Friday, April 27, 2007

Day 12

Day 12 Sat April 21
Dun Carloway Broch rises up on hill in the midst of current modern day farms. Perhaps ¼ of the original broch still stands. But the impressive stonework remaining gives a good idea of what life in this multi-storied landowner’s home from the Iron age was like.

Down the road is the Gearrannan Blackhouse Village. Donald Macarthur was weaving a tweed on a Hattersly loom at the village. All the handweavers in our group marveled at the wonderful hands free, shuttle mechanism sends up to 6 different shuttles flying across the warp.

Most of the 9 houses were built in the 1850’s. In 1989 a trust was formed to restore the houses and the village opened in 2000. When the blackhouses were built, they were long structures with an open plan. Animals lived and one end and people lived at the other. The roof was thatched. Blackhouses were very similar to the much earlier Viking long houses. Most had open fires in the middle of the living area. Medical officers required that dividing walls and windows be put into the houses by the turn of the century. Some also put in chimney’s. 50% of the rurual population on the island still lived in blackhouses up to 1939. Mary, our guide, taught us some Gaelic words and offered us these thoughts. “The people who lived in these houses were penniless. But they had a lot of thing we need here now…community spirit and tolerance. We are losing the richness of simplicity.”

More typical Scottish weather caught up with us today but the Callenish Standing Stones are impressive in sun or rain. The cross formation of stones intersecting this circle sets it apart from stone circles we saw on Orkney. Many other smaller standing stones line the west coast of Lewis.

Harris lies south of Lewis and is known for brilliant sandy beaches and even more rocky landscape than Lewis. From Harris we drove over the 10 year old bridge to the island of Scalpay to visit Sheila Roderick and John Feguson at croft #37. The island has 40 crofts in all. Sheila and John have been farming here for 30 years that. The farm goes back in their family to 1890. To make a living, the industrious couple have 100 lobster creels, 40 Hebridan black sheep, a flock of ducks, guineas, chickens and raise turkeys for the Christmas market. They still harvest their own peat and grow potatoes in lazy beds. Sheila handspins wool for a knitter on Skye. On their Hattersly loom, they weave linen cloth and linsey-woolsey. Some of their fabric ends up in costumes for movies and the theater in London and NY. Success does not come without long hours and hard work but you can hear the love of this rural life in Sheila’s voice.

At an unlikey gallery, the upstairs of the An Clachan grocery store in Leverburgh on the southern tip of Harris, is displayed a wonderful labour of love. Gillian Scott-Forrest instigated the Millenium Project. A series of hangings was designed, one for each part of the island. The tweed fabric and the wool yarn used for the pictorial embroidery was hand dyed using plant dyes. Of the 1600 people living on Harris, 90 were involved in the project. The images on each hanging depict both history and current events from each area. Until the project, called the Harris Tapestry, finds a permanent home, you can get your gas, buy your groceries, and learn of the rich history of the people and the island.

Day 11

Day 11 Fri April 20
The ferry took us to the Outer Hebridean island of Lewis today. At the Lewis Loom Centre in Stornaway, Ronald McKenzie gave us an overview of the tweed industry. Harris tweed is fabric made from the wool of Scottish sheep, spun in the Outer Hebrides, woven by hand, and finished in the Outer Hebrides. When the potato famine hit Scotland 1845-47, Lady Dunmore took the tweed the islanders were weaving, traveled the world, marked up the price 20x and came back and gave the weaver all the profit. Harris tweed became famous worldwide and the demand kept growing.

Originally the tweed was naturally dyed. Crotal, a lichen, gave light to dark rusty color. Spinning mills came in 1907 and all the yarn was then aniline dyed. In 1926, the Hattersley Loom greated increased the productivity of the weavers. The looms had hands free flying shuttle mechanisms and were powered by stepping alternately on two pedals. In the 1960’s

Today there are 150-200 weavers on the island that supply the industry weaving on Rapier looms that are driven with a pedals like a bicycle. The company that recently purchased the factory that spins & dyes the yarn, winds the warps, and finishes the cloth, is reportedly talking about reducing the number of tweed patterns produced to just five. www.harristweed.og

Day 10

Day 10 Thur April 19
Nature provided our venue of the day. We departed St. Margaret’s Hope on South Ronaldsay Orkney on the 8:00 a.m. ferry and pulled into Ullapool at 6 pm. The 40 mph wind of the yesterday died down and the crossing once again was very moderate. However, this was no ordinary journey. The north and northwest coasts of Scotland are the least populated, most remote and rugged and least visited area on the mainland…my favorite landscape in all of Scotland.

Once past Thurso, it is mile after mile of rocks, beach, hills, water, heather, birds and grazing sheep. The road often goes to one track. At the NW corner of the country near Durness, the North Sea meets the Atlantic Sea. We were blessed with sunshine that added to the richness of the color of the sea and stone.
One thing you become expert on when leading 15 women around is bathroom availability. A word of warning, there is no toilet at the tourist information building in Durness!!! Just outside of Durness, we stopped at Balnakeil Craft Village. Once a military base, it was taken over by hippies when the military left and now is inhabited by small shops and craft studios. It was delightful to eat lunch at the newly renovated Loch Croispol Bookstore & restaurant. Cocoa Mountain, a new gourmet chocolcate shop specializing in truffles and hot chocolate, really captured the palette and pocketbooks of my travelers.

