On Friday, I set off just before 7am. A sky of midnight blue, changing through a line of tangerine and peach until the sun rose, a golden ball accompanied by a never ending line of staggered planes flying north, whilst the sky turned pale pink, lilac, pure blue and the stag watched it all beside the edge of the tree line. I felt a pure energy like I used to on my doorstep at sunrise in Shetland, except I was one mile from the edge of a city on an old Roman road crossing Houndkirk moor.
I walked as far as the stone way marker with the skull and crossbones carved in the side facing Sheffield but the weather hasn’t been kind and the marks are now eroded away.
On the moor, I felt the same energy being drawn from living within a pure hour of anticipating the first tip of the rising sun on the horizon surrounded by many colours of a changing sky across a visible 180 degree sky line. Instead of sea creatures, I saw the stag watching me and the night before I had watched the young badger and fox in the city. Finally, I felt back at home.
In the afternoon, I spoke with my agent, Jenny from Jenny Brown Associates about my book proposal, which I am quietly excited by. I have recently been added to their website as a new author. My proposal will go to publishers next week. It contains my first three chapters of the book I am writing about my year in Shetland. I have recently had some great support from Hannah, and The Writers Workshop who helped with editing and the synopsis.
Writing the book has allowed me to rethink what happened that year.
The House of Two Women
A journey to and from Shetland
‘I stand for a second to take in the moment, to look at the old plank-board door with a square wooden knob which I finally turn sharply to the right. The simple mechanism lifts a wooden latch inside. Human touch has left tangible traces of every hand that has opened this door before me. The sound of the sneck – a door latch hitting its casing – is what I will always remember of this place. I understand that it is a unique sound to this house, one that will forever embody a simple place of great beauty. In this exact moment, I am sold on the sound of a wooden latch and the view of the stone flag floor in front of me. Before the agent has even arrived, I know that I will not pull out of this crazy unfinished deal to buy this house and change my life forever. I won’t admit to the agent that it is the sound of the sneck that sealed the deal, but it is.’
This book is a love letter to Shetland and its extreme elemental landscapes; to an old croft house and three generations of the same family who lived there for more than 140 years. It is my story: a single, 57-year-old Yorkshire woman and knitter who dared to follow a dream against all odds; to sell up and risk all to move lock, stock and two cats from a small city flat to a home facing the sea, in the northernmost reaches of Scotland, the islands of Shetland.
This is also Susan Halcrow’s story – a strong, independent woman who lived in the same house for eighty-three years, from 1876 to 1960 – and how I came to know her through exploring the history of the home we shared. I write a letter to her in each chapter.
Each page is an invitation to share in my arrival on the island and to experience a full year of living through the seasons. It unfolds in monthly instalments, beginning on the very first day I visited the house, and heard the sneck, in August 2020, to my last sunrise in October 2021, when I had to leave. I dreamed of living on the island to be closer to nature, creativity and a life less ordinary, with my knitting practice at the heart of every day; of moving through slow travel across sea and natural beauty, to come to a personal understanding of both inner and outer landscapes. I never dreamed I would want to leave.
I will tell stories about sunrises and sea swimming; island hopping, whales and perfect Groatie Buckie shells; the night sky full of the milky way and a moon as big as a dinner plate; Easter blizzards coating the front of the house with a sheet of icy snow; of knitting and making a home in an old stone house, where learned so much about myself.
I will also share how emotionally challenging it is to make such a seismic life-change from city to island life and how my being an incomer, made it hard to find community both with some islanders and with some other local incomers.
The book, written entirely from the islands of Shetland, ending in October 2021 and offering an insight into island life and, finally explaining the reasons why I had to sell up and leave, to never look back again
Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life? Mary Oliver.
Since September, on and off, I have been working on a new little hat pattern. The colours have been inspired by the dusky pink hue that I painted my new little wooden kitchen, with highlights of rich magentas and wine for the motifs and pale background colours – just as I painted the insides of kitchen cupboard doors.
When I went back to stay with Mati in Fair Isle in September, I started with ideas for colours and motifs because I was, at that time, painting the kitchen too. But it wasn’t until December that the hat finally took on a full body of a good colour blending work throughout the motifs. I was then happy with it.
When I teach on my online colour blending workshops, I teach the principles of how I choose and blend my colours in my knitting projects to enable the participants to harmoniously choose colours for their own new work. After the principles, I give ideas of how to choose colours with ‘your heart’ – to go out and find your own true inspiration and work with those colours and the feeling from the inspiration, rather than to just reach for a big pile of coloured yarn in front of the TV or buy from a shop without forethought, then to just knit anything that looks good together.
Knitting and designing takes planning, and thought, and even love to get it all right. To knit a project and work with colours ‘with your heart’ adds another dimension to the work – it becomes art – my art – your art.
The new little hat pattern sings -and I think it is my favourite design to date. I worked on the motifs for some time so that I felt happy with the design and so that the patterns built up and worked together well.
I’ve kept a uniformity of colour changes and carried those through each motif in the same way, which is not really like me. I am normally more random but I am thinking of knitting a vest with these colours and patterns so this is a taster of things to come.
The pattern for the hat also has a new detail that I haven’t done before, and that is to have a b/w chart as well as colour coded charts for the body and crown of the hat – so that the knitter can use the chart to design their own colours and rows where the colours change. This addition is quite exciting for me because I am hoping that knitters will take this pattern and develop their own colours for the patterns and that I will see many different combinations. If you do knit the pattern in your own colour choices, please tag me on Instagram with @traceydoxey so that I can see your work – I share some on my stories and I would love to share your work too.
