Saturday 28 December 2013


Mareel’s cinema figures continue to surpass all expectations
2013-07-03 11:59:54-04

The popularity of Mareel’s two cinema screens is showing no sign of letting up. Attendances have passed the 80,000 mark in the ten months since the venue opened – just over double the 39,000 projected for the first full year and the equivalent of three visits for every islander.

One can only be pleased to see the new arts centre in Lerwick is being used so well. The report in The Shetland Times told of an impressive figure: 80,000 cinema attendances in ten months! The temptation was to deconstruct this claim to see if ordinary experience might confirm it. It seemed that numbers have always been a problem for the Mareel when they referred to dollars, so could this claim correct? Council bailed out the Mareel to the tune of an extra one million pounds.

Over a period of ten months, the average cinema attendance is 8,000 persons per month. To put this in context, Lerwick has a population of about 7,500, with the population for the whole of scattered islands of Shetland being about 23,000. If one assumes that the Mareel is open every day, this gives a conservative average cinema attendance of about 250 persons a day, every day of the year: about three percent of the population of Lerwick.

Wikipedia records that the Mareel has two cinemas, one accommodating ‘about 160 people’, the other ‘about 40 people.’ So each session, with each cinema in use, has 200 seats available.
Assuming that each day has four sessions in each cinema, the calculations indicate that about 60 people turn up for every twin session.
So the figure of 80,000 comes down to an average of about a 33% occupancy.

The projected figure of 39,000 seems to be very modest; or perhaps just prudent? This is about a16% occupancy when taken over ten months; less for the year. Was it really planned to have less than an average of six people in the smaller cinema and 26 in the larger one? All of these folk could have fitted into the smaller cinema! It seems a supreme luxury to have a choice; but why should Shetlanders be denied the option that is available in most other places if it can be afforded? Shetland has the oil money – well, it had it.

To be fair, the Mareel is not open every day. I recall one cold, windy and wet public holiday when it seemed that watching a movie might be just the thing to do, only to discover that the Mareel was closed. ‘Why?’ is another question to be pondered. So revising the calculations for, say, a five-day week average, the total daily attendance becomes 400 people. This equates to an average of 100 persons per twin session, assuming that there are four sessions a day. With the two cinemas both working, offering 200 seats per session, this is a 50% occupancy. It certainly is an impressive figure. Shetlanders must be true movie buffs!

The strange thing is that for the times that I have been in the vicinity of the new arts centre, I have never seen any great number of vehicles parked nearby. Maybe many local folk walk to the Mareel; or do they visit as groups delivered by buses that park elsewhere?

Figures can be mesmerising when flashed about with statistical analogies of various scales and sizes. One thinks of the comparison of the flea jump when converted into a cow jump of equivalent ability. When considered differently with the calculation that every one Shetlander visits the movies once in every three months, it does not sound so immediately startling. This attendance and the average 50% occupancy are figures that many cinemas in the world would be very happy with. One really has to leave it to experience to confirm these statistics, remembering every session that does not achieve the average attendance will require another with many more moviegoers than the mean. What really does happen every day at the Mareel?

One hopes that the circumstance is not such that nothing critical can ever be said about the Mareel. Will the statistics ever be subjected to an objective, independent audit? Enigmatically, everything that gets reported about the Mareel and the events held there are all very favourable; perhaps too much so?

The latent problem is that while the Shetland Council is wanting to close down all public toilets, (reportedly to save seventy thousand pounds a year), and has removed all skips and rubbish collections from the islands to save even more money, Council has put an extra one million pounds into the Mareel in order to save it from serious financial problems of overspending on its construction budget. Apparently the builder was asked to do more work than had been originally contracted for. It would appear to be political dynamite for the Mareel to be anything but a screaming success in every way possible, otherwise the Council may not look to be too wise at all. As an aside, it is interesting to note that the article on the Mareel in the blog
was not published by The New Shetlander, but the item on dialect was: see -

Maybe all the islands' trash should be dumped outside the Mareel to become an artwork just to make a point. Where else might all of the refuse end up? Images of old Shetland with islands filled with rusting rubbish come to mind. Gosh, the Mareel pile might even win the Turner Award! It could become a Guiness world record: a true tourist attraction! The situation is bleak, but it does highlight just why the Mareel must never be seen to fail, or fail to impress. It sets the scene for cynicism on the reported surprising numbers that must be some of the best in the world, all when the carpark at the Mareel stays nearly empty!

