hunter better known locally as “ Benjie”, a renowned breeder of Shetland sheep on his croft at Billister North Nesting, also a champion sheep dog trialist and prominent wool judge. “Benjie” first instructed me on how to judge wool in the 1970s; I learned a great deal from him about sheep & wool. I also graded and purchased his wool clip which was of a very high quality especially his natural colours.

P.B.A Hunter (‘Benjie’)
‘Benjie’ Sheepdog Trials
‘Benjie’ & Grandson David Sheepdog Trials Winner

 I had the good fortune to meet his son Peter Hunter fairly recently, the subject of sheep and wool came up and Peter told me that a Shetland sheep breeder in the U.S. had contacted him in February this year and sent images of their Shetland sheep which were the offspring of stock shipped to Canada, by his father ‘Benjie’. I explained to Peter my interest in how this project had come about and over the decades working with wool people had often brought up the subject of how did Shetland sheep end up in North America. Peter then very graciously granted me access to ‘Benjie’s’ records and for that I am greatly honoured and privileged. I would also thank him for allowing the use of some of his images and documents in my blog series.

‘Benjie’ with Some of His Sheep Billister
‘Benjie’ Feeding His Sheep

In order to understand how this event came about we must start at the beginning. ‘ P.B.A.Hunter was brought up on a croft at Tararet, Laxo, Vidlin and was involved in crofting from an early age and later on in life was general manager of an agricultural related business the ‘Shetland Limes’ which sold and purchased all types of agricultural products. He was highly respected throughout Shetland and out with Shetland, a total gentleman it was a privilege to have known him and benefit from his experience in Shetland wool. I will refer to him as ‘Benjie ‘as he was best known by agricultural related people. A very active member of the Rare Breeds Survival Trust, which according to his records the point of contact at that time, was based at Ash Farm Iddelsleigh Devon?

‘Benjie’ with His Grandfather Tararet Croft 1925
Tararet Today
North Nesting with Billister

According to ‘Benjie’s records the first contact he had with the Rare Breeds Survival Trust regrading supplying the Trust with sheep was in 1975, although there is a reference to supplying a Miss Fitzpatrick with Moorit sheep in 1974. Peter Hunter told me that his father had sent Moorit ewes to the French Alps; there is no record of a date for that event so far. As the R.B.S.T. was founded in 1973 it is possible the trust had been advised of ‘Benjie’s ability in supplying quality native Shetland sheep.

‘Benjie’ Black Ewe with Triplets Sire Katmogit Ram (‘Bradley’)
‘Benjie’ Sheep

I will use ‘Benjie’s’ original text to describe what he looked for in the stock shipped to the Rare Breeds Trust in Devon on the 7th October 1975.

“ For several years I have endeavoured to establish small flocks of Shetland coloured sheep with special emphasis on the “ blue grey” Shetland type which a few years ago were fast declining in numbers. A few breeders have done likewise and I would estimate that there is now a few hundred of this type in Shetland.

The original characteristics have been well maintained except perhaps in some cases for the quality of wool which is not near so uniform as might be desired but endeavours are being made to find rams from the small flocks available which have quality wool as well as the original shade.

Moorit (dark brown) sheep are not so scarce and it is possible to select rams which have quality wool and display all the native characteristics. Black and coloured (black & white, moorit and white) sheep are not so plentiful but I have a few of each colour”.

On the 7th October Benjie advises his Rare Breeds contact that he is in a position to offer ex Lerwick only limited numbers of various colours details as follows :-

12 Shetland Moorit ewe lambs, 4 young Moorit ewes, 2 Moorit Gimmers ( 1 shear), 1 Moorit Ram ( 1 shear), 1 Black Ram ( 1 shear), 1 Moorit Ram lamb, 2 young Black Ewes, 1 Ram, light fawn, 1 shear, 1 Ram Blue / Grey, 1 shear, 1 coloured ( Moorit & White Ewe.

On the 14th November the Rare Breeds Trust replied, “You will be happy to know the sheep you sent us have settled very nicely.

We are very pleased with their aspect, and in retrospect cannot understand why we waited so long to acquire a meaningful selection of this fascinating breed.