The new pattern went to two test knitters, one in Sheffield, who came around to my flat and chose her own colours from my box of yarn, and one friend in Nova Scotia, who knitted the hat using her stash. I’m grateful to Karen and Shona for test knitting – here are their works of art.
For anyone who has attended a colour blending workshop – you still get 20% discount off all of my patterns with a code that I have already sent you after the workshop. But, if you don’t have your code for discount, please email me and I’ll send it to you.
Thank you for reading this little mention of this little knitting project. If you would like to read up to date information on how my book is moving along, please sign up to this blog to be updated, by submitting your email in the box below.
The cat woke me with his heavy weight transferred through his fat kneading front paws alternately pressing into my sticking up right shoulder.
Alfie joined in the attempt to get me to feed them by his repetitive bipping noise. The old, cheap, mantle clock chimed six so I turned face down in the pillows.
The forecast (a habit I have from Shetland of checking) read that we were to expect fog in the city first thing, then a ball of sun most of the day. I lay there for a while, my tired body ignoring the purring and bipping cats. At 7, I gave in and got up, fed and watered the boys, made tea then dressed hurriedly to get out onto the moors. Fog in the city is boring, I wanted to remember what fog was like in Shetland – to remember some part of it that used to haunt me for days on end, so I drove up to Burbage fog chasing. But, at the edge of Ringinglow, bordering on the Derbyshire boundary, the fog started to clear and within seconds, I’d driven through it into pure blue sky and bright sunshine. Another world.
At Burbage, both the moon and the sun hung in the sky casting their natural magic. Fog was nowhere to be seen. A real warmth came from the sun high on the peaks at 8:30am.
I walked towards Stanage Edge where the clear moon tilted over the rocks in a beckoning way. The path was bordered by long dead bog grass, heavy with water, looking like a prairie. Then the fog started to drift in below Stanage rocks, blown gently and slowly from the left, in a long soft ribbon, thick enough for the most magnificent natural thing to happen created by the collision of two things – the bright unhindered sun hit the fog and created a fog bow.
I actually squeaked with joy, turned to look back at that sun, then saw all the fronds on the low-lying fluffy grasses hanging in tiny droplets of water shining like glistening small crystals.
The fog bow came fully into sight.
High up on the rocks, at the Edge, the fog rested in the valley over Hope and Hathersage. Every passing person had a photo at the trig, including me. And every passing person was excited by the energy of the sparkling light and visible moving shifting fog. Until, finally, the gentle wind pushed the fog up and over the edge of Stanage, covering both left and right and finally the trig.
Today is the anniversary of me leaving an island and returning to a city.
It doesn’t matter much to me and certainly not to anyone else about this fact – not really. But, I suppose it is a personal landmark, and seemingly one that matters enough for me to dwell upon the date when I cannot normally manage to remember the day of the week. Too many things have happened since I returned, most of the first six months, I’d rather forget. What matters, I suppose, is that we get on with things in life, whatever happens, even when it takes longer than we hoped, even if we rise more slowly than we used to – we still rise. Even now, I am still a work in progress.
If there is no need to mark this anniversary, then why put words to paper?
People generally mark time by anniversaries. Today, I reflect, I take stock, I take a pause, to be grateful for the place I am now at, both physically and emotionally. As I sit here, I can hear the neighbour practicing his mandolin with Fleetwood Mac playing on his stereo in the background and later, I will hear the Chinese lady teaching piano class, Alfie sleeps peacefully beside me, clouds drift, dogs are out being walked. Life, for me, carries on here. It is not just me and fog and wind in a beautiful house.
Our experiences are like beads on a necklace. Some beads shine, some are dull, some broken, chipped, rough or smooth but the beads mark our journey. Shetland is a large, multi-faceted, rich bead on my necklace of life, one I will never forget and one that my life would not have been fulfilled without doing, whatever the cost.
I think what it boils down to is me accepting that I do feel this one-year anniversary of leaving a place I thought I would never leave. I do feel the passing of the year between arriving and now. I know that not one other person will be interested and although I didn’t think that this anniversary was important to me, as I write, I find a growing personal importance in honouring this day today and that day, one year ago. I remember the adrenalin of that day before leaving the croft house in Shetland, counting the hours, of two great friends visiting me as I was packing the car, helping me, bringing food and secret presents. And when I left, I did not look back.
The last morning shone with a burning scarlet sunrise
Here are the words I wrote one year ago – almost to the minute.
A last Shetland sunrise Its flaring red, pink, lilac and blue skyscape performs to remind the boys and I of perfect untainted natural beauty. I smile I walk out to greet the glow Sky, wind, cold envelope me. Sheltering from the Baltic wind in a steadfast porch that faces east, I watch To etch the view forever. A basin of ice cold sea wraps the surface of a world below a rippled dancing sky. Alfie by my feet on the age old stones. The red sky does not fade, it glows, it sings, it morphs
It shouts to me “Goodbye, do not forget me, For I am in your soul”
This September, one month ago, I returned to Shetland; to draw a line, to closes the circle, to see if I made a mistake leaving. I found beauty and wind and I met friends in Lerwick and I remembered memories. But on the day of leaving, when the bus went past my house in Levenwick on the way to the airport, in the dark and wind and rain, I felt nothing.