I went to the movies in Brisbane the other evening. It was a large cinema complex with nine theatres. The theatre space we were in held six people for the movie showing when it could seat about 400 visitors. When we came out, the large foyer spaces were empty. I am sure that the managers were hoping that every citizen in Brisbane, a city with a population of about 2.2 million people, might go to a movie at least once every three months to provide th theatres with an average 50% occupancy!

Just what is really going on? The poor Council has no money for repairing local halls, maintaining public toilets, or collecting general rubbish, but it has all the money it needs for this great hall at Lerwick that has its own real problems that will, it appears, never ever be mentioned or debated. The great irony is that the Lerwick public toilet is one of the best projects to be built in this town for years. It is a real gem. Meanwhile the Mareel is struggling with its own concerns. These include financial, architectural and planning issues! These, alas, it seems, will never be mentioned.

Unlike the harbourside public toilets, the Mareel has no presence when viewed from everyday Lerwick, in the daily ‘toing and froing’ of ordinary life. It has no civic identity in the old town. One has to detour down a lane to the water’s edge in order to see it other than as an angled portion of roof in gaps between stone walls. One then has to move on further to the edge of the dock in front of the Museum and Archives Building and look back if one wants to see its unique promotional image, its grand illusion mirrored in the water that the interior spaces almost ignore.

Dare one suggest that the cinema figures are a grand illusion too? Have the mass attendances for the one-off performance theatre events been mixed into the cinema attendances to make them look much better than they really might be?

Surely the Council’s attitude couldn’t be: let the islanders look after their own waste, while we spend their money on 'cake,' and Councillors’ salaries too? One might have thought that a commitment to the arts has to be based on a comprehensive concept of respect, care and concern for all aspects of life, including its ‘dirty’ aspects, not just the ‘smarty-arty’ side of things. After all, aren’t life and art supposed to have some nexus that is not simply an either or?

POSTSCRIPT 08 January 2014
The concerns with the inundation of sea water noted in are real, not some extremist 'green' hysteria involving future climate change and rising oceans, as the report in The Shetland Times of 06 January 2014 indicates. With the recent high tides around Shetland, the water was lapping almost to the doors of the new Shetland Museum located on the docks next to the Mareel. One wonders: what might happen with high tides and gales?

The Shetland TimesEstablished 1872. Online since 1996.

High tides around the isles
06/01/2014, by Shetland Times
Friday and Saturday both experienced higher than average high water marks around Shetland.
The boat deck at the Small Boat Harbour in Lerwick was completely submerged with about 20-30cm of water above it at around 1pm on Saturday.
The high tides at Freefield meant the water was lapping almost up to the doors of the Shetland Museum in Lerwick. It also meant the former fishing boat Pilot Us and other vessels in the area were above the jetties where they are berthed.

 The water was lapping almost up to the doors of the Shetland Museum. Photo: Mark Berry

 High tides at Freefield in Lerwick. Photo: Ian Leask

The boat deck at the Small Boat Harbour in Lerwick was completely submerged on Saturday. Photo: John Coutts 

The boat deck at the Small Boat Harbour in Lerwick was completely submerged. Photo: John Coutts

The following report in The Shetland Times of 07 November 2013 confirms the financial problems Shetland Arts has found itself with. It seems that the arts have displaced angling interests too.

