J Cathcart Wason, Shetland’s knitting M.P.

It’s election time here, and while we were in Shetland, our paths crossed with those of Scotland’s first minister on her campaign trail. The other day I was in the Shetland Archives and came across a fascinating campaign-trail image from over a hundred years ago. I thought you might be interested to see it.


J Cathcart Wason and his agent, campaigning in Shetland, Shetland Times, January 25, 1910. Image reproduced courtesy of Shetland Museum and Archives.

J. Cathcart Wason was M.P for Orkney and Shetland between 1900 (when he returned to Britain from New Zealand) and his death in 1921. His parliamentary career seems to have been distinguished by participation in debates on agriculture and economics; his support of bicycles (against the motor car); and by his notorious habit of knitting socks for himself in the House of Commons tea room, or while waiting for parliarmentary divisions. According to an obituary: “Mr Wason confessed that his original purpose in learning to knit was to commend himself to the women of the islands of Orkney and Shetland . . . but as he became proficient in the craft he found it a most soothing occupation for dull hours.” What’s so striking about the image of Cathcart Wason campaigning in the 1910 election is that he is sporting a recognisable item of Shetland knitwear — a hap. His hap features a peaked lace edging, the familiar Shetland “auld shall” (old shell) border and a plain centre of garter stitch “riggies”. It would be wonderful if he had knitted his hap himself, though I rather imagine it was either a gift from a supportive constituent, or perhaps something he purchased himself, directly from a Shetland knitter, or a reputable Lerwick emporium of Shetland hosiery. (Cathcart Wason was an articulate opponent of the exploitative forms of barter-truck that persisted in Shetland).

But the simple fact that Cathcart Wason was keen to wrap himself up in his hap and be thus depicted says quite a lot, I think. His hap seems to be an emblem of knitterly solidarity, a badge of his attachment to Shetland, and to Shetland industries. When asked (as he often was) about his knitting, Cathcart Wason was apparently keen to remind all enquirers that “the wool he was knitting with was no ordinary kind — it was Shetland wool.” Shetland wool and knitting were clearly a source of identity and pride for Cathcart Wason: this, and the fact that he is gladly sporting what would have been regarded in 1910 as a woman’s garment makes him a rather appealing figure. Happily, in 2016, it is not in the least unusual to see a bloke either knitting or wearing a hap, and in this as perhaps some other respects, J Cathcart Wason was a man before his time. Last week in Shetland, Scotland’s first minister apparently purchased yarn from Jamieson and Smith. Might we soon look forward to seeing her happed up in a comparable manner to her parliamentary forebear?

This image was a happy find while I was poking around one of the wonderful scrapbooks held in the Shetland archives. When I come across these wonderful titbits, I feel immensely grateful to the collectors and compilers of Shetland ephemera who later donated their exhaustive albums and scrapbooks to the archives. I am also grateful to Angus and his colleagues, whose enabling presence makes the Shetland archives one of my all-time favourite libraries of the world in which to work (my other favourites are the Library Company in Philadelphia, and the Houghton Library at Harvard, in case you were interested)