When I saw the lights on in the windows of the homes of the friends that I knew, I thought about the sweetness of them, of Lynn and of our sea swimming and walks, of Martin and how I regularly got in his truck to go out to feed his beautiful sheep, of Jimmy and Archie and our talks on art and Carol who lived in the house behind me, but as the bus approached the back of the house, I craned my neck to see the roof and the chimneys, the bus moving at the same slow, meandering pace as my mind – I felt nothing. I mainly looked forward to my return to the city, to my small flat, to my cats. I looked forward to a peace that I am finally finding in myself – mainly because I finally found a small home, a place of safety, a place to think and grow again. I have a simple city life with a lot to do. I have a peace I did not find in Shetland.
Yesterday, I sat around a table in a small room, in the centre of Sheffield with a group of people who joined to spend time together talking about non fiction works. There were at least 5 nationalities bringing their joys in a shared pastime and I inwardly celebrated being back in the land of cultural difference, acceptance, and open ness. In the city, there is still a thread of autonomy. Last Friday, I dipped my toe into the realms of writing by entering a novel slam organised as part of Off the Shelf festival. I’ve never read in front of anyone, let alone on a stage, I’ve never used a microphone before, let alone on a stage in front of a judging audience to read my own work and I’ve never entered a competition like this before.
I had to get through stage one with a one minute pitch. After round one. The audience voted 8 people through to round two. I went with no one, just in case I couldn’t do it. I noticed that the other participants had gone with friends who not only cheered them on but voted for them to go through to round two. It was then that I realised that maybe I had missed a trick. Surprisingly, I got through round one, and read my 3 minute pitch in round 2 and even more surprisingly, I came 3rd
What this did for me – was make me realise that I owned the act that I am writing. That was my prize. I quietly thought, I can do this.
Here’s my one minute pitch.
Dear Susan, A house of two women
In the 57th year of my life, I bought a 200 yr old croft house, facing the sea in Shetland and moved in with one bag and two cats, my furniture following on a lorry in the hold of a ferry.
The tactile house was made of stone and wood, with latches and sounds echoing back in time. It had hardly changed from its beginning. In the archives, I found that a woman had been born there in 1876, living for 83 years, 50 of those, alone.
This is a love letter to an old house, the everchanging landscapes of a year 60 degrees north, the way that light falls when there is nothing in its path, the tactile art of knitting with colour, the drifting scent of peat fires, sea swimming, watching moon beams across my wooden floors, a woman called Susan who loved the house as much as I did, and why I had to leave.
It’s about what we find out when we set out to live our dreams…
In writing a book about my year in Shetland, I am re learning about my journey, why I did it and why I left. I’m seeing it retrospectively with hindsight through a year of journalling, photographs and blogs. Instead of rushing outward to find a sensation or a life less ordinary to feed me, I seem to be taking my free time more slowly doing the basics, setting up a home – to plant myself firmly back into this world. I’ve been painting a lot of pink
I have been offering 25% off all of my knitting patterns until midnight on Sunday 23rd October. I’ll extend the 25% off offer for another 24 hours – until midnight tomorrow, Monday 24th October to celebrate this anniversary and because I am trying to save to buy tiles for my kitchen – basic. 😊
link to patterns is below – no code needed – 25% taken off bill in basket.
I have returned to Shetland, initially on the invitation of Mati because she was heading off Fair Isle for a trip off the Island and offered me a couple of weeks to stay in her house, look after Lola and the cats and write – that changed for her but the dates for me did not.
I travelled to Shetland, ironically, or not, exactly two years to the day of travelling the same journey to live on the Island in the house I bought in Levenwick. On that journey, in 2020, I travelled north by car and the North Link ferry with my beloved cats – I was filled with hope and excitement at a new life by the sea. But, I left the island 13 months later, and in many ways, I am still coming to terms with those 2 years. I never thought that I would do this return journey to Shetland after selling up and leaving, but here I am, back again. There is something that seems to draw me back to this extreme place – I think, maybe, it is love, which, in itself, shows me that my move to live here was the right one at that time.
When I booked all of the details to get here, three planes, two taxis, one bus, and a car and an overnight in Lerwick (and the same for the return), I wasn’t really feeling much at all, then, when the final detail was arranged, I almost felt excited.
Each stage of the travel up north began to remind me how far, both geographically and emotionally, I have moved. When the 32 seater plane touched down at Sumburgh, I felt slightly emotional, as if coming home. This surge of, almost tearful, emotion has happened to me every single time of returning to Shetland since 2016 – usually on the top deck of the Northlink when passing Bressay lighthouse. Maybe the feeling was relief that I made it after all the practical things that could alter on such a long journey or maybe it was connecting with an island that I do know intimately after living here – walking West Voe beach by the airstrip and watching the planes coming in or when collecting buckies at Grutness waving to the many different aircrafts that flew overheard. So many things have happened here for me. Or maybe, it was the emotion of meeting a long lost friend – the islands of Shetland. My connection runs deep to the islands, as deep as with my most precious son and daughter. If this is the case, then, the emotion I felt on landing is one of love.
