Shetland Women by Anonymous
Not far outside the town of Lerwick, on the Shetland Islands there
is a great, black, muddy tract of land called a peat-bog. All about
is utter desolation. There are no huts even to be seen. The town is
concealed by a rounded hill; and when, through some opening between
the bare upheavals, one catches a sight of the North Sea, it, too,
seems deserted by mankind.
The peat, or mixture of roots and peculiar black soil, is dug here in
large quantities; and all about the place are great piles of it, dried
and ready to be burned in the fire-places of the Lerwick people. Peat
takes the place of wood; and in every poor man's hut in Shetland will
it be found burning brightly, and giving out a thin blue smoke.
To prepare peat for market, a great deal of labor is performed. First
come the diggers—men, women and children. Entering upon the deep,
miry bogs they cut the soil up into cakes about a foot long and a few
inches thick, and these they place in high piles to dry. After a few
weeks they come again, and carry the cured fuel away to the town.
It is while carrying these loads that the Shetlanders present a
peculiar spectacle. The men are often very old, infirm and poorly
clothed; and the women are dressed in short-skirted, home-spun gowns,
below which may be seen very red and very broad feet. On their heads
they usually have white caps, nicely ironed, with a fluted ruffle
around the edge. Passing across the breast and over either shoulder
are two strong straps, and these support an immense basket hanging
against the back.
Thus equipped, the brave, stout women, their baskets piled with peat,
tramp off to Lerwick, two miles away, to sell their loads for a few
pennies each. They make many trips a day, always smiling, chatting and
apparently contented. Often a long line may be seen carefully stepping
along over the rough roads, stopping now and then to rest.
The homes of these poor peat women are, many of them, simply hovels.
When they wish to build a home, they go out into some fields, usually
far away from other huts, and there they dig a trench about a square
piece of ground. Upon this they build walls to a height of about eight
feet, and fill the crevices with mud and bog. For a roof they gather
refuse sea-wood, and, with this for a support, lay on layer after
layer of straw, mud and stones.
But what homes they seem to us! There is no fire-place, only a hole in
the ground, with a hole in the roof for the smoke to escape through!
No windows, the door serving for both light and entrance! No beds,
only heaps of straw! Sometimes in one small room, often the only one
the house contains, will be seen man, wife, children, dog and hens,
equal occupants, sharing the same rude comforts. Outside the house,
if the owner be moderately well off, may be seen a herd of sheep or
ponies, and a patch of garden surrounded by a wall.
But there is something a peat woman of Shetland is continually doing
that we have not yet noticed. All have no doubt heard of Shetland
hosiery; of the fine, warm shawls and hoods, and delicate veils that
come from these far northern islands. Now, all the while the poor,
bare-legged woman is carrying her heavy burden of peat, her hands
are never idle. She is knitting, knitting away as fast as her nimble
fingers will allow. In her pocket is the ball of yarn, and as her
needles fly back and forth, she weaves fabrics of such fineness that
the Royal ladies of England wear them; and no traveller visits the
island without loading his trunk with shawls, mittens, stockings, and
other feminine fancies.
Not to know how to knit in Shetland is like not knowing how to read
at home. A little girl is taught the art before she can read; and,
as a result, at every cottage will be found the spinning-wheel and
the needles, while the feminine hands are never idle. It is one great
means of support; and on Regent Street in London will be seen windows
full of soft, white goods marked "Shetland Hosiery."
Who first instructed these far northern people in this delicate art
is not surely known. On Fair Isle, one of the Shetland group, the art
is first said to have been discovered, very many years ago. On that
lonely isle even now, every woman, girl and child knits while working
at any of her various duties.
The yarn with which the Shetland goods are made is spun from the wool
of the sheep we see roaming about the fields. In almost every cottage
may be seen the veritable old-fashioned wheel; and the busy girl at
the treadle sends the great wheel flying, and spins out the long
skeins, which serve to make baby pretty hood or grandma a warm shawl.