Angling association loses hatchery as Kergord is put on the open market
07/11/2013, by Peter Johnson
Shetland Anglers Association is urgently seeking a new hatchery after its lease at Kergord was term­inated and the building allegedly “rendered inoperable”.
According to the angling associ­ation it was never given the option of extending its £1,500 a year lease and extensive reinstatement work would need to be undertaken before the hatchery could be up and running again.
One angler, who did not want to be identified, questioned the legality of “damaging” the hatchery while it was still being leased by the angling club. He claimed that the fish ladder had been filled in, pipework removed from the building and the dam emptied.
“It has been rendered unusable as a hatchery and is no longer viable as a hatchery without major re-invest­ment,” he said. “I doubt the legality of this, but our main concern is that we have been left without a hatchery.”
The anglers association has re­stocked large numbers of sea trout grown in Kergord into areas that have traditionally supported strong populations.
Association secretary Alec Miller said: “We are not happy about this. We were surprised that we were not consulted when the work was undertaken as we were the lease holders at the time.”
The hatchery owner, Shetland Arts, is selling the building and surrounding land to raise capital following an expensive and pro­tracted dispute with construction firm DITT over the building of the Mareel arts centre. It had given the owner of the adjacent land, Brian Anderson, permission to remove sluices from the dam after he complained about flooding on his ground.

Tuesday 24 December 2013


The page-six story was suggested in the headline that read: Scores die as Assad pummels Aleppo rebelsIt was the image accompanying this report in The Australian of 24 December 2013, ironically Christmas eve, a time of peace and happiness, that prompted the observation that the pictured bomb damage looked very much like a Gehry project. It is a very sad thought because the reflection overlooks the serious suffering that the people of Syria are having to endure. It is also regretful to note that what is being promoted as the high art of architecture mimics the physical outcomes of battle, as this again ignores the blood that is being shed, while egos are being pumped up in the promotion of personal genius with such unique, 'aesthetically' extreme extravagances.

We need to ask more questions about the direction in which we are seeing architecture moving. What has happened to empathy? What has happened to an architecture that can care for people and enhance the spirit, rather than captivate and surprise, even alarm the eye? What has happened to simple, quiet beauty?

Look again at Aleppo; look closely, as we are on the edge of being very callous with our new architectural expression. Is this a sign of our times that concentrates on matters personally heroic rather than considering others, their physical situation, their feelings, their circumstances and concerns - their everyday being?

Look closely lest we forget the nexus between form, function and feeling, and suffering, with our new cleverness. Here 'smart' is given its different, more stridently stinging interpretation, because it does not look very smart to convert images of suffering into an aesthetic drama of difference all for the sake of a singular 'arty' identity: an emotional defiance that declares only more of ME and MY greatness.


20 June 2014
A few Gehry projects not at Aleppo:


3 February 2019

'Gehry' cityscape?

Monday 9 December 2013


The Spectator Australia publishes a regular Diary page segment that is written by a different guest author each week. Eugene Robinson had been invited to write this page, (page v), in the 16 November 2013 edition. The Diary intends to add some interesting personal stories to the magazine’s content. Eugene Robinson chose to write about his time in Australia. It is interesting to see the country through another’s experiences.

The diary started with some name-dropping, (The Spectator is good at this), with Mr. Robinson telling how, on his second day in Australia, he was walking with Lord Black and met I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby on Circular Quay in Sydney. After a quick chat, he adds: ‘I looked ahead at the brilliant white shells of the Opera House, which was where Lord Black and I were headed, (for the Festival of Dangerous Ideas), and up at the magnificent arc of the great bridge, and thought: wow. Oz is a pretty interesting place.’ Strangely, this makes it sound as if these very obvious, truly landmark structures had not been noticed previously! Wow!

Robinson continues on with more about the festival and then reports: ‘After a day-long conference . . . my wife Avis and I flew off to the Whitsunday Islands.’ Then there is some advice given to Australians: ‘You don’t know how lucky you are. Australian airports . . . (are) both faster and less demeaning (than some others).’ Wow! Thanks!

On the Great Barrier Reef experience, he says: ‘Hamilton Island was beautiful and tranquil - a perfect spot for a quick three days-in-paradise vacation.’ Wow! Then the journey resumes: ‘From there we flew on to Canberra to visit some dear friends’ - followed again by more name-dropping. ‘The museums are impressive . . . We had good Thai food . . . The next day our hosts drove us to a countryside roost . . . for a very good lunch.’ . . . Wow!

He concludes: ‘And on our last day, as we were being driven to the airport to fly home, we stopped and watched a large group of kangaroos. . . . You really have kangaroos, just hopping all over the place. The moment was enchanting and unforgettable. An amazing place Oz.’ WOW!