My next emotional meeting to overcome was catching the bus from Sumburgh to Lerwick because it diverts to go through Levenwick, right past my old house but somehow, I was offered a lift by a visiting councillor in the taxi – I accepted. This meant that we didn’t painfully and slowly drive through Levenwick, stop outside Jimmy’s house where I walked his dog every day, then, opposite Herbert’s old house, at the shop where you can’t really buy anything in date, and then by the surgery. The taxi passed, unemotionally and unconnectedly, above the hamlet of Levenwick, on the one and only road south to north, onward to Lerwick. When we passed the village, at a fair speed, I fleetingly caught sight of the community hall and the foot-channelled, tufted grass path beside it that I walked every day for over a year, to the beautiful crescent beach and I felt nothing. I have no idea how some emotions build or slip away but I really just looked over my shoulder, then concentrated looking forward as the taxi driver cut almost every corner possible. I thought of all the road kill I had seen on this road to Lerwick over the 13 months of living here, mostly hedgehogs by the dozen, birds, and one day a magnificent otter. I sat in the back of the taxi whilst the councillor and the driver talked of things I could not hear and wasn’t interested in.
They dropped me at the Lerwick hotel. I got out, thanked them then walked to the hostel. In Lerwick, I couldn’t believe that the Queen had died. I shared this disbelief with the lady at Isleburgh hall, reception who stoically replied, ‘well, she lived a long life and she’ll get a good send off.’ Which put an end to any additional conversation and, in itself was not incorrect but I felt a little sharp or matter of fact or just plain Shetland pragmatism. This far up north, whatever you think of the United Kingdom, here is a very different land, structure and feeling – especially to royalty, Boris or Liz, or bank holidays. I kept the thoughts of the Queen to myself and shared them with my kids and my lovely neighbour looking after my boys back home. Home seemed a long way away with different thoughts and feelings to that of here. At home, the Queen means something even to folks who don’t care about royalty. The Queen was a very special woman in her own right and our country of England will miss her presence and continuity.
It didn’t feel strange to be back in Lerwick at all, I didn’t bother with walking around – there was no point, the whole reason for being here was for a stopover before the plane from Tingwall to Fair Isle.
In the morning, before sunrise, Bains beach called. It is a small place of great beauty in the town. Always crystalline in clear turquoise water, crescent in beach and clear in view towards the island of Bressay, (even if fog) Bains beach is flanked by The Queens Hotel and the most famous house on the island – the Lodberry or Perez’s house. I think it must be the most photographed house in Shetland too. What a rich and full life these places have had, going back centuries. Both buildings have stone stores built in to the sea. I remember my first visit back in 2015 where I found out that Jimmy Moncrieff, his brother and parent’s used to live in the Lodberry. His brother still does. I called Jimmy at his office at the Amenity Trust and went to visit him. He photocopied information about the Lodberries and I suppose my love of Shetland started around that time, Sept 2015. In January, 2016, I returned for Up Helly Aa and Jimmy got myself and a friend tickets for one of the hall’s dancing and party all night. Since then, I have built up my love of Shetland to the point of buying a home, living by the sea and leaving again.
I was lucky with the flight from Tingwall to Fair Isle. They sometimes don’t go because of wind or wind or even more wind and sometimes, they are delayed. The flight on Friday was a dream flight. 25 minutes inside, over and below blue – blue plane, blue sea, blue sky, blue clouds, little wind – perfect conditions. We landed and I was greeted by people I have long known who both live and work on the island of Fair Isle in a number of jobs. One of them being Fire officers to meet the plane or guide it in. Fair Isle islanders work really hard, in all weathers, relentlessly. Their commitment to community is extra and above. Without the community working together to make things work, no one could live here – as it is, I think there are about 50 islanders though the island population is now swelled by contractors working on the water and building the new Bird Observatory after it burned down in 2019. They are an impressive bunch of people with a vast array of skills to survive here. I think that these extra characteristics are some of the things that I also fell in love with here. Shetland creates stoic, pragmatic people who survive in the harshest of conditions as well as the most beautiful extreme terrains.
This trip, I felt was to ‘draw a line’ so to speak, on my whole Shetland life but since being here, I find that Shetland, in all its many facets, is in my heart, though my emotions are like a pendulum, anxious at all the wind again, drinking in the familiar sights and enjoying the unexpected. But I do know where I am best placed now, and it is not in Shetland. I nipped for a cup of tea with Marie, she mentioned that I am maybe ‘closing the circle’ and that seems a really nice way of looking at this whole cycle and journey in my life.
As my stay on Fair Isle beds in, I note that I fluctuate from bitter/sweet thoughts about my life 60 degrees north and wonder how I could have made it better for myself when I lived here, but really, on my own, I could not have sustained it for another ten years and I missed access to my son and daughter. The isolation and the relentless wild winds began to drive me crazy.
We are guided by the weather here. Holidaying or staying for a few weeks or even months is not fully understanding what it is to live here. So many things affect a life on the islands, least of all the weather and quite frankly, that part is enormous.
For now, I am beyond grateful to have returned to both Shetland and this rock 3 miles long by 1.5 miles wide, to have friends who welcome me, to have a place of great beauty and creativity to stay and think and breathe. It is a gift of love, learning, personal growth and time.
If you are a knitter and would like to knit any of my small patterns, I am offereing 20% off all patterns on ravelry, while I am here on Fair Isle, link here
My Friday morning view is no longer a sunrise cracking open the horizon line between where the sea meets the sky, it isn’t even a window with a view but the sight of two faithful, calm cats that have been two years and 12 different places of living, sleeping calmly, nose tucked into tail or paws in pockets. This may seem small and normal but for the three of us, it marks that we have come home. Even if my book is accidently placed upon Alfie, he does not flinch except to wrap his arm over his face, he is calm. All three of us have been like sprung cats for so long that I see their relaxed bodies and know that we have found a safe place and a place of our own to come and go as we please. They have their little door built into my door and we are settling into our own patterns. I have no idea where they go when they leave the flat, but they always return and they return to me.
