Unst – R&D trip – part one


18 May, Saxa Vord, Unst, Shetland.  Day one. 




At 4:20am, I’m woken by an American guy banging cupboard doors in the communal kitchen which is opposite to my room, at the hostel. No chance of returning to sleep.  A great ball of bright sun sitting on the window sill which is faces East, illuminates the room as if it’s mid-day.   The Simmer Dim is almost fully upon Shetland. The time of year when there is hardly any darkness – only daylight and half-light.

My mind goes over previous conversations / words / unspoken words –  Will this R&D trip work? Work for me? The funders? As a project development? For my Creative practice development?  I’m putting pressure on myself to deliver when R&D should be calm.

What does it mean to make this trip work?   Is it for me or for the funders that I am thinking of?  I’m aware that it is both.

It’s a learning curve and I’m on the edge of my comfort zone – a place I frequently put myself because I feel really connected to life and living.  I once heard – ‘ Life begins at the End of our Comfort Zone’ and I agree with that notion. Keep learning, keep trying, keep taking risks because it brings challenges and surprises –  if you do nothing, nothing happens.

So, I get up at 5am which equates to 4 ½ hours sleep but Norwick Beach is calling, I can hear the sea almost a mile away.




Vod (Vod, an adjective meaning an unoccupied, empty place) derelict Croft houses lie littered across the landscape as misshapen pebbles and boulders across a beach. The old, falling-down places have interested me since my first visit to Shetland over two years ago – they have become the focal point of my research in Shetland lace knitting, women’s craft, authenticity, heritage and of my site-specific work whereby I place my own designed textiles and paper laser cuts into the old croft houses.  (The original site of inspiration)


The houses interest me because I can feel the life that has once been lived there.  It’s written across the walls, or by something left behind, or a paint colour still present on a door. On more than one occasion, I’ve stood in an old doorway, without a door or looked out of a window without glass and looked towards the sea, knowing that countless generations of women that have lived in these places all over the North islands will have done the same thing – they would have looked seaward but they could have been waiting for their men to come back from deep sea fishing – sometimes waiting until all hope of their return disappeared.



I have been in many derelict croft houses in many different weather situations over the past two years toing and froing.  So much so,  that I am able to sense the being of a place that once was a home – now abandoned and falling down but, the more I learn, the less I seem to know, though, my intuition is good.



Oral Histories:

I thought we would meet instantly, on the first day – myself with the kind, honest woman who is going to tell me stories of her female ancestors who lived on the Island of Unst – most famous for its long and renowned lace knitting and fine yarn spinning history.

But, we will meet tomorrow.

Time moves at a different pace here on Unst.  Today is for learning the local area and for visiting the Heritage Centre to build relationships in the hope that I might be able to record oral histories of the knitters still living here.


I have never before been able to reach this most northerly tiny island just 12 miles long.  But, I do know about the authenticity of lace knitting here and the croft houses that were lived in by knitters who subsidised the family income and I do know about the truck and barter system, of old knitted spenser vests and their patterns, of kishies used for carrying peats for the fire and many more details.  I know enough of the life here to feel comfortable in any situation with any person from building up an understanding from previous visits in Winter, spring, late Autumn but never in May and by being respectful of this place and its heritage, I hope to build stronger relationships.

I have been funded by a Making Ways, R&D Grant to travel to this most northerly Island of the British Isles – Unst Shetland, to continue to experiment placing new work in to derelict croft houses in different light conditions to create photographic site-specific work which is different to the work that I had created on previous visits, and to interview the women who keep the origin of heritage lace knitting alive at the specialist Heritage Centre in Unst.

This trip is about not being afraid and really embracing who I am, what my work is about and what I can achieve to develop my practice further.


On the way to Norwick beach, I go over and over what I want to do and the conversations that I have already had, whilst trying to learn how to use a fairly sophisticated borrowed Dictaphone from the university.

This time is a precious gift and I’ll not waste it.

My thoughts turn to the vod croft houses which are in different stages of dereliction.  Some scare me – if they have their roofs on, they’re dark, dank places that are rotting, if they have had no roof for many many years, the shells of the places are very beautiful and some have treasures – like a fire place, or wood in the windows or even a stove. Initially, I just liked everyone of them but now, I’m more discerning. I fall in love with a few instantly and that love grows on return trips. Then, I start finding out who lived in the tiny house – either by researching censuses or contacting heritage trusts and if I am lucky, someone will get back to me to say that they had been born in that tiny croft house, as with the one in Bressay.


A prize vod croft house for me will face the sea, without a roof, with a porch, or stone wall surrounding the place but best are with traces of a past – either paint or door or even a nail in a wall.  These are the things that draw me in.  Then I sit with the place, take in the view, feel the fabric of the building – look at the stones used to build the place and wonder how they were carried to a place high on a hill without a track or a road to the door.



Thank you to Making Ways, Sheffield for supporting this Research and Development Trip.


Author: traceydoxeydesigns

Site specific Artist using own created textiles, laser cuts and hand block printed wallpaper to engage with narratives of landscapes, social history and place.

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