20th October 2017

Museum plays host to the Gunnister Man day

Shetland Museum and Archives is to hold a special Gunnister Man Day tomorrow to celebrate the exhibition and shed more light on the life of the mystery man who lived 300 years ago.

Special activities on the day include writing with quills, weaving on a loom and handling replica objects. Curators Ian Tait and Carol Christiansen will be in Da Gadderie all day answering questions on the Gunnister Man finds and the process of replicating his garments and possessions.

Archive documents from the time the man was alive will be on show, adding further insight into Shetland during this period.

Gunnister Man is the museum’s most popular exhibition to date and has attracted many first-time visitors. Nearly 650 pupils from both primary and secondary classes have visited, taking part in Gunnister Man workshops to investigate the mystery and come up with theories on who the man (or woman) whose remains were found in a peat bog in 1951 was and what happened to him. The public have been adding their suggestions too.

The four questions asked – where was he from, what did he do, how did he die and why was he buried there – have received many different responses. Visitors have debated whether he was local or a traveller, and whether he was well-off, given that his clothes were the height of 1710-20 fashion.

Theories on his death include hypothermia from exposure, murder, starvation, disease or suicide to the more extreme, such as a bog jumping accident (he would have walked on the hills as there were no roads) or being trampled to death by sheep. Or he could have been clobbered with his stick, which was broken.

A new theory comes from Oliver Henry, manager of Jamieson and Smith Shetland Wool Brokers. Mr Henry and grader Derek Goudie worked closely with museum curator Carol Christiansen to supply the exact wools for with the garment replicators.

He said that close examination of the dead man’s suit of coat and breeches revealed short straight white hairs known as “kemp” within the wool. Kemp are not part of the wool staple and are distinctive in that they do not take dye and remain white regardless of any staining. These hairs are not known in Shetland sheep, Mr Henry said, but are a feature of the Cheviot breed which come from lowland Scotland. He said that it is the firmly-held belief of crofters, one that he shares having been in the business since 1967, that kemp only came to Shetland with the Cheviot breed.

According to a report written for the Edinburgh Agriculture Society in 1794 by John Sheriff, there were only two indigenous types of sheep in the isles at the time – most were a wild rough-wool type similar to the Spelsau breed found in Norway, Iceland or Faroe and a few were “kindly” wool sheep with fine and very valuable wool, much sought after for hand spinning. Neither type had kemp.
Therefore, Mr Henry said, the man’s suit had to be made elsewhere, possibly in Edinburgh. The fine fashionable garments would have been expensive and this indicates a well-off man, possibly a laird. The creamy white shirt made of softer silky wool could have been bought in Shetland.

Mr Henry’s own suggestion is that Gunnister Man was a factor, sent up from south to collect meal tax. A stranger walking in unfamiliar surroundings, he could have lost his way in a moorie caavie (blizzard) and sank into a peaty blett (bog), which would have been very treacherous.

Mr Henry said that the task of finding a rough “primitive” type of wool for the replication was like finding “a needle in a haystack”. It had involved sorting through 490,000 kilos of wool but, he said, it had been a privilege to do it. “I like to see these types of projects. It is our culture, our heritage. And I can’t praise Carol [Christiansen] enough, she was up to her ocksters in wool.”

One aspect of Gunnister Man cannot be disputed however – his clothes show that he was a very skinny (therefore possibly a very young) man.

The museum has replica dressing up clothes made to the exact size of the finds and although many have tried them on they were usually far too tight. However for teenager Rory Goodlad, a pupil at Sandwick Junior High School, they were a perfect fit. Rory, who is 5ft 9in, weighs nine stone and has a 36-in chest and 28-in waist, said he thought the man was a town person, given the fashionable clothes, possibly a tradesman from Germany or Holland, either looking for a new life or selling bits and pieces but who froze to death.

The truth, of course, will never be known and the mystery of the Gunnister Man will continue.

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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