An Island in the North Sea

Since I left Paris, my luggage has been lost and found again and I have met more than 30 relatives in the Shetland Islands. My grandfather left these islands 97 years ago and yet my mother's cousins are keen to see me and to have me visit their homes.

This is part of a cozy project to feature different patterns of Shetland knitting.
The first day that I was here, after my bag was delivered in a taxi, I visited The Shetland Museum.
The museum was well-organized and explained every aspect of Shetland from its geological history to
the future of the oil industry. I spent more than two hours learning about the islands and I may go back for another visit.
Much depends on boats and ferries.

The Shetland Islands are a group of islands located at 60 degrees North latitude in the North Sea. I have noticed that it is light at 5:00 a.m. In the summer, it is hardly dark at all. About 7,000 people live in the main city, Lerwick, but their numbers have been increased by workers brought in to work on a gas plant. The workers live on barges in the harbour.

Sheep and knitting are traditionally important to Shetland life. Historical records show that many of my female relatives were stocking knitters. These women would have been paid by the knit piece. They would have knit while doing their other work which included cutting the peat to heat the water that they fetched from the loch to wash the clothes. While the men were at sea, the women looked after the animals and the growing of the food. They also worked as fish-gutters when there was a herring catch. Since everything had to be brought in by boat, almost impossible during the World Wars and too expensive in earlier times, fish, lamb, potatoes, carrots, and turnips were the dietary staples.  On the island of Whalsay, where I am staying at present, there is a general store but no restaurants. It is now possible to buy all sorts of imported and packaged food but haddock is still a favourite.

The Shetland men worked at sea as merchant sailors, fishermen and whalers. As the land was passed to the eldest, younger sons usually went to sea at an early age. Some, like my grandfather, emigrated to Australia, New Zealand or Canada. During the World Wars, the seafaring skills of these men were put to the test. Two of my mother's uncles were involved in torpedo incidents and my grandfather was at Scapa Flow where the German naval fleet was scuttled after World War One. Today, I am going to visit the The Whalsay Heritage Centre  which is preparing a exhibition on the role of the Island in World War One.

German traders came to buy fish in the 16th century
The Hanseatic booth where the traders visited to buy fish at Whalsay.
While English is spoken in Shetland, the dialect is a mixture of Germanic and Norse with a wee touch of French(???). We are as close to Norway as to Scotland. In fact, during World War Two, The Shetland Bus, a covert naval operation, used fish boats to transport agents in and out of occupied Norway.

My days in Shetland are such a contrast to my solitary days in Paris. Without exaggeration, I have met more than thirty relatives in three days. The Shetland families are closely-knit (no pun intended) and generations live beside each other. Although there is community care, elders and bairns are also cared for by family.

I still have a lot of people to see and places to go during my Shetland time. I have learned a lot about the resourcefulness and hard work that characterize traditional Shetland life. As a young child, I lived beside my grandparents and my grandfather kept to many of the Shetland ways. His workshop in Canada with its smell of wood and wood fire stove and his habit of collecting seaweed as a fertilizer for his garden were links to his Shetland past that I remember.
My grandfather's home on Whalsay has a new roof and skylights.  It housed 8 people.
Family history and culture have always been important to me. I am fortunate that my parents chose to visit and to maintain these connections so that I can visit and learn and feel accepted as "one of the family"


  1. Wonderful, Madame! (although I can't believe your luggage was misplaced twice already in one vacation!) How moving it must be, in so many ways, to be back in the place your grandfather came from, and to have the life he lived there still so recognizable.
    So obvious you are a scholar! You've already pulled together so much knowledge about this new place, and I suspect you'll learn a lot more before you leave. Anything you can find out about the knitting, especially, I'm keen to read. . .

  2. It is such a wonderful opportunity to learn about my roots. I still wonder about when my grandfather lived in Nanaimo and why a street in Cedar bears my mother's family name. Almost all the men that I met today were in the merchant navy and sailed all over the world. I am learning so much.

  3. Hi thanks so much for stopping by so i could find your blog!! The islands just look incredible, so remote and yet so romantic, what an amazing history


Post a Comment