Descriptions or Meanings Used in my Work with Wool & Yarns. Part 4

Scouring.” A washing process which removes dirt and spinning oil from garments. Do not confuse this with milling” Shetland white hill wool which has a grey look to it caused by rubbing into peat banks while sheltering from weather is very difficult to wash and often leaves a natural white yarn looking like a “off white”, in fact I heard that one spinner of Shetland wool had said up to 50% of the fleece weight can be lost. I also remember a spinner say that to produce 1 kilo of yarn you require 2 kilos of wool.

Burn in Full Spate
Hill Sheep
Peat Hill

Shetland. When tasked by my employer to set up aShetland wool week it was obvious the first port of call was to approach the Shetland Flock Book Society who since 1927 safeguards the well- being of the true Shetland sheep. I have judged the society annual show and sale since 1995, the event and was delighted when the society was in agreement to host the event. Shetland wool week is such a positive lucrative experience highlighting our culture and heritage its aim is to raise the profile of Shetland sheep and its wool and bring it to the attention of a world- wide audience. In my life with Shetland wool handling over 80% of the local Shetland wool clip annually for 55 years, I have seen it is also as the most maligned name in the textile trade both near and far. I highlight the issue in a previous blog imitation Shetland wool and yarns in that post I refer to the research carried out by Alistair McDonald. I once again quote below from Alistair’s technical directory.

 “No doubt the real Cheddar owes its flavour to different conditions and ingredients. Because of the local grazing and the particular breed, the local cows must produce milk just a little different from others. The process is special; it is a farm craft. The other so called Cheddar cheeses are made throughout the U.K. & Ireland from milk collected from a host of farms and made in an industrial process.

The comparison between Cheddar and Shetland cries out to be made.

The Shetland yarn you are offered by most suppliers today will contain no Shetland wool from the Shetland breed of sheep. It is somewhat similar in type to the original Shetland which was spun from wool grown in the isles.

 Since writing the blog on imitation Shetland I now have been made aware of a technical testing procedure that can identify the true origins of the fibre used in a particular yarn or textile product. Although this procedure is costly it would be a way for our island’s council to apply it to their brand operation Project Selkie, which was a very good marketing strategy, unfortunately for some reason it was not applied to Shetland wool. In my opinion it would be a worthwhile investment to safeguard our iconic Real Shetland Wool for future generations. Meantime I shall continue to use my social media opportunities through my blogs to tell the Real story.

Judging Wool on the Hoof 1995
Wool Week 2019 Opening Ceremony
Three Ram Logo, Our Registered Brand
Crofter with Selkies (Seals)

Singles. “One ply yarn. If strong enough there is no particular problem in knitting single yarns if they have been produced for the knitter, and are wound properly although there will probably be some wale superagility in the fabric”. Our first singles yarn at J & S was a woollen spun Cobweb yarn supplied by Hunters of Brora in the 1970s. We now stock 100% Real Shetland Supreme single & 2ply lace a undyed worsted ( wirsit) yarn.

Rough Seas Burra Isle
West Sandwick

Skein. “Another name for a hank”. In 1968 when we were supplied with yarns spun from Shetland wool we bought from local crofters my job was to twist 4- 2oz or 8 hanks of yarn into what we called a head which was the most popular method of selling the yarns.

First Yarns on Hanks

Spinning. “Spinning is the production of a continuous length of material suitable for conversion to fabric – woven, knitted lace or braid- or for other industrial uses”. As I have said throughout my blogs on Shetland wool I have never been involved with spinning however I have been closely involved for over 50 years with the mills that have produced our yarns.

Fine Wool Sheep

Spun yarns.” Yarn spun from loose fibre as opposed to continuous filament”. Throughout my working life I have only had experience of spun yarn from our own Shetland wool; however I can distinguish the difference between different wool mills spinning especially from yarns spun from non-Shetland wool.

Hand Spinners Knit Camp 2010

Descriptions or Meanings Used in my Work with Wool & Yarns. Part 3

The terms and meanings in this part of Alistair’s directory I have found it difficult to find an image to describe some of the terms so I have used some of my images from our life time of travelling throughout our beautiful islands.