The text concludes with the note: ‘Eugene Robinson is a columnist for The Washington Post.’ This was his Australia! WOW!

So there is was, with what seems to be just one week in Australia, Mr. Robinson fleetingly saw the opera house and the bridge in Sydney; sat on the reef beaches of Hamilton Island for a couple of days; visited some of Canberra’s public buildings in the parliamentary triangle; spent time at a few local restaurants; and saw a few kangaroos as he was leaving. Wow! He experienced nearly every cliché Australia can promote and felt smugly satisfied: ‘an amazing place Oz.’ WOW! This vision encapsulated his Australia. The real concern is that he leaves Australia contented after seeing so little, with his, (and his wife’s), experience finally embellished with what appears to be the highlight: the sight of a few nuisance rogue roos that he passed as he was departing, leaving him convinced that he, and no doubt his wife, had captured the true Oz experience, naively believing, it seems, there were kangaroos hopping everywhere across the continent. The tourist brochure had been confirmed from so little. Sadly, the circumstance is close to pure farce.

How many tourists or visitors experience such a specialised and limited array of ‘icons’ that represent only the ‘souvenir’ façade of our country, as seen on the TV promotional pieces? The true substance of place is ignored, left concealed by the easy glitz, the ticking off of glimpses of what one has been told to see. Meaning and place are much richer, deeper and more complex than any skimpy, shallow overview of highlights. A place has to be lived, touched, felt, known, and understood in depth if it is to be comprehensively perceived. Land itself is important, its feel: just ask the aboriginal residents.

After reading this Diary, it became clear how easy it is for a place to develop an image that misrepresents its true strengths and complexities - its significance; its substance; its story: history. The concern is that such insubstantial understandings of place can get used as a reference for its growth and development as well as its promotion, as guidelines that conceal the songlines of its being. It is a strategy that only adds to the shallowness of the perceptions of place, reinforcing every cliché while true value and meaning are squashed, blighted by the mass dazzle of things superficially sparkling.

Springbrook World Herutage Area

The proposals for the Gold Coast Cutlural Centre came to mind. All of the three finalists seem to have based their concepts of an ephemeral understanding of this region that has popularly come to be known as an ad hoc accumulation of clichés. The perception of the Gold Coast is of a fun destination; a playground; the theme park capital of Australia; a holiday venue where excess, diversions and differences are sought, expressed and experienced like nowhere else. Lying latent behind this understanding is the intellectual mockery that sees this portion of Queensland as crass and indulgent, complete with extremes of bad taste and perverted morals, ignorant, with a dismal lack of ethics that extends deep into its fabric that has been shaped by slick developers seeking fast ‘gold’ from the shoreline gloss. This attitude is encompassed in the reflexive local joke that tells how Victorians see the Gold Coast as ‘the arsehole of Australia’; a statement that gets the parochial punch line response: but a lot of Victorians pass through! Got ya! Rivalry between the states is strong. The destination is in fact seen as a wintering playground for those in colder, less sunny regions of Australia, a place to relax all inhibitions. This aspect becomes embedded in youth who use the area for the mayhem of ‘schoolies’ week every year.

Article, The Australian, Friday, 22 November 2013

The brash rudeness of this pretend paradise is accepted as part of its divergence and disparity, giving the region its ‘edge’ in doubtful character: snide and dodgy; the not-so-cheap but nasty, anti-intellectual, ‘Queensland’ location standing beside some glorious natural wonders - the beaches; the headlands; the rivers; the creeks; the wetlands; the forests; the bushland; backed by the hinterland: the hills; and the mountains with unique World Heritage quality flora and fauna. These surroundings are indeed World Heritage listed for their unique biodiversity. Yet no one would ever know this from the hype of the promos that push the fun and games: Movie World; Dreamworld; Sea World; Wet and Wild; and the buzz of high, high-rise development and its lights. Any subtle feeling for place is squashed under the careless, indulgent extremities of entertaining propaganda: see
  The only attention that the World Heritage region gets is when it is seen as a location for mass tourism transported by the dream of a cableway: wow! There have been repeated attempts to achieve this outrageous outcome that is based on the hype of the clichés rather than on any love, respect, and concern for place - its flora and fauna that has been recognised by the rest of the world.

