14th August 2018
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Gunnister Man finds fans long after death

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Shetland has lost its heart to the Gunnister Man.

The anonymous man who met a lonely end in the hills of North­mavine three hundred years ago and whose clothes and personal effects were found in a peat bog in 1951 has had attention lavished on him in death in a way he never had in life.

Visitors – including from most schools – have been in droves to see the mannequin as he sits in replica garments and with replica pos­sessions near his original items in Shetland Museum and Archives’ most successful exhibition ever.

To make it as authenic as possible, curators Ian Tait and Carol Christiansen wanted to make sure the copies of the Gunnister Man’s clothes and the belongings he carried at the time of his death were correct in every detail.

The painstaking quest to re-create his coat, breeches, hat, gloves, belt, purse, socks and shoes, and personal items – knife, spoon, tub, horn and quill – took them as far afield as Wales and Scandinavia, with Dr Christiansen overseeing the textiles and Dr Tait the other artefacts.

The Gunnister Man now wears a formal, stylish suit of greyish-brown coat with round knob-like buttons (there are 77 in total made with a wool core and woven covering) and matching breeches in a specially woven fabric which was felted heavily, sewn and then felted again. This would have made the fabric warm and given it some degree of waterproofing.

The original garments had developed a khaki tinge after being submerged in peat for 300 years thanks to the tannic acid but it was decided it would be going too far to copy this. However, wear was simulated by shaving the fabric once it was finished.

The wool for the suit and for the creamy white shirt, again with the distinctive buttons, was sourced locally, with help from Oliver Henry and Derek Goudie at Shetland Wool Brokers – Dr Christiansen asked them to look for the roughest fleeces they could find. “Rough is good”, said Dr Tait, although both said compromises had to be made in their quest for authenticity.

The wool was hand combed (not carded) in the traditional way but then, Dr Christiansen said: “Modern life got in the way.” The cost of handspinning the yarn for the suit was “astronomical” (although wool for the shirt was handspun). They worked with a mill in Wales for a year to get the yarn spun in the required way. It was eventually handwoven in Sweden by Lena Hammarlund of Goteborg.

Dr Tait said: “Labour costs were minimal 300 years ago but the materials would be expensive. Now it’s the other way round.” The width of the original fabric was known because it had selvedges. The fabric was cut to size by Stockholm tailor Martin Ciszuk.

The dark brown stockings were easier, with the pattern created by Dr Christiansen, herself a keen craft worker who knitted one stocking. The other was done by Marion Polson. And the patch for one stocking, knitted by Maggie Ann Nicolson, was sewn in the same way as rivlins (simple shoes of scraped cowhide), revealing the Gunnister Man knew about this footwear. “His feet must have been permanently wet”, said Dr Chris­tian­sen.

Hide and horn were widely used local materials at this time but compromise crept in when it came to recreating the Gunnister Man’s horn spoon and small horn with a wooden bung. Modern cows’ superior diet – silage rather than heather – makes the horn thicker and more difficult to work.

Dr Tait said: “To achieve accuracy we wanted a local cow’s horn but we had problems getting a Shetland cow with horns. Eventually we had to get a Shetland resident [not pure breed] cow. It just niggles”.

Dr Christiansen added: “We’re perfectionists.”

And what was the small horn with the wooden stopper for? Dr Tait thinks snuff. This was the era when imports were increasing and Dutch fishermen brought tobacco (which would be ground into snuff) into Shetland. The quill found with the Gunnister Man was reproduced as a goose quill, and Dr Tait thinks its could be a “snorter” for taking snuff (the gentry had metal versions of the same thing).

The staff, made of hazel wood, is not exactly the same curvature as the original: “We had a requirement to use natural resources,” although the split in the top with a nail, made by a Norwegian blacksmith, is an exact copy.

More detail was used in the bronze belt buckle cast in Norway in a specially-constructed stone mould, and the belt was tanned with Norwegian bark (tormentil root could also have been used). The belt and buckle are currently being finished.

The Gunnister Man’s wooden tub is of Scandinavian redwood faithfully reproduced with the same number of narrow and wide staves. The original has a juniper hoop and a broken willow one.

Dr Tait said: “We didn’t want a broken willow hoop so ours is better than the original, but we didn’t try to make it more perfect than it was. The different timbers are indicative of limited resources.”

Another timber, ash, was found in the man’s knife handle. There would have been plentiful timber on the beaches from shipwrecks.

The lid of the tub, two slats laced together, invited “informed spec­ulation”, said Dr Tait. One theory suggests it was a writing tablet and the quill found was a pen, but Dr Tait prefers to think it was merely a lid for the tub (which could have carried something as mundane as a packed lunch in an era of “fairly settled subistence”). The holes in the lid and tub imply a lashing with tarred hemp, which did not survive.

The only items not handmade were the coins – two Dutch silver and one Swedish copper dating between 1681 and 1690 – the man had in his purse and which would have entered local circulation. Most of the coinage in 17th and 18th centuries would have been Dutch (from the purchase of knitwear) as Shetland was a subsistence rather than a money economy.

The purse itself was interesting with a coral-coloured Fair Isle pattern which could have been dyed with woad. Although generally used as a blue dye (and a cheaper version of indigo) woad can produced a red colour if merely soaked in water.

Dr Tait said it has been nice not to know everything. “This is part of the appeal. We know a lot more than we did – he [the Gunnister Man] is so engaging, so completely ordinary. There are many mercantile examples but [you don’t often see] ordinary folks’ stuff.” These are typically only found in shipwrecks, he added.

Dr Christiansen said: “It was fascinating to see how an ordinary person mended his clothes and the bits and pieces he had with him. We had to do right by the artefacts and by the public and let the artefacts speak for themselves.”

The degree of detail in the replication was worth the effort, said Dr Tait. “If we’d cheated and got factory-produced fabric and if the tub was not the correct timber most people wouldn’t realise, but what’s the point of doing it if we’re not doing it properly?

“It would have been a pastiche and we’re only doing it once. These aren’t theatre props, they’re the real thing – if the Gunnister Man came back to life he would feel at home.”

The bronze caster, the black­smith, carpenter, and trapper (who prepared the hide for the rivlins) were co-ordinated by ethnographer Amy Lightfoot, based in Hitra.

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About Rosalind Griffiths

I am a Shetland Times reporter covering news, including health stories, and features. I have been in Shetland for more than 30 years.

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