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Hairst in Shetland

by Laurie Goodlad -

Back in April, I wrote about Voar in Shetland so now, as the seasons slide into autumn – or hairst – I thought I would reveal a bit more about what this seasonal transition looked like in the past.

We have seen the first of the storms pass through in recent weeks – a sure sign that the seasons are changing and we are heading into hairst. Strong gales always seem to accompany the equinox – whether this is just weather lore, bad luck, or hard science is anyone’s guess, but the storms are impressive to watch nonetheless and can cause some travel disruption to our ferries.

The nights are also starting to ‘draa in’ [draw in], and the long nights of summer feel like a distant memory; summer is slipping away, sinking beneath the horizon and taking the sun with it. Where we would opt-outside in simmer, come hairst we’re ready to cosy up on the couch in the evening, light a few candles, and read a good book.

Autumn in Shetland is not punctuated by the rich browns, reds and yellows of the mainland; we lack the trees to give that final flush of colour and the crispness of fallen leaves underfoot. Instead, the colours fade and mute from their summer vibrancy as the sea-spray and wind roll in off the North Atlantic. That said, the colours in the sea as they are kicked up into a foaming fury by an Atlantic swell bring a special magic, and there is nothing more invigorating than those long, deep breaths of fresh air as you stand in that special, liminal zone between the land and the sea.

In the past, hairst – like voar – was a busy time; a time of hard labour and backs bent to the earth, of watching the weather and picking the right moment to bring in the hay, lift the tatties and secure the boats in the noosts for winter. The timing was everything, and one wrong decision could spell disaster for crops as the weather closed in.

Crofters watched the days of simmer passing into hairst with trepidation as one bad storm could do untold damage to the crops in their final stages – particularly the oats which could be flattened with one gale. On the other hand, warm and muggy conditions were also unwelcome as they brought potato blight – which was experienced by some people here this summer. Blight could decimate an entire crop and make for a very hungry winter. The 1850s blight across Scotland led to a period of famine and emigration. To help those who stayed, meal was exchanged for labour in the building of ‘meal’ or ‘tattie roads’ across Scotland and Shetland.

The hay was the first crop to come in; cut in August, it was – and sometimes still is – left to dry in the fields before being built into ‘coles’ to dry. Once dried, it’s taken home and made into a ‘dess’ in the yard.

hairst – like voar – was a busy time; a time of hard labour and backs bent to the earth, of watching the weather and picking the right moment to bring in the hay, lift the tatties and secure the boats in the noosts for winter

This was also the time that the men would return from the summer haaf [deep-sea] fishery and hang up their smookies [a fisherman’s smock] and take up their scythe to harvest crops. Oats and bere [barley] were harvested in hairst – a laborious and time-consuming job done in anxious haste with one eye on the weather. Sheaves were bundled together and left in ‘stooks’ in the fields to dry before they were home and built into ‘skroos’ in the yard.

The final crop to come in were the tatties; lifted from the soil and carefully stored over winter. Once all the crops were inside and safely stored, attention could be turned to the livestock which had spent the summer grazing the hills, or scattald. Once the crops were in, gates were lifted, and the animals were allowed to graze the infields around the croft and townships; extracting the last of the summer’s growth and nourishment in preparation for the long and dormant period of winter.

Although modern methods and mechanisation have surpassed many of these traditions and fewer people rely on the land for subsistence, we still go through this ritualistic preparation for the darker months. We anticipate the wind before it arrives; tying down trampolines and taking in anything that can blow away. We take down our hanging baskets and stock up the freezer with lamb, beef and fish – like the industrious Mice of Brambly Hedge, we prepare for the darkness in hairst in one last final flurry of activity.

But of course, for the crofters and farmers, the cycle continues today; the silage has been cut, the lambs will be brought to market, and the rams will be ‘slippit’ among the sheep (in November) in anticipation of the spring lambing. So although many traditions have changed, Shetland is still a community where crofters look to the seasons to govern the crofting calendar of today.

And for me, with no crofting responsibilities, I look forward to closing out the dark-nights and listening to the rattling of the wind and rain on the windows as the equinox gales pass through, and I’m cosy inside with a glass of wine, getting through my reading list...

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