The cultured crofters

Tim Matthew, Floortje Robertson and Tove

On a rolling field in Selivoe, a corner of Shetland’s west coast that doesn’t quite register on Google Maps, there’s a flat patch of grass, just up from the ruins of an old crofthouse overlooking the sea. Today, it’s just another spot for the Robertson Matthew family’s sheep to graze on — but, if all goes to plan, it will become the modern family home of Tim Matthew, Floortje Robertson and their young daughter Tove. The new house — clad in wood, and with floor-to-ceiling windows — will look out to sea past the ruins of the crofthouse that Floortje’s forebears lived in six generations ago.

Tim and Floortje aren’t exactly what you might imagine when you think of Shetland crofters. He’s got tattoos and a not-quite rockabilly quiff; she’s got a short back and sides and a nose ring. In this field, they help look after some of the 125 sheep owned by Floortje’s family — but they also wouldn’t look out of place on London Fields. Tove is two, and named after Moomins creator Tove Jansson — though, with her little oilskin suit and saucer-like eyes that gaze at the lambs in the field, she’s beyond Moomin-level cute.

When they’re not crofting, Tim and Floortje both work at Mareel, Lerwick’s slightly left-field arts and culture centre, which is all Scandi-style blonde wood, slick branding and big windows overlooking the harbour. It’s got gallery spaces, an arthouse cinema and spaces for students to study film-making and music, including state-of-the-art recording studios.

Floortje’s day job is as programme manager. In her first year in the job, she’s brought everyone from Martha Wainwright to the String Sisters, the Scottish Opera and the National Theatre of Scotland. She’s created touring programmes for local musicians, and works on folk and literature festivals.

She describes her remit as “bringing high quality work, which appeals to Shetland tastes but push the boundaries just a little.” Off-duty, she’s a photographer, who has exhibited elemental landscape photographs of Shetland, Mull and Fuerteventura, and created photo series of community halls and abandoned crofthouses. For the moment, though, she’s mostly photographing Tove.

When I came home to Shetland, I remember just feeling so lucky that this beautiful drive was my commute, watching the light change every day. We take turns to drive, just so that one of us can just look out the window

Tim works at Mareel as a sound technician, though he’s pretty much a one-man music machine. Brought up on the Isle of Mull, off Scotland’s west coast, he spent 25 years in Edinburgh, mostly as a touring musician. He played fiddle and sang for a raucous, dirty blues band called Mystery Juice; and played drums for Lord Rochester, a trio who might be described as Chuck Berry in tartan. In Edinburgh, he managed a recording studio and taught himself sound engineering.

The pair met five years ago at a Mareel gig celebrating new Shetland musical talent, getting talking at the Father Ted-themed afterparty (Shetlanders have a curious love of fancy dress). Floortje was her sister’s designated driver, and Tim was dressed up as a drunken priest, taking a somewhat method approach to his role. Tim may have been tipsy, but Floortje was impressed by his soft-spoken rock n roll vibe (“I thought he was cool,” she says, simply). Five years later they live together in one half of an old farmhouse building that they share with Floortje’s parents, a quarter of a mile from the field where they’re building their new house.

Tim may be an outsider, but he’s had a love affair with Shetland since he was 12, learning the fiddle while he went to a small community school on Mull. That year, the legendary Shetland duo of Peerie Willie Anderson and Dr Tom Anderson came to play on the island. Peerie (Small) Willie was a guitar icon, who’d been inspired by the likes of Eddie Lang and Django Reinhardt to create a wild new take on traditional Shetland guitar-playing. Tammy Anderson was a Shetland fiddle legend, producing more than 300 melodies between 1936 and 1988, collecting many more traditional tunes, and winning an MBE in the process.

Tim recalls “these exotic creatures from the far north, who played this wild, unique music and spoke this dialect I’d never heard before — but who were so warm and friendly.” Dr Anderson invited Tim to his fiddle summer school at Stirling University, where Tim met young Shetlanders who’d been brought up playing the instrument. “It started a fascination with Shetland music,” he says, “and I started coming up to play in Shetland whenever I could, because there was just something about the welcome here. Playing in Shetland as a touring musician is different to anywhere else.”

