Shetland had been on my bucket list since I could say pony – yes, it’s not the hardest of words, so you can imagine that the islands north of mainland Scotland have been a dream destination of mine for a very long time. This past January I finally set out to visit the islands for a week during Up Helly Aa and came back with a suitcase full of impressions, and a feeling of awe that I initially could not quite describe. I was asked to contribute a story to the Spring/Summer edition of 60 Degrees North magazine which is published in Shetland and captures some of the greatest stories of the islands. In close encounter with the local traditions I started wondering what draws people up north and what the ‘essence’ of Shetland’s island life might be – here is what I found.
This article originally appeared in 60 North Magazine.
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Slowly we drive along the narrow road towards the coast. Gusts of wind from all directions, thick clouds ahead of us, heavy raindrops splashing on our windshield. The drivers of the big, solid trucks overtaking us seem to withstand the back and forth of the forces of nature without batting an eyelid; me in my little blue rental car not so much. Being able to drive through a hair-raising storm and keeping your calm seems to be an essential skill of an islander in Shetland.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. I had come to Shetland to experience the Up Helly Aa festival in Lerwick for the first time. Watching men dress up as vikings and celebrate an old tradition by burning a galley sounded like a great way to learn more about the unique Scottish-Scandinavian culture I had heard so much about. Soon, I realise though, that there is nothing much Scottish about the islands. The local dialect is infused with German and Norse expressions; the landscape has more of the barren ‘desert’ of Northern Norway than the rocky mountains of the Highlands; and last but not least, the remoteness of the place paired with the curious cosmopolitanism of its people reminded me of the infamous Scandinavian vikings.
Cheryl Jamieson: Nature and You
Glass artist Cheryl Jamieson tells me, ‘Shetlanders are very much in touch with their heritage’ – and Up Helly Aa is only one example for this. Cheryl, who had grown up on Shetland’s northernmost inhabited island, Unst, works with fused glass and crafts jewellery, bowls and vases among other things. ‘We are so lucky here. In other places, artists might habe to travel for inspiration, but I think in Shetland, it is all here: the archaeology, the geology, the unique wildlife, the tradition of Fair Isle knitting patterns, the Viking heritage – as artists I get truly spoilt for choice.’ After some years on mainland Shetland, Cheryl and her family had returned to Unst – not an easy choice, I hear. The smaller islands struggle with depopulation and people have to accept that they might not get the job that they want. Some, like Cheryl, decide to create their own.
Her workshop for Glansin Glass has long left the spare room of her house and moved into a red trailer overlooking the pastures, shore and village of Uyeasound. Her jewellery took Shetland by storm, just as the unusual technique of fusing glass has taken her. ‘I came by it by complete chance. I had been looking for my medium for a while and went on a small business exchange to Norway. There I met someone working with fused glass and was immediately intrigued.’ One look at Cheryl’s designs and I see that Shetland is an integral part of her inspiration. She captures her essence of Shetland in the colours, shapes and decorations of her work. Everything she produces represents her home – the sheep dotting the green and yellow hills, the rocks, drift wood and wildlife of the coast, the iconic colours of puffins or distinctive shapes of the fishing boats. ‘And if my work can reach out to people, tell them about my island and even make them visit Unst to see my source of inspiration, it means a lot to me.’
Interlude: In your Face
After meeting Cheryl I am very keen to see where her work originates. Leaving Uyeasound I make my way all the way up north. In winter, there is not much to see as the boat museum and heritage centre in Haroldswick are closed for the season. Luckily, nature’s museum is always open throughout the year. My destination is Hermaness National Nature Reserve, the northernmost point of all the UK. It is sunny for now, but the clouds are dark and the wind rough in this Shetland winter and rain is looming in the distance. I stop at the car park at the end of the road and continue on foot. The sun tickles my nose and the dry grass shines golden as I follow the path towards the edge. Suddenly the wind stops, the sun gets stronger and the clouds in the now closer distance turn more dramatic. Sea birds fly above my head and land in the cliffs beneath my feet. I can see lonely rocks out at sea resisting the constant battle with the waves. When I look north I see nothing but horizon, I have made it to the very end and am looking out at another essence of Shetland: the unforgiving sea.
