finding Smola and a new life in 2020

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.

Outside view of Smola

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.

Under offer – my offer and a hidden non refundable deposit

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.

If you would like to support this trip back to Shetland, then you can do so by buying any of my knitting patterns from here.

I look forward to your comments on what you would like to see / hear when I return to Shetland.

Blue Winter

10.01.2021 08:21am

Blue light

This weekend has been all about a northern Winter, blue light, snowfall, walking to the top of the hill, and scraping the ceiling.

Two of us have had an attempt at sanding paint off the ceiling now.  I bought a fairly expensive belt sander and duly plugged it in and hit the ceiling with it. Holding 3kg up above your head whilst wearing goggles and a face mask, standing on a chair, is testing to say the least.  It didn’t work.  So I started scraping the paint with a ‘magic scraper’ but it wasn’t magic at all, then Nitromorsing, then I paid a man to have a go at sanding and in one hour the entire room was filled with paint flakes and dust but there was nothing in the dust bag and some areas were sanded but more paint was still left on the ceiling and it was all looking very intact with 50 years of rippled paint beaming down at me. He said it couldn’t be done and to go over it with another ceiling. I thought about it.   I poked and wiped a little area clean on the glass in the window so that I could see out, heart slightly sinking at the magnitude of it all – then shut the door for two days. 

Saturday, I returned to the ceiling with fresh vigour, armed with new paint stripper and optimistic hope.  Somehow, I had forgotten the midweek sinking feeling.  Two hours later, there is little effect on the paint from the paint stripper and scraping so I pick up the sander again.  Whilst sanding above my head, I can feel my stomach muscles tightening to hold the weight of it all and to balance – maybe this hideous act of restoration can be exercise too.   Saturday tea time, I close the bedroom door and shower off the dust.

Sunday, I wake to more fresh snow and decide to ignore the bedroom ceiling until I have walked to the top of the hill which overlooks both Levenwick on the East and St Ninian’s Isle on the West side of Shetland.  On passing Jimmy’s, I catch him feeding the birds and mention that I’m walking to the top of the hill and the abandoned mast – just in case I never return and I’m either in a blizzard or lost or slipped or dead – I’m on the hill, right?  I’ll call in on the way home to let him know I survived.  Living alone risk assessment –  it’s a good idea to tell someone where you are going when it’s remote and there’s bad weather.  In my bag I packed a little back up 1. a newly recharged domed torch that sticks to the fridge and can flash.  I figure this is a good idea in cases I need to flag down a helicopter.  2. a foil blanket in case I get caught out and need to hide under something. 3. a flask of tea.   No money and no chocolate.  

I’ve not left the village before the first blizzard of sharp harsh hailstones, bigger than pepper corns, lashes across the land from the West.   I take shelter against a wall in an old, roofless shearing shed.

Even I think it’s a stupid idea and I know Jimmy will be looking out of his window wondering where I am.  After ten minutes, there’s a seasonal change from harsh winter blizzard with hail to calmness and a speck of blue sky so I set off again.  The blue light is reflected on the new snowfall, which reflects back a whiteness.  Pink edged, dark grey filled clouds begin to surround me, there is a faint sound of wind but it is positively calm compared to 5 minutes ago. Out to sea, a snow storm rages.  I can see it pouring, sieve like in vertical strands connecting cloud to sea.  I’ve begun to watch the shape and colour of the cloud formation indicating the weather in that particular spot.

Only two sets of foot prints have been before me – one of human and the other of a large dog. The pink frills edging the clouds become peach then fiery gold – the sun, suspended in the moment, is hiding somewhere behind the snow clouds colouring the cloud edges burning them into a golden light. Whilst writing, the paper page turns pink from the reflection of the clouds many, many miles away.