Almost every house in Shetland has a fiddle, says Tim, but he also points at thriving rock, metal, jazz and classical scenes. “There are just so many really talented musicians here, of all stripes. Often, it’s just about a love of playing rather than performing, but you’ll get people crossing between bands: the amazing drummer in this band is also a great bass player in that band and the singer in this other band. It’s this bubbling cauldron of musical creativity, and it just keeps going through the generations. It’s amazing for me to just be part of it.”

Floortje, meanwhile, grew up in the big family house where they now stay, then went to Glasgow to study contemporary theatre. After university, she taught young children through theatre workshops, for the Glasgow Science Centre and then for the Scottish government. She was travelling a lot, and — as many Shetlanders seem to — started feeling the call of home. “I’d just become really disconnected to life in the city and needed a break,” she says. “I came home for a weekend, which turned into two weeks, and then a month.”

It was after a month – just as she was coming to terms with rebuilding a life in Shetland — that she met Tim at Mareel. As they initially began a long-distance relationship, they started imagining a shared future. “We both wanted to be more connected to the land and the sea,” says Floortje. “I wanted to take on some of my dad’s croft, and Tim was interested in that, too. It just felt right to make that commitment to being here.”

I couldn’t imagine anything better for my child than having that freedom to go outside, to explore and get mucky…

On a sunny day in May, that commitment seems to be going well. Floortje compares Tove’s upbringing to her own: “I grew up in this house, and we’d just be sent outside,” she says. “And I couldn’t imagine anything better for my child than having that freedom to go outside, to explore and get mucky… We spend a lot of time just going to the various beaches on the west side of Shetland, using all the swimming pools and all the local play parks. There’s a really active community of other young families who get together to do things together: everything from music to swimming lessons, going to soft play areas. It’s just so easy to get in the car and go.”

Like Floortje, Tove will most likely go to the local Happyhansel primary school, the kind of community school that Tim also went to, where one teacher teaches different age levels. Tove might be the only kid in her year, a prospect that doesn’t faze her parents. “She’ll be going to school with children she knows anyway,” says Tim. “My first primary school only had seven kids. You got this very personalised teaching, and it worked really well for me. I’m glad Tove’s going somewhere similar.”

It’s difficult to draw any negatives out of Tim and Floortje about life in Shetland. When Tim first moved up, in the middle of winter, to a section of Floortje’s family home that needed plastering, re-wiring and re-decorating, he says he “loved it all” — despite the horizontal sleet and the lack of a phone connection at first. “From Floortje’s parents to the music community and the crofting community, I’ve just felt enfolded,” he says.

Floortje found that she was welcomed home, too, and came back with a new perspective on her home. “I’d picked up a camera in Glasgow again after a long time and taught myself to take pictures,” she says. “When I came home to Shetland, I saw something completely different in the place I’d grown up. Suddenly I became interested in the landscape, and saw the light and the land differently, through a whole year of seasons. The land and the changing light became my main source of inspiration.”

Some of that inspiration comes on their shared 25-mile commute to the capital of Lerwick, taking them from the west to east coast of Shetland’s mainland. “It lifts me in the morning and de-stresses me at night,” says Floortje. “I used to get a bus and the underground in Glasgow. If I was lucky, I’d cycle, but even that was pretty stressful. When I came home to Shetland, I remember just feeling so lucky that this beautiful drive was my commute, watching the light change every day. We take turns to drive, just so that one of us can just look out the window.”

Watching the impossibly cute Tove feed the family’s new-born lambs in the field that will one day be home, life seems pretty good for the Robertson Matthews. But, on that flat patch of grass where they’ll build the next chapter of their family story, there’s a promise that things might just get even better.

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From Floortje’s parents to the music community and the crofting community, I’ve just felt enfolded.
Tim Matthew

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