If on the 17 mile journey on the way home from work in Lerwick, you realise that you don’t have enough petrol to get to town tomorrow, then you have to continue past home southward to get petrol and along the way you find a place you have never been to before, whereupon you arrive in time to watch the clever dog working the sheep with ease and grace while the unexpected winter sun rests upon your face and the roaring sea is in sight line, then you wander and find the marks of your dreams – where a woman stencilled upon her croft house walls many, many years ago and the pattern is still faintly visible even though the house is open to the elements – and after all the wondering if you made the right decisions to move to an island from a city come to a head because at that very moment you become washed over with a sense of pure contentment whereupon all the uncertainty and current concerns fade away and I know that I made the right choices to get to this very point on earth that I never knew existed and I look over my shoulder at the five year journey I have made to get to this one pure moment of clarity understanding at my own achievement – to live life fully – even if it hurts sometimes.
To look over one’s shoulder to see the journey of risk, decisions, learning, acquired knowledge, tears and joy is to truly come to a resolution – it may be fleeting but these moments are the pure moments that mark out lives. I will never forget it. My life choices have not been easy nor have they always rendered happiness but without doubt, I am trying to fill my life with curiosity.
A similar pure moment happened to me when I lived in China and found, exactly one year to the day of arriving, that I also turned and looked over my shoulder at the journey – that was in 2009. It is here but it happened in a similar situation when I was walking to Tiger Hill and all the stars aligned.
On the doorstep, the air of the first pre-dawn breaking light is heavy with the scent of peat smoke. It has faintly snowed as if salt has been laid down. Eleven geese fly in a staggered distorted V line, calling as they fly overhead in the dark blue sky. The fine white snow covers the earth. I’m heading towards the beach, it is 7:30am and the sky is a deep mid blue, the sun has not risen but the horizon is a faint burning pink line. It is neither dark nor light. Everywhere is silent apart from the trickle of the brook beside me babbling, occasional geese flying above and the ducks at the top house waking. Few houses have a light on. It is Winter hibernation time – even Alfie went back to bed after he’d eaten at 6.
A large boat sits in the bay. It’s quite unusual to be here. I’ve looked at it through my tiny eye glass. It is piled with containers and its lights are on day and night. I have since found out that it has stopped for repairs on route from Estonia to Iceland. It’s a different world.
When I breath in sharply, icy air surrounds my nostrils – there is no scent in the air – yet.
Sheep rise stiffly and move away from my approach. I try to not disturb them from their icy beds.
Towards the beach, my footprints leave not trace in the frozen snow.
I think, as I walk, that it is as if I have never lived in any other place, yet I have only been here about 20 weeks. The sand is frozen in the shapes of yesterday’s footprints. I came for seaweed but it lies frozen in the sand so I leave it. The beach lies below the Winter sunrise horizon line – it is entirely in shade and entirely frozen. To my right, the cemetery is outlined in the early morning light. I can see where Susan lies next to her parents above a thousand years of history. The grave stones stand as a crowd of people against the light.
At the edge of the cliff, I stare at the large boat in the bay. I can hear its distant engines chugging. The natural sea laps below me. As I turn, I catch a glimpse of my tiny house on the hillside facing South East. It has stood there for 200 years. The white houses are all white, they do not glow pink as a reflection from the sunrise. I feel calm, at one, at peace, yet there is a hint of uncertainty edging my fragile calmness – similar in shape to the pink edged clouds in front of me. The light lightens. It feels surreal to be standing on a bank above a crescent beach, listening to the ebb and flow of the winter tide.
Rabbit holes pit the ground around the cemetery walls. The rabbits know what lies below that ancient mound. In this light, I see that all the beach is faintly covered in salty snow.
The clouds are edged in frills of pink facing the rising of the sun god.
On my return, the sunrise has crept into the porch, indicating a return of the sun to a more easterly position. When I open the door, I see the sunlight flooding across the bare chimney wall in a shard of light. The crystals throwing rainbows onto the ceiling, the shadow of the bar in the window frame flanks the wall in a perfect shape.
