It’s taking me a while, but I’m learning to kick the hoarding habit … I think

ANYONE for a Ferrero Rocher?

A Chinese takeaway? Eat away, but please don’t throw the containers away. I have a stack of them, neatly stashed in a cupboard ready for new wild collectibles. I simply can’t resist hanging onto the wild treasures that seem to leap out and grab your attention at every turn in Shetland. A beach is probably the worst tempter. All those tantalising pebbles; calcite in Fladdabister, with irresistible swirls of grey, black, white and tomato red; Stenness with its multi-coloured volcanics, peppered with crystal geodes, granites and stained quartz.

There are umpteen sandy beaches too, but never two alike. Here there is grey sand; there it is a darker grey. This beach has white sand, but then another “white” beach will be far whiter. There are the red sands of Reawick, Ronas’ Lang Ayre and Muckle Roe, the magnetite sands of Fetlar and the muddy sands of Voxter and Dale. There are empty glass jars just waiting to hold small quantities of these differing substances and they can be admired in their own right, or brought together in dainty or chunky juxtaposition in bands, swirls, to accentuate their variations along more artistic lines.

But beaches bring out their dead in the most engaging ways too.

Sea shells, although you are discouraged from removing them in any quantity, bring a tremendous lot of pleasure to those who are interested. From paper thin telling to chunky Iceland clams, Shetland seashells come in a dazzling range of shapes, colours and patterns. Selecting single specimens for safe keeping seems reasonable enough, especially if you display and share the interest and not just gather and hoard to no purpose.

One of the latest collections was a set of whisker bones and spiked scales from that Ray’s bream of several weeks ago. I am getting slowly better at labelling things and dating them. I am beginning to go through older collections forcing myself to relinquish the nibbled, the crumbled and the faded, except for really special items, such as the grass snake eggs, found by mum, crumpled and abandoned in the garden one summer and the incredibly fine skeleton of a pygmy shrew.

These things are real treasures and while there is a tide, a wind and a shoreline, I can’t imagine ever losing the urge to gather and exclaim, cart off and share the interest and the admiration for such endless diversity. But I have to admit that the urge to collect things from the wild world outside began very early. I remember sharing this fact with Bobby Tulloch many years ago. He spoke of his mother finding him, aged very little, asleep with a dead puffin under his pillow in Yell. Mine found me with an adder, killed by a vehicle on the road in Norfolk, carefully wrapped up in yards of toilet tissue, likewise secreted under my pillow.

Later we moved from the sandy, light soils of the north east Norfolk coast to the heavy, but intensely fertile boulder clay soils of north west Essex.

We lived a mile and a half from the village of Hempstead, where years before Dick Turpin was born. Here I found fabulous flints. There was no end to their colours and they felt so clean and glassy, and could be chipped and broken to reveal wicked sharp edges. Periodic visits back to family in Norfolk led to beach visits where unbroken flints could be found sometimes with holes right through them – “hag stones” they were known as locally, and my collection grew bigger still. Hagstones were said to keep all witches away.

Pure white quartz was always very desirable, and of course the pebbles just had to be all the same size and shape if possible. Sometimes, like the returning soldier in the “The Tinder Box” fairy tale, I would discover new treats and empty my pockets of the old boring familiar ones, dazzled by new and unfamiliar glories. The real “gold” of these north facing beaches was amber, but carnelian was almost as good. Amber was lighter, warmer and when rubbed would pick up tiny fragments of torn paper and dust with static. We seldom found either, but the magnetic pull of just the idea was hard to resist.

Over the years, we picked up occasional real treasures and under mum and dad’s guidance learned to tell the real thing from the maybe things. Visits to archaeological sites sparked off new searches and we turned up a few ancient stone tools and flint cores and flakes among the huge, sticky, cloggy furrows in the boulder clay fields around the farm. Alerted to Roman pottery in museum displays, my mother and sister found Samian ware in a nearby field. Subsequent investigation by the authorities found an undiscovered Roman Villa site there, but sometimes it’s not the rarity but the strange and unusual which attracts the eye. What is one foot seven and a half inches in old money? I’ll have to find a metric ruler and find out. The length has to be seen to be believed. A dandelion leaf, pressed years ago, held captive between the pages of an old atlas, bought with my first student grant, remained hidden until a few days ago. I was looking for old Yugoslavian border details, to clarify the background to a children’s’ story for teaching purposes and out fell the leaf. I recalled finding it growing in the old vegetable plot in a corner of what was once the pasture field.

The soil grew huge vegetables and crops; weeds too. Somewhere I have a stinging nettle leaf, the size of a dinner plate, pressed between the pages of another book. The nettles behind the rotten remains of an old farm cart were over seven feet high.

The only problem was that the earth was virtually undiggable. Hard as cement in summer, glutinous and clatchy in winter, there were only short windows after hard frost when it was luscious and friable. As bairns, we would race across the ploughed fields, our welly boots gathering clay welts at every step until we were slowed down with feet like astronauts in magnetic space boots. We would poke off the huge clay soles with sticks and then run on with feet light as air.

All of this does nothing to solve the problem of the collection, the boxes and trays and bags, but time is passing and I simply have to sort it all out and face up to the mess and the clutter. All ideas and (kindly) suggestions will be much appreciated. You might even pop round and pass on your tips, that is if you can find me, buried somewhere under all the heaps!

Jill Slee Blackadder


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