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Taatits, Fog and Magic in the Shetland Islands

July 13th, 2015
The tombolo to St.Ninian's Isle, Shetland

The tombolo to St.Ninian’s Isle, Shetland

A few notes on a recent visit to Shetland: There were no flights the day before or after, due to fog. But we were lucky – and so began our first trip to these magical islands last week. Approaching the Arctic circle, with most of its territory above 60 degrees North, we flew from a sunny 30C in Lewes to a bracing 11C or so. After that exhilarating feeling of being out in a wild landscape, with the sea always near at hand, we retreated each evening to the Northern Lights Holistic Spa – an absolute delight to stay in, with incredible food and a whole range of treatments available, from lying in a flotation tank to steaming in an aromatherapy box.

In the south of the island (where you drive across the airport runway!) there is an extraordinary site – Jarlshof – where 4,000 years of human habitation  can be seen – from neolithic houses to the ruins of the 17th century laird’s house. The earliest ones were inhabited for 2,000 years – the entire stretch of modern history that has seen so many changes. Unlike Skara Brae on Orkney, which is more well-known, Jarlshof is remarkable for its overlapping examples of housing from the Stone Age, Bronze Age, Iron Age, Pictish, Norse and Medieval eras, right the way through to the 1600s.

A little further North, on the western coast, is the site of St.Ninian’s chapel, reached across a bar of sand known as a tombolo. Although St.Ninian never actually visited the chapel, its setting is glorious. There is a real sense of peace here.

We were warned that the best food might be found in the harbour vending machines, but this is not true: if you eat at the Scalloway Hotel, Northern Lights Spa on Bressay, or in the very smart-looking Shetland Museum in Lerwick you’ll be eating some of the best meals you’ve ever tasted.

A Taatit rug from Shetland

A Taatit rug from Shetland

And the great find for us? Taatit blankets and rugs, and their story. Have a look at the examples here and at these two blogs if you want to read more about them: Woolwinding  and  Donna Smith Designs. The photos are from their blogs.

Taatit rugs are unique to Shetland, but all across the Nordic world and Ireland you can find their relatives. Taatits were placed faced down on the bed (which was often in a wooden box to keep out draughts) to hold in the warmth, and to protect the sleeper from the dangers of bad spirits, such as mischievous trows and maras (hags) who could sit on your chest and suffocate you. These blankets were often given as gifts to newly-weds and were then handed down as heirlooms. They were made in two sections, which were unstitched to wash, then re-stitched, which accounts for the misalignment you see in some examples. Later, people starting making rugs with similar designs as the bedcovers. Nobody seems to be making taatits any more, which is a great shame.

A Taatit blanket from Shetland

A Taatit blanket from Shetland

Detail of a Taatit rug from Shetland on display at the Shetland Museum

Detail of a Taatit rug from Shetland on display at the Shetland Museum

6 Responses to “Taatits, Fog and Magic in the Shetland Islands”

  1. Wonderful, wild, beautiful, magical islands! I can almost smell the sea, (which I miss here in midwestern America. ) Thanks for sharing!

  2. I’m so glad you got a taste of the Shetland archipelago. It is even more spectacular on the second trip when the eyes and mind have adjusted to what is almost entirely a treeless landscape. It sounds as if you spent most of your time, apart from the accommodations, on Mainland which is the most populated island and the political and cultural center of Shetland. Next time, be sure to take a cruise to the Noss cliffs, a bird sanctuary. Unforgettable, staggering beauty; there are pictures on my FB page. And unfortunately, you don’t mention hearing any of the traditional music. One of Shetland’s most famous exports are its fiddlers. I have been there twice for fiddle programs and consider Shetland the heart of my music.

    • Thank you Cathryn,
      Yes we would have liked more time to explore the other islands and to hear fiddle playing. I had thought we would visit pubs in the evening to immerse ourselves in the music but the combination of sea air and walking all day, plus having to take the ferry back to the main island from Bressay to visit a pub meant we just didn’t do it. Next time! 🙂

  3. Thank you for sharing the trip! My husband and I will be on Orkney for Lughnsadh and then on Shetland two days later, sadly too late to see the exhibition on Taatit rugs. As a fibre-loving Druid I’m excited to experience everything I can about these islands in the short time we’re there.

  4. Thank you for posting. What a lovely trip. The Shetland Islands are on my bucket list of “magical places” to visit. 🙂

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