Saturday, May 25, 2019

Myth and Materiality in a Woman's World Shetland 1800-2000 - Lynn Abrams

Books have their own serendipity. I've had this one on the shelf for years, it's presence more about good intentions than serious ones, but between anticipating Roseanne Watt's Moder Dy and reading the bibliography for David Gange's The Frayed Atlantic Edge (which I'm also keenly anticipating) it suddenly seemed long past time to read it.

It turned out to be a good choice giving me specific things to think about whilst reading Moder Dy, and also making an interesting companion to Melisa Harrison's 'All Among the Barley' and another translation of Grimm's Fairy Tales.

If you don't have a specific interest in either Shetland, or Women's history this probably isn't the book for you, but if those things do interest you it's excellent. Geography and economic circumstances made 19th century Shetland fairly unique. The majority of men had little choice but to go to Sea (initially either because it was part of their croft tenancy arrangement, or they were in the navy, went to the whaling, or later went to the herring). Loss of life was not infrequent, and even when all was well absences could run to years. It meant that on land women outnumbered men by a considerable margin.

It also meant that women were left to run the crofts - which mostly did not produce enough to live off without a man to fish, and make what money they could from knitting. It was very much a subsistence life but it also meant that women were routinely economically active as producers.

Abrams explores the mythic status of the crofting woman (and she does have a mythic status, one that it's hard for contemporary women to measure up too) along with the reality of women's lives, particularly as they can be found through court records. She also reflects on how Shetland's heritage industry is mainly packaged for local consumption.

The book was first published in 2005 and I think that's changed slightly in the interim, especially through events like Wool Week and the growing popularity of knitting and textile based tourism. But generally it's still true, and something else that's unique about Shetland, at least in a Scottish/British context.

Abrams raises a couple of interesting questions about emigration and the barter truck system too. Men emigrated in larger numbers than women, despite there being larger numbers of women than men, and how hard it was for single women to make a living. It's not clear why they stayed but it suggests to me that whatever reasons were motivating individuals, they're somewhat more complex than the picture generally painted of clearances and economic necessity.

Barter Truck was an undoubtedly iniquitous system which allowed merchants to exploit women by forcing them to accept goods instead of cash for their knitwear. Worse yet the goods were often things like tea or haberdashery which had to be bartered amongst other women for the actual necessities of life. It's generally (and rightly) presented as a very bad thing. It also continued in Shetland more or less until the Second World War, long after it had officially been banned.

Abrams work is making me wonder why it persisted so long. She shows that Shetland women were ready to go to court for a variety of other reasons, and there is the example of The Hoswick Whale case to show that tenants were prepared to face down landlords at least by the 1880's. Again it's the suggestion of a more complex picture that I find interesting here. It's a book that's shaken up some fairly lazy assumptions on my part - and I'm always grateful for that.


  1. This sounds interesting. I think history is often more complex than we imagine

    1. Absolutely, and this book does a really good job of underscoring that. It was a reminder of all that's good about academia!