Mathematics, making and birding

Deirdre Nelson


tommy bird

Fair Isle bird made by Tommy H Hyndman

At Da Fishin’ Hands premiere at the community hall I noticed a beautiful Fair Isle jumper in shades of mossy green and later discovered that the wearer was Inges grandfather Stewart, a retired Light House Keeper, fiddle player, spinner and spinning wheel maker.  His wife Annie had made the sweater in the shades of lichen on his request and the jumper was over 50 years old.

wall lichen

Inge had told me about her  grandfather’s spinning so it was a real privilege to meet both Annie and Stewart Thomson. Both in their 90’s, the making of spinning wheels, spinning wool and hand knitting form part of daily life for them and as a textile maker I was in awe of their hand skills, resourcefulness and modesty. Annie describes the process of Fair Isle knitting as ‘mathematics first, next art and then knitting’.  She has a vast array of patterns stored in her brain along with an ability to place those patterns mathematically within the structure of a knitted garment.

annie jumper

 Knitwear by Annie Thomson

In times past, the traditional colours of madder (red), indigo (blue), moorit (brown), yellow and natural white, combined with the original patterns, were much sought after for their unique value, but in the 1920s Fair Isle sweaters knitted in the natural wool colours of moorit, shaela (grey), eesit (fawn) and natural white became highly fashionable. Nowadays, the traditional Fair Isle and natural (undyed) colours are still highly popular and are also complemented by more modern colourways.  via Authentic Fair Isle

stewarts yarn

 Wool spun by Stewart Thomson

kathy woo

 Wool by Kathy Coull

knitting machine dials

Hand frame knitting machine Fair Isle Made in Fair Isle

Alot of counting and measuring takes place on Fair Isle.  The counting of birds, fish, marine fauna and flora form part of daily life here as does counting in both pattern and stitch for the knitting.    Travelling via the Good Shepherd ferry, plane, yacht or via cruise ship, visitors become potential customers for the beautiful Fair Isle Knitting here. Knitting has been part of the economy through barter and sale both in Fair Isle and Shetland for a long time.

For hundreds of years demand for hand-knitting kept Fair Isle women busy. Islanders traded with passing ships, bartering their home-made textiles and fresh produce for goods they couldn’t make themselves.”

‘Fair Isle hand-knitting is a very time and labour-intensive activity and throughout generations often involved all the female members of a family, including young children, to help earn an income for the home. Fair Isle Crafts Ltd., a small, workers’ co-operative was then established in 1980 when it was realised that the use of hand frames would allow the islanders to continue to produce their traditional knitwear in a manner which would be economically viable for both the knitters and their customers. After many years of successful trading world-wide, a dwindling number of knitters saw the cooperative finally cease operation in 2011. Today, the only source of the genuine article is still Fair Isle, where a small but vibrant number of Fair Isle knitters continue to produce high quality traditional and contemporary garments on hand-frame machines which are then all carefully finished by hand, washed and dressed’   via Authentic Fair Isle

eliz hats hall

Hats by Exclusively Fair Isle at the community hall

holly jumper

Knitwear by Fair Isle Made in Fair Isle

matti cardi

Knitwear by Mati Ventrillon

The birds attract many visitors and possible customers to the island but also provide a ‘window into the state of our seas’.

“In addition to their socio-economic importance to Fair Isle, seabirds are also a window on the state of our seas. Fair Isle Bird Observatory routinely monitors food samples collected by breeding birds for their young. The breeding success of a large population of Fair Isle seabirds has been poor in recent years. Breeding season failures have been associated with low food availability, particularly sandeels Ammodytes spp., which, for reasons of abundance and high calorific value, have been the mainstay of food provisioned to chicks for many species in the past“.  Fair Isle Bird Observatory

Senior Research Assistant Rob Hughes and Aberdeen University PhD student Marianna Chimienti,  as part of the RSPB’s Seabird Tracking and Research (STAR) project, are spending the summer studying five species of seabirds: Northern fulmar, European shag, Black-legged kittiwake, razorbill and Common guillemot.  They hope to get an idea of their foraging behaviour and to identify important feeding areas.

ciaran and bird

 Migration Warden, Ciaran Hatsell with a red backed shrike

‘From April – June and August – October, the wardening team aims to complete a full daily census of the migrants passing through Fair Isle. The island is divided into three (north, south west and south east), with wardens following a set route through each census area and recording all sightings. All areas are covered at the same time each day, normally over a three hour time period, to minimise the duplication of sightings and allow between-year comparisons of records, resulting in a data set stretching back over fifty years that provides valuable information for researchers.

