Clò-Mòr – the Big Cloth

Our first experience of the Isle of Harris and Lewis, shot from the Harris golf course.

The long, barren archipelago on the far northwest tip of Europe is home to every dyer, blender, carder, spinner, warper, weaver, finisher and inspector of Harris Tweed. No part of the process takes place elsewhere. – from The Harris Tweed Authority website

 When we first decided that we’d travel to the Outer Hebrides, I didn’t realize at first that this included Harris and Lewis, the land of Harris Tweed. Needless to say, I was pretty excited when I made the connection – I love tweed.

Harris Tweed is very much tied to the land from which it originates. In order to bear the Orb that officially designates the cloth as Harris Tweed, it must be “handwoven by the islanders at their homes in the Outer Hebrides, finished in the Outer Hebrides, and made from pure virgin wool dyed and spun in the Outer Hebrides” – this, from the 1993 Act of Parliament that brought about the creation of the Harris Tweed Authority (replacing the Harris Tweed Association that was set up in 1909).

So think about that for a minute. That means every inch of cloth that is branded with the Harris Tweed mark is made in the homes of individual men and women. It’s not woven in a factory on machine looms. It also means that all the wool has to come from sheep raised in the Outer Hebrides – not a big place. From the head of Barra to the Butt of Lewis it is only 210 kms. The whole string of islands is just over 3000 km2 and only 15 of the 50 islands are inhabited. It’s a testimony to the tenacity and spirit of the crafts people on these islands that they can bring hundreds of thousands of metres of this famous cloth to market each year.

Shoulder bag and glasses case purchased at the Harris Tweed Shop, book marker purchased at the craft market, both in Tarbert

Until the middle of the 19th century, the cloth was woven by crofters primarily for their own use or to be sold in local markets. That changed in 1846 when Lady Dunmore, widow of the Earl of Dunmore, owner of the Isle of Harris, decided to have their clan tartan replicated by Harris weavers. It became so popular that Lady Dunmore devoted her time to marketing the cloth to her wealthy friends around the country. It was the beginning of the Harris Tweed Industry. In 1909 the Harris Tweed Association was created and they registered the trademark Harris Tweed Orb and Maltese Cross logo with the words “Harris Tweed” beneath it. At its peak, in 1966, 7.6 million yards of cloth was woven here.

John in a classic, black tweed hat

In preparation for our trip here, I read Seasons on Harris: a Year in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides by David Yeadon. The book was written in the 1990s and in it he lamented that the art of weaving Harris Tweed was dying out. Young people were leaving the islands because there was no work to keep them there. The feeling was that the cloth would die with that generation. In 1970 there were 2000 weavers on the island; by the turn of the millennium, there were only 200 left.

Chose this fun blue tweed for our son, Aaron – to go with his blue eyes!

And then, Nike came along. In 2004, the famous shoe maker contacted Donald J. Mackay, a weaver trying to save the art, and ordered some cloth: 9500 metres of it, to be exact. The order breathed new life into the industry. Today, Harris Tweed is seen on runways from Paris to Milan, it’s found on the upholstery of luxury cars and used in furniture and interior design. For the tourist industry, if you can imagine a product, they’ve covered it in tweed – everything from book markers to ipad covers, key chains to Christmas ornaments, wallets, skirts, handbags, hats and, of course, the classic Harris Tweed jacket.

the Clò-Mòr Harris Tweed Exhibition Centre in Drinishader

We visited the Harris Tweed Shop in Tarbert and the Clò-Mòr Harris Tweed Exhibition at the Harris Tweed and Knitwear shop in Drinishader on the Golden Road.

The exhibit was well done, giving us both the history of the cloth and the story of its present and future. It’s encouraging to me that this fine cloth is still being made in the traditional way and is providing an income for crofters who are keeping that tradition alive.

Losgaintir (Luskintyre) Beach, West HarrisClo

When I look at the cloth I can see the mountains, the peat bog and heather, the long stretches of sand and surf, the machair.  The Clò-Mòr is both beautiful and durable, a reflection of the land from whence it comes and the people who create it.

Epilogue: The Little Boat That Could

Kennebunkport Sailboat found “shipwrecked” on the beach in Balivanich, Benbecula.

Sometimes truth really is stranger than fiction. In an earlier blog about our trip to the Outer Hebrides we mentioned the little boat that Angelika and I found washed up on the shore of the beach near the Balivanich airport.

We were puzzled, intrigued, curious… and determined to understand its origins. After reporting the find to the local police, we emailed the teacher who had initiated the project back in Maine. Four or five days later Ed Sharood responded,

“We want to thank you both for alerting the local police and subsequently the local coast guard and a primary school teacher.  The word has spread fast that the Little Boat that Could actually HAS made it across the big pond.  The boat was picked up and taken to the local coast guard office where it is being held until Mary Morrison (Primary school teacher) picks it up to bring it to her school tomorrow. We would love to hear more about your trip and how you came to be walking along the beach…you are now an important part of it’s story!”

Ed also supplied us with some links to the story behind the little boat on the beach:

Kennebunkport Conservation Trust (The project’s partner),

Kennebunk High School Alternative Education Program  (The school program involved in the launching of the boat.)

The Landing Boat School (Participated in the building of the boat)

Portland Press Herald ( News story from Portland Maine about the collaborative project)

News 13 (Even a television news story)

A week later this email arrived from a local teacher in North Uist:

“My name is Mary Morrison and we have been working as a team of  volunteers on the drifter project. If you are still on the island we are doing an Assembly tomorrow morning at which we hope the new drifter can be displayed alongside the one the children have helped to refurbish.”

Unfortunately we were already two islands and one ferry away…sigh.

