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  • A Canadian, A Communist and A Crang
  • Helen Robertson
  • Canadadesignerknittingpoetrytalk

A Canadian, A Communist and A Crang

A Canadian, A Communist and A Crang

Poetry, my family and me.

‘Twas the summer of ’79, I was a mere 7 years old, my brother 3, when an exciting visitor arrived from Canada. My Dad’s first cousin rumoured to be a poet (“of all things!”) and his much younger ‘Companion’ (how the adults laughed at that). If you’re Canadian then you might have an inclin to whom I’m referring – if you’re not you’ll most probably not have heard of him anyway. It was, wait for it, Earle Birney! Son of my Dad’s Aunty Martha Robertson, who had emigrated to Canada to escape her horrible, drunken, violent father – a right b£$%!^d by all accounts.

Anyway, here he was – an old man, white beard and a young friend, black hair. With a child’s eye I can remember he was very tall with long legs that could stride over the fences I had to climb.  She was short and didn’t like mushrooms! There were some books of poems too, thin volumes, precious and mostly forbidden to me, an avid reader of anything, ANYTHING. [My son has inherited this trait of reading any text you can see, turning the cereal box around to read the back again, just in case anything new had appeared on it since yesterday].

Here’s me around about that time on a fine summer’s day in my best friend’s back garden. I'm the one in the glasses.

Anyway there it was – a supposedly famous poet in the family that no one had heard of.

He resurfaced again in our conversation, when in our teens we heard rumours that he had met with Trotsky – how cool! To be 2 degrees of separation from Trotsky – there was even a song about him at the time – “he got an ice pick, it made his brain burn” apparently. I was then much more impressed with the idea that he was a communist than a poet!

And that was that – those slim volumes of poetry forgotten, we slogged through the War Poets at the school – I say slogged, not because they were terrible but to the contrary, because they were so devastatingly, desperately awful in their honesty and depth.  After them, a lot of poetry seemed shallow in comparison.

Fast forward around 25 years, poetry, except for the brilliant ‘World’s Wife’ by Carol Ann Duffy poetry was abandoned and forgotten until I was invited to take part in Farlin, a collaborative project between Shetland Arts  and Fife Community Arts and Culture. The project cross paired poets and makers in Shetland with poet and makers in Fife. I was paired with Paula Jennings and was delighted to receive 2 slim volumes of poetry in the post.

By this time I had 4 young bairns, all quite close in age. Here we are in the kitchen. I'm the one in the glasses. My only 2 mins peace in a day was if I managed to sneak into the toilet alone before they realised.  So that was where I picked up those gorgeous volumes and dived in (not literally). What delights unfolded……

Paula’s poems are very visual. I was truly inspired and imagined all kinds of towering 3D responses to them. The one that struck a chord most however was ‘Seabird, What Has Death Left in Your Belly’

The opening part grabbed me:-


"The artist has tunnelled your head to a circlet of bone

for the beach to wear, a beaked ring for Death to rattle


on his scythe. You look to be still in flight

but land is your sky now, a shore like graded sandpaper


on which your feathers wave smokily, .............."


Seabird, What Has Death Left In Your Belly?

After Salvador Dali: Oiseau, 1928


From the Body of the Green Girl, HappenStance Press (2008)


And I pictured a knitted crang (skeleton) of a bird.


Now at that same time – the beginning of the children’s’ summer holiday from school and nursery we had a bit of a disaster.  We were left the house in the afternoon for a weekend I a caravan at Nibon. Stuart came home to feed the hens the next morning to find the ceilings down in the bedroom end of the house. The pipes in the loft had burst and the water had flowed freely all night. Long story short, it was 6 months before we were back home. Anyway every cloud has a (knitted) silver lining and we relocated to Nibon for the duration.


There was a collection of birdskulls found over the years on the beach. The perfect muse for me. I had already begun knitting feathers in Voar (Spring) and the skull really knitted itself. I sat with a real one and using all the knit skills I had learned up to that point, and two or three strands of 0.2mm silver wire, I recreated it in silver.




Dead birds in Shetland are sometimes caused by lack of food and bad weather . They are occasionally caused by oil spills though has been rare in recent years, my childhood memories are of images of oiled birds. The poem mentions a dog in the belly of the bird. I decided to place a monopoly dog in the belly of mine as a symbol of greed’s incompatibility with nature.

And there she was – beautiful in her death.