Saint Ninians Isle

Lambs wool.Yarn made from the first clip from sheep up to 8 months old, but the term has been used for soft woollen spun yarns from short staple”.

A very rare commodity in Shetland due to the fact that there is little accommodation in order to in winter the lambs, I recall one season collecting about 700 kilos of Shetland lamb’s wool out of approximately 260,000 kilos, not enough fibre to create a unique product, so when there is a product for instance knitting yarn entitled Shetland grade 1 & lamb’s wool the latter is usually Australian.

Shetland Lambs

Lanolin. “The grease which is in the wool when it is on the sheep. In commercial spinning one of the first operations is to remove this wool from the grease so there is none in in spun yarns”. Lanolin is the base for certain ointments and cosmetics to improve skin softness for instance over the last 50 plus years, I have often been asked by visitors of the wool store can I feel your hands a task that I never tire of!

Hands on Wool

Merino.Breed of sheep mostly found in Australia and New Zealand producing one of the finest wools of 24 microns or less, however it cannot compare to the soft handle of Real Shetland wool”. The Merino produces a much heavier fleece, in the 1990s I became involved in a project to produce a Merino Cross Shetland sheep which would carry a heavier fleece with a softer handle unfortunately the confirmation of the animal did not meet the standards required.

Busta Sandness

Metric Count. “A length per unit weight system based logically on kilos and meters”. I found it difficult to make the adjustment traditional Gala count used by Hunters of Brora our spinner since the 1960s. When asked to provide a metric count for the Shetland Museums Heritage collection, I said 2/22.5 Gala which I am pleased to say proved to be correct.

Micron. “Measure of the width of a fibre, 1/1000 mm”. I always quote the average measurement of our finest grade of 24 microns, it is possible to have a finer fibre from the neck and shoulders of a Shetland fleece, and however this is in the minority. I recall in the 1980s an old friend a retired geologist with an interest in sheep and wool told me he had measured on a microscope, the neck wool of a Shetland sheep to be 18 microns. Our main wool buyer at that time a company from Bradford sent 4 of his Japanese textile customers to visit us unaccompanied it was my duty to take them around and explain about sheep and wool. When asked the finest micron count of Shetland wool I unwisely told them my friend’s findings however it was impossible for us to source that, who would take the rest of the fleece. My boss called me to the office a week later and said our main buyer was furious with me and suggested I be sacked. I asked why, when the Japanese visitors arrived back in Bradford they had asked for 5,000 kilos of neck wool! My reply was in future I suggested you accompany your customers or at least send a translator that understands the Shetland dialect!

Supreme 1 Ply Lace

Milling. “A washing process which brings up the handle on garments usually knitted from woollen spun yarns, such as cashmere, lamb’s wool, and Shetland”. In times long gone Shetland weavers used to take their woven cloth down to the sea fasten it to a flat rocky shore and let the incoming waves and tide work the cloth.


Mixture. The most common definition is a yarn made up of fibres of different colours such as black and white fibres to produce a grey yarn, or, blues greens for lovat mixtures. The term is also used for a yarn with mixed fibres in the blend. Woollen spun yarns, Shetland in particular, lend themselves to the production of mixtures”.

Heather Hills from Burra

Natural Yarns. Yarns made from animal, or vegetable or mineral fibres. In recent years the term Natural has also been used to describe undyed yarns or yarns dyed with natural as opposed to chemical dyes”. In 1997 we along with Yarns International and Hunters of Brora produced the undyed natural yarn Shetland 2000, now Shetland Superior. To the best of my knowledge we were the first to produce an undyed Shetland in larger quantities.

Supreme Natural Yarns
Flock of Many Colours

Oil. Spinning oil is added to woollen fibres in both the woollen and worsted manufacturing systems to assist in the spinning process; this has to be removed at some stage in the production process. Worsted yarns are often scoured on the cone after spinning and the oil in woollen spun yarn is normally removed from the finished garments or the cloth. Oiled wool sweaters are usually knitted from an undyed worsted yarn”. The range of cones at J & S is all supplied in oil to make it easier to knit on the hand frame knitting machine.