Springbrook World Heritage Area

In spite of all of this natural world wonder, it is the clichés that have become the core identity of this region, the plaything for designers to ‘reference.’ The finalists in the cultural centre competition indulge the idea with a big spider; a pink poodle; a big man; bungee jumps; water slides - all these become part of an intellectual joke that continues on with its disparagement in these chosen schemes, albeit it latently - as ‘architectural’ references. Why should architecture reference? What story is being pushed? What is the theory here? Why? Does this simply become the old contextual concept of the 1980’s? Is it an excuse to mock - a reason to be extravagantly playful, to make things ‘interesting’ within a cunning ‘cultural collage’? Is this the only idea that architects know of? What else might inform form and hold meaning in this place that the winner sees as becoming ‘the soul’ of the region? Is this ARM wrestling, playing with concepts and outcomes? What is the function of function these days? Indeed, what is the function of references - of soul?

ARM 'Eiffel Tower' proposal, with waterslide and bungy jump surround

Dare one ask how fast one might end up travelling down the waterslide as presently illustrated by ARM? Might one ever ask if it would be impossible for the bungee leap to never whip against the building fabric? It would be ironic if folk could lose and arm or a leg in this project by ARM! These thoughts have hardly any connection to the other deliberation that asks how the experience of art in the ‘museum’ wrapped in a waterslide jump has any relationship to these excrescences beyond that expressed by the Mayor when he suggested that mum and dad could enjoy the Picassos, (does the coast have some or is this a cliché for ‘art’?), while the kids were jumping and sliding. Has he no children? Will these game pieces ever be built, for they are game indeed? Are these ideas just a Melbourne joke that takes the ‘mickey,’ the ‘piss’ out of Queenslanders, the ‘rednecks’ of Australia? Is there now a private giggle that belligerently says, “I told you they’d love it - the hillbillies!”? WOW! More Gold Coast clutter and chaos! - ?

Burleigh Heads National Park, Gold Coast

So is this how we get the ambition for the ‘Guggenheim Gangnam’ style: the ‘Bilbao’ effect with more outrageous screams, both metaphorical and those from the waterslide-bungy jump art gallery? If only Frank Lloyd Wright had such ideas - poor fellow; so limited! He is probably gyrating now as the words rage on, mindlessly encompassing his Guggenheim in the wild Gold Coast ambitions.

Friday 6 December 2013


The study by the Curator of Collections at the Shetland Museum into vernacular building in Shetland has now been published: Ian Tait  Shetland Vernacular Buildings 1600 – 1900  The Shetland Times Ltd., Lerwick, 2012. Dr. Tait’s research is an astonishingly comprehensive and detailed survey that investigates and itemizes not only house forms and materials, but also the intricate details that go to make these places - roofs, fireplaces, windows, doors, locks and more; and it is not only housing that is studied. The associated croft buildings that were so closely integrated into habitation and daily existence on these islands are also researched - pigsties, barns, byres and other agricultural structures are all given careful attention; even sheep-shelter walls and enclosures for growing kale - a form of cabbage - have been researched. Nothing is considered insignificant. Life in these times and climes was indeed compact and coherent, embedded in its unique context.

 Dr. Ian Tait 

 Drawings by Nicholas Barnham

The surprise in this publication is to discover that what one assumed to be a Shetland 'vernacular' house - the classic 'bookend' cottage - is identified as not being part of the vernacular heritage. Why? It has become Shetland's icon in current paintings and drawings by local artists, and in numerous other promotional images too. The unique profile of the skews and chimneys, or lums as the locals call them, located in the layering of shaded hills, punctuating these undulations with their subtly angled enclosures, or blocking distinctive silhouettes into the sky, has become the current image of Shetland. Tait argues for their exclusion in his vernacular study because the concept was introduced by Scottish managers who brought with them their images of home, complete designs with imported materials, most noticeably the slates and timber detailing. Shetland has much stone but no slate; and the trees have long gone from these islands that relied on collected pieces of driftwood for the timber that was cleverly crafted into tools and pieces of furniture.