In addition to the census data, visitors are encouraged to contribute to the record of migration through Fair Isle by submitting their own sightings at Log, held every evening in the Observatory lounge. Trap rounds carried out several times each day during the spring and autumn migration periods also serve to provide valuable information on bird movements, with large numbers of birds ringed each year on the island. These birds and those ringed elsewhere in Europe and trapped on Fair Isle enable researchers to better understand the process of migration and to identify any changes in migration patterns, which may indicate an increase/decline in species abundance or highlight responses to environmental pressures’  via Fair Isle Bird Observatory

You can follow the Bird Observatory wardens diary and latest sightings HERE

Tommy H Hyndman

Exclusively Fair Isle

Fair Isle Made in Fair Isle

Kathy Coull

Mati Ventrillon

Fair Isle Marine Environment & Tourism Initiative (FIMETI) website and on Facebook

















Deirdre Nelson, Inge Thomson. Sleeping Starfish @ The Glad Cafe as part of Luminate, with Fraser Fifield, Kerri Whiteside

Glad Cafe, Glasgow. 15 October, 7.30 pm. £5

Surrounded by a relentless sea, Fair Isle is an island of strong traditions and fierce beauty. Celebrating this, and running in support of the island’s bid for marine protected status, two artists are knitting together waves of sound and yarn, stories and starfish. Sleeping Starfish is both a work of environmental advocacy and a portrait... Read More ›

Working the Map: Islanders and a Changing Environment

A portrait of the Northern Isles with art work by John Cumming

Beautiful artists’ book by John Cumming: Working the Map – islanders and a changing environment Available from just £9.99 Shetland/Orkney artist and Sea Change commissioned artist John Cumming has created and edited an artists’ book documenting social and ecological change across the Northern Isles. Produced in partnership with Orkney Nature Festival, the book includes... Read More ›

Andy Crabb’s film portrait of Inge Thomson’s Da Fishing Hands

May 2014

In 2014, Sea Change artists Andy Crabb, Deirdre Nelson and Jennifer Wilcox, with filmmaker Peter Cutts, returned to Fair Isle with Inge Thomson and her band to record the premiere of Inge’s song cycle, Da Fishing Hands. The first performance took place in Fair Isle’s community hall in May 2014, and Da Fishing Hands has... Read More ›

James Brady. though everything was gone, we would stay

‘The essence of Orkney’s magic is silence, loneliness and the deep marvellous rhythms of sea and land, darkness and light’ George Mackay Brown See the film here: though everything was gone, we would stay Artist and curator James Brady joined the 2013 Northern Isles expedition, sailing from Orkney to Shetland via Fair Isle on Shetland community-owned... Read More ›

Deirdre Nelson’s The Kildas project returns to the Glad Cafe Glasgow, with Jason Singh, Inge Thomson, Hanna Tuulikki, Mischa Macpherson and Borderline Theatre

Thursday 26 January 2015, 7pm

DStitch presents: The Kildas + Seachange Thursday 26 February @ The Glad Cafe, Glasgow In partnership with Cape Farewell, the Kildas project will present an evening at Glad Café,  26th February 2015 7pm. Cost £5 The evening will partner the remote islands of St Kilda and Fair Isle in an evening of islands, songs and loops... Read More ›

Inge Thomson’s Da Fishing Hands in Celtic Connections

23 January 2015

‘Some of the finest music and poetry ever to have emerged from these fair isles’. Fair Isle musician/singer/composer (Fair Isle is full of multi-taskers) Inge Thomson brings her haunting and mesmerising Da Fishing Hands to the Tron Theatre, Gladgow, during Celtic Connections in January 2015. Written with Fair Isle poet and singer Lise Sinclair, Da... Read More ›

Julie Fowlis Band win Scots Trad Music Award

13 December 2014

Congratulations to Julie Fowlis and her band, who have won best group of the year at the Scots Trad Music Awards 2014. Julie was recently the first Gaelic singer to be honoured with a ‘Tartan Clef’ Scottish Music Award. Julie sailed on the 2011 Sea Change Western Isles expedition. See the full list of awards... Read More ›

Away with the Birds returns to Canna: Review

Hanna Tuulikki

Click here to read the Away With The Birds Review from The Scotsman  › Costumes by Deirdre Nelson Read More ›

Mathematics, making and birding

Deirdre Nelson

  Fair Isle bird made by Tommy H Hyndman At Da Fishin’ Hands premiere at the community hall I noticed a beautiful Fair Isle jumper in shades of mossy green and later discovered that the wearer was Inges grandfather Stewart, a retired Light House Keeper, fiddle player, spinner and spinning wheel maker.  His wife Annie... Read More ›

Fair Isle treasures

deirdre nelson

  On Saturday morning we made our way to  the rock pool at at Muckle Uri Geo. Ready and waiting were a group of young islanders armed with small fishing nets alongside Nick Riddiford, a passionate Fair Isle ecologist.  As they dispersed on their mission, Nick told us about the area and the many species... Read More ›

‘An eye to the Windward’: Sea Change on Fair Isle

Ruth Little

Anne Sinclair points at a narrow yellow pine door leaning against a wall in the Fair Isle Museum: ‘When I was growing up, nearly all the internal doors in people’s houses were from shipwrecks.’ Fair Isle may be largely treeless, but there’s wood to be had. Over some 5000 years of settlement here, the sea... Read More ›

Data and culture rich

Deirdre Nelson

Due to a rather atmospheric blanket of fog I arrived into Fair Isle two days and 1 hour late.  From my first glimpses of the island from the ferry, it was well worth the wait, and Inge Thompson, on a break during rehearsals and preparations for her performance Da Fishing Hands, was there to greet... Read More ›