I actually gasp at the magnificent light in my simple home, a home of few things, and know for sure that I would not wish to be in any other place in the world at this moment. The house provides me with safety in my unsure world. It is a place of shelter, a place of life, a place where I live and see and feel this world around me. I mean, really see and really feel this world – eyes wide open.
Each day, my first point of contact with the world is through the sitting room window which frames the sea and the sky. Some days, the window is full of a sea’s horizon, as if drawn using a spirit level. Outside, the sky has always drawn my thoughts and gaze, but here, the day is written in clouds so visible in a long 180 degree joined up formation of whisps that colour my day.
On the bench, I look at the horizon thinking I am back in the Himalaya viewing the mountains – which at the time, I thought were clouds. Here, each cloud edged in pink frills around its south side looks so much like a snow topped mountain range that I could do no other than think of being back in Nepal.
I have moved to a remote place with nature as my ever-reliable friend. It is the sky that raises my spirits and gaze. I am drawn to the horizon line day after day, where the sea touches the sky and where the clouds rest in a row. Just after 9am, after the sun has risen, we have been having two pure hours of crystalline light where this small point on the earth shines in magnificent, unquestionable glory.
A string of chandelier crystals, on a wire line, edges the top of the window. The prisms and nuggets throw rainbows up the northern walls of the sitting room. Already, I know where the sun rises in this composition of interior thrown light. The sun rise has slipped southwards. It throws its light in to the porch and the covered Jasmin. With the light, I figure out my possibilities. I am alone but not alone. I have my thoughts and feelings and they run unencumbered – wild and free.
On 21st December 2020, I met a friend in a layby just south of Cunningsburgh, which is actually a remaining part of the old winding road that used to skirt the coast from Lerwick to Sumburgh. Now, there is one main road in Shetland – the A970 – a perfectly smooth, well-kept, tarmacked road that rolls out for miles from the most southerly point of the island at Sumburgh to the most northerly point some 60 miles later at North Roe. Some of the sections of the old road still remain – used as laybys or viewing points facing the sea. They jut out beside the main road and this is where we planned to meet at the southern end of Cunningsburgh to watch the sunrise for our 2020 Winter Solstice. In Shetland, we have, at this time of year, just under 6 hours of daylight.
Two days in the week running up to 21st December had given us glorious sunrises from about 9:02am to 9:15am. I knew this, because I had watched the golden round sun rise out of the sea in Levenwick. On 21st, we were positioned ready, hoping for light. The sun did rise at the same time as the previous day but it hid in the clouds. All we could do was drink hot tea, chat, eat cinnamon bagels and watch as the day just grew light. It was a beautiful start to any day but it was, for me, completely special with good company and a good reason to meet. When we knew the sun was up, but that it wasn’t going to show, my friend went to her place of work in Lerwick and I went on to Cunningsburgh beach to look for sea glass.
At exactly 10:02am when the earth tilted 23.5 degrees away from our Sun and the Northern regions of Earth experience the shortest day of the year — our Shetland world became the Winter Solstice and at exactly 10am, the sun broke through the clouds to be the most magnificent, powerful star in the universe at that exact moment in time at exactly 60 degrees north. From the beach, I could not believe its brilliance. It was one of those moments when you just do a little squeal of excitement without knowing you were going to do so or that you could, in fact squeal. Here is that moment of pure brilliance throwing light.
I have long wanted to use crochet in one of my small designs but didn’t know it on that beach until I went in to Lerwick, bought 3 colours from Jamieson’s that were of that Solstice moment. When I got home, I started to make little granny squares like the rising sun to join to make a pair of mitts. I picked out the colours that most reminded me of the sunrise but the joy of this pattern is that it can be made using any 4 ply yarn that we tend to have in a box all jumbled together. About 5 years ago, I started making a blanket in tapestry yarns – it still grows and it is as heavy as a rug.
