I often hear visitors say that they’re going to Unst, but they’re not stopping in Yell; they’re just driving through the island to reach the ferry. This is a mistake. Whatever you do on your visit to Shetland, don’t make the mistake of dismissing Yell, as you are guaranteed to have an excellent experience if you do choose to stay – even for just a few hours!
I recently had an excellent day trip to Yell, visiting Ellie Duncan, creator of Island Ceramics, in her cosy studio overlooking the picturesque bay at Otterswick.
Ellie is a ceramicist who creates sea-inspired bowls, mugs and tumblers. She draws all her inspiration from the sea that is so synonymous with island living. For our workshop, she promised to share her favourite seascapes with us before allowing us the opportunity to glaze our own pieces to take home with us.
I had previously interviewed Ellie for a podcast episode and was keen to see, and take part in, the process of glazing my own sea-inspired creation.
Yell is the largest of Shetland’s trio of North Isles and is easy to reach from the Mainland – it’s just a short 15-minute hop across Yell Sound on one of the modern Inter-Island ferries. As we were only visiting for a day, Ellie picked us up from Ulsta, where the ferry arrives in Yell from Toft on Mainland Shetland.
From here, we headed straight to the beach to seek inspiration from the sea. Ellie took us to the beautiful and peaceful sands at Gossabrough on the east coast of Yell, a beach with views across Colgrave Sound towards the island of Fetlar.
As the name suggests, Gossabrough is home to one of Shetland’s numerous Iron Age brochs. Now in ruin, the 2,000-year-old broch is a reminder that people have been living on the islands for thousands of years, and, as I looked around our surroundings, I could see evidence of people everywhere. From the 19th-century, now abandoned buildings across the water at Queyon to the remains of a boat noost offering protection to boats from the worst of the winter weather, it was clear that this was an area of almost continual inhabitation.
Today, we were the only people on the beach, bar one curious common seal swimming around in the shallows watching us intently – likely wondering what colour I was trying to create with my artist’s palette and acrylic paint set from Ellie.
There are plenty of reasons to visit Yell – here are a few blogs I’ve written about Yell:
Once we had found a comfortable spot to reflect, watch and listen to the sea, Ellie gave us our goody bags containing a sketch pad and palette, some coloured pencils and acrylic paints and brushes. We began looking at the sea tones, colours and textures of the water and tried to put down what we saw on paper.
I have been hampered by a lack of creativity when it comes to paints – or anything craft-based for that matter – for as long as I can remember, but the process was great fun, and I soon had a page covered in blues, greens and turquoise – some more convincing than others!
After spending some time at the beach, getting to know the colours, tones and textures, it was on to Otterswick, where Ellie has her studio. Following a lovely lunch of beautiful local produce, it was out to the studio to see what we could create.
For several years, Ellie has been producing ceramics, selling her pieces on her website and in local shops (you’ll find them in Ninian in Lerwick and The Shetland Gallery in Sellafirth, Yell). Ellie’s inspiration comes from the sea, where she says: “I find the sea to be like an old friend that’s always there; I often return to it to help soothe the storms of the mind and when I need an energy that matches my own.”
Ellie creates her pieces using just her own hands and a few simple tools, beginning the journey from raw clay to a glazed masterpiece. Luckily for us, we didn’t have to attempt to master the potter’s wheel – we chose two pieces of bisque ware – clay that has been formed into shape and has undergone the first firing before glazing.
Once we had chosen the pieces, it was time to choose the glaze from Ellie’s extensive collection, all inspired by the ever-changing palette of the sea. This in itself was a science I was quite unaware of, with each glaze having been carefully created using a combination of several different colours to make the final finish so characteristic of Ellie’s pieces.
After applying several layers of the ‘secret glaze recipe’, our creations were ready for firing, and we set off back home, bursting with inspiration and glowing from our day in Yell.
Yell has several accommodation options if you’d like to base yourself on the island. I’ve written about a few of the options:
After the firing process, Ellie delivered our finished pieces ….
If you’re interested in booking a workshop with Ellie or buying some of her sea-inspired pieces, visit her website.
If you’re interested in more creative workshops, I wrote a blog about a jewellery workshop that I did with Mike Finnie from Red Houss Shetland.
Thank you, Ellie, for the most beautiful day; I can’t wait to visit again.
Hello from Laurie
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