Sullum Voe Major Oil Port

Packages.” The most usual package for machine knitting is the cone. Yarns on balls or hanks have to be rewound into a suitable package and the small hand winder is the only implement available to the knitter. In spinning yarn the final process is usually coning if the yarn has to be used for machine knitting. If the same yarn is to be sold for hand-knitting then it has to be made into balls or hanks. These are very expensive operations and the cost is added to the yarn. Buying hand knitting yarn for your machine is therefore both costly and time consuming”. At first in 1968 we at J & S started with 5 shades of woollen spun yarn made from our own Shetland wool and processed at Hunters of Brora.

Hand Knitters at the Guild
Stacks Hillswick

Ply or Fold. At its first stage a spun yarn is only one ply. Thereafter this one ply or end is twisted or plied with one another to produce a two ply or two fold yarns and so on to three-fold and four-fold. Plied yarns with different coloured ends produce marl yarns. Our first sample spin of our worsted spun Shetland 1 ply was 20s worsted one of our local highly experienced lace hand knitters test knitting for us said “It is an excellent yarn however it is as fine as the hair on my head it would be to fine for the average knitter “, so we took her advice the count was increase to 16s.


Wirsit Stole Mary Eunson
Dale Walls

Descriptions or Meanings Used in my Work with Wool & Yarns. Part 2

Continuing with the technical directory of Alistair McDonald and my working life with wool and yarn. I have been told this is a quite boring and lifeless blog series however I have tried to liven it up with some of my personal experiences and images of Shetland which will hopefully make it more pleasing.

Fleece. “Usually refers to wool; the complete woollen coat of a sheep which when sheared comes of the animal in one piece because of the fibres adhering to one another and the presence of natural oils and grease and dirt”. In the case of our native hill Shetland sheep because of the fineness of the wool part of the fleece can be shed in early summer, called locally “ hentilagets”, which in times gone by when wool was highly valued people used to gather it up. Over the years visitors to the wool store often ask how much wool have you handled in your working life. We had this discussion recently at work when one of my workmates and with more mathematical sense then me announced the figure of 13.5 million kilos from his calculations. I suddenly aged a bit more when I heard this as it goes a long way to explain my aching joints!

Fine Shetland Fleece

Gala Cut.” Woollen spun count system which was used by spinners 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”. In 2012 I was asked by our museum to guess the thickness of the yarn used in their Heritage worsted spun collection of Fair Isle garments, I guessed 2/22.5 Gala, I was very pleased to say the museum was very pleased with the end result.

In 1978 I paid a visit to Galashiels to learn about wool grading at that time Galashiels was at the centre of a vibrant textile industry, a lot of our Shetland wool went to Galashiels to be processed. Sadly over the last decades there has been a downward spiral not only in Galashiels but the borders in general. However along with the highly acclaimed Galashiels Textile College at its centre and going from strength to strength there is positive signs that the area will once again become a world – renowned centre of a thriving modern textile industry.

Heritage Museum Fair Isle Collection


Shetland Museum

Guernsey. “A hard wearing fisherman’s pullover or the 5 ply worsted yarn from which it is made. The original Guernsey was tightly hand-knitted, seamless, with patterns not unlike the Aran” I remember this was the garment, we called a ‘ Gansey’ most often used by my father in his fishing years, in fact most of the fishermen in the village used to wear them, they provided warmth in our adverse weather conditions at sea.

Dad on the Family Boat


Rough Day for Fishing Boats

Hand Spun yarns. “As it says spun by hand there is no problem in machine knitting hand spun yarns provided they are strong enough, suitably packaged, of a suitable count and cost is of no importance”. Almost all my working life I have selected fleece for hand spinners, in fact this has been a great help to me in learning about wool from some of the most experienced spinners you could meet. I recall selecting 4 fleeces for a lady in the early 1990s, it was only after she had left that the staff informed me that she was a well- known TV actress from Coronation Street.

