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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.

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Lynn Abrams

stories narrated by Shetland women. The Shetland landscape is populated by individuals whose experiences have come to signify and embody the myth of Shetland womanhood. This use of personal experience to talk about a generalised culture in the past is a valuable tool in the hands of the historian who wishes to reconcile the grand narrative with the particular and the personal. Oral historians have long struggled with the tension between the personal – the individual life experience as narrated by a respondent – and the general culture or the broad normative trends

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

have, singly and collectively, performed two functions in Shetland. First, they have constituted models of ideal femininity upon which Shetland women have drawn in the construction of their own sense of self. And second, they have acted collectively to project women as pivotal to the whole identity and culture of the Shetland archipelago. The perspective of this uniqueness from outside Shetland society illuminates the vigour of the feminine in the island’s sense of itself, both now and in the more recent past. It is a place in which women’s worlds of the imagination

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

myth and materiality in a woman’s world 4 Work Q: Do you do anything else in the way of working for your living than by knitting these articles? Andrina Simpson: Yes, I am married. (Commission to Inquire into the Truck System, Second Report (Shetland), 1872, Evidence, line 326) Producing he deceptively simple reply given by the Lerwick knitter Andrina Simpson upon being asked whether she did anything else in addition to knitting to make a living speaks volumes. For Shetland women marriage meant induction into a fishing-crofting household wherein their role was

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

. But she didn’t. How mean I felt afterwards for not having stopped her! But most assuredly the Shetland women work harder than the men.5 The sight of women engaging in physical labour in public appeared to offend the eyes of these educated travellers, who may not have been acquainted with the sight at home. Although women across Britain had commonly been employed in field labour, by the end of the nineteenth century a combination of agricultural improvement, enclosure and the prevalence of domestic ideology meant that it was now relatively rare to find women

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

‘deliberately dowdy’ in their dress, always wearing an apron which suggested, to the uninitiated, female subordination.2 The fishwives of the east coast of Scotland were depicted as drudges for carrying baskets of fish for miles to sell to rural households.3 The ‘Lady Correspondent’ of the Dundee Advertiser drew similar conclusions upon encountering Shetland women in 1898. ‘They are never without their burden, never at rest from toil. They look overdriven and weighed down with unremitting labour.’4 In some societies in western Europe, as well as further afield in so called

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

established codes of behaviour which governed everyday intercourse. Reputation was the foundation for all other 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. The Shetland islands are distinctive within the western European culture of women for privileging the economic over the moral. Women were

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

myth and materiality in a woman’s world 6 Sexualities [Shetland women] are modest virgins, and virtuous wives: for adultery is not known among them. Among the common sort fornication sometimes happens; but their constancy is such, that they are sure to marry one among another. (Capt. Thomas Preston, 12 May 1744, quoted in Thomas Gifford, An Historical Description of the Zetland Islands, p. 104) n the nineteenth century, official conceptions of moral order were largely equated with female sexuality. A moral society was one in which women’s bodies were

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

women and, conversely, using Shetland women’s experiences to rethink or at least challenge some of these models.45 To simplify and to paraphrase, the story of women in nineteenth-century Europe is dominated by a western European perspective with a focus on the industrialised economies of Britain, France and Germany. Women’s historians of Britain and Europe are now accustomed to a post-Enlightenment meta-narrative which goes something like this. The intellectual and scientific revolution of the Enlightenment had a profound and long-term impact on the ways in which

in Myth and materiality in a woman’s world
Sarah Browne

were allowed to hitch-hike around Europe but girls were not.82 Margaret Elphinstone was particularly affected by this feeling of gender difference. A selfconfessed tomboy, Margaret, who would later help to found the Shetland women’s liberation group, recalled ‘a turning point when I thought that I do not want to grow up and be a woman. This is awful.’ This revelation had occurred during a trip to visit her aunt in Canada with her family,   35   MUP_Browne_WomensLiberation.indd 35 09/05/2014 15:52 the women’s liberation movement in scotland including her cousin

in The women’s liberation movement in Scotland