Once we thought the scenery could not improve, it did when we turned off onto the B869 road to Nedd, Drumbeg, Clahsnessie. This scenic “cart track” follows right along the coast. To the east a number of munroes rise up out of the Torridon wilderness area. No pictures can capture the overall grandeur of being in this landscape. I’m greatful that John Muir left Scotland to lead the wilderness conservation movement in the American west, but he certainly could have been satisfied in this corner of heaven.
We stopped at Highland Stoneware Pottery shop in Lochinever. The driveway and garden of the shop proved very entertaining with large stones, an automobile, a wall, and a gigantic concret sofa, all covered with broken pottery.

Just down the road from our B&B’s at Ullapool, we enjoyed a delicious meal at Harbor Lights restaurant. I’ve been trying to eat fish at every opportunity and the salmon here was delectible. Food has come a long way since my first trip to Scotland in 1997. Chefs strive to use Scottish grown and raised meat, fish, dairy, and vegetables. Eating fresh and green is the rule rather than exception these days. However, it seems that no matter what we order, plates of chips always show up on the table. We all agree that we don’t need to see another plate of chips for many a day!

Day 9

Day 9 Wed April 18
The big island, or as Orcadians call “mainland” is home to numerous stone circles and structures dating back as far as 5000 years. Maeshowe, a grass covered burial mound in the middle of a farmer’s field, is that old. You stoop low to walk through the 10 meter entrance tunnel before standing up inside a tall rounded chamber. As in all the sites, some of what the archeologists have found is known fact, other is speculation. Was it in fact a burial mound for the first peoples who build it, or a place of healing and rituals connected to the astrological cycle? In fact, each December the mound is equipped with 3 webcams where you can watch the light in the mound as winter solstice approaches. Vikings raided the mound in the 12th century and left many runic inscriptions. No great mysteries were revealed however once these inscriptions were translated as they say things such as “Ingibjorg is a beautiful woman.”

From Maeshowe you can look across a loch and see both the Standing Stones of Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar in the distance. Modern technology has shown that the stone monuments above ground are just the tip of the iceberg of all the ancient stone sites under the earth in this heart of the island. Michael, our local guide while Richard had a day off, told us tales and speculations about these sites. Stenness means “stone point” and indeed the tall stones still standing are pointed on top, but just 3100 years old. Also known as the Temple of Moon, couples came to perform a marriage ritual which would bind them together for one year and one day. After that period, they would have to come back to the stones to renew that ritual or to break the contract. Thus was their system of “marriage in installments.”

The Ring of Brodgar once had 60 stones standing. Brodgar means “farm by the bridge.” This 2500 year old ring is said to grant the gift of fertilitiy to anyone who runs around it counter clockwise 3x without stopping. Considering the large circumference, this running ritual also meant you were in shape! As we walked the ring, many of us touching each stone, to the wind added rain and for the rest of the day, we experienced more typical Scottish weather than the balm and sunshine of the past few days.

Stromness is the 2nd largest town on mainland Orkney with a population of 2000+. Tait and Style sits above the harbour. For 15 years Ingrid Tait has run this company that creates knitted and felted scarves, throws, pillows, and accessories for the high fashion market in London and New York. She discovered a needle punching machine in Yorkshire that was used to make industrial materials. Sensing it could be retooled to work with wool fabric, she acquired the machine and has been punching or felting her marks with fleece or yarn onto commercially woven wool. As the fashion industry constantly changes, Ingrid is flexible, open to taking commissions from both home furnishing and clothing fashion design houses to create new lines for each season. By next year Tait and Style will move to Kirkwall where Ingrid also runs the jewelry company founded by her mother, Ole Gorie.

Skara Brae was uncovered when a storm hit William Watt’s farm in 1850 and eroded the beach front. The settlement wasn’t excavated however until 1928. This fine example of a stone age community was quite advanced as they even had a sewage sytem and a stone trough area they filled with water and hot rocks to steam the sea life they ate. More information on this and all the stone sites we visited today is found at

Corrigall Farm Museum in Harray is a wonderful example of rural agricultural life on the island. Implements, tools and household furnishings from the 18th-20th century fill the buildings. The amazing thing is that there is no entrance fee to view this peice of Orkney heritage.

I must mention that Kirkwall has a fine library building, just 3 years old, with internet access for all. A plus to catching up on your email is seeing one of Leila’s Thompson’s tapestries hanging in the space.

The Jennifer and Hazel Wrigley are well known performers from Orkney. They opened The Reel Café three years ago. It serves as teaching studio and gathering place for musical sessions in addition to serving food and wonderful hot chocolate! I listened in on the Wednesday night teen session. The quality of musicianship is high. Jen Austin who works at the café and plays piano, fiddle and composes, told me that students start playing instruments in the public school system in Orkney at age 8. Folks like the Wrigley sisters nurture the musical talent of the island by also teaching privately. Over 100 folk bands are on the island. I took the musicians advice and walked out with cds of Saltfishforty, The Wrigley Sister’s latest “Skyran” and “The Orkney Sessions” recorded at The Reel. And I believe I found the tune of the whole trip that I must learn “Music for a Found Harmonium.” I didn’t have my tune sucker along. Contact me if you know where I can get a recording or find music for this key changing tune