I am the only living human on this great hill –  I know this for sure because there are no other footprints. Sheep follow alongside. Abandoned snow topped peat banks to my right marking what would have once been a busy place. To the north, the sky is one sheet of orange/ grey, as if fire smoke and to the South, dark rolling fog coming towards me.  It is magical to see the earth’s weather system for miles in both directions – doing different things. The southern weather becomes quite frightening to watch – as if a harsh storm is rolling uncontrollably covering everything in its path.  On the hill, I’m hoping for a view of St. Ninian’s Isle but the likelihood is becoming slim.  I now begin to look for possible shelter – not even a building but a wall.

The ice on the road is frozen like the waves of a sea. Frozen ripples with small snow drifts at either side. The light is blue – not the sky, but the light itself. The ice is too slippery so I walk in the snow alongside.

Slowly, slowly, not entirely walking but meandering, Bowie on a loop in my head, I reach my goal of the abandoned telegraph masts at the top of the hill with 360 degree view at exactly the same time new hail as sharp as nail points stab my face.  The wind howls and whistles around the masts. Briefly,  I look over the edge of the cliff to St, Ninian’s way down below – a perfect natural tombolo beach visible from above.

I turn, to face away from the instant hail storm then start the return journey.  It’s easier going back downhill. 

Bleak blue light

Coldness on my back from the chasing wind.   The sea, way below, ahead of me is now a deep Navy Blue.  The storm sky has coloured it.  At ground level, snow falls gently, sheltered by the hill and for now, the wind has subsided. 

Back to the sander and dust storm.

A Shetland sunrise

6:25am. A calm, slightly damp, silent, start of a day, with a waft of wind around my bare legs.

The one star left, after the star-studded sky has evaporated, is high and to my right – it may be a planet, I need to learn. Last night, at 3am, the Plough, ploughing amongst a sky of stars, I, noticing its different position to that when I was in Sheffield.

sunrise reflected in the window


Here, 60 degrees north, the tilt of my view is different, sharper, present.  On opening the door, in dressing gown, slippers and down coat, I’m greeted by a peachy ribbon hugging the sea top and sky bottom, falling temporarily in its homemade fold in the Earth’s atmosphere.  Since moving here, it has been my greatest pleasure to be greeted by a line of colour dividing earth from sea – this is on lucky weather days.  Some days, there is no differentiation between either.  Almost seven weeks since I arrived and my first waking moment has never changed.  I look out to sea, to the horizon, in search of a sunrise. 

I have renamed the bench a Thinking Bench, rather than a Procrastination Bench.  I procrastinated in that quiet garden in Sheffield, here, I view the changing light, devouring its fleeting moments. 

This place is not an easy place to live but I am alive by its weather challenges and gift of light because it is becoming briefer at this point of the world.   Nothing is missed, nothing taken for granted, nothing is sure – the changing light is a gift. 

The door is open.  Shetland

If you are interested in visiting this part of the island – bookings are open from spring time for single traveling, exploring ladies who want to experience this part of the world in a safe, unique house by the sea. Air B&B offer 20% off for the first 3 bookers. https://airbnb.com/h/levenwick

Hope and Memory have one daughter and her name is Art …

W.B. Yeats – Preface to Celtic Twilight, 1893

At times, I am an artist who has, on occasion, created small, site-specific worlds in abandoned croft houses across Shetland as a response to the researched details in the realities of stories which I seek, hear, see and experience.  My art is a respectful conversation with the women who used to live in those beautiful places. I have an instinctive autoethnographic response in writing, site-specific films and photographs by using textiles, hand block prints and words. If I make art, this is currently my artistic practice, evolved from years of embedding myself within other cultures and places including Shetland and China.  

When, as a mature student at art school, a wise man who lived a stone’s throw from my house (once a Provost of Derby Cathedral then a retiring Vicar on the Chatsworth Estate), said to me, ‘I read widely, if somewhat cursorily,’1  I was reading Winterson and he,  Dostoevsky. On that comment, we swapped books, I went home and looked up the word cursorily in the dictionary and began my love of existential works – he read a modern ground-breaking 90’s book on sexual Identity and love; this was some time in 1996, he in his 80’s, me just turned 30. 