With the disappearance of vernacular buildings from Shetland, the question about the current role of these Scottish ‘imports’ needs to be asked: can an introduced concept ever become a vernacular form? It seems that this style of building is very close to becoming vernacular when today’s popular image of Shetland so frequently includes only the quaint image of this introduced cottage form, rarely that of the earlier shelters. Maybe there should be types of vernacular in the scope of its definition - a hierarchy? The dictionary seems to support Tait’s position: ‘a local style of architecture’ with the origin of the word being ‘a household slave’:

vernacular (vəˈnækjʊlə)


1. the vernacular the commonly spoken language or dialect of a particular people or place

2. a local style of architecture, in which ordinary houses are built: this architect has re-created a true English vernacular


3. relating to, using, or in the vernacular

4. relating to, using, or in the vernacular

5. built in the local style of ordinary houses, rather than a grand architectural style

[C17: from Latin vernāculus belonging to a household slave, from verna household slave]

World English Dictionary

But did not slaves eventually become locals? It seems to me that placing such ‘academic’ restrictions on the idea of the vernacular flies in the face of ordinary, everyday understanding, even though it is technically correct.

Accepting that the vernacular is housing or building that has arisen only from all Shetland circumstances - indigenous structures - one looks for the image of these places to seek out their identity. What are these places that seem to have faded from memories? Where are they? Appropriately, there is no better photograph of a vernacular dwelling than that on the dust cover of this book. The inner flyer tells us that this is a photograph of the cottage that was the oldest vernacular house to be occupied in Shetland, right up to 1996, when it was demolished. What! - ? Did one read this correctly? 1996? Demolished? The photograph is in full colour and shows a marvellous house complete with the complexity of its set of associated buildings. Even a woman is shown - the last occupant? If this building was so significant, why was it demolished. Surely by 1996 the community must have been aware of its importance? One might understand if the date had been 1969, a time when the enthusiasm for things new saw numerous wonders demolished across the world.

The text makes the statement as a cool matter of fact, without any sign of complaint or concern, or any apparent regret or sense of remiss. Why on earth was this place destroyed? By 1996 the world knew of the importance of heritage structures. It is not as though we were still in the brash bold certainty of the 1960s and 70s, when modernism's ideals removed the rich core of many a toon, village, town and city to create the stark voids known today. That this last pure vernacular building could have been allowed to be demolished is a disgrace. Then there is another thought: why were all of the other vernacular buildings allowed to disappear? Is it true that roofs were removed to avoid the payment of taxes? Why was this law not changed, reversed, to encourage the maintenance of these old buildings? Did anyone care? Locals say that it takes only five years without a roof, or with a damaged one, for a place to become derelict. The ruins seem to confirm this, as do more recent examples of buildings that were intact, habitable, a few years ago but are now dangerous structures to enter, rotting edifices, one step away from classification as a ‘ruin.’ Sadly, these places are now certainly ruined. They include ‘vernacular’ structures and others and can be seen scattered across the islands, left as memories of another time. What number of vernacular buildings has disappeared? There must have been hundreds across the islands and yet so very little remains of their presence in past times.

Croft House Museum, Dunrossness

The great irony is that the book is committed so rigorously to vernacular structures after nearly all have gone. Only the croft house at Dunrossness, a building renovated by The Shetland Museum for public display, exists as an example of the vernacular form - a good one too. The remainder is, at best, now illustrated as ruins across the landscape, tumbling walls a metre or so high marking the locations and plans of the places now long deserted, lingering on just as stones and stories. Unst alone must have over a hundred ruins, both large and small. Some of these have been beautifully and carefully recorded by Mrs. Owers. The Heritage Museum at Haroldswick on Unst holds these marvelous illustrations that connect people and place with historical documents and drawings: the names of those who lived in these places; their role and work; the time scale; the measured plans; the sketches of the walls, their details, and even occasionally their location in the landscape. This is a unique testimony that sets the example for other studies to look at the past as a whole - both its people and their places.

