Heritage Crafts

Northern Isles basket making

The making of various items from straw and other plants in the twined technique, especially the back-baskets kishie (Shetland) and caisie (Orkney), traditionally used to fetch peats.
Craft category
Historic area of significance
Shetland, Orkney and Caithness
Area practiced currently
Current No. of professionals (Main income)
Current No. of professionals (Side income)
Current No. of trainees
Current total No. of serious amateur makers
Current No. of leisure makers


The kessi (phonetically, kishie) of Shetland and the caisie of Orkney is a twined back basket usually made of straw and common rush (Juncus effusus).  Other plants were used, especially marram (Ammophila arenaria) and dock (Rumex longifolius).  The tradition, unique in the British Isles, was a consequence of the local ecology, where there were few durable materials for basketmaking, as well as a dearth of timber.   Baskets were used to carry a multitude of things – especially peat – and they were used on the backs of packhorses, or borne by humans.  The name kessi is a reflection of the Norse heritage of the Northern Isles and comes from the Norwegian kjessa and Icelandic kassi.


Kishie making requires preparing the materials: harvesting, thrashing and cleaning the straw; cutting and drying the rush or marram.  Making involves hand-twisting a rope of (approximately 27 metres if making a kishie); weaving the basket by twining the rope round bunches of straw or dock; stitching a border with a home-made needle; trimming and singeing the basket.


Specialist baskets were made for such tasks as gathering eggs from sea-cliffs, storing salt, or keeping fishing bait.  The same twined technique was used to make other items such as fish traps, winnowing mats, building partitions, masquerade costumes.  All these constructions used the twining method, with variation seen through the choice of plant and the shape of the finished object.

Issues affecting the viability

Many of the activities these basketry crafts were used for are no longer done.  Where tasks are still carried out that formerly used basketry constructions, mass-produced products are employed instead.  There is little demand for such objects, because they were functional, not decorative.  Availability of material is an issue concerning the straw; grain cultivation has declined (especially in Shetland), and black oats have virtually disappeared.   Farmers aren’t inclined to grow this crop, and prospective basketmakers cannot buy material: as in the past, a maker must be a grower.   The last generation that made twined basketry through unbroken ethnographic tradition is now gone; the only people with knowledge have learned it through a tuition setting.  The skills are readily transferable, but this Medieval tradition is virtually extinct.

Support organisations

Craftspeople currently known

  • Ewen Balfour
  • Lois Walpole
  • Ian Tait – Shetland Museum and Archive
  • Helen Balfour – trainee

There are a lot of people who have done a course with Ewen and maybe they make them on an occasional basis.

Other information

Shetland Museum and Archives (Dr Ian Tait) is actively encouraging growth of black oats (Avena strigosa) for use in thatching.  Aets have been supplied to them this year. This will help to preserve growing raw materials which could also be used in basketmaking.

Lois Walpole is currently writing a book about Shetland straw craft that will include kishie making.


National Lottery Heritage Fund
Swire Charitable Trust
The Royal Mint
Pilgrim Trust
Maxwell/Hanrahan Foundation
William Grant Foundation

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