Christmas in my childhood

I recently got asked to come to the local nursery and talk to the pre-schoolers about what Christmas was like when I was a child.

Did that make me feel old? Well yes it did!

Anyway, I thought about what I could tell them.

I tried to get them to imagine a small croft house, small rooms, no heating apart from the living room with its Raeburn cooker.

I took in an old oil lamp and asked them to imagine –

No electricity, no lights, no TV, no computers, no I pads etc.

Then Christmas itself, no room for a Christmas tree in the small living room that had to hold a table where we ate Christmas lunch.

No fairy lights of course.

We decorated with Christmas cards and paper chains.

I can remember when we started to get those fold out bells.

decorations 1970s

My older brother liked to try and find the hidden presents (under the bed) but I liked a surprise.

Presents were inexpensive items and some made by my Dad – a cradle for a doll, a basic doll’s house that we could go on to decorate and furnish from scraps of wallpaper and furniture made from matchboxes etc.

I remember some very snowy weather in the run up to Christmas, and the fear that the big parcel from friends in London would not be able to get through to us.

That parcel was such a delight, with lots of small items.

Spices and other items for our Mum who used to be a cook in London, and missed all sorts of items to use in her cooking, which obviously were not to be found in Unst.

Pomegranates I remember used to come in the box.

One year I got a plastic hen, and when pushed down she laid an egg.

That has remained in my memory all these years so obviously I really liked it!

Christmas lunch was a hen from the flock that had to be killed and cooked skilfully by our mother, otherwise it would surely have been a tough old bird.

All the trimmings to go with the bird and make the feast go further

then Christmas pudding, Christmas cake etc.

No TV in those early days, so radio perhaps and lots of board games, as well as the new toys to play with.  A pleasant time was had by all, and we didn’t have or need to spend vast amounts of money to achieve that enjoyment.

Rhoda Wibbie Pat


Furniture and memories

Looking around my home recently, shifting furniture around, I started to think about where various pieces of furniture had come from.

Polished wooden table

My old polished wooden table, that now stands in my living room

I really like my old table that came from my Grandfather’s home in Clibberswick, Unst.

I remember as a child, the croft house where my mother grew up and our visits there as children.

My mother and family

My mother (far right) and her family standing outside Uphouse , Clibberswick

We used to walk across on a Saturday to see them, quite a long walk for us as small children..

The house was a two up two down crofter’s home, with coom ceilings (sloping ceilings because of the lack of height) upstairs. The stair was very steep, almost like a ladder, since the house was not that wide.

American Stove

Example picture of an American Stove

They had a low black “American” stove with small ovens at each side.

This was a big improvement on the open fire for cooking (see picture below).

Croft House Museum, Shetland

The Shetland Croft House Musuem shows an open fire for cooking on

A big improvement also by then was to “have the water in”.

They had a tap in a window recess. This was a huge improvement on having to fetch every drop of water used by the household from the well.

Robbie Anderson fetching water

My grandfather Robbie fetching water from the well

I remember the “ben” room, the best room, as opposed to the kitchen/living room where the life of the house went on.

In that room there was the table I now have in my home.

Where did they acquire that from?

Perhaps it came from some sale locally from one of the “big” houses.

It dominated the ben room of the small croft house, but obviously they loved it and polished it and entertained important visitors there.

I used to like, as a child, going underneath the table to polish the table leg. The fancy carved sections fascinated me.

fancy table leg

The fancy carved legs under my table

It came to my parent’s home and finally to mine.

I love it and treasure the memories that come with it of childhood and my mother’s folk.

Finishing a knitted garment

The last two days have been busy with two cruise ships coming to the island and visiting the Unst Heritage Centre.

Cruise ship

Ocean Nova Cruise ship at the Baltasound Pier

When visitors come and I chat to them, I never know what their interests will be.

This time, one group was interested in some of the displays about finishing and dressing; stretching knitted garments into shape.

Nana's mum Betsy with shawl

Morag’s great-grandmother Betsy with shawl being stretched

Large boards for dressing shawls would be put outside to dry, especially since the houses were small and room was limited.

One old lady told me of a incident when a shawl was put out to dry and then “da grice gaed trow da middle an dat wis a winter’s wark geen”

(The pig went through the middle of the shawl, and that was a whole winter’s worth of knitting gone!)

Wood shaped for stretching socks, gloves, jumpers etc was used for the various garments. Since wood was a scarce commodity in Unst, any source of wood would be gratefully recycled into the shapes needed.

I still have a jumper board and use it to keep our woolen jumpers in good shape.

Adjustable jumper board

My adjustable jumper board – still in regular use!

I am currently knitting hats, so I need a plate of the correct diameter for stretching those!

Some visitors were interested in the knitting belt that we still use here in Shetland. It fits around the waist and helps the knitter steady their knitting and keep the tension even.

Knitting Belt

My knitting belt

I have always wondered how widespread the use of the knitting belt was. I would be interested to know if anyone has researched this subject.

Peerie Knitters Visit

Recently the young knitters from the island of Whalsay came on a visit to Unst to meet our peerie knitters.

