A couple of family days out this month, have led me to some wonderful examples of traditional Orkney baskets.
The first trip was to the Fossil and Heritage centre at Burray. It is a lovely little museum, tiny but packed with interesting collections and well worth a visit if you’re up that way. Whilst downstairs is devoted to fossils and the naval history of Scapa Flow, upstairs houses a collection of old items from Orkney. The things that really caught my attention, were of course, the baskets.
Firstly, there were three cubbies hanging on the wall (pictured above). These simple baskets were traditionally used for bait. They were all made from different fibres, but unfortunately there was no information to accompany them and as the section was roped off to protect the items on display, I could not get a close look. I am pretty sure that the first was made from Heather roots. Heather roots were often used to make rope on the islands, as it was incredibly strong and was usually made for the purpose of roofing.
I am unsure what the middle basket was made from. It almost looks like rush, but this would have been unusual. I know dock was used, but I haven’t seen any examples of it, to know what it looks like. The last cubbie though, was made from straw.
As well as these, the collection also had a small selection of household baskets, for various uses – an old Orkney chair (in need of some attention), and a very nice example of a straw-work moses basket.
The second visit, to Kirbuster Farm Museum, also had some great basketry items on display.
With exception of a small peg basket and fruit basket, all of the baskets at Kirbuster were straw-work. This is not surprising, as straw was readily available across the islands and straw-work is still practised here today. The most famous examples are of course, the Orkney chairs, which are backed with oat straw.
There was one very large circular basket, which I particularly liked – a project for another time!
Again, this museum is well worth a visit, if you are up in Orkney. Not far from the delights of the Birsay coast, the museum is an old farm, which has been uninhabited since the 1960’s. The main room still has the traditional open peat fire in the centre of the room, which is lit when the museum is open, so you will come out smelling of peat smoke. It has a fantastic selection of household items on display, from a variety of decades and farm equipment on display in the outbuildings.
We had great fun, spotting things which we have found in the derelict house, which we are currently renovating.
Seeing these wonderful baskets first-hand, reminded me that I have yet to try my own hand at some of these traditional skills. It has been on my “to do” list since last year, but moving house and life in a derelict house has been a big distraction from some of these personal projects.
As I happened to have lots of plant fibres drying at the moment, it seemed like a good opportunity to make a start, on learning new skills.
As usual, I am learning by trial and error. Finding my own way, based on what I have seen.
I decided to have a go at a cubbie. I knew this was only going to be loosely based on traditional cubbies, as I have never seen the base close to, and so can only guess how it might have been started.
I am quite sure that I did not choose the correct method, but it served a purpose and I was surprised at how simple the process of twining these upright spokes was.
My second surprise, was how strong the finished basket was. I was only making a very small version of the basket, to suit my chosen fibres – dandelion stems. These were what I had ready, and in the true island tradition of using what you have to hand, I decided to try them out.
I cut the stems along one side first, opening them out and pressing them flat, between my fingers.
The structure of this kind of basket, shows off the wonderful variation in stem colour. Have you ever noticed the many colours of dandelion stems? I hadn’t, until I started working with them last year. Even if I just look at the stems collected from our own garden, there are pale green, pink, purple and a deep red! It really is the most wonderful of weeds!
I think that the strength of this basket, is mainly due to the cordage wrapped border. This also plays a big part in giving the basket its shape.
I was pleased with the results. It could definitely do with being neater and that base needs some more thought, or perhaps better examples so that I can really see what’s going on. But the character of the basket is there and I will enjoy working with this style of basket some more.
I hope to do some more of these little learning projects over the coming months. I find them to be so valuable, both in giving me confidence to push myself further and in giving me knew ideas for my own basketry practice.