The Kishie – A Traditional Shetland Island Basket

Carmen D. Lade

Scotland and the islands that lay off its northern coast are steeped in tradition and heritage. Although theses areas are technically part of the Untied Kingdom, many natives still consider themselves to be a separate entity from their English neighbors and cling to their own culture and beliefs.

Until the early 1600’s, England and Scotland were two different countries and were usually at war with each other. When Queen Elizabeth I of England died with no children, her cousin James the VI of Scotland became the first Stuart king of England and the joining of the two countries had begun. This unification was legally completed in 1707 by Queen Anne and was a bitter pill to swallow for most Scots.

Even today, many Scottish nationalists want to be as separated from England as much as possible. In recent years, these men and women were granted their own Parliament that is set apart from the English government, although the English Parliament still retains the right to approve or disapprove any measures that are passed by this Scottish governing party. So Scotland is still not a totally independent entity.

The people who live on the islands that surround Scotland were far more removed from the British scene due to the isolation that these areas supply. Even when Scotland was a separate country that had its own rulers, these natives were a law among themselves. Controlled by the clans, these communities bargained with their Scottish kings rather than being ruled by them. This situation led to the development of individual crafts and skills that are found only in this area of the world.

One of the crafts that developed on the Shetland Islands was the weaving of the kishie basket. Made since ancient times, these containers were made to haul potatoes, peat, grain and seeds. It was also used to transport goods to and from the local market place. To illustrate the importance of these containers to the agricultural life of these islands, “Kishie-fills” was the method in which the all important harvests were measured.

The kishie basket was designed with a strap, which the natives called a “fettel.” This enabled the carriers to sling the container over his back that left their hands free. When used in pairs, these baskets could be placed on each side of the sturdy Shetland ponies that were used as beasts of burdens in this part of the world.

The kishie baskets were made of Shetland black oats. These oats were arranged in bundles called “hjogs” and are held in place by two-stranded strings that are called “simmins.”

Although these Shetland baskets are no longer used for practical purposes, a renewed interest in the history of the Shetland Islands has led to these containers becoming valuable collector’s items. The art of weaving these types of baskets has also begun to be passed on to people who are foreigners to the island communities.

One of the leading kishie basket weavers on the Shetland Islands is Ewan Balfour. This native Shetlander learned his craft from Lowrie Copland, the last traditional basket weaver in Shetland. This young man now travels to various exhibits and schools sharing his knowledge with youngsters from a variety of places and backgrounds. He also shares with them many other aspects of life on the islands.

The kishie basket is an important element to the culture and history of the Shetland Islands. Thanks to the efforts of Ewan Balfour and other Shetland basket weavers, the art of making these containers is sure to live on for future generations.

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