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Shetland 1800–2000
Author: Lynn Abrams

This book is about the relationship between myth-making and historical materiality. It is a singular case study of the position and experience of women in a 'peripheral' society distanced - geographically, economically and culturally - from the British mainland. The book first looks at women and gender relations in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries through examination of the construction of historical myth. It then looks at economic and demographic factors that underpinned the materiality of women's dominance of culture. An understanding of women's work patterns and experiences is central to any analysis of women's lives in Shetland and the gender relations contingent upon this. Shetland women were autonomous, independent workers whose day-to-day productive experiences implicated them in all sorts of social and economic relationships outside the home. The book argues that women's culture in Shetland actually had only a marginal connection to the islands' dominant economic activity - fishing. It also argues that the negligible figures for children born outside wedlock are a poor guide to understanding the moral order in nineteenth-century Shetland. Like the new visitors to Shetland, the historians of the early twenty-first century would ordinarily reach the same conclusions. They would do so, at root, because the authors are equipped with the same myth system of discourse about what constitutes women's subordination and power. The book seeks to navigate the issue of 'power' by approaching it in terms which the Shetland woman understood in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Lynn Abrams

The Shetland Islands are the northernmost landmass of the British Isles. Shetland's sense of otherness and distance from mainstream and mainland Scotland is accentuated by its Norse heritage. Geographical isolation and Norse influences were widely credited with influencing Shetland's 'otherness'. The otherness of Shetland was primarily an outsider's perspective, one of educated visitors whose standpoint was located somewhere else. This chapter analyses the extent to which demographic and economic factors influenced women's experience. In the late twentieth century Shetland experienced an economic and demographic resurgence which made it unlike many other parts of Scotland, where economic decline, incorporating the collapse of traditional heavy industries and the crisis of community, was a common theme. The Scottish east coast has witnessed the gradual decline and more recent collapse of the fishing industry.

in Myth and materiality in a woman’s world
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Lynn Abrams

This chapter looks at women and gender relations in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries through examination of the construction of historical myth. It focuses on three oral narratives with Shetland women to illustrate the points about genre and performance. Mary Manson, Mary Ellen Odie and Agnes Leask adopt similar performative styles for their narrations. All three narrative performances draw upon traditions of 'storytelling'. Shetland stories in particular tend to rehearse a number of traditional themes and maintain certain conventions, such as the use of direct quotation or speech and the introduction of significant detail at dramatic moments. From the late nineteenth-century popular fiction of Jessie Saxby to the modern novels of Margaret Elphinstone, the mythic ideal of Shetland womanhood has had a profound resonance. Norse myths and tropes are present throughout the popular cultural construction of Shetland identity.

in Myth and materiality in a woman’s world
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Lynn Abrams

Women dominated the Shetland landscape in the nineteenth century. Shetland was a woman's place in terms of its demography and its economy. The dominant images of Shetland women promulgated by nineteenth-century visitors to the islands gave the impression that women were fully implicated in the economic life of the community. But in fact women were marginal to the main economic activity of fishing. Fishing, crofting and knitting provided the economic backbone, albeit an extremely insecure one, for the majority of inhabitants of the scattered settlements of rural Shetland throughout the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth. For the whole of the nineteenth century there were appreciably more women than men in the Shetland Islands. The fact is that Shetland had an astonishing demography, perhaps almost a unique one. And that material difference had cultural consequences of great moment.

in Myth and materiality in a woman’s world
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Lynn Abrams

This chapter covers the majority of the work experiences of Shetland women. An understanding of women's work patterns and experiences is central to any analysis of women's lives in Shetland and the gender relations contingent upon this. Women's words from Shetland speak to us of economic autonomy in a culture where the discourses of separate spheres and of domesticity had little purchase. The dominant and idealised image of the Shetland woman has become synonymous with the female farmer and crofter. Knitting was a life-line for Shetland households. The female crofter and knitter have an iconic and symbolic status in Shetland, but the female herring gutter is a more ambiguous character. The espousal of a system of gender equality within the fishing-crofting household is contrasted with what is sometimes portrayed as a Scottish and even British subordination of women in the home and the workplace.

in Myth and materiality in a woman’s world
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Lynn Abrams

This chapter argues that women's culture in Shetland actually had only a marginal connection to the islands' dominant economic activity, fishing. There was a stand-alone female culture in which women created networks founded upon their work and sociability. Female culture in Shetland was characterised by a combination of solidarity, reciprocity and self-preservation. Solidarity and reciprocity were essential for survival in a harsh economic environment, and self-preservation was inevitable when resources were hard to come by. Reputation was the foundation for all transactions and activities which were played out around understandings of solidarity, trust and vulnerability and were cemented through female sociability and women's belief in traditional lore or superstition. Shetland women established their reputation in two ways: through their engagement in the economy and as moral actors.

in Myth and materiality in a woman’s world
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Lynn Abrams

In the nineteenth century, official conceptions of moral order were largely equated with female sexuality. This chapter begins to construct an image of a Shetland in which female sexuality was intimately related to women's material circumstances rather than determined by a set of external rules. The ideals of Victorian womanhood, of separate spheres, domesticity and respectability which are so central to all our traditional understandings of women and gender relations appear to have had little relevance for most Shetland women. The majority engaged in economic production, were little concerned with the domestic sphere, had limited opportunities to fulfil the domestic ideal and possessed a strong sense of where their rights lay. By 1900 Shetland was immersed in the language of respectability, tinged with evangelical preoccupations with Christian morality, temperance and purity.

in Myth and materiality in a woman’s world
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Lynn Abrams

This chapter seeks to navigate the issue of 'power' by approaching it in terms which the Shetland woman understood in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and which survive in women's contemporary understanding of their own heritage. Access to political and economic power in Shetland was dominated by men in their public roles as merchants, landlords and church elders, crofting tenants and fishermen. Shetland women engaged in a series of economic and cultural relationships which gave them a degree of power which was different from the kind of power possessed by men. Using models borrowed from feminist social anthropology it has been possible to show that the domestic space is just as much a centre of power as the public space. That power can be expressed and experienced through skill and knowledge and control of cultural resources as much as through property ownership and political influence.

in Myth and materiality in a woman’s world
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Lynn Abrams

The Shetland landscape is populated by individuals whose experiences have come to signify and embody the myth of Shetland womanhood. The stories narrated by women in Shetland continue to be relevant in what is today a modern society struggling to cope with the complexities of the global economy. In most respects women's experience in twenty-first century Shetland mirrors that of women elsewhere in modern western societies, but in Shetland the past continues to serve as a referent of identity. At a time when Shetland is searching for home-made survival solutions, women's narratives are used to engage in a political dialogue about Shetland identity and social change. The woman's world exposed by Shetland women reveals to the feminist scholar a different way of viewing the world and women's place within it. The woman's world was constructed on the interaction of myth and materiality.

in Myth and materiality in a woman’s world