Shetland, Fair Isle

Learn, live, grow

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. 

perfect

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

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.

Inner landscapes

pin hole camera image after one full year on the drainpipe.

In august 2020, when I first saw the croft house that I was buying in Shetland (3weeks before moving in) my friend Janette met me, drove me to Levenwick, walked round and fastened a pinhole camera made out of a beer can to the drainpipe of the house. You can see it in some of these images. It stayed there for just over a year.


In September 2021, just before I left Shetland, she removed it. Last night she sent me the pinhole image of a year taken by that beer can camera that was strapped to the drain pipe.


It took my breath away. Janette has asked me to write 200 words to accompany the image for an exhibition in Somerset. I was excited but then became aware of the enormous nature of writing about my one year in Shetland in 200 words. I have started and restarted. I don’t know if I will be able to capture the essence of my one year there because I’m still processing it. And, that one year is still processing me.


I moved from joy and excitement to vulnerability and an inner trauma that spiraled from my own thoughts.   Here is my start, it may change.



Inner Landscapes.

At a still point of the turning earth, where stars are caught arching and the sun warms the metal roof,

I ask you,

what did we both see in the one year that we both looked outward?


You, with your objective tin-sheltered eye looking south.

Me with my dream-like wishful eye looking east to the horizon from a bed that became a boat tossed around in a sea of extreme weather and emotions.

I arrived on a tide of high hopes and dreams, having moved heaven and earth to make it from city to island.  You stoically rested against the house.

All the things came and went – ALL the things, except my son and daughter.

Hushed by clear moonlit nights, wide-eyed at blue winter days and crystalline turquoise seas, looking up to encounter the milky way in the midnight sky, endless pure unbroken fiery sunrises cracking open the fold in the world between sea and sky, whales and tiny golden birds – there is no place like Shetland. But beauty alone was not enough for me.

You sat beside the house through storms, gales, fog, winds so harsh that I could not stand and still your tin eye stayed open capturing a static and whirling world.

But you did not feel. You did not feel the damaging power of loneliness creeping over the horizon month by month eating me away to a vulnerable husk, looking inward, feeling everything and nothing, seeing little outward.

I am still processing my year in Shetland. In truth, I could not even think of it until asked to write 200 words to accompany the photograph. I feel I am touching on the essence of a full year but have not fully done the time justice. This is my thinking process so far.

A last Shetland sunrise

teeep in a blur

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”

Levenwick, Shetland. 23/10/21

Shetland Wool Week 2021

This week is Shetland Wool week 2021.  The first time I visited Shetland, was for a Wool Week in 2015. I stayed at the hostel in Lerwick and every bed in every room was taken by wool week visitors.  I fell in love with Shetland, its culture of knitting and the tangible, visible history across the islands.  I also visited St Ninians for the first time and squealed with joy at just seeing it.  I still sometimes squeal at seeing St Ninians. 

Since 2015, I revisited again and again – for Up Helly Aa in 2016, a few more holiday trips, an Artist residency at the Booth in Scalloway in December 2017, and an R&D trip to Unst in 2018.  All of these trips deepened my love of the social history across the islands and my love for Shetland knitting.  I remember meeting Hazel Tindall in the Textile Museum one day in May 2017, and I recorded her talking about her Grandmother collecting the peats for the rayburn. (At that time, I had a passion for old stoves left in abandoned croft houses)   I still have that recording and I have always been in awe of Hazel, her skill and her warm character. She makes me smile when I see her. She is a Wool Week Goddess.  I met her for lunch a couple of months ago.  We went to the Mareel.  It was a joy to be with her, such an honour.

Hazel in one of her amazing knits.

Six years after first visiting Shetland, it is once again, Wool Week.  It is not a face to face Wool Week where thousands of participants descend upon Lerwick and the surrounding areas to enjoy workshops, trips, visits to museums and of course both Jamieson’s wool shops, but a virtual wool week. Next year will be real, I know it.   But, in 2015, it was my first experience of being here – I sat by the pier knitting and watched an otter come in carrying a huge fish.  He didn’t know I was there until I moved. I mean, a city girl watching an otter whilst sitting on the pier knitting in the town – who would have believed it?

Here is a blog from that time https://www.travelblog.org/Europe/United-Kingdom/Scotland/Shetland/Wick/blog-901174.html

This week, six years later, I am teaching Online Colour blending sessions in the Virtual Shetland Wool Week programme -2 this weekend, 2 next weekend and on Friday, three ladies are coming to the house to do a face to face colour blending session and incidentally, they are from my home town of Matlock.   Seemingly, we are 6 degrees of separation, or maybe just one degree.