What an honour.
This home is far from perfect – not in structure nor function, form or where I thought I would ever be but it is a place to build upon, a platform from which to go and return to, it will be a creative space when everything that is broken will be mended. It’s just a ground floor flat, in a block of three built in the 80’s with bad plumbing that will never be entirely fixed and a view of a waving silver birch and a brick wall over the road. The outside will always be communal and there is noise and quiet. After Shetland, this may appear a shocking decision but it was a very considered decision that was in my price range in these crippling house prices. I chose it for its location and that I know it because it is in the same set of flats that I lived in and sold to move to Shetland.
Irony or fate to return to the place of leaving? I reread The Alchemist, to try to understand this more. That the real treasure is under our feet.
I am back on the doorstep of The Peak District whilst having access to city stuff. Yesterday, the brokenness of all of this became overwhelming but today is a new day.
I look at my faithful cats to take a leaf out of their books. Find comfort, lie down, rest, sleep. I have forgotten how to rest, if ever I did in the first instance.
My Friday morning view is of simple things that mark a journey of my life
Freshly painted walls
A natural, thick, heavy, old French linen bed sheet on a Victorian iron bed.
A memory filled, long loved, favourite silk ruffled dress that has been repaired hanging on the wall.
Original B/W photographs of Sheffield’s Park Hill flats taken in the 60’s, made for an exhibition in the 80’s by Roger Mayne
Ink drawings bought in the old lanes of Shanghai when I lived in China.
2 calm, sleeping cats
A glass bottle jar from Shetland waiting to be a garden
A lovingly made crochet blanket with over 1,000 tiny squares.
The books I am reading litter the bed.
Sea urchin shells from Shetland, all in a row
A beautiful painting of my knitting sent to me by French artist Françoise Delot-Rolando when I was low.
An etching copy of Hokusai’s The Great Wave bought from the studio at Monet’s Garden in Giverny over 20 years ago.
A dried flower ring of roses and peonies that I made in an attic room in Sheffield this summer.
I’m coming to terms with things. Challenges and changes. My view is a room that is finally a home, broken or not.
Two years ago, I was chasing a dream. I made that dream a reality and will now begin to write its story. Here is an overview of what happened to make the dream happen, seemingly so long ago. It feels as if a life time has passed but I have a story to tell and here is the beginning.
At the beginning of March 2020, I began to receive multiple messages from friends on different platforms with a link to a tiny old house which faced the sea and was for sale in Levenwick in Shetland.
The house was called Smola.
At that time, I should have been in Lerwick anyway but I wasn’t because the hostel had finally understood the magnitude of Corona Virus and realised that having 12 people sleeping in each dorm was not the best idea in a pandemic. They finally closed on 16th March, informing me with a telephone call, I was already booked on to the train and ferry on the 17th March and was due for an interview on 19th at the Shetland College. All this changed and cancellation happened overnight because of the Virus which we are all now well familiar with but then had no idea of. I’d called both the hostel and the college repeatedly the week before to check they were still open – travelling 850 miles was a risk for me during COVID too but the hostel had said they were still open and the college receptionist said that they were waiting for hand sanitiser to arrive but the college was open. Waves of knowledge of a pandemic take longer to reach an island 60 degrees north.
I was temping part time in the Sheffield Children’s hospital as medical secretary in Neurology and knew the panic of the virus in Yorkshire. So, on the 18th March, 2020, I was still in Sheffield and what appeared to be the house of my dreams was in Shetland – where I was supposed to be but wasn’t.
I’d been half-heartedly looking for a little house in Shetland for some time purely because I thought the idea seemed a good one as I had been going back and forth for the last 5 years. I’d looked at a small house myself, in the old lanes in Lerwick, in November 2019 but it seemed dark and hemmed in and the thought of not being able to have chickens made me think it wasn’t the place for me. I had a vague idea to have a B&B with a chicken or two and sunshine and this didn’t fit the vague idea. Then, in the new year, a Shetland friend went to look at another house for me that was for sale – he reported back that it was damp and wrong. My budget was low and was reflected in what I could afford. Then in March, a sunshine-flooded image of an old house for sale named Smola, didn’t just speak to me, it shouted my name which appeared to be written all over it. I called the agent who had an open viewing day, on Saturday 21st March, the last of any physical viewings of properties before lock down.
As I couldn’t attend the viewings of the tiny house in Levenwick, I was sent the house report and two small videos the week following the open day – one video of inside the property and one of the outside of the house, the back yard and the byre – which is below.
Although the tiny house in Levenwick was basic, it was perfectly formed and without question, it seemed ideal for me and the dream I thought I had of living in Shetland began to firmly take hold of me. No one was allowed to go to see it for me on the island, due to COVID restrictions. Everywhere had finally closed down, as in England. I pondered, repeatedly looked at the videos sent by the agent which, internally, were mostly of the floors, out of the windows and of himself caught in the mirrors but I did nothing else. Then, on the Monday 23rd March, the agent called to say that one of the Saturday viewers had put an offer in on the tiny house and I lost hope and duly whined about it on Facebook. It appeared to me that this was not just a house, it had become a dream filled with ideas of sharing it, offering artist exchanges to exchange and share skills with each other artists and the wider community, artist retreats, workshops, air B&B to friends and people who have connected with me on Instagram, but most importantly, it would be a home where my (art) work / and life would become without borders – indistinguishable. This dream like state of rose-tinted glasses took over every thought.
