R&D part two – Burrafirth, Unst, Shetland

Day 2 and 3

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What happens on an R&D trip to ‘record oral histories’ is:
For weeks running up to leaving – there are endless thoughts and ideas and planning
2 days before leaving for the trip, there’s overwhelming excitement
1 day before leaving for the trip, I become subdued
2 days of traveling, to the very end of the furthest island of our country
On arrival, I feel an urgency to get things done.  Then a slow realisation that time moves differently, so I roam the locality  – getting a ‘feel’ of the place.
2 days into the trip and I get the chance to meet the person I have been contacting who is my ‘hope’.

The meeting is tagged onto the end of a visiting tour group talk – it’s practical to do so – after all, it is 10 miles from home to the Heritage Centre. I have zero idea of how anything will go at this initial meeting – if we’ll get on, if I’ll be able to ask questions and – exactly what questions, for that matter?

We meet. Formalities are covered – ethics forms – respect and conduct from both parties.
I have to cover so much ground in so little time which encompasses: meeting someone new (for us both), judging the way the conversation is going – not steering or guiding it but by being natural and building trust.
Then, the whole day turns out to be a gift – a joy, because we become instant friends and trust / respect is the base – born out of two years of learning, researching in practice and theory to get to this place and person.
We nip to the tea room for lunch ‘The’ wedding is on the TV which is propped on top of a chair on the counter – The most northerly tea shop in the UK is heaving with people watching it – broadcast from sunny London. She walks around the tea room greeting most people – everyone knows everyone here, or they soon will.

 


I am invited to her home, the local area, she freely drives us around, offers tea and parkin and shows me Ham Beach, a place of great beauty surrounded by derelict crofts and an old fishing station house. We talk about endless topics and 6 hours flies by. She is incredibly generous of spirit and I hope to match that. There’s the offer of another meeting, a dictaphone recording and, I don’t entirely recognise the significance of it all but I am aware of understanding context and being here and a good woman willing to talk to me about her ancestors and I’m grateful.

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I go back to the hostel and listen to the recordings of her over and over again. The recordings lead to ideas. There are snippets which already develop my understanding of this place and what it was to be a knitter here in the early 1900’s.
I tried not to talk when she was talking but the conversation would have stopped. It is not about what I have to say but about what she says and, on my part, listening. Really listening.

 

Day Two

I dip at the magnitude of all of this that I have set out to do. Technical skills development on the road with a camera that isn’t mine and a Dictaphone I can’t switch on. The tripod is heavy and I don’t know the equipment well enough for it not to be a noticeable part of the conversation.
I dip because I want to record, film, write, make site specific work, FIND the right place, the right location to set up my work, to research its history, to feel the life that was, I need time to find the right ‘knitters ’ that live here now, read the censuses of knitters past, film everything with a camera that is neither mine nor I’m used to, record sound without the ever present wind, get from A – B in long distances on a bike, get people to trust me and all in 10 days – 2 already gone, I am dipping fast at the daunting prospect of it all. Will there be enough time, will I capture what I hope, will I achieve what I set to do in the R&D application. Critically evaluating before I have even started isn’t a good way forward.

On the third morning, I learn the Dictaphone whilst walking along the road down to Norwick beach. I record myself until I understand the stages of the recording facility – Record, talk, listen, delete over and over until I get it. I hear the background noises through the headphones and more ideas for recording come to me. Ambient sounds. Sheep, lambs bleating, sea gulls, the sea, other birds I don’t know, lapping water at a mill, the wind, always the wind.

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On returning, I discuss the hideous bike booking system with the hostel manager – 3 hours later, I get a bike. On a Sunday afternoon, the sun comes out – my life changes again.

Burrafirth

I bike towards Burrafirth but there are no signs to show when I’ve arrived. There’s just a spectacular beach in an inaccessible cove, a 3-mast ship sitting on the surface of the crystal sea and a croft house, visible from the road, with initially what seems to be some of the plus points that make it work for my site-specific work.

 

What I know works for site specific art
1. roofless croft house (good light)
2. 2 rooms, a barn and a byre
3. Windows and door still in the structure

4. Sea view
5. Remnants of a past life are like jewels
• Fire place / wood around a window
• Door intact / paint on anything -this
disappears over time

 


The derelict croft house on the hill is instantly perfect, two windows without glass, an open porch, a doorway, the most magnificent view and as I walk up the hill, it has ‘a crowning glory’.   Sitting like a rusty jewel in the roofless porch is a dulled pea green enamelled, rusted and stoic looking little ‘prairie’ stove. It’s perfect because it has a visible history and I can work in it and place lace or laser cuts at the windows – not for decoration but as a testament to and a celebration of the generations of knitters who once lived in this tiny two roomed place, miles from anywhere. I initially fail to recognise that this is Stack houll, – a croft house that I had earmarked two days earlier in the heritage centre when reading the censuses. There was a drawing and a photo of it from the 80’s -its porch standing proudly along with lists of knitters ‘by occupation’ living there since the mid 1800’s.

I take photos, feel the core of the place, the stove, the view, the nails in the wall, the low barn doorway. The wind wildly flapping anything flappable, fabric lace snags on every nail, stone, splinter and I make a good start. I pack up knowing that I will return. As I’m leaving this isolated place, a car pulls up onto the grass verge by the road. In all the moments, in all the day, in all the places possible and not possible – by chance, it is Rhoda. I meet her at the roadside and we return to Stack houll together. She’s come for the very first time herself. I follow her around with the dictaphone – hardly daring to speak – in the hope of capturing her joy of meeting this amazing place. She talks of her mother getting ‘the watter in’ her croft house when she was first married. No one had water in the house until the 50’s here. Then Rhoda, like me, stood at the door and wondered how many women had stood there before us looking out to sea to see if they could see the men returning from deep sea fishing.

 

Some, never returned.

 

making-ways

 

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