Taking inspiration from the landscape that now surrounds me has become one of my greatest joys whilst living here. Every day, I look for the sunrise and last night, 27th December, I stood out at midnight under a perfectly clear, calm night with an almost full moon surrounded by a huge perfect moon halo. The Cats came out with me, I messaged people about what I could see and tried to take photographs of the moon but they never come out from the phone camera.
Storms and sunrises and moons are a huge part of winter and I am settling.
It is just over a week now since I finished my latest knitted hat design which is entirely inspired by Susan Halcrow. If you have been following this blog, you will know that Susan lived in this house from around 1880 to 1960. The pattern that I designed is with her in mind and hopefully honours the woman that lived here. When photographs were brought to me, I saw how strong this woman looked but also serene and calm. I’ve put all of the photographs of her on my wall, by my desk so that if things get a bit tough, I can look at her and think, she lived here alone and didn’t have a car, internet, TV or phone or any of the comforts that I do and she lived to be 83 years old. I’ve already shared the photograph of Susan in front of the magnificent peat stack, which she will have undoubtedly help cut and if not, definitely helped dry, carry and stack this magnificent pile. Since moving in to this house, one of my favourite things is to step out in the mornings and smell the heady scent of peat smoke still in the air from the previous night’s fires in the village.
I purposely chose peat as part of the range of colours of the new design because Peat featured heavily in people’s lives then, and can still do today. I burn peats on my fire (because they were kindly left by the previous owner) and I hope to get a peat bank and cut peats next April to dry and save for the Winter fires. The best peat smell is from my neighbour’s fire smoke – somehow, their fire smells really good.
I called the pattern, ‘Good Wishes for the New Year’. This is the lovely message that Susan wrote at the bottom of her Christmas card one year. The photograph was taken in a professional photography studio in Lerwick and was the only one she ever sat for. She looks calm, serene and beautiful.
Anyway, here is the hat – If you’d like to take a look at the pattern, it is here
The weather has turned but I am still deeply happy here. For the last week, it has seemed as if the house has been a small boat buffeted by the 50 mile an hour winds and the relentless rains, bobbing on a sea of all imaginable water – rain, sea, fog, mist – except for Thursday. Thursday was bright and sparkling where we all came out brightly and sparkly blinking in the sun to do outdoor jobs.
Last night the aurora appeared but I didn’t leave my bed until 3am when Alf started his routine nighly bip bip bipping noise wanting to go out and my night was disturbed again much like 32 years ago when my children were babies. We now have a cat flap but he cannot, for some unfathomable reason, use it and Tig can only go one way – in. So every night, I am woken and have to let them out. Sometimes, I get up, get them out, return to bed and sleep wondering in the morning if I did get up, sometimes, I get up, wait and let them back in then feed them and we are all confused about 3am being part of a dark daytime, but mostly, I am awake for at least 2 hours either mulling over the many, many jobs to be done or thinking and feeling. I write words that are so crystalline that these nocturnal hours may be my best for writing. There doesn’t appear to be enough hours in the day, so my thoughtful times blead into the night.
I have found some kind of rhythm. It is dictated, in the first place, by weather. If it is fine, I start digging out the byre behind my house. I am hoping that it will be my greenhouse. I’m slow. I’m getting old but every spade of years of growth moved, every flag stone revealed, and every time I bump my head on the low door way, makes this little shell of an old stone building more into the fabric of my daily life and for the future. I’m keeping the ferns in it and there appears to be grape vine but the rest is slowly being removed to make way for a roof next year and a sheltered place to grow veg and scented flowers. Every stone placed by someone before me, every shovel of overgrowth removed by me puts my small mark inside the place. There’s a barn too – called a shed. It leaks and houses inherited junk, rusted metal things, old wood and peat. I like it. I have a vision for it but that will wait.
The house has not yet been changed inside by me. I am letting it speak to me, expose its foibles, and express its joys.