She was exhibited in Shetland at The Bonhoga Gallery and then flew to St Andrews Town Hall before returning back to me. She’s in a box somewhere  – I’m always hoping someday she’ll find her permanent home.  She opened up something in me, got me to London to exhibit at Craft Central and led me to create further bird inspired jewellery.



 birds egg collection Helen Robertson enamel silver

In my turn I sent Paula a pair of Silver Frost Earrings. These were inspired by the Shetland Lace knitting and serve as a tribute to the spinners and knitters who worked in harsh conditions, cold croft houses with no electric light and tiny windows to create their exquisite, world famous shawls. I was interested in isolating the single motifs and using them in some way. Usually seen as a collective, I wanted to focus on the individual.  I knitted single lace motifs in silver wire and then coated them in silver clay. This is a substance made up of 99% fine silver and 1% binder. It behaves like clay until it’s fired in a kiln, at which point the binder burns off, leaving pure solid silver behind. The dormant scientist in me finds it fascinating!


Paula and I corresponded through email and she sent me a poem in response to my work.

 Well, I was very glad I’d locked myself in the bathroom that day! It still overwhelms me to read it. That’s why, when I’m giving talks, I only quote parts of it! I recall on a textile trip to Norway (more of that in a future blog) both Niela Nell and I breaking down in floods of tears in front of a stoical Norwegian audience!

Here it is:-

Knitted from Frost


That was the year she was afflicted

by static. Electricity thrummed,

her hands were dangerous to touch.

With every little displacement

of clothing - scarf, hat, vest -

firecrackers stuttered,

her hair puffed out like a parachute

then plastered flat against her skull.


That winter she was trying to make

a new relationship with death.

Death had not tired of her,

just her attitude. Maybe the static

was some kind of stalled epiphany.

Death waited for her to find out.


The earrings arrived in a wallet

of charcoal felt. They were light

as cobwebs, a goldish silver.

Her humming fingers found a small card:

Frost Earrings - Shetlandmade


She imagines swirls of ferns and stars

scraped by night from the windows

of icy crofts, taken to trowie-knowes

to be spun and blessed.

In an earthy room, gnarled hands

spin frost to thin strands, fiddlers

with silver bows make trowie music.

At dawn a hank of freezing thread

glitters outside a studio door.


The artist knits on her tiniest needles

 frost-shapes in silver wire, a motif

from Tree of Life. Bone-memories

of Shetland lace dance through her fingers.

Her foremothers gather- curious ghosts.

Beasts and boats and seasons move

across their eyes, shawls and socks grow

from their never-still, hungry needles.

The artist coats her shining webs

with silver paste, lays them in the kiln.

They bake to their crystalline past

but carry summer’s warmth and light.


The static woman is wearing the earrings.

Currents begin to flow, loops and twists

turning and returning; circling, connecting.

Is it possible that nothing is lost?

Her clothes are quiet, her hair is still.


Death crunches away over the snow.


Paula Jennings


 The small volumes Paula sent me stirred something in my memory and I asked my Mam about the poetry  books I vaguely remembered. And sure enough, Earle Birney and his poetry were back in my life!

 Shetland’s Textile History has brought many folk to Shetland and I was delighted to be invited to talk to a group here with Gudrun Johnston and Mary Jane Mucklestone.  Among them were 2 Canadians, mother and daughter. I tried my ‘famous cousin’ line. And yes, lo and behold they had heard of the famous poet whom no one had ever heard of! Not only that but the daughter had written a thesis on him! They very kindly sent me a book of his and a thorough biography by Elspeth Cameron, including photos of my Grandfather’s sister that I hadn’t seen before and references to his trip to Shetland in the ‘70’s to visit us, his cousins!  It seems he was a “bit of a lad o it”! But still, he did meet Trotsky!


If you'd like to hear me speak about my work, please click here to listen Fruity Knitting Episode 89.


(Please, if you recognise yourselves as the Mam and daughter who sent me the books and the lovely yarn, please get in touch, thanks. Xx)

Photos by me, Stuart, Ola Balfour, Joy Allan and Mark Sinclair of Phatsheep Photography.

  • Post author
    Helen Robertson
  • Canadadesignerknittingpoetrytalk

Comments on this post (2)

  • Nov 18, 2019

    ‘Bone-memories of Shetland Lace dance through her fingers’ love it. Superb blog Helen. X

    — Wendy Anderson

  • Nov 12, 2019

    What a wonderful series of linked narratives, Helen! I had no idea of the backstory behind the bird skull or the multiple poems that dances through its making. Thank you for sharing it!

    — Suzanne Wilsey

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