On Saturday 12th April, we were treated to a talk on the Scottish Islands by three of our own members. Chris started the evening telling us how an archaeology trip to Orkney led her and her partner, Mick, to visit North Ronaldsay where her love affair began with the indigenous seaweed eating sheep. Three years later whilst staying in Lewis, Chris bought a drop spindle and learned to spin. In August 2017 she and Mick flew from Kirkwall in an 8 seater plane to spend 6 days at the North Ronaldsay Sheep Festival which brings together volunteers from all walks of life to help rebuild the 13 mile long 6’ high wall which surrounds the island. This wall, built in 1832, restricted the sheep to the shoreline so that the 500 crofters could graze their cattle and grow enough crops inland to keep them in food all year round. The wall now keeps the 3000 plus North Ronaldsay sheep from mixing with other breeds on the island.
The rebuilding used to be done by crofters but there are no longer enough of them to keep up the arduous task. Some of the stones are huge, making it a hard day’s work for the visitors but there was NR mutton on the menu every night to help keep up their strength! We learned how the North Ronaldsay’s strange diet has altered their digestive system over the years so that the breed can no longer tolerate copper. When the sheep are moved onto grassland for lambing and shearing or to new homes elsewhere, they need a copper binding lick.
Chris was taught how to shear the sheep by 81 year old Maurice using the traditional method of laying the sheep on the ground, binding their legs, and using hand shears. The wool is sent to Yorkshire to be scoured and then back to the mini mill on the island where the double coated fleeces are dehaired and made into rovings or batts and then into yarn or pre-felt. There are several shops in Kirkwall selling knitwear made from North Ronaldsay wool. Chris had lots of impressive samples of her own – skeins of handspun wool and knitted items, including a beautiful blanket showing the various different natural colours of the North Ronaldsays and featuring rows of little sheep. Chris is justifiably smitten with these rare breed, primitive sheep and is looking forward to her own flock lambing later in the month.
We then moved onto Michele and Audrey’s experiences of the 2017 Shetland Wool Week. It was very interesting to hear first-hand how one goes about attending this event when flights and/or ferries and accommodation have to be booked way in advance of the week’s programme being revealed. Having checked out the booklet listing last year’s workshops and events, it seems there is no likelihood of not finding enough to keep you amused – it is more a question of going online at the crucial moment when the booking opens to get onto the most popular courses. There are two “hubs” on the island where you can meet others, enjoy free tea and coffee and keep up to date on all that is happening.
During the week there are opportunities to visit Jamieson’s factory (popular, sells out quickly) and to learn how the Shetland wool is sorted. Fair isle knitting is everywhere from the Wool Week classes, to the shops and the museum but weaving is also on the timetable. We heard about the some of the businesses on the island including Burra Bears which are made from old Fair Isle knitwear and Neilanell – a modern knitwear designer. It seems that everywhere you go there are spending opportunities - Michele mentioned that she came home with a super fine Shetland fleece which she didn’t need but couldn’t resist. Apart from the textile related classes and visits, Michele and Audrey had time to explore the island which was stunningly beautiful, especially on fine days. They found Minns beach particularly amazing with white sand, seals and lots of interesting birdlife. It was pointed out that Shetland is a very windy island and when it rains, the rain is horizontal!
Audrey and Michele also recommended the prehistoric settlement of Jarlshof, Quendale Water Mill and Croft House Museum. The latter’s traditional croft building with its thick walls and small windows made it obvious why the fine spinning had to be done outside where there was plenty of light.
After Wool Week finished, Michele and Bill moved further north to Unst to enjoy the prize they won for a holiday there and the opportunity to savour the local gin! The others in the group had other plans for their journeys home but it seems a good time was had by all. As I am going to SWW myself this year, I gathered no end of tips from Audrey and Michele which I know will be very helpful in getting the best from my time there.
We are a group who enjoy learning and improving our skills and are genuinely interested in sharing these skills with each other and any one who would like to join us.