Things are returning to this place, kindly returned to me by a man who cleared it after his Aunt moved out in the early 90’s. His kindness at returning old jugs, glasses and plates that were once in this beautiful old house has been deeply moving. The pottery has once again seen the light of day and become pride of place. My favourite returning jug is a mid 19th Century Victorian salt glaze cream jug with pewter lid, which Raymond remembers being in the kitchen. It is returned to its old home after about 35 years of being away. I also love an old Wedgwood plate and if anyone can shed light on this plate, I’d be grateful These tactile treasures have been touched and used by the last two women who lived in this house for nearly 100 years. Just think of that – all the touches, all the pouring, all the meaningful reasons they were used.
This place and surroundings are always real, always natural. I am finding out more of the house and who lived here as well as change of land and outbuildings. My boys have settled into island life – mostly taking to bed during storms (which appears to be quite a lot) I’m glad they came with me – they make this place a home.
Anyway, it’s raining, to put it mildly. I’m going to put on 3 more layers of clothing and get out for a walk.
I also want to let you know that I have opened up my spare room on Air B&B for next year for single lady travelers, explores, lovers of knitting and crafts who would like to experience this island and lovely old house – the link is here.
I came to Smola in the 57th year of my life, wondering if it was foolish, due to age, aloneness, no income, no idea of future with two cats in a cat pram, arriving in a storm.
I still wonder those things, but will be patient with myself and life.
There are real highs and fairly low lows but I am in the right place, I know it. This place in time belongs to me and how I live it. I should not worry, I should just continue and be the best person I can be for myself and towards others.
I’ve said it before but I will remind myself that, Anais Nin said, ‘we do not see things as they are but as we are’ .
Yesterday, I called in at John’s who said speak to Jim, so I went to Jim’s and Martin was there too, they were off to a funeral and Jim was gracious with his time with me. He told me of Susanna (Susan, Cissie) who lived in the house that I now live in and that he was sent, as a child, to get the milk from her. She had one cow and rowed the little milk bills up on a shelf in the porch, the same porch that I have. He was a young boy – he told me of his house too, so much history in every place. After, I walked out of Jim’s old back gate, across the tufted grass, down the bank and on to the beach, along the length of it then up the south bank to come up behind the cemetery. I stupidly and possibly unempathetically, didn’t think that the funeral would be at Levenwick, so when I saw the people all in black with face masks arriving, I left.
But Martin, spoke with Raymond who came to see me today with the most wonderful handful of photos of photos of Susanna Halcrow (Susan, Cissie, or even Zizzie) and I saw, for the first time, a face to a name of a woman who lived in my old house for many years. She was born on the 6th February 1876 and Died 4th January 1960 – she was 83 and what a beautiful picture she was. Raymond brought me 4 photos of Cissie and 4 of John, that had been left in the house before his Aunt Alice lived in it. Raymond remembers it well. I had seen John in a photo before – John Halcrow, who one day walked out of that front door of the old porch facing the sea in Levenwick and never came back – he died in the battle of Jutland 31st May 1916. I am beginning to gather the stories of the lives in this old house – some sad and this one of war and loss and a wonderful looking woman called Susan with a dog called Ralph. So, if Tiggy will allow me, I will also get a new puppy and call him Ralph too. The woman looking back at me, who appears to have only worn dresses, gives me strength and look – the group are leaning against the wall that still surrounds this tiny house that used to be called Croft number 7 and Ralph sits upon it too. Susan looks absolutely calm and I want her to know that I already love her old house which is now called Smola and hope to share it with other women who possess a love of the wild and windy Levenwick and the old authentic place with a wall around it. And I think my next knitting pattern will be named Cissie.
With great thanks and appreciation to Raymond Irvine.
I pack the bike paniers for the beach – a place that I know is today in a wind storm. Laying the blanket upon the fine sand, making ready to start knitting the gloves with my online Ravelry Knit group is wonderful moment. It is THE perfect location to sit and knit, think, feel – the sea rolling and heaving in front of me, the bike tyres being quickly buried under small sand drifts behind me. I dig into the bank of the crescent beach and unpack a speckled banana and Christmas biscuits in an old tin, my 5 year old Thermos from Japan, my note book, pen, yarn and chart.
