Past Life: Unusual flotsam

From Shetland Life, October 1983, No. 36

Unusual flotsam
by Albert Slater

Walking around the banks can be refreshing and relaxing while at the same time exercising both body and mind. At times it may also turn out to be rewarding. It was during our five days of summer on Saturday, 9th July, 1983, that I found myself at the banks of Torgar on Trondra, one of my favourite walks both in years gone by and still to this day. Having left the car at the “heights” above the former Trondra school and taking a more or less straight line westward I finally descended the back of Torgar just south of the Yellow Stane. The sun shone from a bright and clear blue sky with its light shimmering on the almost placid sea.

There is a certain fascination when walking around the banks. The sea itself is never still even on the calmest of days and when the water is low the seaweed waves to and fro in the gentle motion. As one walks along one’s eyes are glued to the shoreline for signs of any flotsam that may have been washed ashore, particularly of the plastic and other synthetic varieties and this occasion was no exception.

Leaving the Pund behind and passing the Red Geo the wind was a light south-westerly blowing on shore. By two o’clock it must have been near low water and it was then that I saw it – an object down at the water’s edge but I could not identify it from the banks’ broo. Closer investigation was required so I climbed down the banks to the water’s edge. There it was, sitting upright on a stone among the gently waving tang, a complete cone of wool and not a thread out of place. Where did it come from and why? It was almost unbelievable – two heads of wirsit washed up by the sea. Such a find would seem to defy explanation. Drift wood – yes. But drift wirsit? It can’t be every day that wirsit gets cast overboard (to save the ship) or is otherwise lost at sea. Closer examination revealed a stick-on label inside the cone bearing the following information – “100 per cent pure wool – count 2/21-shade 55-Batch 2611-T.M. Hunter – Made in Scotland.”

The following day was also fine so it was another walk around the banks and what better place than the back of Torgar again. Only this time I went with a faint feeling of expectancy – not of finding more wirsit but just maybe the off chance of seeing a mermaid sitting on a stane at the water’s edge with her maakin wires hand idle” (or should it be “flipper idle”) for want of a “scaar o’ wirsit”. But I had no such luck.

After the days of the oil boom, with times getting harder we must make use of whatever comes to hand be it drift wood or drift wirsit. The cone was saturated with salt-water after its immersion in the sea but after being gently dried out at the fire it was restored to its former state.

I doubt if there are very many of them about – gansies that is, made out of dried salt drift wirsit like the ones our two grandbairns are wearing. So if anybody is looking for yon “twa heads o’ wirsit” they are too late now. The tale would not be complete without mentioning the knitter. There must be some distinction in maaking gansies out of sea-driven wirsit even if it’s only picking off bits o’ tang now and again. So thanks to Anna from Yell for her patience and the finished handiwork.

Editor’s Note: We contacted Messrs T. M. Hunter Ltd. of Brora and their managing director, Mr Ian Simpson, who is well known in Shetland, supplied the following information: “We dyed the batch in question on the 11th of October, 1973, and consigned the total batch – approximately 100 lbs – to Messrs L. J. Smith of Hoswick a few days thereafter.”

Mr Smith can offer no explanation as to how one of his cones came to be on a beach in Trondra, ten years later. We can only assume that this is “one that got away”.


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