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Voar in Shetland

by Laurie Goodlad -

Shetland has been basking in some exceptional spring weather this past week, in fact, we even hit double figures, a milestone that we marked by dusting off the barbecue after a long winter and enjoyed our first al fresco meal in the garden – albeit cloaked in jumpers and cardigans to stave off the still biting wind.

Traditionally Shetland’s year was punctuated by important dates, and the seasons played an important role in everyday life. Each season brought its own task, linked to the croft and the sea.

As we move into April, we also move into Voar – the Shetland word for spring. As the days begin to lengthen, the dark grip of winter is slowly released, shadows shorten as the sun rises higher in our northern skies. A feeling of optimism and hope returns as people start to think about all the outdoor jobs that must be completed with the coming of voar.

One sure sign of voar in Shetland remains: the burning of heather on parts of the hill. Often this can appear alarming to visitors unaware of this important task, as large plumes of smoke rise from the hills, filling the air with the scent of the moor.

Fire is one of the oldest methods of land management known to man and is vital in order to ensure the best grazing for sheep. Heather moorland is burnt to provide fresh growth – known as the lubba – for livestock. Controlled burning requires skill, experience and careful planning.

Old, long heather doesn’t provide good grazing. Burnt in a controlled manner, the heather regenerates producing fresh, new shoots of heather, and good grazing for livestock.

According to the Muirburn Act, that legislates the burning of heather moorland: “The aim [of burning] should be to create a mosaic of heather patches of different ages,” allowing wildlife shorter heather to graze and longer areas to seek protection.

All burning of the heather must be completed by 15th April to allow the nesting birds a safe place to breed – and this year saw a complete ban on heathery fires due to the Covid-19 pandemic. As with any burning, there is always an increased risk of uncontrolled fire which could require the attendance of emergency responses.

As well as the burning of the heather, other important voar work would be undertaken from April including, dellin’ [turning over] the ground to make way for crops, repairing any winter damage to stone dykes, and moving animals from the scattald [fields around the house, or infields] to allow for growing crops and grazing the milking cows.

Tatties and oats would be sown in April, and a weather window – such as what we’ve had this week – would have been much hoped for. Crofters were keen to get the oats in the ground before Simmermill Day – 25th April in the old calendar (I wrote about the differences in calendar dates in Shetland in the Yule blog).

Simmermill Day, on 14th April, was the last festival of spring. This date was much anticipated as it marked the beginning of the summer half-year. It was important that the seeds were in the ground at this time, and it was often said that “a day in voar is a week in hairst [autumn]”.

The weather on Simmermill day was observed with a keen eye, as the weather on this day was thought to foretell that of summer. This type of weather-lore was also observed on the Borrowing Days (the last three days of March). The Borrowing Days were said to foretell the weather for May, June and July. These days are still observed here today.

Shetland’s growing season is notoriously short, far shorter than even the north of Scotland, and for this reason, good days in April would reap healthy rewards in the autumn, or hairst. A wet, cold and stormy April would make it difficult for seeds to germinate and the risk of crop failure would be all the more real, and hunger an even graver possibility.

This was also the time that people would start to think about ‘makkin for da hill’ to prepare for the peat cutting season to begin. The first job was to flay the bank, removing the top layer of turf to reveal the peat for the coming season. Peat was, and still is, an important source of winter fuel. In the absence of wood, peat was used for burning throughout the year. Without peat, life, undoubtedly would have been very difficult in Shetland.

Even today, during this time of lockdown, Shetlanders have been granted the green light by the government to go and work their peat banks, preparing fuel for winter, as it is still recognised as an important part of island life.

This week, as I make slow progress dellin’ over my small tattie plot, I can’t help but think about the generations who went before me, who laboriously delled acres of land by hand, knowing that the lives of their loved ones depended on a successful crop to keep hunger at bay during the hungry months of winter.

Shetlanders traditionally observed the seasons in a way that we (I) know not today. Much of the tradition and lore associated with the seasons, and growing, has been lost through the passage of time. Mass consumerism and ‘one click’ buying mean that we can have anything we want, whenever we want; be it an avocado from Mexico or a ripe American blueberry. These are things our ancestors could only dream of, yet they held a deep appreciation for the natural world around them and knew that a day wasted in voar would be felt in the hungry bellies of winter.

I can’t help but wonder, have we lost more than we have gained?

Follow Laurie on Instagram @ShetlandwithLaurie

Posted in: Heritage

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