Sowing the seed to save Shetland aets

Pioneering research is being carried out to save a traditional Shetland crop and the unique crafts it sustains.

Heritage experts Eve Eunson and Samantha Dennis are hoping to gain a greater understanding of Shetland aets (oats), including where they are grown and by whom –  and to encourage more people to get involved.

Once widely cultivated for various uses ranging from thatching roofs to feeding livestock, its production has declined dramatically, so much so that the true Shetland variety has now become precariously scarce.

Shetland Amenity Trust has commissioned the project as part of its commitment to promote critically endangered straw craft techniques, which use the aets.

Recent months have seen renewed interest in straw crafts, with the Shetland Museum running a series of popular winter workshops.

Joanne Flaws Jamieson with some of the rope she made at the winter straw workshop. Photo: Dave Donaldson.
Joanne Flaws Jamieson with some of the rope she made at the winter straw workshop. Photo: Dave Donaldson.

However, this new focus has also highlighted concerns over procuring large quantities of aets to meet the demand.

Ms Eunson said her interest in aets had grown from her previous project exploring the traditional chairs of Fair Isle, where she is from.

Her highly regarded research led to the Fair Isle strawback chair’s inclusion in the Heritage Craft Associations’s red list of critically endangered crafts.

She said it also saw her “delving down the straw rabbit hole” which involved many conversations trying to find out who was still growing aets.

Pretty soon, it became concerningly apparent that many of those who had been known for Shetland aets were no longer growing the crop.

Difficult to grow and with few modern applications, Ms Eunson found there was little appetite for Shetland aets.

Straw crafting at the Shetland Museum. Photo: SAT.
Straw crafting at the Shetland Museum. Photo: SAT.

When speaking to crofters about the crop’s decline, however, she said it seemed to spark “passion” and “motivation” to help preserve it.

“It’s really exciting,” she said.

“People seem to be really engaged with the crafts and producing straw for that purpose.

“There’s also a lot of interest in crofting heritage, with people moving away from producing lots of sheep towards more diverse forms of crofting.”

Ms Eunson hopes the project can help focus that interest and inspire a resurgence in aets growing to sustain the flourishing interest in straw crafts.

“Over the next few months we hope to gain a solid understanding of what is still being grown in Shetland and by whom and establish a bank of interested growers which we hope will include community groups with land available,” she said.

“We know that true Shetland aets seed is very scarce, so it is important that we encourage people to grow the crop in a sustainable way free from any cross-pollination from other crops which may dilute the strain.

“This winter’s consultation will help us develop a strategy for how to encourage and support more growers for 2024 without risking the precariously low stock of original seed.”

Dr Dennis, who runs an archaeological consultancy service, started learning to make Shetland coiled straw baskets 10 years ago.

She has since been awarded a Heritage Craft Association grant to research the baskets, which are also on the “red” endangered list.

This year's aets harvest with Ewen Thomson in Channerwick.
This year’s aets harvest with Ewen Thomson in Channerwick.

From an archaeological perspective, Dr Dennis said the “fate of Shetland aets” showed how island communities were constantly adapting to environmental changes, economic shifts and social pressures.

“Once a main staple on every croft, aets is now only grown by a very small handful of crofters,” she said.”The aets were grown for thatching roofs, making baskets and chairs, feeding livestock, and grinding into oatmeal.

“The local tradition was so strong that not only did the oat seed become a landrace – genetically adapted to native conditions – but the crafts are also unique in Britain. 

“But times changed with the introduction of imported cereal seed and animal fodder, the ubiquitous use of plastics for baskets and furniture, and the use of metal sheeting for roofs.

“As with many other recent adaptations over the last couple of generations we are waking up to their impact on our environment and our wellbeing.

“We are at the cusp of being able to reverse those decisions and bring back Shetland aets.”

Dr Dennis said growing cereal crops in Shetland was not easy, with harvests often thwarted by high winds, damp summers and hungry birds.

She hopes the project can support growers by creating a network to facilitate access to machinery and labour, set up a seed bank and share skills.

The winter workshops also offer a steady market the aets straw.

Repairing the roof at the Croft House Museum are, from left, maintenance manager Laurence Smith, Ian Tait and Scott Arthur. Photo: Dave Donaldson.
Repairing the roof at the Croft House Museum are, from left, maintenance manager Laurence Smith, Ian Tait and Scott Arthur. Photo: Dave Donaldson.

Shetland Amenity Trust’s Ailish Goodlad said growing aets was key to the sustainability of the craft.

“We are grateful to those who we currently get aets from, but to support the uptake in craft interest and to ensure the crop is preserved, more growers will be needed,” she added.

“This important research will form part of a broader project by SAT to understand more about traditional crops in Shetland and how their properties make them unique from other varieties of the same crop.

“Our long-term aim is to develop and grow traditional crops at the Crofthouse Museum site in Dunrossness.

“This is partly because we have a practical requirement for aets, as stocks are needed yearly to re-tekk (thatch) sections of the roof, but also we hope to make it part of a living history project at the site for future generations to understand and enjoy.”

People who are already growing aets or who would like to find out more about the project are invited to email, call 01595 694688 or visit the Shetland Aets Project on Facebook.


Add Your Comment
  • Philippa Boyland

    • December 3rd, 2023 9:04

    Such an interesting article on the growing of Shetland Earts, straw making and uses. Wish you well for the next season. I would love to see applications (uses- chairs, bags articles) All the best! Philippa


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