I’ve been teaching online sessions since January when one of my supporters asked for a class, in December, for her friends for a Christmas present.  I said that I was busy with the house but would do a workshop in the January.  It happened the last weekend of Jan, – I got in by the skin of my teeth and since then have been teaching up to 4 sessions every month ever since – except when I took a 6 week break to work on the Dear Susan Project.  I would very much like to thank that supporter who truly developed my own Creative Practice.

This weekend, I have met ladies from America, Canada, Australia, Britain, Germany, The Netherlands,  Sweden and Scotland.  Today, I had two ladies join me from Canada and America at 2am and 5am their time – I felt honoured and flattered that they were so dedicated to join me in the middle of their night.

Every time I do an online workshop, I feel warm and happy afterwards.  I get so many messages after the sessions that I know that all the hard work to teach, inspire, engage with and to share skills is worth it.  Some of the ladies over the last 6 months have also become my international online friends – especially Cait St. George, whom I met through a session with Cream City Yarn in Milwaukee.  Cait became my test knitter for Dear Susan and also number crunched the pattern.  The Internet and Instagram has made these sessions possible and I want to thank every one who has attended a session already, everyone who is booked on to a session and to future bookers.   You make my creative practice valued and I value every one who has joined me.   If you would like to join a colour blending workshop, I have a couple of places left on 17th October and I am taking a waiting list for November (dates to be confirmed) If you go to my online workshop tab, here on the website, you can see information of the classes.

Dear Susan jumper

Here’s to Shetland Wool Week 2021.

I look forward to seeing your work – tag me on Instagram.  Tracey 😊

Oh yes, I have 20% off all of my knitting patterns during wool week.
The code for the basket is Wool Week Workshop

and patterns are here

https://www.ravelry.com/designers/tracey-doxey

A house of two women.

July 2021

In September 2020, I moved to a croft house in Levenwick and began, more or less immediately, to research the people that had lived here before me. Through conversations with local people, the return of photographs and pottery and 8 sessions in Shetland Museum Archives,  I found that the Halcrow family had lived here from the mid 1800’s until 1960.  I became particularly interested in researching a woman called Susan (Cissie) b1876 –  d1960 who lived in my croft house for 83 years – and after her parents and brother died, from 1916, she was alone.  She made the fire in the hearth, grew things, opened the old latch door and looked out to sea every day, as I now do, also as a single woman.   Susan was the last of three generations of the Halcrow family to live in this house and she lived through some of the most recorded changeable times in Shetland history.

Through this new frame of mine, I began to write a story of two women living in the same house over a century apart.  I began to write and research through my own lived experiences, diarised in a daily practice of writing. I researched a story of Susan, this house and Shetland, juxtaposed with my own lived experiences in the same house and out of that story, I knitted a pattern for Susan.  When I look at Susan’s face in any of the photographs that I have been given, she looks calm, serene and has a real beauty about her.  The glint in her eye was there to the end.

I was awarded a VACMA award.  (Visual Arts Craft MakersAward) to write the story of Susan and myself living in this house over a century apart and to design a knitted piece dedicated to Susan Halcrow.  I have made a neat little pullover dedicated to her, with her in mind. The jumper hopes to embody the natural elements of Shetland and how serene and calm Susan looked –  always smart, usually wearing a brooch or collar when photographed outside the house.  The body of the jumper is inspired by the colours of the Shetland seas of turquoise, aqua, greens and all the blues you could ever imagine and I wanted the yoke to be jewel-like.  It is a knitting recipe of light, wind, the sea, yarn, Shetland life and a woman called Susan as well as my own creative practice. My creative practice is a way of expressing my life through the art of storytelling and technology of knitting and through the use of expressive colour.

I would like to thank Shetland Arts and Creative Scotland for supporting this project – for me, it is a thing of great beauty – not only the design but the 15 page story of Susan and I.  The writing of this work has been a research and a personal journey written in letters to Susan. If you are interested in the knitting pattern, it is available on ravelry (with the story too).

Big love from Shetland in these long summer days. Tracey.

For the knitting pattern and 15 page story

https://www.ravelry.com/patterns/library/dear-susan

The approach of mid summer.