On the 18th April 1978 the Rare Breeds Trust commented, “Since our last correspondence, we have firmly established our hill property in the north of England, and are now in a position to expand and re-allocate our flocks of sheep. It is our intention to increase the percentage thereof devoted to Shetland, having been quite pleased with their performance over the last two and a half years, and of their ability to thrive in the various surroundings in which we farm”.

The Rare Breeds Trust certainly were pleased as they asked about the feasibility of acquiring approximately 200 1977 born yearlings later this spring!

My next blog will be the first contact from the Colonel in Canada and the story as it is told in Benjie’s words and records. Again I am very privileged and grateful to Peter Hunter for granting me access and his permission to use his father’s testimony and images in my blog. I am sure there are Shetland sheep breeders around the world who will want to know about the contribution made by P.B.A.Hunter in safeguarding the native Shetland sheep.

Some of my Favourite Places & Connections With my Work Part 2

Vidlin

I have explained my connection with Vidlin and the very strong influence it had on me in my early years. The love of hills & folklore, and ultimately the direction I would choose to travel later in life. I spent many happy summer holidays in Vidlin with the Robertson family of Kirkabister from the age of 10. Looking back on my collection of images, they remind me of a time of freedom, enjoyment and of total childhood innocence.

Kirkabister

With each passing summer I became more familiar with the people and the surroundings; my favourite event was to take part in the “caaing“ of the sheep for summer shearing. The Johnson brothers of Kirkabister would take me to all the various hill “caas”, the community would come together and help each other gather the sheep for shearing. I recall as many as a dozen crofters involved. The hills would echo the sound of bleating sheep, barking dogs, and the frustrated shouting of the crofters trying to control their dogs.

Bonnidale Sheep

The hills of above Kirkabister were the first area I was allowed to explore on my own, “as long as you do not cross the Lunning road”; I had to promise that would never happen! Set between the hills was one of my favourite places Starns Water; it is where I first became aware of the Rain Goose and a colony of angry Tirricks (Artic Terns). The Robertson family worked some of their peats here as well as a planticrub, a walled round stone built enclosure, where they grew their seedling kale plants.

Starns Water
Artic Tern & Sand Eel

A bit further to the north east was a very beautiful dale or valley called Flissnessdaal surrounded by steep hills which were punctuated by unusual rock formations. Looking down into the valley it resembled a bowl shape with one avenue out that was a burn that disappeared between the hills and down to the sea. One of my first visits here came about due to me hearing a strange knocking echoing sound; I ventured down the rocky slope and came across an individual who appeared to be chipping away pieces from a rocky surface. He explained to me he was a geologist and this valley and other such places in the district were examples of volcanic activity and were of great interest.

Oliver Stuck in Flissnessdaal

On the east side of the valley I encountered a steeper rocky slope. Eventually I reached the top and looked out over another valley wherein nestled, Lunning, containing several crofts. Looking further to the south east and across the road to the settlement were beautiful rocky hills and valleys and several lochs. However, to explore further I would have to cross the Lunning road and that was forbidden by the family. As there was no one insight I ventured across the road and down a rough track I knew from the locals as being the Burma Road. An unusual name for a road in the remote hills of Vidlin and almost 60 years later I finally partially discovered the story behind the name. I recently met with one of the original Robertson family from Kirkabister who could tell me the rough track built by the locals was called after the Burma Road linking Burma and south west China which had been rebuilt by the allies in and around 1944, to help recapture Burma from the Japanese. A local man who I knew very well from my young days in Burra and Vidlin had reputedly worked on the actual road in Burma while serving in the forces, a fitting title for the track they had built in order to bring home their peats, winter fuel.