Natural Coloured Fleece
Hand Spinners & Knitters Knit Camp 2010

Handle. “The handle or feel of knitted fabric depends upon the yarns used, the stitch structure, knitting tension and finishing treatment. For a domestic knitter it is important that all these are controlled and continually checked to achieve continuity”. The handle, special softness/feel is the main characteristic in Shetland wool and to my mind is unrivalled in other breeds of sheep, it sets it apart. If this attribute is not there in the finished yarn/product it is most likely imitation Shetland these can be identified by a “dead” feel lacking in bounce and elasticity.

Superfine Shetland Lace

Hand Frame. “Hand knitting machine”.  Several years ago I was presented with such a machine to put on display in our store it turned out I had played a small part in its working life. Back in the 60s/70s, and even 1980s I would deliver yarn to the former owner in Lerwick. The machine was purchased in 1960 for £100.00 and throughout its working life helped bring up 5 children, typical of life gone by in Shetland. In the late 1960s early 70s I delivered cones of yarn to the Anderson High School where pupils were taught to use a hand frame knitting machine. Sadly the hand knitting machine was something I could not master as my garments would usually end up with holes in them, I was thankful when my better half told me “it isn’t for you your too heavy handed”!

Hand Frame Knitting Machines 1950s

Hank or Skein. “Loosely coiled length of yarn, the length and weight will vary according to the count and the idiosyncrasies of the spinner or merchant”. I spent many an hour in my childhood holding out my arms while my mam wound the yarn in a ball. In 1999 I had to again hank yarn this time on an industrial scale, on Hunters of Brora’s reeling machine. The reason being the new mill would only supply yarn on cone, the result was the reeling machine was sent to us and we put the yarn from cone to hank, a very time consuming job.

Hank Reeling Machine

Hosiery.” The first machine made knitted articles were hose and the industry which developed was the hosiery trade”. The term is still used in some areas as a synonym for knitwear”. This term was most commonly used for knitwear when I was a bairn, my first trip to Lerwick with my mam who told me we were going to sell her hosiery.

PT Robertson Hosiery Workers 1950s

Hand Knitting Yarns. “Most hand knitting yarns are supplied on balls or hanks in the case of hanks have to be re-wound before they can be used. They are more expensive because of the cost of balling, reeling, packaging and marketing”. The other half of my working life fond memories in the late 1960s delivering yarns to houses throughout the town, each with a knitting machine. Down to the harbour and locating Whalsay fishing boats and dropping of the parcels of yarn to the fishermen which you could easily identify by their colourful Fair Isle design swaeters. On the way back my final stop was at the Viking Car Park and delivering to the many buses which served the rural areas of Shetland.

Direct Mail Deliveries
Historic Bus Stances

Descriptions or Meanings Used in my Work with Wool & Yarns.

Since beginning my blog posts on my life with Shetland wool I appear to have concentrated more on sheep, wool and crofting. I would like to share with you more about the yarn and textile side of the business which began in the late 1960s I received a lot of help and advice from our spinners at Brora, in particular  Alistair McDonald sales executive at the mill. Alistair had a wide knowledge and a lifetime in textiles in the borders of Scotland. Alistair had composed an alphabetical list on the various textile meanings and most of my working life been guided by his writings, over the decades I have been asked many questions which I have been able to answer by referring to his text, perhaps this will also clarify points that are more difficult to understand. I spoke to Alistair a few years ago when I started blogging and asked permission if I could make use some of his descriptions in my blogs. I am pleased to say he was in agreement with this; I have used his description and added in what context it has and in some cases still is used at J & S, also some of my memories at work involving the subject. Alistair’s original description is in bold letters. I have added in some of my images from around Shetland.

Burravoe Sheep

Aran.The original Aran yarn and sweaters probably originated in the Aran Islands of the North West coast of Ireland”

 Catherine and I were very fortunate to meet up with a crofter from the isle of Aran who had his own wool spun into genuine Aran yarn. He explained to us in great detail how the vast bulk of so called Aran yarn flood the market and is made from foreign wools which have never seen Ireland, something I told him we had in common with the misuse of the name Shetland Yarn. At J & S we do have a 100% Real Shetland Aran type which is worsted spun but does not have the characteristics of the original Aran woollen spun weight, but is still a very high quality product. When I showed the crofter our Aran type yarn, his response was “to be sure you’re as bad as the people who imitate Shetland yarn! Having never been to Ireland I would imagine Aran as an island group similar to the islands below where my ancestors came from and are mostly flat and exposed as in my image below.