I continued to work at the NHS typing consultant letters about very ill children while the heat wave and the pandemic raged on in Yorkshire and I dreamed of a 60 degrees north life where, in the Shetland March, I knew that it was sleeting.
I was screaming inside, it should have been me buying that house because during the preceding seven days, I had been booked to be in Shetland and could have been there, seen it, felt it, put the offer in but instead, I was in my tiny flat in Sheffield forced in to city lockdown, whilst still working, feeling helpless. Then a friend of mine messaged and said, just put an offer in. It was the most practical and real advice I had been given, so I spoke to people I knew in Shetland, who in turn, put me in touch with Chris, who had rented the little house for 3 years. He told me about the house. It wasn’t damp (except the porch), the bedroom was warm because it was over the fire, you could park your car in the grass by the house (what car) the man who owned it was a builder and could help with any issues, he’d really liked living there and the neighbours were lovely. I mean, what more did I need to know? My glasses became rosier as the house became more verbally known to me as some questions were answered.
Someone else messaged to say the roof was sound but it had been derelict in the 90’s and had had a lot of grants and an architect had altered it. In any case, I had already fallen in love with the village in August 2019, when I came across it on the bus route when I was flying to Norway and spent one glistering hour on the beach.
That weekend, I thought about nothing other than the tiny Shetland house and artist exchanges and workshops on knitting and design whilst all the time mentally composing a letter, in parts, to the owners, in order to compete with the unknown offer already on the table. Without seeing, smelling or touching the house, the letter flowed. I was honest, direct, clear and shot from the hip on the financial offer, which was 10% over the asking price.
On Monday 30th March, I emailed my letter to the agents with my ideas of what I wanted to do with the house and ended with the financial offer (which was 10% above asking price), then promptly let it go. I went to work in the searing heat of March and April at the Children’s hospital and through the real harsh uncertain beginnings of the Virus. I got on with my week. The pandemic gathered steam and I started knitting.
On Thursday, 2nd April, I was sitting on my procrastination my bench in scorching heat, outside the flat after work. It was at 5:20pm – a call came from the Shetland estate agent. I assumed it would be a rejection call. But it wasn’t. The sellers had accepted my offer on the proviso of a non-refundable deposit to take it off the market and that they would wait for me to sell my Sheffield flat (which wasn’t on the market and we were in complete lockdown other than anything essential) and finalise Scottish missives within 6 months.
Between 2nd April until 7th May, two Shetland solicitors were involved in writing the agreement for this non-refundable deposit, which I signed, in a wood in Sheffield on 8th May, honoured by my friend Deborah witnessing and co-signing the document. So, just over 8 weeks after seeing an image, both moving and still of a little house in Levenwick, I signed a document to say that I would pay the non-refundable deposit, deductible from the cost of the house, if I finalised the Scottish missives and all the papers to purchase within 3 months – an IMPOSSIBLE task. If, after the initial 3 months, I hadn’t made the sale agreement, I would be offered a further 3 months agreement with the same terms but the first non-refundable deposit wasn’t to be carried over – that became lost and I was to pay a second deposit.
It just seemed the right thing to do and somehow, I naively felt that although my flat in Sheffield wasn’t on the market and everything was shut down, and I hadn’t even seen the house in Shetland – that somehow, it would all work out.
I was asked by a friend, – ‘what did I get for my non-refundable deposit?’ and I said TIME but my wise friend Deb added, security. No one else could buy the house either but maybe no one else wanted it and I had paid way over the odds – it was a risk I took because something is worth its value in many different ways.
Anyway, from 14th May 2020, I had 6 months to turn everything around, still in lock down, during a pandemic and a recession to sell my flat and to purchase a house I had then begun to label – my dream.
My dream was to truly live a life fully, without borders between creative thought process and daily life, with my 2 cats, to go swimming with the Selkie swimming group in the sea, to write a book of knitting patterns and the homes the knitters lived in, to make site-specific art, to offer air b&b to friends and artist whom I have come to know over the years through my artistic practice – was my rose-tinted dream – just words and thoughts…
But, in truth, I achieved the dream and moved into Smola on 10th September 2020 – I lasted just over one year – the house never dropping from being the love of my life and the most beautiful house I have ever owned – a house that drew me to accept a challenge to change every part of my existence to make happen.
I still love that house, I still love how that house made me feel because so many stories unfolded. It was a place of creativity, a place of sunrises so magnificent that the world stopped to watch, a place of history and tangible beauty. But, it was also a lonely house.
Two years exactly to the date of moving into Smola in Levenwick in September 2020, I will be returning to Shetland to stay with my friend Mati on Fair Isle. I need to think and go over what has happened in the last two years, to understand what I achieved in Shetland and to be proud of that. to share it, to shout about it, to not hide it.
I aim to write a book on my year in Shetland and going back to the location will help re set my Shetland barometer.
Whilst on Fair Isle, I will be carrying out my online Colour blending workshops for Fair Isle Knitters. The workshops and I, have been successful in teaching over 200 participants how to develop an eye for colour blending in Fair Isle knitting projects and to get it right so that they can choose their own colours successfully for their own projects. If you would like to join me on any of the workshop dates in Fair Isle, please take a look at this page and get in touch via the form, or message me directly.
