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Revisiting the Haa of Skelberry

See that house peaking over the hill in the first photo? My great-grandfather, Peter Inkster was born there, at the Haa of Skelberry, in 1879. He was the ninth of ten children, the son of a crofter fisherman.

From the age of five through twelve, he walked to the local school, three miles away, barefoot over the peat. In the summers he helped his father fish in the voe, or went down to the seashore to pick hundreds of limpets for bait. The rocky hill behind - the Bjurgs - was his playground where he hid from school in a prehistoric stone hut. Several times a year, he, his family, and their neighbours, would drive the sheep in the hill to enclosures where they would dip them and ’roo’ their wool. (The native Shetland sheep are hardy, with wool that can be plucked rather than sheared.) On Sundays his family made their way to the Methodist church - a faith he would maintain after emigrating to Canada.

After leaving school, he helped his father on the croft, then worked in a fish curing plant in Lerwick. With limited opportunities in Shetland, and likely with the encouragement of his parents, he sailed south to find work in Edinburgh. Three older sisters worked as servants there, and he boarded with a future brother-in-law. There were many Shetlanders to be found in the city.

Like so many young men, Peter went to sea, and celebrated his nineteenth birthday on the top of Table Mountain in South Africa. He wondered what he should do with his life, where he should go. His older brothers had already emigrated to Canada, so if he wanted to, he could return to Shetland and take over his elderly father’s croft. He could continue to sail. Or, he could emigrate. He chose the latter, sailing to Montreal in 1901, then taking the train across Canada to Vancouver and the boat to Nanaimo on Vancouver Island, where his eldest brother Gilbert met him at the dock. They had not seen each other in more that fifteen years, since Peter was five years old. Gilbert was working in the coal mines, and Peter started there too.

He married, had four children, started a lumber business, and did well for himself. In 1948 he returned to Shetland. He had just one sister still alive in Shetland. Along that journey he kept a diary, 350+ typewritten pages of his observations, thoughts, and childhood memories. It is this diary that I found as a teenager. My great-grandfather had died long before I was born, but his words called out to me across the decades. I decided that one day I would travel to Shetland to discover more about my Inkster roots.

Here I am, 75 years after he last visited. For the past two decades I have devoted myself to researching his story, and the lives of those around him. Voices from the Past: Stories of North Roe is now out into the world… I think Peter would be pleased.

Yesterday we stayed at home in North Roe, with several friends coming over for a visit. One even brought a trunk full of old photos, and we had fun trying to figure out who was who. My happy place!

The weather played tricks on us all day today, which made for moody photos. Randy was patient as I kept driving until the next pull out area and stopped to take another photo. It would be light and blue skies on one side of the car and gray storm clouds with light streaming through in the other side.

We drove to Ollaberry to see Kit and Ewen, then to the Tangwick Haa for a bit of research and another look at all of the handmade fair isle knitwear. Tonight we cooked up a lamb that had been gifted us from a local crofter. The weather may be wild, but we are cozy inside.


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