Socking the Laird, and other knitting tales

I have been doing some vague research into my family history for a little art project I am working on and I found this fabulous photo In the Shetland Museum Archives of some folks in the Shetland Islands who may or may not be relatives of mine. They are Robertsons to be sure and while they look like a little… hmmm… how can I put it… characterful?… it is possible that I can even see some vague family resemblences… prominant ears, the worried brow on the gentleman second from the right and so on. But you know, I didn’t realise I came from such tough looking stock. I do know that my relatives had to leave Shetland (and hence eventually travel to Australia) because, as my dad puts it, one of them “socked the Laird, and if you sock the laird, you don’t hang around.” Socking the Laird involves putting rocks in a sock and knocking the lord of the land over the head. Tough folk.
I think my mob left the Shetland Islands at least a decade before this photo was taken so perhaps they are more like distant cousins.

The other thing I am interested in about my Shetland Island heritage is knitting. Doing a quick search for knitting in the archives brings up 148 items. One of my favourites is this group knitting shot:

An early Stitch ‘n’ Bitch. I am particularly keen on the outfit of the woman middle right – cute! But what is that large rocky structure in the background? A roof? A cairn?

And knitting was something you obviously did in all sorts of places at all sorts of times.

And another example:

while on the way to tend to the potatoes, you stop for a bit of a natter with a friend who is burning kelp and, as you lean on your shovel, right there is the opportunity to keep knitting that sock (woman at back on right). Look at that beautiful sock blowing in the wind.

And now is obviously the time to get Amelia and Lily involved in some of their cultural heritage:

(And that seems to be the second jumper she knitted!)

I could keep going… such great photos.

WordPress 2.5’s new photo uploading feature clearly makes it far too easy to add a lot of photos.

52 Responses to “Socking the Laird, and other knitting tales”

  1. Jude

    They are priceless! I am of Scottish stock too and the last photo cracks me up. There is legend in our family of one of my aunts knitting at age 3 – perhaps we are related to this little knitter. I stupidly had a go at teaching my 4 year old on the heels of this story – bad idea. Will try again in a year or four. Glad you are back!

  2. grace

    Wow what wonderful photo’s! Makes me feel I should look up my Austrian ancestors. My mum tells me about her mother who was well known for knitting in public.With WWKIP day coming up in June, our coldest time of the year,our Stitch and Bitch group here in Tasmania could take some lessons from these hardy ladies knitting outdoors!

  3. Cherry

    That lil’un must be a speedy knitter, too.Great pics! I especially like the beach-sock-knitting.P.S. What’s that dude doing at the stitch-n-bitch? 🙂

  4. Sarah Bray

    You are cracking me up today! I haven’t upgraded yet…I’m kind of getting tired of all of these upgrades! But Oh Well, perhaps it is worth it for the photo feature alone. 🙂

  5. Larissa

    those photos are wonderful. sheesh, how old is the cherub knitting while patting a kitty? 2? these people are serious about knitting! You have quite a legacy!

  6. Stephanie

    Those are really beautiful pictures. I love looking at historical photographs. The one of the little girl is by far my favorite. I see my little girl in her concentration and industriousness… and in her chubby cheeks and short hair :)I upgraded to 2.5 too but I’m still using my husband’s photoxhibit plugin because it pulls right from the pictures I’ve already uploaded to Picasa (or Flickr). You can see it on my blog or at

  7. lindsey clare

    gotta love that little knitting girl and her cat! she reminds me of photos of my mum when she was a wee lass (without the scottishness).

  8. h&b

    Great photos !Speaking of rellies, you’re reading a book by one of mine ( “Living the Good Life” ). Did you see them on Today/Tonight last week ?

    I wish I was as diligent….

  9. Claire

    Amazing Photos, thanks for sharing them.Good luck with your little project.

  10. Leonie

    Such wonderful photos! I’ve only been reading your website for a few weeks now, but I’d heard about it long before then (while you were on hiatus). I’m so happy to be reading your new stories, they tickle my creative bone (which was thought to be non-existent).It must be exciting to find out so much about your family. It sure looks like you have knitting genes!

