ISLAND MAKERS

^ Knitting pattern, THULEKNIT Genuine Shetland Fair Isle Slipover, 1950s; acc. no. TRA 1997.158
© Shetland Museum and Archives

Crafts in the Northern and Western Isles have grown out of necessity – tools for particular tasks, containers for transporting or storing food and fuel, furnishings for the home, clothes to wear – using materials available locally. Skills have been developed and honed over generations so that crafts have come to be identified with specific places in the isles, such as the weaving of Harris Tweed or Fair Isle knitting.

However, as populations have moved or died out, so have their skills and, in many cases, island crafts are in danger of being lost. In 2019, the Heritage Crafts Association added Fair Isle straw-back chair-making, kishie or caisie basket-making and gansey knitting to its Red List of Endangered Crafts.


^ Churns, barrels and tubs for numerous tasks were made using various techniques: shaping curved and flared staves, grooving-in the base, mortising the staff, and clenching hoops.
acc. no. FPL 81459
© Shetland Museum and Archives

^ Grain tray made of un-tanned hide. The wool was removed, and the skin fitted onto the ring, where it tensioned as it dried. It was used in the drying and sifting of grain, and sometimes winnowing. acc. Top: no. AGR 2000.202
© Shetland Museum and Archives
Bottom: Animal skin sieve
© Orkney Islands Council

^ These door-locks feature a fully wooden mechanism, where a key is inserted and pulled up to release the bolt that withdraws to open the door.
acc. no. FPL 65839
© Shetland Museum and Archives

^ An earlier example of a wooden door-lock from North Ronaldsay is in the collection at Orkney Museum.
acc. no. 494
© Orkney Islands Council


> Home-made rivlins, shoes made from untanned hide, North Ronaldsay
© Orkney Islands Council

Many objects in the museums’ collections represent trades or crafts no longer in use in the islands because they have been superseded by developments in technology. Previously, everything was made locally and out of materials to hand, with skills practised and items used for generations. Now some skills have all but died out, with some very specialist island crafts, like the leather ba’s produced annually for Kirkwall’s game of street football, only just surviving. Some island crafts, such as chair-making, weaving and knitting, are examined in more detail elsewhere in the exhibition.

^ Spoons and beakers of cow horn were made by boiling and pressing with wooden formers.
acc. no. FPL 8971
© Shetland Museum and Archives
> Wooden horn spoon mould
© Orkney Islands Council

> Powder horn
© Orkney Islands Council

^ Leather ba’ (ball) originally played 1894, won by Freddie Buchanan for the Uppies.
Played again 1951 New Year’s Day Boys’ Ba’, won by John Mooney for the Doonies
© Orkney Islands Council

^ First ever Women’s Ba,’ played Christmas Day 1945,
won by Barbara Yule for the Uppies; 
donated by Barbara Yule’s family
© Orkney Islands Council

^ Boys’ Ba’ played Christmas Day 1926, won by Albert Brough for the Doonies.
© Orkney Islands Council 

^ New Year’s Day Men’s  Ba’
© Orkney Islands Council

Find more information about the Kirkwall Ba’ here.





Left: Bride’s cog for ale passed around at Orkney weddings;
acc. no. 1991.357
© Orkney Islands Council


Middle: Wooden bowl with oatmeal; acc. no. A2
© Orkney Islands Council


Above: Ladle with bere meal
© Orkney Islands Council

^ T. A. Robertson, Chess pieces made from sewing thread bobbins,
mid-twentieth century
© Shetland Museum & Archives

T. A. Robertson (1909-1973), known as Vagaland, is one of Shetland’s best-known and loved poets. His work appeared regularly in the The New Shetlander and he published several collections of poetry in Shetland dialect. He also wrote about Shetland songs and folk stories and some of his poems have been set to music. These chess pieces were made by Tammie Robertson from sewing thread bobbins.

< Cruisie lamp, sometimes called a collie or koli lamp in Shetland, containing fish, seal or whale oil and a small wick for indoor use.
© Orkney Islands Council

^ Tom Kent, Buckie shell oil lamp.
© Orkney Library & Archive


^ Stone mould for casting cruisie lamps
© Orkney Islands Council

Corrigall Farm Museum and Kirbuster Museum in Orkney show some of these domestic items in the types of interiors in which they would have been used.

^ Whalebone arch, Kirbuster Museum
©Rachel Boak

^ Fire hoose, Kirbuster Museum
©Rebecca Marr

^ Interior, Kirbuster Museum
©Rachel Boak

^ Corrigall Farm Museum
©Rebecca Marr

^ In-by, Corrigall Farm Museum
©Rebecca Marr

^Oot-by, Corrigall Farm Museum
©Rebecca Marr

^ Tom Kent, St Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall
© Orkney Library & Archive

Founded in 1137, St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall was in poor condition by the early twentieth century when a bequest by George Hunter Thoms (1831-1903), Sheriff of Caithness, Orkney and Zetland (portrayed as Magnus Troil from Sir Walter Scott’s The Pirate), enabled restoration to go ahead.

Under the direction of Edinburgh architect, George Mackie Watson (1860-1948), work to replace the spire, remove early nineteenth-century plaster and paint from internal walls, take out pews and galleries, and restore stonework took place between 1913 and 1930, employing craftsmen including stonemasons, metal- and wood-workers.

In 1919, when work was being carried out in the choir, the bones of St Magnus were discovered in a wooden casket. After examination, the bones were returned to their resting place and the casket is now in Orkney Museum.


< Tom Kent, The bones of St Magnus and wooden reliquary box
© Orkney Library & Archive

Watson designed new organ and crossing screens and pulpit, carved in oak by Scott Morton and Co., and an organ was built by Henry Willis and Sons Ltd. in 1925. The plain windows were replaced with stained glass designs by Glasgow School artist, Oscar Paterson (1863-1934), depicting figures from Orkney’s Norse history. The restoration work was documented by Tom Kent in photographs and by Stanley Cursiter in watercolours and prints.

^ Tom Kent, St Magnus Cathedral during the restoration period
© Orkney Library & Archive

^ Tom Kent, St Magnus Cathedral following restoration
© Orkney Library & Archive

^Tom Kent, Gargoyle, St Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall
© Orkney Library & Archive
<Tom Kent, Weathercock of St Magnus Cathedral, and the men who took it down
© Orkney Library & Archive

Continue reading more about Island Makers in our exhibition sections on straw, textiles and Harris Tweed, as well as contemporary makers Kevin Gauld and Frances Pelly.