We are approaching midsummer, the Summer Solstice, the longest day of the year. We are in the Shetland Simmer Dim – my first fully experienced one here and it is a rare experience. June is the time of year where we are graced with a light until after midnight although the sun sets at around 10:30pm.  The evenings are some kind of twilight, a half light in which you can still see everything even at 1am. From the bed, I look out to sea where the twilight meets the sun rise at around 3:30am.  Together, these joining lights and the calmness of the evenings full of bird song are recognisable only as Shetland.   

For a few short weeks, Simmer Dim means that there is no true darkness at all, which I am accepting as the flip side of the coin of Winter whereupon it is daylight between 9am and 3pm and if it is a bad day, there is no true daylight at all – just a greyness.

In June, time is like a breath.  It feels as if the world held its breath so long that now, there is an opportunity for a gentle exhale.  

The Summer light in which we are living by here in Shetland, brings us out from hibernation. I have become lighter with the lightness fo the weather. The plants grow at a speedy rate, pushed on by the long days. The cats lounge outside rolling around in the dust. Finally, the winds have slowed.  

I find myself wallpapering at 11pm because it feels like early evening then I’m awake by 4:30am because of the fully sun lit day light. The cats think it is breakfast time, I’m up, dressed, out and down on the beach by 7am before work. I feel tired because I’m doing so much but it is not an exhausted tired.  It’s a fulfilled tired of living a long full day, Then, I am aware that on 21st June, the days will begin to grow shorter, slowly at first then gather speed.   I don’t even want to think about it.

I was hoping a friend would be here on Summer Solstice but I am not sure, so, I will mark the day in some special way – by doing something I hardly do anymore, camping or swimming in the sea, or just by sitting out and listening to the world – not knitting, or writing – just sitting and marvelling at this special place where the season of Summer rewards our waiting.  Maybe I’ll do all three.

Shetland -a hint of summer and a call out.

St Ninian’s

Today is one of those rare perfect days – it is still, calm, bright, sunny and clear.  The Ewes are still lambing, the air is filled with the sound of birds and it’s a rare opportunity for me to get out on the bike.  The regular winds make cycling difficult here. I used to bike about 8 miles a day in Sheffield, every day, in all weathers, up the hills with all the shopping in the panniers and a back pack on.  Here, my bike has been in the outbuilding for about 5 months.

Today, I oiled it, brushed the dead bugs out of the paniers, loaded it up and set off for St Ninian’s and Bigton hall for soup and cake lunch for £5. Along the side of the road Sea Pinks and wild primroses grow.  The deep blue sea is always to my right going to St Ninian’s and to my left returning.   When cycling, you see all the things missed by being in a car and I felt grateful – really grateful to be alive and grateful to live in this beautiful place – so extreme that the weather governs emotions.  St Ninian’s is 3 miles around the corner from here.   Seeing it has never ceased to make me happy, whatever the weather, time of day or how ever I am feeling. Just seeing the natural tombola makes my heart sing.

Back home, Tiggy sits beside me now on the South side of the house. We both soak in the sun’s warmth.  His fur warms up. His eyes run from the winds. My shoulders loosen.

At the back of my house is an old barn and a small byre.  I dug the byre out and sieved every bit of soil that now rests in two builder’s bags.   One is full of growing potatoes (they’re too close – let’s see what happens) and the other has carrots, onions, beetroot and strawberries in it.  They may never grow, never ripen, the weather in chilly.   Until last night, I covered the potato bag because of the chill.  It is still really cold at night – but last night was still, calm and clear. I captured the early moon  and at 1am, it was still light.  On some occasions, it makes me laugh – just to be here, to see this incredible world so far north, to try to grow things, get the bike out, paint things and make tidy the untidy.    When I sat at the small café at Sumburgh yesterday, I looked at the edge of the earth, the horizon, Fair Isle 24 miles away, and I watched the birds rise up and fly.

During the week, I am working now, 3 days a week and I also volunteer another day.  I do this to meet people, be part of the community, give back to others and to pay my bills. The work is full on, with few pauses and it’s extremely detailed.  I also teach online knitting workshops and manage the online process and am currently writing a booklet about Susan Halcrow and I,  living in the same house over a century apart. So, understandably, there is little time and today, I have decided to put out a call for a strong person who is able to help me with the back yard, lift the stones, lay flags, remove some soil, rebuild a low garden wall and help with painting the outside of the house because I am short and getting on a bit.  If you are interested in 2 – 3 weeks staying here in Shetland, in my guest room with full board in exchange for helping me with all the stones at the back of the house and to paint the front and week the endless dandelions out, then contact me. If I don’t know you, I will have to ask for a reference. But, Just contact me if you are interested because I am interested in getting this work done and sharing the opportunity of staying in this amazing location with another person.  