    Have to go, I must update to WordPress 2.5 now 😉

  11. sarah shepherd

    I could take my multitasking to whole new level with that kind of inspiration! Brilliant photos … good find.

  12. Cassandra

    Hello Claire, so good to see you are blogging again. It’s a highlight of my day when I see you’ve updated! Love these crazy knitting photos. People were so tough back then!Me…I’m living in Switzerland at the moment and loving it, but often think of home and the good things I miss. Such as…the hot chocolates we sipped with crafty lady-friends in the early hours of Sundays at the flea market. Good memories!

  13. lelly

    oh, i am so glad i kept the link to loobylu!! i’ve checked sporadically throughout the past year. today is FUN as i get to go back through the past month or so of posts.welcome back!!

    i love your collection of photos and odd thoughts here. i’m feeling more creative now that i’ve had a loobylu fix this morning!

  14. Tanya

    Wow! I love that little girl. Could that large mound be a pile of turf? I hope you will share your project, family history is so inspiring.

  15. m

    Knitting in the Shetland Islands was a way of surviving economically the women knitted to get money for food – nothing cutesy about it at all. The is a film called ‘The Work they say is Mine’ made in the early 1980s which uncovers the history of women’s work in the Shetlands. You might be able to get a copy via the Scottish Film Archive (now part of the National Library of Scotland) Even children were expected to add economically to the family.The girl with the kitten would be providing goods to sell for her family. Life in the Shetland Islands and Orkney only improved after the late 1970’s when North Sea Oil was found and oil revenues were funnelled into the local economy. Before that it was desperate kind of scratching a living kind of place.

  16. Mark - Creative Journey Cafe

    Clearly the phrase “Say cheese!” hadn’t been invented when those photos were taken.(I always think this when I see stern people in old photos.)

    The pics are great. And it kind of cracks me up that you picked out the loobylu-ish outfit on the woman in the middle row!

  17. Di

    A ha – Scots blood and a Shetlander at that! Us Scot’s certainly managed to populate the world!!Love those photos – I have seen the one of the woman knitting whilst walking before – it’s a great idea!!

  18. Maddy

    Lovely to see you back in blog land Claire, I’ve missed your inspiration. I’m addicted to family tree research, it really is so much fun.

  19. pip

    Oooh..look at that little girls lovely legs! She’s a corker, isn’t she?! Did you know one of our editors at Hardie Grant is from the Shetland Isles too! She must be your cousin.And surely you are buying a Shetland pony now – just to keep in touch with your heritage? I think it would be lovely trip trapping amongst your pumpkins.xx

  20. Kirsty

    These are lovely found photos. I love making up the story that goes with the pictures in these sorts of finds. Yours are really fabulous.

  21. Lisa Le-Ray

    Hello fellow ausie ;). I just wanted to say that I love your website! (It’s very cute and funky).Wuv Lisa Le-Ray

  22. katiecrackernuts

    I have no idea what that mound is either. The turf suggestion was good. It kind of looks like that. And what’s with lugging your spinning wheel around? I get the knitting – it’s pretty portable, but a spinning wheel? Who put it there? Why? For a photo? I love that historic photos throw up more questions than they answer. It’s like an archival detective story.

  23. Ward

    I’m guessing that that mound could be a rock oven, perhaps?And the reason that no one smiled in photos back then was because the exposure times required for the cameras were long — sometimes a minute long — making it extremely difficult to hold a smile.

  24. Susan

    The mound will be either peat for burning or turf for roofing. I’d put my money on peat. And the reason no one smiled in photos was because they did not want to be perceived as grinning fools. It was considered more dignified (and normal) not to smile.Susan (an Australian dividing her time between the Loire Valley in France and London)

  25. rochelle

    i love the pics of the little girl knitting – how cute!!if you get stuck with your genie research, try the genealogy centre at the State Library – they have a massive collection of aussie + international genie info – online + physical. and they have family research days coming up in june i think? check out the info on the website, under genealogy

    well that’s my plug for the day!

