Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Day 10 2012 Two Ferries and Northwest Scotland

19 April. What do we do on the ferry crossings? Sleep and knit of course.We had another smooth sailing, this time from Stornoway to Ullapool.
Barb and clicking needles
This drive across the North and the Northwest of Scotland is no ordinary journey. This is the least populated, remote and rugged and least visited are on the mainland. It is my favorite landscape in all of mainland Scotland. 

 Along the west coast the Assynt area is famous for hill walking and climbing munroes (mountains). It is mile after mile of rocks, beach, hills, water, heather, birds, gorse, and grazing sheep. This area has many kind of really old rock.
The road often narrows to one lane. The vehicle heading downhill pulls over in passing spot. Both drivers always give a wave of the hand in acknowledgment.

Gorse in bloom
We stop in Lochinver, famous for  homemade pie from the Lochinver Larder. Their savory or sweet pies are in such demand, they post them around the country.

Just outside of Durness, we visit 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. A stop at Cocoa Mountain has become tradition. They specialize in truffles with unique flavours like strawberry, lemon pepper, and serve the most decadent hot chocolate. You can't miss this heavenly stop if you like chocolate.

Marsha with a mug of the famous chocolate brew
As we make our way along the top of mainland Scotland this afternoon, a mix of rain showers, sun, and many hues of clouds provide a stunning backdrop.  Our destination is the Scrabster Ferry to take us to Stromness on Mainland Orkney before nightfall.

Day 9 Scalpay and Isle of Lewis

18 April. From Tarbert we drove over the bridge to the island of Scalpay. The village has a public toilet that has a most lovely view.

We visit Sheila Roderick and John Finlay Ferguson at croft #37. Scalpay island has 40 crofts in all and only 3 are being farmed today.  Sheila and John have been farming here for 33 years.
Sheila Roderick and John Finlay Ferguson at Croft #37
The croft goes back in their family to the 1890’s when John Finlay’s grandparents left the island of St. Kilda and came to Scalpay. To make a living, this industrious couple raise Hebridean black sheep, a flock of ducks, guineas, chickens, turkeys and have 100 lobster creels.

When not working on the croft, John is also  volunteer firefighter

In April one of their Hebridean ewes had a rare white and black set of twins
The couple still harvest their own peats and grow potatoes in lazy beds. Lazy beds are mounds of dirt with rocky ditches between them, rather like raised bed gardening without the wood frame. Because the ground is so rocky, all growing of crops, from turnips to grain, was done in lazy beds.

On their Hattersly loom, they weave linen cloth and linsey-woolsey. Currently on the loom is linen that will be used for a new version of “The Hobbit” being filmed in New Zealand. Their fabric also ends up costumes for theater in London and NY and in wedding dresses.  Sheila winds up to 100 yards of warp on this reel to dress the loom.
Warp wound on a horizontal warping reel
Samples of linen cloth woven over the winter
Both John and Sheila were trained as tweed weavers and work in their weaving shed when they are not doing other work on the croft. Sheila also spins for a hand knitter on Skye.

Mary models a cap Sheila knit with her handspun yarn
Sheila  is currently teaching 6 new students how to weave with  Hattersly looms. There are currently 20 weavers on the island weaving on the single width looms. Success does not come without long hours and hard work but you can hear the love of this rural life in Sheila’s voice.

We journey to the Outer Hebrides because this is the land of Harris Tweed. The definition of Harris Tweed: 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 twenty times 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 greatly  increased the productivity of the weavers. The looms had hands free flying shuttle mechanisms and were powered by stepping alternately on two pedals. This is the loom you see Roddy, weaver at Gearranen Blackhouse Village, weaving on as we stepped into the past.
Roddy has been weaving for over 50 years
All the handweavers in our group marveled at the wonderful hands free, shuttle mechanism sends up to 6 different shuttles flying across the warp. The warp is 33" wide set 18 EPI with 18 PPI. In one and a half days, 100 yards could be woven on a Hattersly loom.

