Handmade fishwife dolls recall a bit of Scotland's past

In the mid-19th century, the Scottish fishwife was something of a traditional figure. She could be recognized by her striped apron or overskirt, walking to market with her ''creel,'' or basket, of fish on her back; or she might be sitting in her coastal village, baiting a line with mussels and cockles. In the 1840s it was the Newhaven fisherlassies in particular who were captured for posterity in the photographs (''calotypes'') of Hill and Adamson - slightly sentimental pictures, perhaps, but nevertheless recording the tough nature of these women's work.

Today the old-time fishwives have become an inspiration for artist Sheena Macleod. But she doesn't make calotypes. She makes dolls, eight inches high. She makes almost 3,000 of them a year, by hand.

Mrs. Macleod's dolls are her quality response to the cheap and careless Scottish tourist souvenirs that all too often present her native country as a land of nothing but tartans and haggis - as an array of garish bagpipers and kilted Highland chiefs.

It was when she was just leaving art school in Aberdeen in the early '60s that Mrs. Macleod suddenly felt it was time something was done about this distorted image. She has certainly proved her point.

In her surprisingly small workshop in Perth, she shows two visitors one of her first attempts at dollmaking, a rather primitive little character, perhaps, but decidedly honest. ''We've come a long way,'' she says with a chuckle.

Gradually she acquired more accurate skills and found sources of genuine materials. She studied old photographs and listened to stories. Her dolls became strikingly authentic. Initially she sold half a dozen a year to a shop in Fort William. Now she has over 40 outlets in Scotland alone and employs part-time assistants.

''The first doll I sold,'' she says in a lilting voice, ''the first doll I made, I was wanting (to buy) a pair of shoes. They were (STR)2, 10 shillings or something.'' So she made the doll cost the same. Today, although she now prices them properly, they are still about the same price as a pair of shoes: (STR)24 or (STR) 25 ($36 or so). It doesn't take a connoisseur to see that they are an excellent value.

Her voice reflects a nimbleness that echoes the precision of her fingers as they paint a doll's face, or tie on a head scarf, clothe its wire shoulders in a diminutive, softly colored tartan wrap, or adjust an apron of specially woven, striped drugget cloth.

Mrs. Macleod has increased her range until now there are 12 figures available. To the four types of fishwives she has added fishermen, island women, and crofters. The ''Hebridean Woman'' carries dried peats, for fuel, in her creel (the miniature peats are made of cork). The ''Skye Woman'' carries seaweed for spreading as fertilizer on the potato fields. (The seaweed is the genuine article, a miniature species specially collected, except when export regulations abroad dictate an artificial substitute.)

An old crofter is seated in the process of making a creel. He wears a knitted jumper and tweed plus fours and cap. His creel, like all the tiny baskets, is beautifully woven of a very fine Malaysian cane. One fisherman has a herring basket by him. These are made, Mrs. Macleod explains, ''by a retired schoolmaster living up north.'' He learned the craft from his father as a child, though on a somewhat larger scale.

Enormous care is taken to make these astonishing dolls not only the right scale but completely authentic. The ''Shetland Woman'' is a delight, her knitted shawl of the naturally dyed, hand-spun wool unique to those islands. (Shetland sheep are grazed on hill pastures, according to the label attached to the doll, to make them produce fine wool; rich Lowland grass results in coarse fibers.) This happy old woman is busy with her knitting. A ''West Highland Woman'' sits at her spinning wheel (a miniature that works - although made, ironically, by a craftsman in Wales!). Even the heads of these ''Highland Character Dolls'' seem Scottish: They have the high cheekbones, the recognizable bone structure, of the Celt.

Yet for all her scrupulous accuracy, Mrs. Macleod does not want her dolls to look too real. She is about to change the material used for their faces, hands, and feet from plaster composition to polyester resin. They will remain precisely true to her original little models; but the trial polyester heads were too fleshlike. She has had to change their color. ''I want them to look like dolls, '' she says with a laugh.

There is little wonder that the quality of her dolls has brought Sheena Macleod prizes not only in Scotland but from as far afield as Poland. And she is currently demonstrating her craftsmanship, for the second year running, on a tour of Japan (where she now sells many dolls). London's Design Centre includes her work in its honorific ''Index.'' Shops in Sweden buy from her. So do shops in Australia. And an increasing number in the United States are regularly selling her dolls - in Kansas, Maine, Maryland, Missouri, Ohio, and California. She also offers a mail-order service.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.