Map of Shetland

Map of Shetland showing the island of Whalsay in the East, and Unst in the North

They were accompanied by adults who help and teach in the two groups.

People in Unst Heritage Centre

Some of the ladies from Whalsay who came to help.

The day was arranged in such a way that the children moved round in small groups with children from both islands in the each group.

Activities included spinning, dying wool, finger knitting, crochet, knitting.

Members of Unst spinners and knitters group were there to help the groups.

Peerie Knitter dying wool

Having an opportunity to dye wool proved popular.

The children could also see the fine lace knitting on display in the Heritage Centre.

They especially seemed to enjoy the school section of the Heritage Centre displays!

Children using the Unst Heritage Centre school displays

Trying out schooling, the old fashioned way

Lunch was supplied from the nearby tearooms and enjoyed by all.

Group photo of all the Peerie Knitters

The whole company.

Thanks to everyone who made it an enjoyable day.

Unst houses

In the 1960s June Owers did a splendid job of identifying, drawing and listing inhabitants in some of the old empty croft houses in Unst or “vod” houses as they are called here.

vod (adj) unoccupied, as a house.

From John J Graham’s Shetland Dictionary

Sheet 001 50pc

Example of the sheets in the Unst Heritage Centre for each house June Owers worked on

These are available to view at the Unst Heritage Centre. Those folk who come back to Unst to trace their family history find these invaluable.

I have been  thinking for a while now that we need to update this information by adding more houses to it. Even houses that are still lived in should be included with details of their history and the people who used to live in them in previous generations.

Walking at the Westing recently, I looked at the old disused School and then at the two houses nearby, one apparently called Murrasko.

I had found its name from this old map.

Murrasko Map

Map of Westing showing Murrasko and the School.
Click on the map to go to the zoom-able version on the NLS website.
This view is spread across two maps, click on the LHS or RHS to go to the full view of the appropriate map.

LHS of Map RHS of Map

Later, putting it on a local social media group, various people came up with lots of information including names of folk who lived in the house.

I decided that it would be good to ask people to help the Unst Heritage Centre to build on the existing material, including photos of houses and any information about who used to live there, and hopefully we can find out more, using family history resources, old maps etc.


Springpark, Baltasound, Unst
photo from John MacMechin

This is Springpark, the house I grew up in. So far I have found out that Charles Arthur, a retired school teacher who taught in Burrafirth School, lived there in 1891. Earlier there seems to be no reference to the house so I think it was built at that time or even perhaps built for Charles Arthur for his retirement.

My Grandmother, Marjorie Gray, came to the house after her husband died, having previously lived in Hoyvilla, a tied house linked to his work. She lived in Springpark from the 1920s.

My parents John and Mary Gray continued to live there.

I would really like Unst folk to let us have photos and information of houses they know or have family links to. This would be a tremendous addition to the family history section of Unst Heritage Centre.

We have a variety of maps and other documents at the Centre, as well as on line sites to check, so could help with the process.

This could take some considerable time, but looks to be an interesting project!

Unst peerie knitters

The Peerie Knitters group at the Baltasound School in Unst is an after school club that has been meeting for the past 15 years or so.

Peerie Knitters Group

Unst Peerie Knitters at work. Running for the past 15 years.

Unst’s knitting history

Knitting in Unst in the past was an economic necessity. Many women were living on a croft, which was seldom large enough to provide a living for a family. Out of necessity too, most of the men were crofter/fishermen, leaving the womenfolk to tend the croft and knit in every spare moment to support the family, for the fishing too could be very uncertain, especially with the Truck system in operation.

Mothers and Grannies have always taught their bairns to knit, as they too could contribute to the family as well as helping with croft work.

Until recently there were knitting teachers in Shetland Schools, till the Education Authority in their wisdom decided to cut this vital service.

Peerie Knitters Out and About

Over the years the Peerie Knitters has taken part in a variety of activities.

One year a group was invited to the Royal Highland Show and demonstrated knitting to other young folk.

Peerie Knitters stand at Royal Highland Show

Our stand at the Royal Highland Show.

Peerie Knitters Demonstrating

Showing others how to knit.

Peerie Knitters with Edinburgh Castle in the background

Enjoying the visit to Edinburgh.

Unst Heritage Centre fashion show and book launch

A Stitch In Time Book Cover

“A Stitch in Time”, a book about Unst Lace knitting created by the Unst Heritage Centre, was published and launched at the Fashion Show event.

The children made jumpers and took part in the knitwear fashion show “One hundred years of Unst knitting”.

Unst Knitware on the Catwalk

On the catwalk.

Fine Lace Bridal Shawl

Fine lace shawl for a bride.

It is interesting to see that, when the local Care Centre has a Knit and Chat evening, the range of ages of knitters attending ranges from a lady of over 100 years to a child of 7 years of age!

Maima Jean

Maima Jean, a lovely lady of over 100 years of age.

It is to be hoped that the special knitting skills for Unst’s fine lace live on in the next generation now learning to knit.