Culture Commentary

Is the Fair Isle ganzie to a Shetlander what the kilt is to a Scotsman?

Smack bang in the middle of the first oil boom the new school in Mossbank had the lingering smell of fresh paint. Everything was new – the building, the teacher and the classmates.

As one of the few pupils from a local family the first baby steps into education were marked with a realisation. That was simply that the home-made tightly fitted Fair Isle ganzie was one that wouldn’t be part of the personalised school uniform – not if there was a desire to blend in with fellow pupils.

A decision was made early on to keep the ganzie to special occasions – like the tattie holidays and wearing at home. There were many who saw the Fair Isle ganzie as something to poke fun at or brand the person wearing it as a “Magnie” – the stereotypical name for a local. Of course, locals returned the compliment by branding everyone a sooth­moother. However, there was something that stuck internally – that wearing your ganzie was not really cool.

For all that, there is something about the ganzie which strikes a chord internally – somewhere deep that is not just memory. It specifically does that when you are away from Shetland.

It’s like reestit mutton and Balta biscuits – when you don’t have it you miss it. On a cold winter’s day you often wish you had the lovely scratchy Fair Isle ganzie to protect you from the bitterly cold wind. When you see someone wearing one you notice it – it’s like a big patterned beacon. Stirring thoughts of home.

Of course Fair Isle is worn by many people outside of Shetland. It has also been going through a little bit of a fashion boom, not least of course thanks (or not) to the big fashion “copy” house that is Chanel.

For someone from Shetland it’s not a trend though. When you are walking along a high street south and you see a Fair Isle ganzie or Fair Isle design you twitch and stare longingly before tut-tutting in a knowing way at the price tag before moving on wistfully.

For anyone from Shetland who has worn a ganzie (arguably that list would include hoodies and the James Morton tank top special) then the feeling of hankering after that unique and often scratchy garment is one that will be appreciated by any owner – past or present. Whether your old ganzie has been made into a Burra Bear or not quite often it is an item of clothing that forms part of our identity. An item of clothing being so closely aligned to identity is not that unusual. The most obvious example would be the kilt and Scotland.

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There’s no denying that anywhere in the world if you were to ask someone to describe a Scotsman they would inevitably be wearing a kilt (and playing the bag pipes, eating haggis, reciting Burns and tossing a caber). The stereotype is one that has been embraced within culture.

Modern day weddings in Scotland often see the groom and his best man wearing kilts. That has become almost the norm. Kilts and tartan litter tourist shops and the stereotype and identity is one that is solid in its acceptance. It is celebrated and there’s no sense of shame attached – Scottish people are proud of their kilts.

Has Fair Isle reached the same dizzy heights? If we were to describe a stereotypical Shetlander would they be wearing a Fair Isle ganzie? Or, do we still hide behind the not cool feelings of the late seventies and eighties – with not enough time past to help heal that wound?

There was a time when you could safely have said yes – Fair Isle jumpers definitely are what identifies a Shetlander. That’s not the case now – in exactly the same way that Scotsmen don’t wander about every day wearing kilts.

There has been a major change though – thanks to trends and changes to our attitudes it’s no longer uncool to wear Fair Isle. 

That can only be a good thing.


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