I sit as if a child on a picnic for no one and watch the weight of water lift the surface of the sea in front of me. Waves break and reach the shore line as if they move along the keys of a piano – right to left along the entire long beach.
Sand grains settle on the surface of my tea as if in a grain huddle, in the base of the open biscuit tin, on the blanket in the shape of the base of my shoe, in the threads in the ball of yarn, on the canvas yarn bag that travelled a thousand miles, in my hair, on the scarf.
I scan the sea for whales – the whales that came in to the bay last Weds when I was at St Ninian’s. The weight of the sea water, rising and sinking, ebbing and flowing – covering secrets below its surface in the cold, cold depths of ancient sea sounds.
Today is the first day of my online Ravelry Knit Along where you can join me until 12th October in a group to knit the Smola gloves – named after my home in Shetland. You can ask questions, add photos, let me see your projects. THANK you to all those who have bought the pattern for the gloves already.
Happy knitting, happy sea and beach thoughts – If you’d like to join me on the beach next year, I will be offering Air B&B for single lady crafters, artists and explorers. Message me if you are interested in staying in my 200 year old house by the sea.
Exactly to the minute of one week since arriving at this tiny house.
I am utterly grateful for this opportunity to live in this life changing place by the sea. It wasn’t an easy journey but I am finally here.
Every moment, I feel connected to the earth and I’m mindful of the days through the ever present wind, the break through of the sun and the pure blue skies, the wetness moving in over the hill – the weight of water moving in a line of cloudy fog, hail crashing onto the skylight at the top of the stairs so that the cats and I run around thinking we were under siege – new sounds, the weather making my face raw and ruddy and my hair in sea spray straw and above it all, this tiny house that is becoming the love of my life.
The kindness of friends and neighbours helping me arrive and settle in: B – meeting me at the ferry then driving me to the house, flowers and veg from C and H, BD – bringing me peats and coal for my first hearth fire, D brought me a Sunday dinner and E, brought me home grown flowers and shiny wholesome home grown veg last night.
Post cards from well wishers from all over the world begin to fill the wall.
I hear the geese fly over the house, knowing that they fly in their perfect V formation. I step outside to watch how they change position and take turns to fly at the point of the V facing into the wind, the rest in the slip stream. I am learning every moment, every day. Old stones surround my house. Standing on hand hewn stones is grounding.
I have 3 doors – a front door that is mostly open, a small white glazed porch door and an interior door with a very old square wooden latch opener. It’s wonderful. How many people have turned the wooden latch-block before me to open the wooden latch inside? The inside latch clicks and hits the wooden housing and on that recognisable sound I hear the thud of the cats jumping off the bed in the bedroom above to come to greet me.
They have settled so well – now I put them out in the middle of the night if they are talking too much. They roam the area and roll in the sunshine outside the house on the road. They squint into the wind and rain and change their minds about going out. They are becoming island cats.
I am painting the visible wood in the window frames outside before the Winter sets in, I need to order coals, oil for the heating and any number of things. I still need to learn how to read the oil tank but I have managed to get the oven clock working so now I the oven works.
I am learning new things every time I turn around – looking at the hedgerow flowers growing with their faces away from the wind, the beach changes by the day, I search for heart shaped stones, I peel slugs the size of snakes from my porch floor, I move plants into a place of shelter, I wake and look out of the window towards the East for the sunrise every day – from the ship that is my bed sailing in a tiny house built into a bank for shelter. My TV doesn’t work but my environment is my TV.
This place will, at times, challenge me but I feel that there is nothing I cannot overcome. I’m beyond grateful for this time to live properly, feel deeply, touch the earth with integrity.
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.
The Very Reverend Ronald Beddoes, circa 1995 in the old vicarage, Edensor Village, Chatsworth Estate. b. 1912 d. 2000
The Very Reverend Ronald Beddoes, circa 1995 in the old vicarage garden shed, Edensor Village, Chatsworth Estate. b. 1912 d. 2000
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.