  26. Katherine

    Glad that you are back blogging, and this is a great post. I was born in Orkney and lived there until the age of 10, never made it to Shetland but it’s on the list. I think the mound is a peat stack, they dig it up from the ground and then use it as fuel.I’m off up to Orkney in a few weeks and looking forward to buying some nice yarn there!

  27. leigh

    also if you are of scottish descent try it’s fantastic as all the records for Scotland were centralised.My Mum and I have traced our family back a few hundred years … and especially like reading the census documents, showing occupations and how many people like in each house, etc. Also looks like peat to me, but I’m a lowland Scot so what do I know?!

  28. magicrainbowdreamings

    This last picture (knitting girl w/ cat) is hilarious…it had me crack up ;o)) Hi Claire, found your blog shortly last year *before* your blogging break but this is my first comment here. It’s nice to see you’re back. Oh, and *welcome* to a new fellow Etsian here ;o) Looking forward to seeing more of your art! Cheers, Nicole

  29. monda-loves

    I love looking at old photo’s like this. These were the days when life was actually quite hard – and I imagine especially hard in the cold and windy shetland islands. The thing that amazes me about the last photo (except the knitting child of course) is that no matter how old fashioned the clothes/images, the cat looks as if it walked right out of 2008 and into the photo!Thanks for sharing these pics.


  30. Joanne

    Delurking to say that my mom’s a Robertson from Scotland and she use to visit relatives in Shetland as a girl! How fun!

  31. Meg

    Unbelievable that a girl that little is knitting sweaters!! Great photos, so neat to see. 🙂

  32. bec

    i LOVE the little dolls legs just sticking out of the RH side of the photo you linked to- of the littel girl knitting! sooo cute!

  33. corrie

    oh oh oh I just love the little girl with the kitten and her knitting…how cute n chubby is she!!! adorableafter watching millions of episodes of who do you think you are I think its time I started doing my own family tree


  34. ulla

    Ohhh, these are wonderful! How fun to find relatives who may or may not be the real thing, I say adopt them! I love your descriptions/text, it reads like a wonderful biography! Amazing to think that those lovely genteel women knit the ‘sock’ that knocked the laird!I wanted to say THANK YOU for putting my blog as your monthly inspiration. Trish of Sweet Nellie just told me the other day… I knew I was getting a lot of hits from your site, but didn’t know why… Now I do! You are a true TREASURE! Hugs from Ulla!

  35. Dan

    Re knitting in the great outdoors, they would have had to go somewhere with a decent amount of light, since the film chemistry would have been relatively slow by today’s standards. They couldn’t have taken the shot indoors. Also, I think the peat pile (or whatever it is) provides some nice triangular lines in the shot.Do you think the woman in the first shot mothered all those men?

  36. Mel Ainsworth

    Love the group knitting shot!Reminds me of how cheerful Scots are.I used to live in Scotland and they mostly look on the bright side of life.I have knitting envy of that little toddler,can’t knit yet but I’ll be learning soon.Nice blog you’ve got,Mel.x

  37. Alex

    “But what is that large rocky structure in the background? A roof? A cairn?”

    It’s definitely peat stack…cut from the bogs in the summer, dried by the wind and used as fuel all year long!

  38. Jill

    note that little cherub has her very own knitting belt to boot!inspiring.

    it’s taking me forever to knit a pair of armwarmers for myself with 3 kiddos running around…now i get it…THEY should knit them FOR me!!

  39. Lili

    The older child sitting on the ground in the first picture looks like James McAvoy, maybe you’re related to him too even though he’s scottish. 😉

  40. di

    Oh my! Fantastic photos!!! Especially the last one! WOW what a compitent young knitter she looks like..

  41. Herself

    Indeed that large pile of “rocks” is actually a peat pile whereby blocks of peat were cut from the ground and then piled on top of one another to dry and therefore harden. This was a common practice in Scotland and Ireland.In the Shetlands it is called a ‘roog’ and used for roofing and fuel for fire.

  42. Rachel

    Found this page while searching for Historical photos of Shetland Families. i too have been to the Shetland Museum Site, wonderful photos and posible photo of our family surname Hunter. Great that your sharing these photos and appriciate the history of these great people.Ps. the pile in the photo is probally PEAT.Rachel

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