Lunning
Looking Down the Burma Road

My reward for crossing the Lunning road was to travel through some of the most scenic landscapes I had ever seen, culminating in reaching Bonnidale a remote croft looking over the sound and the island of Whalsay. Several days later I was brought to task by my hosts, “You have crossed the Lunning Road, and went to Bonnidale“? I admitted I had and asked, “Who saw me?“ “the postman” was the reply. This was in the days when the postman travelled by foot around the district, and it turned out the postman worked the croft. It was explained to me they were concerned about me approaching a loch called Longa Water, where a crofter had met her end pulled over the rocky slope and into the water by a ram she had on a tether around her wrist. As children we were often told stories of “ trows” magical little people, and living near the sea stories of a “ nyuggel” a sea horse in folklore that along with the “ trows” would spirit you away if you strayed in the wrong places.

Trowie Home
Bonnidale
Catherine & Jo Bonnidale Hills

Vidlin was a great place for a “spree”, jollification, amongst the tight knit community, there was a very memorable instance of a crofter who courted with a lady who lived on a remote croft called “Sanik” over the hill from the settlement of Swining. It was very difficult to access locals used a difficult track through the hill called, if my memory is correct, the “clubb”. Lose your footing and you end up in the sea, the suitor would leave his motor bike at Swining and travel through the “clubb” by foot. A group of young men from the district took the crofters motorbike from his house on the middle of the night and transported the bike by boat to the croft house of “Sanik” and left it out before the door. There was great hilarity and speculation in the community as to how he had managed to ride his bike to such a remote area. Innocent fun; sadly times long gone nowadays an act like that would end with you in jail.

Sanik Ruins
Sanik

Lower Guddon Croft Part 2

At the end of my last blog on Lower Guddon preparation was underway for the lambing season. Due to Covid 19 I have been unable to travel to the croft. Our daughter and grandson Aidan have very kindly provided me with images and information on how the season has gone. I wish to thank them for putting up with my requests.

As explained in the first blog there is a mixture of sheep to be found on Guddon croft. Mostly the ewes are cross bred sheep that is off spring from a Shetland ewe and a larger mainland breed such as Cheviot, or Romney. There are of course my Katmogit ewes which are pure bred Shetland from the island of Yell.

Larger Sheep Breeds
Two of my Katmogits Before Lambing

The reason why the flock consists mainly of the larger cross bred sheep are down to economics. In recent years the returns to the crofter on the small Shetland lamb is practically worthless. Crofters therefor have to produce a larger lamb to satisfy the market place and generate much needed income to the croft.

Texel Ewe & Cheviot Cross Lamb
Shetland Lambs

The heather clad hills and peat moors of Yell are unable to provide sustenance for the larger cross sheep; the harsh winter climate would also takes its toll on these sheep, they simply would not survive. Travelling through Yell you are surrounded by peat moor and heathery hills, now and then there are patches of green grass to be found which over the decades the result of hard work is by the crofter to improve their land.

Heather Hills with Pockets of Green
Green Pasture Heather & Moorland in the Distance

Lower Guddon croft is a prime example of this improved land, its proximity close to the sea as enabled the crofter to enrich the soil by harvesting seaweed driven ashore by the winter gales. The down side of these larger sheep is that they require extra feeding in the winter months, hay, silage, and of course ewe mixed feed which in turn is quite expensive. Unlike the smaller Shetland sheep these bigger sheep often require assistance at lambing, hence the need for around the clock husbandry. Predation is quite a problem throughout our islands and this year the Guddon flock have lost new born lambs to hungry Artic Skuas, Ravens and Black Back gulls.

Playtime
Helping Hand From Aidan

Crofting life is not only about lambing at this time of year, after a long bleak wet winter essential projects have to be undertaken, building repairs, drainage, fertiliser has to be applied to the ground in o0rder to grow hay and silage. The arduous job of cutting peat has to be undertaken in order to supply winter fuel for the croft house.

Guddon Croft
Guddon Hill

Hopefully my next blog on croft life in the summer months will see me able to travel to the islands, at present we can only travel five miles and entry into our islands is only allowed for essential travel.

Some of my Favourite Places & Connections With my Work.

When writing my blogs and detailing my life in Shetland wool and my work involving crofters and farmers, I found myself travelling back in time, in some cases over half a century! In this very sad and scary time which we are living in I have found myself again looking back through my photo collection- which reminds me of happier times- walking the hills of Shetland with my wife, Catherine. I would like to share some of these memories with you through my blogs.