In November 2020, whilst I was living in Shetland, I made a new hat design called Good Wishes for the New Year – the story of its making is here
If you have been following my story, you will know that the hat pattern was entirely inspired by a beautiful woman called Susan Halcrow, who lived in the same croft house that I had bought in Shetland, from 1876 to 1960. This was the beginning of a love story, not only with the house but with finding Susan then knitting designs inspired by her life that I uncovered at the Shetland Museum Archives. I had the honour of connecting to her life, by living in the same house – her house, as she had so many years before. I treasured the memory of this woman through the return of her artifacts to the house (jugs, bowls, plates and glasses) and by being handed photographs of her. The first design that was inspired by Susan was Good Wishes for the new year. It is a hat designed and named after a note she wrote on the bottom of her Christmas cards one year. Below is the note on the card – just look at her serene beauty.
I sat in that croft house and opened that same door as she would have done, and looked out of the same window as she did and I connected to what I knew would be the colours around her when she lived in the house. I went on to knit 3 more designs based around Susan and my life in the house that she had also lived in – Dear Susan has an 11 page story along with the design and that is here. It is a story I am particularly proud of.
I have just designed a little pair of mitts that will match the Good Wishes for the New Year hat and the Good Wishes beret and, although this is a very small pattern, of no great consequence, it has suited me to make them whilst I have been searching for a home back to Sheffield, after returning from living in Shetland.
After 8 full months of living in 8 differnt places and the cats in 6 places, I have finally secured a place to call home. It is broken and a little ugly. nothing is nice except the area, the light that streams in and the neighbours, whom I do know because ironically, the flat is in the same set of flats where I sold one to go live in Shetland in 2020, yes really, but the one I sold was lovely, wheras this is a shell and I will be starting again, again.
But, I am happy to be back in the city, with a box flat and little else. It is where I belong, where I can be me – I don’t really belong anywhere and have realised that I have been searching for a long time – but living in Shetland was too isolating and lonely for me as well as other things that I found difficult – the constant wind, for one. I will explain this when I write the book because, In September, I hope to return to Shetland to write about my year in Smola, Levenwick. I will stay with my good friend Mati Ventrillon on Fair Isle and I will catch up with good friends in Shetland but I will not go to see my beautiful house. It will feel a little painful to have let it go and no one could love it as much as I did. And maybe Susan did.
but I have no regrets because – what a year I had and I went for my dream – both feet and I did it – I achieved what I wanted to do though I didn’t think I would be coming back.
A friend of mine came down south a couple of weeks ago. When she was sailing into Lerwick from Aberdeen to go home, she said that she looked over at Levenwick and though of my Shetland Self. I thought that was rather beautiful and I miss her. I miss the sun rises and sun sets, the beaches and the whales and my friday fun days with Emma and swimming in the sea with Lyn and I have decided to write about it now that there has been distance between leaving and returning.
So, I will be in Shetland in September and if you would like to support that travel, then, you could buy a knitting pattern that I have designed. They are here. the small income from each pattern sold, will go towards my travel to Fair Isle.
and I would appreciate any pattern purchase to help me with my travel costs for the long trip north.
there is a photo tutorial in the pattern on how to knit your ‘after thought thumb’.
and if you would like me to report on anything from Fair Isle let me know. Mati and I might do some live instagram sessions. I will also be doing a couple of online colour blending workshops whilst there so let me know if you are interested by signing up here
Releasing this little mitts pattern in a heatwave seems silly but I wanted to share it with you. It is a bargain price of £3 – the cost of a cup of coffee in a local cafe but you will have this for ever.
I have decided to write a book proposal to send to agents to write my story of living in Shetland as a single woman – in the most beautiful house and also why I left. I sent a pitch to the Guardian for their Saturday magazine ‘Experience’ section. It is below.
I bought and sold a 200-year-old croft house in a pandemic year.
At first sight, the 200-year-old croft house in Levenwick, Shetland, felt like it had always part of my life and I part of its existence. Its childlike front faced east, towards the horizon where the sea bordered the vast sky. The coronavirus pandemic was in the early, frightening months when I sold nearly everything I owned—including my flat in the city of Sheffield—and made the 800-mile journey north to this house that was now mine. I had decided to buy it on a sound, the click of the old wooden latch hitting its wooden casing and the sight of the flag stone floor.
But my move to Shetland was not a knee-jerk reaction to the pandemic. I had stayed on the island multiple times over the previous 5 years, and I’d always had a faint idea that I might move to there one day. Yet it was in March 2020, when Shetland friends sent me links to the tiny, jewel-like croft house for sale, that I knew it was time at age 57 to make my dream happen: living by the sea in a lifestyle of creative knitting.
I arrived in September 2020 with 2 cats, 2 bags, and a cat pram, followed by a few pieces of my furniture a week later. I felt as if I had never lived in any other house in my life. Its easterly facing windows offered ever-changing light and colour, whales in the bay, sunrises, passing ships, dark night skies of stars and the Milky Way or full moons that seemed to rest on the house roofs. The island was there for me to explore, finding favourite spots to collect cowrie shells, taking ferries to see Iron Age brochs and knitting on the beach. I began my creative life of knitting design, writing and teaching online knitting workshops.
Because of the pandemic, no one was allowed in anyone else’s house or car and everything began to close for the approaching winter, but I was happy, learning about myself and living a life close to nature. I began to restore parts of the house, sanding wooden floors, getting the leaky shower repaired so I no longer had to wash in a bucket, sieving the rocky soil in order to grow vegetables in the shelter of the roofless byre. At Easter, a two-day blizzard coated every window with frozen snow as if at the North Pole, an unfamiliar and beautiful experience.