Vivian Ross-Smith: Different Approaches
Soon enough, I shall experience even more of its strength, as I am fighting my way through Storm Gertrude to reach Weisdale where visual artist Vivian Ross-Smith has invited me into her studio. Vivian is one of Shetland’s young people, who had left the islands for school and training, but like the majority, also came back to island life. ‘I think there is an idyllic vision of living on a remote rock in the middle of the North Atlantic; it is gorgeous to live here.’ Originally from Fair Isle, Vivian went to art school in Aberdeen and spent some time in Glasgow, before moving back to mainland Shetland. Like Cheryl, she found her ‘trade’ by chance. ‘In art school we spent one semester on producing art without using paint. I always thought I wanted to paint, but all of a sudden a world of materials opened up to me.’ Fish skins, knitwear, drift wood, scrap metal and rocks from the beach, fishing nets – Vivian finds the essence of Shetland in the things she picks up on her walks and in the traditional crafts she can use in her artwork. The rich geology and environment of the islands are her main concern
Her most recent work, which she presented at a solo show in Aberdeen, focuses on recent debates about a windmill park on Yell. I realise, a Shetlander’s identity is inseparably connected with their heritage; their art impossibly distinguishable from their home. And yet, island life has its undeniable downsides. Winters are dark and rough; Vivian tells me about an occasion where no boat or plane could reach or leave Fair Isle due to a storm. As an artist she turns this into her advantage, travels for workshops, residencies and exhibitions, sees artists around the world and comes home with a bag of inspiration to incorporate these influences in her Shetland art.
Joanna Hunter: Old Traditions, New Soul
Knitwear designer Joanna Hunter offers an explanation: ‘Shetlanders are notorious for going everywhere and seeing a lot. I think it has to do with the traditions of fishing and seafaring.’ Just like Vivian, Joanna is leaving Shetland frequently, but always swings back like a yo-yo. She had fallen in love with weaving and machine-knitting on a school exchange to Japan, and at the age of 20 she packed her car with knitting patterns to present her work in Scotland, England and even America. ‘Life is too short to be in a job you hate’, she tells me, and so, she created her own and started a knitwear label. She welcomes me in the studio attached to her shop Ninian in the centre of Lerwick. The little room burst with colours, mood-boards, piles of knitting samples and scrapbooks. She talks me through her most recent ideas, material from her colour workshops and explains the entire process from first inspiration to ready-to-wear product
Quickly I realise that Joanna is a globetrotter, very much like myself. She snaps photos of people, buildings and colour combinations she sees on her journeys. Every four weeks or so, she says, she needs to leave Shetland to pick up new ideas and colours. Many of her patterns however, are inspired by old family traditions, the piles of jumpers in her grandmothers’ houses, museum and archives collecting knitting patterns from Fair Isle. The mix of old an new influences very much represents the re-discovered fashion of knitting itself. ‘In primary school every child knitted, but it went out of fashion.’ Luckily, now the old trade is coming back.
Mike Finnie: The Certain Appeal
Time to ask someone, who is no native to the islands – what is it about Shetland? Architect and jewellery-designer Mike Finnie from mainland Scotland has lived here for over 20 years. ‘We moved, because I found a job that paid me multiple of what I earned back home. The plan was to save up money and buy a house in Edinburgh.’ This of course never happened, because Mike and his wife fell in love with the islands. He captures the landscapes in his watercolour paintings and linocut prints, crafts silver jewellery and does jewellery workshops in his studio. Intrigued I take up the offer to forge my own Shetland souvenir and make my way to Burra on a windy day.
The hours fly by as we grind pieces of China from the beach, cut the silver into shape, solder hooks into place and sand down the finished piece. I also have plenty of time to discover all the little treasures in the studio – the whale bones Mike found of the beach, boxes of scrap and shells, colourful collections of different materials ready to be turned into jewellery. It feels like Mike gathers random items, but inside the studio they form a mini-verse of Shetland. They have everything they need right here, he tells me over a bowl of soup in his kitchen. From my seat I can see the stormy sea crashing on the rocks in the shallow bay. Although Mike’s house is filled with souvenirs from all over the world he seems to belong right here.
From the wild nature over the rough sea, from remaining close to the source of heritage to the open discourse with other cultures, the essence of Shetland cannot be described by a list of things to see and do. It constitutes the ups and downs of island life, the new impressions from afar and the old traditions from within. As I stand and watch in awe as the Vikings throw their burning torches onto the majestic galley, I realise it was my curiosity that brought me here and it will be my appetite to understand my own home and heritage that drives me to explore more of the world. In Shetland, I feel, people are one step ahead of me – they seem to know that the essence of Shetland lies deep within their own.
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All photos by Kathi Kamleitner.