Lost Birds and Fishing Hands: Getting our Bearings on Fair Isle

Ruth Little

  It’s a Caspian Stonechat, and it’s lost. Its feathers are spiked with rain, and it seems to have a hacking cough. It’s been on Fair Isle for a month, and the word around the island is that it’s unlikely to see the Caspian Sea again. ‘Blown off course, all of them’, says one of... Read More ›

Skye Loneragan and Q-Poetics: Culture 2014

XX Commonwealth Games

Poet/performer Skye Loneragan took part with Cape Farewell in Glasgow’s Merchant City Festival at the Ramshorn Theatre, hosted by GalGael in 2013. Skye is Q-Poet at the Commonwealth Games Glasgow 2014. Q-Poetics is a Culture 2014 project placing poets and poetry in places and spaces of of waiting. See Skye’s video-poems at Skye Loneragan is... Read More ›

Grounded (Freumhaichte/Wadlu-Gnana). Judith Parrott

An Lanntair, Stornoway: 13 September - 11 October

Grounded is an exhibition of photographic prints, audiovisual, sound and prose, resulting from residencies with Gaelic speaking communities of the Outer Hebrides of Scotland and with Wangkangurru, Arrarnta and Arrernte people of the Central Australian Desert. The exhibition was launched at XX Commonwealth Games, Glasgow 2014. Follow Judith’s Grounded blog at Arriving in Steòrnabhagh (Stornoway) The... Read More ›

Andy Crabb’s short film Sea Changes

Part 1 documents the Orkney Expedition

Sea Changes, part 1 featuring Karine Polwart from Andy Crabb on Vimeo. Filmmaker and SAMS artist-in-residence Andy Crabb joined Cape Farewell’s Northern Isles expedition in August/September and reflects here on the first days of sailing in Orkney waters. Sea Changes is the first part of a film about Cape Farewell’s Northern Isles expedition, on board... Read More ›

Karine Polwart sings Freedom Come All Ye in Orkney’s Italian Chapel   Read More ›

The Swan Northern Isles Expedition

See the 2013 Expedition site

In August 2013, Sea Change set sail with two crews of artists and scientists from Orkney to Shetland via Fair Isle. Sailing on 113-year-old community owned Shetland Fyfie The Swan, the journey took us around Scotland’s most northerly coasts and islands. Click here for Expedition site >   Read More ›

Sexy Peat / Tìr mo Rùin. Highland Print Studio/Cape Farewell: Year of Natural Scotland 2013

Inverness Museum and Art Gallery 8 March - 5 April 2014

Following the success of Sexy Peat/Tìr mo Rùin as part of Sea Change at the Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh, the exhibition transfers to Inverness Museum and Art Gallery in March-April 2014, before returning to its island of origin at An Lanntair, Lewis. Sexy Peat/Tìr mo Rùin artists: Anne Campbell: Jon Macleod: Kacper Kowalski:... Read More ›

Things Unspoken / Things Unseen. Andrea Roe, Anne Bevan

Book launch 20 August 2013 at Pier Arts Centre, Orkney

Things Unspoken Things Unseen by Anne Bevan and Andrea Roe 2 volume artist book Things Unspoken Things Unseen, by Anne Bevan and Andrea Roe, was launched with Cape Farewell’s 2013 Swan expedition at the Pier Arts Centre in August 2013.  Including contributions by Janice Galloway, Jen Hadfield, Kathleen Jamie, Robert Alan Jamieson and Alan Spence,... Read More ›

Air falbh leis na h-eòin – Away with the Birds: Culture 2014

Isle of Canna, August 2014

Hanna Tuulikki’s body of work exploring the mimesis of bird sounds in Gaelic song was described as ‘heartbreakingly gorgeous’ on BBC Radio Scotland’s The Culture Show in January 2014. Performed in collaboration with vocal artists, field recorder Geoff Sample, filmmaker Daniel Warren, Gaelic singer Mary Smith, textile artist Deirdre Nelson and choreographer Rosalind Masson, the... Read More ›

Air falbh leis na h-eòin – Away with the Birds

Hanna Tuulikki's Complete Audio Diary

28 June 2013 Listen here to an extract from Hanna’s diary: Voices at Dusk   29 May 2013 Listen here to an extract from Hanna’s diary: Tracing Lines 19 April 2013 The creation of Air falbh leis na h-eòin: Hanna on tumblr 14 January 2013 Listen here to an extract from Hanna’s diary:... Read More ›

Mapping the Sea: Barra. Stephen Hurrel

Timespan, Helmsdale. 5 - 29 July 2014

Stephen Hurrel’s Sea Change commission, Mapping the Sea: Barra, will feature in an installation at Timespan Museum and Art Gallery, Helmsdale. Stephen is one of the artists for Generation – Scotland’s largest ever art show –  involving 100 artists in 60 venues, coinciding with the Glasgow Commonwealth Games. Generation is produced by Glasgow Life and... Read More ›