Exuding wisdom, not always in what he said, but how he thought and mostly his ever open, learning mind was a turning point in my life and our conversations became somewhat magnetic for me.    

Every now and again, this man, now long dead, returns to me either in the form of a found note, the gift of a book, a photograph, or lead chandelier crystals.  As he handed over the large prism crystals and cut nuggets that were once part of something larger but now lingering in an old shoe box in his shed, he said, ‘Tracey, never sell these, I had them during my grandiose period.’2  I, who don’t even remember what I did on Saturday, remember these words and both moments as if he had just spoken whilst sitting next to me on this bench in Sheffield.  Words that have shaped every year of my life since spoken.

But he didn’t speak to me here, his memory does.   I have hung those crystals in windows of every place I have ever lived in the 25 years since the he said that line, including in the old hutongs of Beijing and Suzhou.  He is not my story – I can tell you another.

In 2008, after 3 months of living in China, I found out that my partner was cheating on me whilst I was working full-time.  At first, I fell down, felt my heart damaged, tightened and fractured but after telling my Chinese friend, a Buddhist barber who lived in a one roomed house in the old hutongs of Suzhou for 50 years, he sat down and in front of me, wrote me a note in full Mandarin which I had translated at work.   He wrote, ‘There’s an old saying in China and Buddhists say it too. Falling down is not terrible. The terrible thing is that you don’t stand up in time.  You should stand up and brush off the dust and go on walking proudly as you used to do’.3 He also told me to let it go. 

5 years after this conversation, I travelled over 3,000 miles to meet him on an ancient bridge in the old hutong lanes of Suzhou.  He didn’t know that I was revisiting China, there was no way of contacting him, he hadn’t seen me in 5 years, he was walking with his head down, he raised his head, raised his arm in greeting and his eyes spoke.

Now, I think of the strange impossibility of both men meeting and talking together. I don’t know if they would meet in the heat of China or the well-heeled sitting room of a Chatsworth vicarage but what deeply moving stories they would have recalled for each other.  Wise, Christian, Mr Beddoes, beady hawk-eyes twinkling at the sheer marvelousness of the opportunity to speak with the ever deeply calm Cai Gen Lin, his Buddhist chanting songs playing in the background of his one roomed house, 24 hours a day –  both religious men responding to the other with great respect, without speaking each other’s spoken language but speaking through their understanding, eyes, hands, gestures and intrinsic visible knowledge.  Their stories flowing – neither could ever imagine – such worlds, religions, lifestyles and cultures so far apart both in distance and lifestyles from their own –  that only words could bring them close enough to feel those distant worlds. Imagine THAT story – I am their link.  I suppose, in a way, I am their story.

Yet, I have sat in silence with Cai Gen Lin and felt and known his worlds in China as I sat with Mr Beddoes in the scullery drinking warmed up old coffee on the stove hiding from people knocking at the door.

And then there are the stories of Shetland from my repeated visits between 2015/19 to listen to the oral histories of the old knitters and found that they mostly did not want to share their stories because they thought that I would steal them and their knitting patterns which, during my R&D trip in 2018, raised the question of, ‘Who owns words once they are said?’

I have so many stories inside of me – so many seen and understood lives.

I want to create the daughter of Hope and Memory – Art- but this may now be through words and not images.

Notes:

  1. The Very Reverend Ronald Beddoes, circa 1995 in the old vicarage, Edensor Village, Chatsworth Estate. b. 1912 d. 2000
  2. The Very Reverend Ronald Beddoes, circa 1995 in the old vicarage garden shed, Edensor Village, Chatsworth Estate. b. 1912 d. 2000
  3. Cai Gen Lin, The Old lane by the bridge off Ping Jiang Lu, Suzhou, China, March 30th 2009 b. 1945, the 2nd child of 9, when China was still in Civil War.