I will start fairly close to home in the hills above Gremista farm in Lerwick. We were on the lookout for hares when we came across a random bus sign in amongst the heather on one of the hills. This brought back memories to us both, of when I used to deliver parcels of yarn to country buses which were to be found at the Viking car park in Lerwick still used at present, but alas no parcels of yarn to deliver. Most or nearly all the hauliers have now long gone, however the sign reminded me of all the rural districts in Shetland I used to send yarn to, as well as my work handling the crofter’s wool from that area.

Bus Stance Sign Gremista Farm

The next set of images is from Unst- the most northernmost island of the Shetland Islands. It is more fertile than its neighbour the Island of Yell, which is mainly heather and moorland. Unst has spectacular sea cliffs which include the magnificent Hermaness; a national nature reserve and home to thousands of seabirds, including the Gannet and puffin. I recall a visit Catherine and I paid to the reserve in the mid- 1990s to observe a very rare black-browed albatross, called Albert, who had been blown off course from its natural home in the southern hemisphere. The island has especially fond memories for me as we had a family holiday there in 1981, and discovered many of Unst’s idyllic hidden gems such as its sandy beaches and crystal clear waters.

Lund Beach
Norwich Beach

 Talking to the locals we found Unst had been a very progressive island in the early 1900s there had been a thriving herring industry, chromate quarries- which even had their own railway, and in the 1930s a wool mill operated for a short time. Unst has a very strong Norse presence with the remains of several Viking longhouses as well as a 16th century castle in the south of the isle. We discovered they appeared to have more amenities than other islands in Shetland. This was mainly due to it being the home of  RAF Saxa Ford, a radar station which is located on the highest hill in Unst (Saxa Ford). I came to know an elderly crofter who lived at the base of the hill; he told me it could be a very fierce and windy place to croft. One extremely cold winter he ventured out onto the hill to check on his sheep. He was caught out in a blizzard, above the roar of the gale he became aware of his dog barking. He came upon the dog which was standing barking at a “ fann”, a drift of snow up against a peat bank. As he came closer he could make out not what he was expecting a snowed in sheep, but the figure of a man partially covered. He set about getting the individual to his feet and supported him back down to the croft house, where eventually the man was able to talk. It transpired the serviceman was part of an exercise in carrying out a mock attack to test out the security further up the hill at the radar station. The crofter maintained they did not need much security in such an inhospitable place, nature took care of that! Many years later I had the good fortune to visit that area when a local crofter asked me to conduct a grading and fleece handling presentation to the local crofters. When I mentioned the story the old man had told me about the hill I was informed that indeed it could be a very inhospitable place- the highest wind speed in the U.K. had been recorded here!

Muness Castle
Loch of Clift with Burrafirth & Saxford

Although the radar station is no longer fully manned and all the service personal have left Unst the community continues to be positive and looking at new ventures. The former station staff accommodation have been changed into tourist lets, Unst has its own distillery and has a fledging space station, which will bring much needed employment to these remote islands.

Woodwick Valley
Loch of Clift

 The voe (inlet) of Burrafirth lies beneath Saxa Ford and at the head of the voe is a beautiful beach and flat grassy links, I recall playing football here in the mid- sixties, and if my memory is correct it was also the location of a small golf course. Situated further out the voe along the foreshore are a group of buildings which serviced Muckle Flugga lighthouse the furthest north part of the U.K.

Our Son Adrian, Burrafirth Beach, 1981
Our Daughter Claire, Shore Station in Background, 1981
Muckle Flugga

‘A Cut Above the Rest, Gala Cut and Yarn Counts’

Over the years I have been asked many times and quite recently at the Dornoch Fibre Fest, to explain the meaning of the term ‘Gala cut’ which was the yarn count measurement used in our yarns spun by Hunters of Brora. At Dornoch I was most fortunate to be in the company of one of Hunters of Brora past employees, who was better qualified as me to answer the question.