Gearannen Blackhouse Village
 Most of the 9 houses at Gearannen 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. 
Peat fire
 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 rural population on the island still lived in blackhouses up to 1939.
Peat covers the island but requires backbreaking labor to benefit from the glowing warmth it produces when burned
The dvd that plays in the second blackhouse down the lane is worth watching.  It shows all the steps involved in harvesting the peatsThe curator of the village, Mary, offers  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.”
Gearrannen slopes down to the Atlantic
Dun Carloway Broch rises up on hill in the midst of current 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.
Dun Carloway Broch
Cathy and Margaret between the double walls of the broch
Down the road at  Callenish Standing Stones, local archeologist, Margaret Curtis guided us around the stone formation. She tells  us what archeologists have discovered about the formation over the past 200 years. She has lived in the area and worked on Callenish and the other stone circles and formations on the island for over 30 years.
Margaret Curtis, local archeologist
The cross formation of stones intersecting this circle sets it apart from stone circles we saw on Orkney. Callenish is the second largest stone circle in Britain, after Stonehenge.
Callenish Standing Stones, Isle of Lewis
 Margaret used illustration boards that showed us drawings of the formation before excavation removed several meters of peat. In the1800’s the peat was cut away from the stones revealing more of what the builders of these circles would have seen
 Much of her research has involved the location of the moon on it’s yearly path and how the moon aligns with certain stones. The sun alignment also enters into the story of the stones on summer solstice and vernal equinox.  However, Margaret doesn’t think the sun alignment was as important at this formation as the moon
A window created by the positioning of these two stones.
We followed Margaret dutifully around the formation as she engaged and enlightened us with her enthusiastic and informative insight into the mysteries of the stones. I visited the stone several times before finding Margaret and having my eyes opened to the genius and mystery of these stones. 
 Margaret and her late husband have published a number of books on the stone formations on the island that are available at the visitor center on site.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Day 8 Isle of Harris

Tuesday 17 April. The ferry departs Uig on Skye to transport travelers on a 90 minute sea crossing  to the Outer Hebridean town of Tarbert on the Isle of Harris. 
Caledonian Macbrayne ferry
Terry Bloomfield, a current Harris Tweed weaver, generously lets us visit his Tarbert studio each year.
Terry shows Lynn the draft
Weavers must complete a 12 week weaving course to prove their skill and competency before going to work for the industry. There are currently 100 weavers on the island that supply the industry weaving on Bonas Griffeth double wide looms. The looms are powered with a pedals like a bicycle. Instead of a shuttle, a rapier travelers through the weaving shed carrying weft yarn back and forth.
Rapier action on the Bonas Griffeth loom
Thirty years ago, 700 tweed weavers worked on the islands. Today the mills in Shawbost and Carloway provide the warped beams to the  tweed weavers.  1 beam of warp for four, 75 meter tweeds is delivered to his weaving studio. Normally, it  takes 2 weeks to weave off the beam. The fabric is taken back to the mill for finishing and marketing. Much of the tweed is sold to Germany. Terry taught  6 new students to weave on the doublewidth looms last fall.  The looms were supplied for them during the coursework. The students lease the looms when starting their own tweed weaving studios. Read more about the history of the industry at

The Harris Tweed shop sits right next to the ferry terminal in Tarbert. The whole island was saddened at the death of Katie Campbell in2011. Here is a photo of Katie,  her daughter Catherine, and granddaughter I took at her shop in 2009. Katie had woven tweed for over 40 years. She and her sister Marion grew up at the foot of their father who was also a tweed weaver. Grannie had 11 girls who all spun. My mom died young. There were 4 of us girls and Dad bought a Hattersly Loom. We went to sleep to the click clack of the loom. It was lovely. It was safe.--Katie Campbell

The late Katie Campbell and family.

Harris Tweed Shop with the orb sign
Catherine keeps her Hattersly loom humming along turning out colorful contemporary and traditional tweed cloth. Besides yardage for sale, the Campbell's tweed is   sewn into caps, handbags, jackets, teddy bears, seals, etc.

Bolt of Harris Tweed
Leaving Tarbert, we drive south. Harris is known for its sandy beaches. Luskentyre  shows dramatic beauty in all kinds of weather. Today, in an approaching rain shower.  The white sand sets off the incredible blue colors of the water making it seem like a movie setting for “Paradise Lost.”

This hairy coo was grazing at the entrance to the beach path

Mary and Marsha lead the group to the beach

Our driver Karen was the only one hearty enough to enter the water

Patterns of soil swirled in the sand by the tide

Luskentyre Beach
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.

Gillian Scott-Forrest

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 of the island. Each of the 8 panels are 5 fett by 2 1/2 feet.

Until the project, called the Harris Tapestry, finds a permanent home, you can get your gas, buy your groceries, have breakfast, and learn of the rich history of the people and the island all in one stop.
St. Clements Church is a wonderful structure, built in 1520 by Alexander MacLeod. In the 19th century it was being used as a cow barn until Lady Dunmore restored it in 1873. There are 3 crypts in the sanctuary featuring intricate stone carvings. The graveyard surrounding the church holds many MacLeod graves as well as other local families from through the centuries. The accoustics are stunning and I love to sing in this haunting church.

Alexander MacLeod's tomb features spectacular carvings