The great sadness is that the image of the vernacular house has been eradicated with the certainty and thoroughness of the clearances themselves. The identity of these homes has been stripped from the modern mind, to be rediscovered in faded old photographs or in ancient postcards. The 'imported' bookend form of cottage has become the current image of the old Shetland home. It has a cosy and romantically familiar identity. It is similar in form to those houses seen in the western isles and in Brittany, as well as throughout rural Scotland. Will this new publication restore the vernacular identity that does indeed fit so beautifully into the low, sprawling Shetland hills with its unique stamina, integrity, textures, forms and colours? The old images reveal a coherence that is admirable, a habitation that is truly fit for its place.

The creation of an icon requires more than a text, especially an academic one, but it is a start. Shetland has always had a lingering memory of things old, a certain intrigue for pieces of different times and their stories. Baskets, tools, ponies and their memorabilia, as well as various other objects used for crofting, all have their stories, their collectors and breeders. The Shetland Pony stud book that was first printed in 1891 is still being published annually. The stud book for cattle is no longer in print. Cattle numbers on the islands have dropped dramatically. Now, in his book, Ian Tait is placing these memories and objects into the fuller context of the habitation - the home as croft: a complex of ben, back, byre, lum, store, shed and sty, all made from the same limited local materials, and frequently interconnected. Tait invigorates recollection and defines existence in times past with a unique clarity in his explicit, analytical detail. His enthusiasm for the past kindles the spirit in others.

New Shetland housing

Given the role that the 'imports,' the ‘bookend’ cottages, now hold, why can these not become a vernacular - a part of it - if all of the true originals have now gone? Gosh, there is so much now imported into Shetland that one wonders why the academic rigour is required on just this point other than for the special vagaries of theoretical research. Norwegian houses; Norwegian boats; Tesco; and the rest of the world, best illustrated in New Zealand lamb, are all there in these remote islands. The landscape is being transformed into a Nordic vision with the new Norwegian kit homes popping up on the slopes, complete with their twin-coloured Norwegian stains highlighting walls, windows, doors and gables as if they were at home. Where is the commitment to the vernacular? Sadly, it seems, nowhere. But is not the classic Shetland sixareen and fourareen an imported Norweigen concept? Does one exclude these from being the Shetland natives that they have become? The narrow definition of ‘vernacular’ is a strange proposition given the way that these boats have become such an important part of Shetland's story. Even the wooden thumb latch that Tait says was styled on a cast iron import is shunned. Why not give credit to the transforming skill of the native mind?

There seems to be an extreme rationalism here that creates its own rigour for its own specific purposes: academic purity. As in language itself - and Shetland dialect is not immune from this - imported names, sounds and spellings become part of the native tongue without any demands for the separation or isolation that this 'vernacular' world of building seems to want to impose on its categorization. Is it all just too academic? Was this Tait's PhD? One can almost hear the tutor's critique demanding that the scope of the study be ‘clarified’ - defined. Life is more muddled than rational minds might choose to allow with their insistence on precise analysis and narrow categorisations. It is sad to see anything become so intellectually rigid. Oddly, other cultures are more inclusively tolerant. Sometimes this diversity is celebrated.

The questions about matters vernacular will need more consideration. Greater flexibility seems to be required if the study is to match reality. Putting this matter aside, one can peruse the book and ponder the stark beauty of the old, as well as the raw hardships of life in other times, the efforts involved and the commitments made. Did central hearths really work? What was this life? What community? What contentment? Tait has defined the time scale for his work as being from 1600 to 1900. Auld Gue, a typical manager's imported 'bookend' cottage, complete with imported Balahoulish slate roof and cast iron skylights, was built in1852. What was the context for this building? What other structures in Baliasta did it overlook, for this cottage still holds this supervisorary role that the laird’s representatives always required? A quick review of the interior design of this little home - two up, two down - reveals a sophistication in timber detailing and wall lining - lathe and plaster, pitch and Baltic pine - that is completely different to the vernacular house, with elaborate timber mouldings as skirtings, architraves, cornices and wallrails. What was this place?

Livingstone, in Shetland and the Shetlanders, writes of his walk up to Crussafield that sits just above and beyond Baliasta - spelt 'Balliasta' in the old correspondence. Crussafield, (Field of Crosses), is said to be the site of the first All Thing on Shetland. Just above Auld Gue on the hilltop slope is the mysterious Giant’s Grave, a square made of four large stones. Those found guilty at the All Thing were apparently given the opportunity to run to the kirk at Baliasta. It still stands today as a ruin, stark stone walls in a graveyard. If killed on the way, stones in the form of a cross would mark the spot where the body lay: hence the field of crosses. A pardon would be given if the kirk was reached.