I’d like to hear your thoughts.

Susan, Smola and me.

As a reader of my blogs, you’ll know that in September 2020, I moved to a croft house in Levenwick, Shetland.  It has been a busy 7 months, buying a car, driving a car again after 12 years of not doing so, restoring the south bedroom to its original floor and fireplace and to a more relaxed palette, applying for work, getting project co-ordinator jobs, developing, devising and presenting successful online knitting workshops, digging out a byre, sieving soil, learning how to get furniture to an island parallel to Norway, that although is technically in the UK, it is miles away from London and finding that deliveries do not easily arrive on this island.

As well as living here, I have been researching Susan Halcrow and her parents and paternal grandparents who lived in this house for 3 generations from the early 1800’s.   I’m particularly interested in researching Susan (Cissie) b1876, d1960 who was born in this house and lived here alone after her parents died early 1908 and 1914 and then her brother died in the Battle of Jutland in 1916.

I, as Susan did, make the fire in the hearth, grow things, open the latch door and look out to sea every day.  We both live and lived here as single women.  

Through this new frame of mine, my Shetland practice became entirely local (Shetland) based and I began to want to develop a digital written piece with an online knitted design created through my own (phenomenological) lived experiences of living in the same house that Susan had. I diarised my life in small chapters related to the morning or light, or sun rises or moon and frequently of the wind.  Through a daily practice of experiential writing, I began to wonder about Susan and her life by researching photographs of her and working on a small colour blending knitting design.  That pattern became,  Good Wishes for the New Year  and it was exactly that – all about Susan. 

But, I wanted to develop a deeper understanding underpinned by archival researching of her and her family to write my story of Susan, this house and Shetland, juxtaposed with my own lived experiences in the same house and to share it internationally.  This can never be The story because I cannot talk with her but it will be a story to honour a woman who lived a long life within this house.

At the end of January, I read about The Visual Artist and Craft Makers Awards (VACMA) which is a programme of small grants schemes with a range of local authorities and art agencies across Scotland to support Scotland-based visual artists and craft makers in their creative and professional development. I had become really interested in the idea of writing a booklet about Susan and I living in the same house about 140 years apart. And to write part of the story through the experience of developing a knitting design with Susan in mind. 

So, I applied for a Visual Arts and Craft Maker Award (VACMA) 2 days before the closing date, and submitted by the skin of my teeth on 2nd February.  The application flowed because this is real for me.  I don’t have to make this up, it is my life, my home, seen alongside a very real woman who lived here – I just have to find the right way to write it.

I hope to creatively experiment through an auto ethnographic practice (personal experience in order to understand cultural experience) to enable me produce a 16-page digital booklet about the real life of 2 single women in different times living in the same house (140 years apart).

I will be experimenting with written word, photography and knitted design to tell our linked stories and I will also include a pattern design in the booklet. The project will bring together my previous 5 year’s skills and experiences, my Masters, Artist Residencies and my move to Shetland in an ongoing commitment to my creative practice.

Within time, I received an email from Shetland Arts to say that my VACMA application was successful, which I was over the moon about. To enable me to dedicate time to the project, I stopped all online teaching colour blending workshops until the end of May to give me time to knit the sample, research the family in the Archives at the Museum and to design the pattern and to write this work as beautifully as possible.

Though, from next week, my part time job has increased hours and I also volunteer at Women’s Aid too so I’m finding life very busy and full on but still, without fail, this booklet, the writing, research, design and knitting has been on my mind every day since February. I’ve been to the archives 4 times, I write when I can, I have, tonight, just finished the sample knit which has two different sleeve finishes and uses two types of yarn – as a sample, I am happy. The pullover will develop into another piece.  I have a wonderful test knitter, Cait, from Cream City Yarn, a wonderful yarn shop and creative knitting space in a one-room schoolhouse located in the suburbs of Milwaukee.

Maybe the booklet doesn’t need a knitting pattern design in it, but a recipe of life in this house, and of knitting and two women.  

This project is supported by VACMA from Creative Scotland, Shetland Arts and Shetland Islands Council

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.