Here’s another remarkable magic lantern slide by George Washington Wilson, who established a very successful photograph publishing business in Aberdeen in the 1860s. This pin-sharp image is entitled ‘Shetland Knitter’ and is a wonderful piece of visual social history.
The Shetland Islands are located about 80 miles north of the Scottish mainland, where the North Sea meets the Atlantic Ocean. The weather can be harsh and, in Victorian times, contact with nearby islands or the mainland could be infrequent, so the inhabitants needed to be self-sufficient. For hundreds of years they knitted warm, waterproof garments with wool from Shetland sheep, which is softer and lighter than that of other breeds, and the Shetland knitwear industry is alive and well, and indeed thriving, today.
This photograph contains some interesting detail. The girl has a ‘kishy’ on her back, a basket for carrying peat, which was used as fuel for cooking and heating. Winning it from the land was no easy task. It had to be cut from the earth in heavy, sodden slabs, then left to dry and carried home to your croft (primitive cottage). The croft behind this young lady may be her family home (usually just one room for cooking and sleeping in) or a barn for the animals. The roof is being held in place by ropes but they were often weighted down with stones to ensure they remained in place during gales and storms.
While carrying the fuel supply home, she is knitting. A proverb says ‘idle hands are the Devil’s workshop’ but, in this case, she’s not keeping busy to stay out of trouble, she’s doing what it takes to survive in an isolated community.
Whatever happened to proverbs, those gems of wisdom that I grew up with? Does a stitch in time really save nine and, if so, nine what? Is necessity the mother of invention and who’s its father? Do too many cooks spoil the broth and do they do so with malicious intent or just accidentally? Have proverbs had their day or are they now called catch-phrases?
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