Isles of the West Coast of Shetland

Batch number or Lot number. “Each batch of yarn made should have a distinct batch number because each batch is different. Even with sophisticated spinning and dyeing machinery and techniques in use today colour variations do occur”.

 This fault used to be fairly common when we sold our yarns on hank there was no way of labelling each hank so I remember very well more than once receiving an unfinished garment from an irate knitter with an uneven strip across the garment. With the introduction of balling and labelling the yarns this fault more or less ceased.

First Yarns on Hanks

Blend. “The mix of fibres at the commencement of spinning. This may be different fibres, for instance wool and synthetic, or different qualities of one fibre perhaps wool with lamb’s wool, or different colours of the same fibre, for instance a grey mixture made from a mix of black and grey fibres”.

 When asked to create Shetland 2000, now Supreme jumper yarns, we had to blend some of the natural yarns together due to a lack of some of the historic shades such as Gulmoget.

Shetland 2000 Undyed Yarn
Coloured Shetland Sheep

Branding. “Is the process of giving a meaning to specific organization, company, products or services by creating and shaping a brand in consumers’ minds. In my mind one of the greatest mistakes made regarding Shetland wool of all time failure to protect what is a precious commodity, I shall expand on this as we go through Alistair’s textile directory.

Carding.” A teasing out process used on wool and cotton fibres prior to spinning”.

 In times gone by Shetland ladies would have carding evenings where they would gather and have a night of carding, drinking tea and of setting the world to right, this would while away the bleak winter’s nights.

Rolag – Shetland Dialect (Rowers) Hand Cared Wool
Rowers Shetland Yoals

Chunky.” A bulky heavier yarn”.

  In the 1960s we had two such yarns woollen spun at Hunters of Brora used to construct heavier hard wearing garments. Unst Fleece which was 4/7.5 Gala count equivalent to a heavy Chunky. Embo 3 ply yarn, Gala count 3/11 this was the original “Harris Tweed” yarn Hunter’s suppled to Western Isles weavers before the onset of the “Orb” mark which stipulated the yarn had to be spun in the Western Isles. The name of the yarn Harris had to change and so was renamed to Embo a small village not far from Brora.

Viking Tunic in Chunky Yarn by Sandra Manson

Combed Yarns. “The purpose of combing of fibres in cotton and worsted spinning after carding is twofold; short fibres are removed are removed and the remaining fibres are left in a roughly parallel order. The result is a stronger even yarn”.

 We introduced natural combed tops in 2004/5 this followed on from a visit to a knitting and stitches show in Harrogate. We were unable to take greasy fleece with us due to environmental reasons, I remember one lady saying why you not supply combed tops do, and the rest is history!

Shetland Combed Tops

Cone. “The yarn package most familiar to the machine knitter”.

 With the introduction of  yarn on cone in the late 1960s and with little storage space available meant I had to carry huge heavy cartons upstairs where they were stored in the balcony area of what had been the North Roadside church our only building of note at that time. I do not think the language would have been approved of by past congregations as I struggled to carry boxes of 100 cones upstairs approximately 50kilos today, than goodness for the maximum weight limit of 25 kilos today.

Cones Today

Dyeing.” Yarn can be dyed after spinning either in cones or in hanks. Loose fibres are dyed prior to spinning typically in the woollen system. Garments can be knitted in undyed yarn and piece dyed after manufacture. Today in most yarns colour is reasonably fast. If you knit with yarn in “oil” when you wash the garment to remove the oil there may be a great deal of loose dye which colours the water. You must wash and rinse until all this is removed, before wear. The washing often lightens the colour of the garment so the colour of yarn on this cone does not always give a true indication of the colour of the finished article”.

I had no experience of dyeing our yarns as it was a highly skilled procedure, one of our heather mix yarns had as many as six colour combinations in order to get the finished result.

Heather Mix Cone
Autumnal Heather Hills

If you want more details or on how to order any of the above yarns please contact  I will continue with Alistair’s’ directory in another post.

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