I researched the croft house and the generations of people before me, including a woman who lived there for 83 years. She and I had opened the same doors, looked at the same view from the porch, sieved the same soil. I cherished my time with two friends, one in the village and the other 40 miles away, an 80-mile round trip for us to visit each other. But, by May, I began to feel very alone, which was a deeper feeling than that of lonely. I missed my son and daughter, still in England, and I missed my Sheffield friends and the city’s multi-cultural, outward perspective. Then, there was the wind.
Until you have lived on a treeless island where the wind visibly surges from the four points of the compass, down chimneys with a roar that lifts the bedroom floor boards, pins the ears of the cat to his head when he leaves the house, drives salt spray across the windows from a sea half a mile away, and nearly rips the car door off unless you use two hands to open it, you have not experienced wind. Shetland’s wind is nearly constant and can easily blow between 40 and 70 mph. I found it invigorating at first, but it soon ripped into my thoughts and became exhausting.
When I began to go out every morning to see if the barn roof was still attached, I knew that I could not sustain a solitary life in the raw harshness of Shetland at my age. A friend had said to me, ‘If you bide in Shetland, you’ll need a man.’ A partner may have alleviated much of the loneliness, but my decision to leave Shetland would have been the same.
I learned that a place of great beauty alone is not enough to sustain me. I found that I wanted the multi-cultural, open-minded existence of the city. I needed real connections to people who didn’t just talk about me but with me. I loved the little croft house, but I had to let it go, selling it in the Autumn and returning to Sheffield in October last year, without home or job or knowing exactly what next.
When I came back, friends said, ‘well, at least you tried.’ But I didn’t just try.
I did it, and I undid it.
There is a quote, ‘she believed she could, so she did.’ I believed in my Shetlands dream, and I had the bravery to do it and the courage to undo it when I knew it wasn’t mine anymore.
Grateful thanks to Ann Senuta (who lives in New Mexico) for editing this text for the pitch.
if you would like to support me with the idea of writing my story, then please contact me in the contact form on the home page – I would love to hear from you.
The below text is an extract from my ”Dear Susan’ knitting pattern and 15 page story of my Shetland croft house life and the symbiotic relationship between myself and a woman that lived in the house 140 years before me. Even if you don’t knit, the personal story will draw you into a Shetland life – both modern and old. Read the full story here
Shetland, May 2021
One day, towards the end of May, it rained so heavily that when the winds took up the weight of sky and sea water, dropping it upon the house roof, I could hear nothing else but the sound of pelting rain. Dampness penetrated the house, not as seeping or leaking but as a shroud that rested upon my body. I lit the fire in an attempt to fight back. After one hour, the weight lifted and I began to knit, waiting for the promised summer. By early evening, the sun came out as if there had never been rain at all so I walked to pay the wood man for the fire wood and on the way home, I took a detour to the beach. I wandered the edge of the surging waves, churned up by the afternoon’s winds. The sea, still being in a fury, was not able to slow down its waves to meet the sudden calmness of the early evening. The ebbing sea left a wake of tidal crustations as if lace edges on the beach. I looked for Buckies but all in an instant, I saw a tiny green sea urchin the size of a small flat pea. I bent to pick it up just as the tide surged over my shoes but I caught it before it was lost back in to the sea.
I wondered if you ever walked to the beach to collect sea treasures or if you never bothered.
Shetland, The Visit, August 2020
I begin with the outside, with what I have to hand; my reason, my eyes, my spatial understanding, and an openness tinged with the unknown.
On arriving, I need my first investigations of your croft house interior to be made alone. I want to inhale the house, listen to my internal feelings at first sight then recognise how my body responds to the old stones – I need to let body and stones talk to me. Thoughts and feelings need space. I need space. I haven’t yet found you. I do not yet know that you were born in this house 145 years ago.
It is a pale grey day, mist rolling over and down the hill behind the house as if a blind has been half pulled down a window. The sky is bleached out, the day is calm and windless, not particularly notable.
I open the front porch door, then, I try the house door with its mismatched glass panels. It opens in to the tiny vestibule area. To the right, there is a third old, board-door, painted white with a hand-hewn square wooden knob, which I turn to the right. The simple mechanism lifts a wooden latch inside. That sharp click sound of the latch lifting and hitting its wooden casing is the sound that I will forever remember of this place. It is my first sound here and it will probably be my last when I leave. It is a click of old wood against old wood, heard by every man, woman and child that has ever entered this house before me, for the last 180 years. Human touch leaves tangible traces of every hand that has opened it before me. The patina of years lies dirty on the paint’s surface.
Simultaneously, within the sound, my heart is given over to the first sight of the flag floor and fire place in the sitting room. In an instant, I am sold on sound and sight. I know I will not pull out of this crazy unseen deal to buy a house and change my life entirely.
Heart over head, I move in three weeks later, with two cats and a bag, the furniture and belongings on a lorry, to arrive a week later.
Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.
Dear Susan Jumper, Levenwick Beach, Shetland.
Read the The Dear Susan Jumper pattern and 15 page story, which you can find here, It will be part of the book I will be writing about my life in Shetland, a letter to a house, Susan and the landscape and my knitting. There will be 15% off this pattern and story for the weekend of 7th / 8th May 2022.