Auld Gue

Livingstone talks of how, when he was passing a cottage on his way up the hill, a lady in the porch beckoned him and welcomed him in. He records his astonishment at the interior. This cottage must have been Auld Gue. The lady must have been my grandmother. The relics that were once whole and polished in the interior include a Victorian chaise lounge, a set of six carver chairs, a tilting round dining table on carved tripod legs, cabinets and kitchen units. There are sundry pieces of Clarice Cliff and Royal Doulton dinner sets, cut crystal and decorated pots. Wall papered spaces - some walls were 19 layers thick - must have created a classical Victorian appearance, cluttered with what the stories tell of lost or pilfered musical instruments, clocks, china and books. One damp travel guide to Paris was found in the old cottage. No wonder Livingstone was amazed as he encountered this interior on his way to view the crosses on the field behind the little home. No wonder Tait wants to separate these buildings from any vision of vernacular. There is no sign of these now - no crosses or interior embellishments. The interior is more stark and white now, perhaps brighter, but not richer. The field has faded and the bones have eroded too. Shetland has acid soils that consume calcium.

View over Baliasta (Baliasta kirk second from left)

If Livingstone had been familiar with the vernacular house, as he must have been, then this cottage at Gue would have been a wonder for his eyes. It seems that this is the difference that Tait is trying to highlight when he chooses to isolate these pretty places of the gentry from the raw beauty and bold necessity of the vernacular home that reminds one of Glenn Murcutt's corrugated iron houses in Australia, complete with their radial ridges and simple, juxtaposed rectangular plans. Does this remembered analogy of older settlement give Murcutt's work its silent charm?

 Marie Short house by Glenn Murcutt

The vernacular house has a rich organic character, shaped out of the earth, literally. It was made of rocks, straw and driftwood. Its minimalism is astonishing, as much as its identity is. Organic comes to mind but it is more than this. It was made by builders who new their materials and the climate they were building in. In making this assessment, one has to hypothesize that the climate, like the people, has not changed greatly. The recent riches from the North Sea and now West Atlantic oil have transformed this society. Maybe it is changing the climate too?

The roof is the core of the identity of the vernacular house: that rolled ridge strapped with nets and ropes stretched with rocks into a snug, tight shelter firmly moulded on rocks set as dry stone walls, with minute and minimal openings for light and life - for protection from the rain and wind: this is treeless Shetland. Cottages linked to barns, byres and fields framed in dykes, interlaced the hills that are intimately worked with as much craft and graft as was needed to construct the houses. There is a satisfactory resolve in the appearances of these places, something quaint and old, something nostalgic that makes the modern heart yearn for such a life without realizing the difficulties that this existence encountered. Such is our selective dreaming and the power of whimsy.

The impressive quality of Ian Tait's book is the way that the character of the people of these older times has been implied. Tait makes vernacular buildings really come to life. It was interesting that, after mentioning this publication at a small gathering on Unst, one older man proudly pointed out that a photograph of his mother was in the book. He said this with much pride. Ties to family and the past remain strong in Shetland. One can read the book with the knowledge that it is not only academically thorough and rigorous, but it is also human, understanding the folk of the times 1600 – 1900 with a gentle, considerate compassion. They are, after all, Tait’s forebears too. The book is a good example of research. It is important for architects as well as historians because of its empathetic rigour, its clear and certain exposition and its understanding that houses are more than shelters; that buildings are more than sheds; that they include a care and concern for the intricate details and the lives of the people who inhabit them, their interaction,  just as all good design does.

NOTE - 10 JUNE 2015

This image of a vernacular croft house shows the home of Mary Jamieson (1860-1939), the Gillies, Sandness, which she shared with a pet otter. The photograph has been taken from the exhibition at the Shetland Museum and Archives in Lerwick, 31 May 2015 - Taatit Rugs: the pile bedcovers of Shetland. The exhibition is highly recommended.

a taatit rug