Dear Shetland Islands Council,
I write to express my dismay at the decision of the council not to renew the Promote Shetland contract, thereby discontinuing the important work of this organisation, and removing three people from their jobs. The minutes of your decision — effectively arrived at during the brief adjournment in which councillors were allowed just 15 minutes to assess all relevant documentation — record that Shetland’s “goal posts have changed,” and that the council prefers the business of promoting the islands to be “much less about heritage tourism” and more about “attracting people, particularly young people, to live, work, study and invest in Shetland.” I suspect we disagree about the broad connotations of the term “heritage tourism”, but as a “heritage tourist” myself – as well as someone who has studied, worked, and made significant business investments in Shetland, (albeit someone who at 43 is perhaps no longer “young”) I would like to tell you about my personal experience of Promote Shetland.
Towards the end of 2010, I was commissioned by a well-known magazine to produce a substantial feature article about Shetland lace knitting. This was an exciting commission for me: the magazine actually paid writers well, and I would get to travel to Shetland to research the piece. I was just getting back on my feet after the stroke which had disabled me ten months earlier. As I’d had to quit my university lecturing position, I was considering whether I might be able to build a new life for myself through my writing and my designing. Perhaps this trip would hold some answers. I had never been to Shetland, and I knew no one there. Like many first-time visitors, I began my research at the shetland.org website.
The site was beautiful, simple to navigate, and had a fresh, contemporary feel. And not only was it visually appealing, but it was packed full of useful information. I found out about different local areas and activities, virtually explored the landscape and its wildlife, found out what was so interesting about Shetland archeology (a new discovery for me), and sought out places to stay. You could download well-produced booklets in PDF form covering topics from geology to hiring kayaks and the website made me even more excited about visiting Shetland. Inspired, I decided to get in touch with Promote Shetland, the organisation who’d produced it. These folk seemed on the ball — perhaps they might assist me with a few interview suggestions?
I fired off an email but, having done a fair bit of research previously in the field of local textile “heritage”, I didn’t expect too much in return. Small public bodies and cultural organisations were woefully under-resourced (even before the Tory cuts began to bite), and those dealing with outside enquiries had many other demands on their time: assisting with other people’s research was generally a very low priority. But the prompt response from Misa Hay, at Promote Shetland really surprised me. She immediately put me in touch with Dr Carol Christiansen at the Shetland Museum (the world’s leading authority on Shetland lace knitting) and Rhoda Hughson at Unst Heritage Centre. She told me about a contemporary work involving lace knitting and light projection which had been coordinated by local artist, Roxanne Permar, and shared information about a fantastic new project that Jimmy Moncrief had spearheaded, intended to showcase the unique talents of Shetland’s skilled lace knitters, and ensure their extraordinary work was properly valued.
(photo from Roxanne Permar’s Mirrie Dancer’s project, 2010)
I had several email conversations with Misa, and was incredibly impressed. This person seemed to be a sort of living hub of information! Everything was at her fingertips, she was always professional and encouraging in her responses: nothing was too much trouble.
(Tom in the Unst bus shelter)
With everything that Misa had provided me, after Christmas, Tom, Bruce and I visited Shetland for the first time. I worked in the Archives, the Museum and its stores, impressed with everything about it, overwhelmed by the fascinating story of Shetland lace that I was gradually uncovering. Following the local area guides that I’d downloaded, we explored everywhere from Northmavine to Spiggie, and Bruce surprised himself with his first swim, breaking the ice over a boggy pool at Eshaness. We drove to Unst in a crazy blizzard, sharing the festive cake that Tom had baked with the wonderful women at the Unst heritage centre, who’d taken the time to meet me. I spent a happy afternoon chatting with knowledgable lace knitter, Mary Kay, and visited Jamieson & Smith, the Shetland Woolbrokers whose local fibre expertise had resulted in the production of the wonderful new yarn which had enabled Shetland’s knitters to create really fine lace, once again.
Tom and I fell in love with Shetland. It was midwinter: the sun barely broke above the horizon and the wind blew through us in a continual, frozen hoolie, but we encountered warmth and generosity everywhere we went. Talking about knitting, meeting knitters, enjoying the outdoors with my man and dog: somehow, I felt I was at home. And for the first time in ten months, my stroke and its effects were not foremost my mind: I was inspired by this fantastic place, its culture, its women. Shetland really surprised me with its vitality and contemporaneity, and nowhere was this more apparent than in the world of knitting and design. I discovered that young designers around the islands were exploring some really interesting new ideas — designers like Angela Irvine, who combined her work with fine lace patterns with digital prints and beading.