First Yarns on Hank
Our Old Yarn Shop

 Nowadays yarn counts are in metric which I have never been comfortable with having been from the pre decimal / metric era. In 2013 when asked by our local museum to help recreate a yarn to match their historic knitwear collection “wirsit” worsted spun hand knitting garments, I had to guess the thickness of the yarn used all those decades ago. I was unable to have a garment or even a thread to pass on to the spinner I took a chance and said in my opinion the yarn used in the garments reminded me of Hunters of Brora 2/22.5 cut. Perhaps someone working at the worsted spinner in Yorkshire would know about the Gala count used by Hunters of Brora. When I delivered the first batch of Heritage worsted yarns to the museum several weeks later, I was delighted to see the reaction of the textile curator to the finished article, and it was almost an exact match to the yarns used in the garments in their collection.

Heritage Museum Fair Isle Collection
Heritage Dyed Yarns
Heritage Undyed Natural Yarns

Gala Cut is a woollen spun count system still used by some weavers in Scotland and Ireland. The count is the number of hanks of 200 yards in one pound of yarn. Gala is the local abbreviation for the town of Galashiels in the Scottish borders Woollen Counts. In my early days learning the trade from T.M.Hunter I thought Hunter’s mill were the only people to use the Gala Cut. However as time went by I discovered that others used the same method with some variations, Hunters used their own special measurement in 24 ounces and in Hawick it was 300 yard hanks in 26 ounces. The other count was Yorkshire Skeins, however the situation is beclouded because some if not most woollen spinners describe their yarn in worsted or metric counts and more are adding the TEX value for good measure it can be very confusing.

How to describe the yarn: The answer was to say that a particular yarn had so many hanks to the pound. It follows that the more hanks to the pound the finer the yarn. So in this count system the count is the number of hanks (or yards) in a fixed weight of yarn.

Different areas made their reputation for their particular textile product and yarn or cloth from one area might be heavier or lighter, be softer or finer than that from another part of the country. Also in certain areas that the raw material might be of a particular quality, for instance the local sheep might be of a certain breed producing finer or coarser wools than those in another region. So yarn from a particular area would have its own characteristics, this would lead in time to separate count systems for different part of the country. When looking at the yarn fringes depicting a particular yarn say 2 ply jumper weights, all the fringes should have the same appearance, and all should be uniform to look at. If you see and unevenness in the uniformity of thickness of the shade fringes, it either means the spinner has got their count wrong, or it could mean the yarn was that of another spinner.

For instance there are quite a few comments about the difference between our yarns, counts, handle, and make up, from that of other companies selling so called Shetland yarns. I answer this by saying we at J&S hand sort our graded Shetland greasy wool to the same standard set by my old boss John ‘Sheepie’ Smith who supplied sorted wool, since the 1930s to T.M.Hunter. If the Shetland wool is not sorted; that is separating the short and longer staple you will get an uneven yarn that is thick and thin. Also if the coarser guard hair is not separated out from the fine wool you will get an itchy yarn. Imitators of Shetland yarn use Australasian wool that is even in both length and fineness, this saves a lot of work in producing a finished yarn and consequently costs less. Although this yarn can be of uniform length and fineness, its handle is flat and lacks the bounce and softness of yarn found from the wool of genuine Shetland sheep.

Fine Shetland Fleece
Sorted Fine Wool Staple

 It was interesting to see that when Hunters closed down and we switched to a small woollen spun mill in Yorkshire the yarn quality was much the same, although the yarn count was in metric. The reason being was because the sorted Shetland wool we were supplying them with to spin was the same quality as we had always used. The only difference being the shades did not totally match up to that of Brora as we did not have the original Hunters shade melange recipes.

2 Ply Jumper Weight

I found it very difficult to follow yarn counts and technical terms and still do, most of the above information was given to me by one of the most experienced Scottish textile people I ever encountered Alistair McDonald from the Scottish borders. Alistair was T.M.Hunter of Brora yarn marketing executive in the 1970s and 80s. Alistair created a ‘alphabetical’ textile directory which has been invaluable to me in my lifetime working with wool, yarn and textiles in general I will post further blogs related to his directory at a later date.

Thanks to Ella Gordon for the use of her photos and her very apt title for my blog.

Also Alistair McDonald for all his help and technical advice which has served me well over the years.