(Angela Irvine’s work. Note Ella Gordon, here depicted at an early stage in her knitwear modelling career)
So I went home, and I wrote my article. I had intended to produce something with a ‘heritage tourism’ emphasis – a piece celebrating the birthplace of a famous ‘historic’ craft. What I’d discovered, though, was that Shetland lace knitting, was forward-looking, trend-responsive, excitingly contemporary and very much alive. It was just like Shetland, in fact.
Anne Eunson’s lace fence at Burra.
That trip was the first of countless others, and the beginning of my supportive relationship with Promote Shetland, an organisation whose assistance and encouragement has continually bolstered the success of my Shetland work.
By 2012, my tiny business was gradually establishing itself. I’d decided to set myself up as a publisher, and produce a book from scratch. The book would be a little different from other knitting titles–combining essays about the things I’d so enjoyed during my Shetland visits together with my original designs (supported by yarn from my friends at Jamieson & Smith). Puffins and lighthouses, ancient wheelhouses and cliffside walks: I’d initially discovered all these things through the helpful information that Promote Shetland produced, and they were now the raw material of my work. If I had a question — if I needed a few facts about the discoveries at Scatness — Misa was on hand to put me in touch with knowledgable folk like Chris Dyer – with whom I went on to form firm friendships.
Promote Shetland also granted me access to the wonderful pool of images I used to illustrate my book. Back then, Tom’s photographic obsession was in its infancy: all I had to accompany my essays were photographs of me, in Shetland, in my knitwear, and this wouldn’t really do. Producing the book together with my layout designer, Nic, we continually enthused about the extraordinary difference Promote Shetland’s photographs made to the book’s visual appeal. Always on hand with a suggestion for a contact or a photograph of a particular location, Misa not only shaped the direction and content of the book, but enabled me to situate my work more broadly within the wonderfully rich aesthetic of the Shetland landscape.
(image used in Colours of Shetland courtesy of Promote Shetland)
Fast forward a few years: my business has grown significantly; I’ve researched, written and published three books exploring different aspects of Shetland knitting (Yokes, Haps, and Shetland Oo), effectively reinvesting the profits from these titles directly back into Shetland industry (buying several tonnes of Shetland wool). Shetland has given an awful lot to me — finding my place there as a writer and designer has genuinely allowed me to find my own place in the world, post-stroke. Since that first visit, a key impetus of my work has always been to give something back — to spread the Shetland word, just as Misa and her Promote Shetland colleagues were continually doing.
Oliver Henry and a big bale of lovely oo from Shetland Oo. Photograph by Tom.
Misa became a firm friend, someone I deeply admired for her warmth and humour, as well as her perpetually enterprising spirit, and professional expertise. Over countless pots of tea and gigantic scones from the Hays Dock cafe, we’ve shared ideas and inspiration. Everything Misa does impresses me — her sense of Shetland as a “brand” is always fresh and forward looking. She’s incredibly productive (editing the successful 60 North Magazine and Shetland Wool Week Annual among her other work); a supportive collaborator (enthusiastically forwarding so many different kinds of Shetland-inspired work from photography to sound art); and possesses a unique and unparalleled ability to effectively mediate the countless different competing interests who have their fingers in the Shetland pie.
Misa. Photograph by Tom from Shetland Oo.
In 2015, I sat in the packed hall at Clickimin amidst a huge crowd of excitable knitters and watched Donna Smith cut the Shetland Wool Week cake with a few tears in my eyes. For, against so many odds, with a tiny budget and limited resources, Misa had built a truly extraordinary event — an event which (rightly) consolidated Shetland’s position at the centre of the world of woolly textiles and which drew thousands of folk around the globe together through the love of their shared interests. I’m so proud to have played a small part in Wool Week as it has grown.
(together with Ella Gordon and Felicity Ford).
In closing, and speaking from my own perspective, I would like to make the point that events like Wool Week – world-class occasions which Promote Shetland have effectively created out of nothing — have much more to do with the celebration of contemporary Shetland life, work, and culture, and very little to do with “heritage tourism,” as narrowly defined.
Jan Robertson baling at Jamieson & Smith. Photograph by Tom from Shetland Oo.
Wool is not Shetland’s “heritage” but rather Shetland’s future: an industry in which many young Shetland people work, and in which many more are now displaying a renewed interest.
(Whalsay’s Peerie Makkers)
For the past few years, Promote Shetland has acted as an exemplary beacon, shining a spotlight on the rich contemporary cultural life of Shetland: only one small aspect of which is my own field of wool and textiles. That you are determined to extinguish that light is, from a public as well as personal perspective, deeply disappointing. I urge you to reverse your recent decision.
(and I would urge readers of this blog to sign this petition or to write, as I have done, to the convenor of Shetland Islands Council: Malcolm Bell,
Shetland Islands Council