We figured that was all we would hear about it until the boat was relaunched and we could follow its progress. However, another week later we were contacted by John Paul Breslin of the Glasgow Sunday Post to do an interview. We agreed to the interview and the resulting story came out in the July 9th edition. Attached is the Sunday Post Article Online

The boats navigator. He first took the boat to Spain in search of some Spanish gold.

We joked with Ed Sharood after he contacted us, that we wanted cameos in the documentary about The Little Boat That Could. After all this hoopla, it might just happen! After all, truth is stranger than fiction.

The Skye’s the (un)Limit

It’s been six years since we’ve been to the Isle of Skye and it was exciting to come back to a place we thoroughly enjoyed. Skye is a place of unlimited beauty:

from the breathtaking Cuillin Mountains,

to the spectacular setting of the Neist Point Lighthouse,

to the magical faery glen and faery pools,

to the jaw-dropping views from the Quaraing, the only thing that we are limited by is a lack of superlatives. This is a gorgeous place.

mists over “the Prison”, Quaraing

Skye is also unlimited in its weather. “Skye” means “Isle of the Mists” in Gaellic and we’ve certainly experienced that. The last time we were here it was autumn, so it was a little cooler than it is now, the days were shorter and we experienced more rain.

the pretty harbour in Portree

This time around the days are endless and we’ve had only two days of real rain, which we used as opportunities to do mundane things like laundry, souvenir shopping and blogging. We’ve been blessed with sunshine and calm days and even though the dreaded midges (“no-see-ums” to us Canadians) are out in full force when it’s calm, it’s the kind of weather you want because when you’re on the Isle of Skye you want to be outside to behold all she has to offer. So when the mists roll in, it just adds to the mystique of the place.

acres of ferns on the Isle of Raasay

We’ve never been to Ireland but you could easily refer to this as an emerald isle as well. The little Isle of Raasay, just a short ferry hop away, is just as green. This place is covered in grasses, peat bog, heather and ferns. There’s less exposed rock – until you look up, way up – and so it just seems that each vista is coated in unlimited green.

Kelpie Crafts, Isle of Skye, near the Neist Point Lighthouse. Owner, Linda Jackson makes all manner of crafts and sells them from her shop here. The wee house on the far right is a self-catering cottage.

There’s also an unlimited creativity here. There’s a craft/artist/pottery/jewelry/insert-art-form-here shop around every corner carrying unique pieces of art, much of it inspired by the landscape we’ve described. There are poets and writers, there are films being shot here (rumor has it that some of Outlander will be filmed here in fall) and Gaelic music abounds.

What’s sad is that Skye is also a victim of its own success. Scottish tourism has done a terrific job of drawing people to the island and when they built the Skye Bridge they made it really easy (and free) for people to get here. What they didn’t seem to count on was the sheer volume of people they’d have to manage. Accommodations can be a challenge to acquire – we booked ours 8 months before we came.

when we got to the Quaraing at 9 am, there were 4 cars. When we got back from our hike 3 hour later, it was like this.

There is limited parking in many places, especially the natural places we mentioned above. Sometimes you have to drive for miles to find a place to pee… unless you’re a man, of course, in which case you can pee wherever you please. (Maybe that’s why the place is so green!) Much of the island is single-track road, with no shoulders, only tire-eating ruts on each side, and since there are small (or no) parking lots, people simply park where they can. This makes it difficult, even dangerous, to drive when you’ve got cars going in opposite directions and nowhere to pass.

While it’s true that there is a cost to building infrastructure to accommodate tourists, the cost of not building it is greater. The Draw of Skye is its unlimited vistas and pristine beauty, the very thing that is threatened by a lack of management and proper facilities. The locals with whom we chatted said that there have already been council meetings ad nauseum about all of this, and they are sure that there will be more meetings to come. The locals believe that tourists are willing to pay for conveniences like parking and toilets and that putting limits on how many people can visit a place at a time can help preserve the very things that we’ve all come here to experience.

can’t very well blog about Scotland without a photo of a Coo. i think of them as hipster cows.

So, yes, there have certainly been changes since we first came to Skye but nothing that would stop us from coming back. We’ve had a rich experience once again in this place of unlimited beauty.

 

 

The Hebridean Way

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Anyone who walks or hikes along sections of the Outer Hebrides will spot a post or a

sign with a circular logo on it, indicating the Hebridean Way. The various trails run from Vatersay in the south to Lewis in the north. In theory they should keep a person from getting lost…in theory.

In leaving these isles, we have reflected on the Hebridean way: the lifestyle and character of these islanders. It is home for some who will live and die here, and a rebirth for others who are incomers seeking a different lifestyle,

Lifelong islanders can be identified by their distinct accent, differing slightly from place to place, in the same way a Glaswegian accent is distinct from someone from Edinburgh. The distinctiveness of the island accent is most obvious in those who are native Gaelic speakers, creating melodic way of speaking that is pleasing to the ear. The islanders are moulded by both the landscape and harsh and often unforgiving elements that shape that land, as well as those who conquered the lands. The Norse invaded in the 11th century, and ruled the Isles for more than 200 years before a Treaty gave land back to Scotland in 1263. Though the Norse retreated, their influence is seen, like the architecture that dots the isles.

The first of the lifers we met was Chrissy MacPherson, who was a life saver, taking us in when our “booking” had no record of us. She can trace her ancestors back more than eight generations. Like many who grow up on the isles, they leave for school and often work on the mainland until work or other circumstances call them home. She spoke of the many relatives she has in Canada, families relocated during the clearances or times of hardship. Like Chrissy, almost every islander could name a relative somewhere in Canada. Many of them settled in Cape Breton, bringing their language and their customs to their new homeland.

The clearances replaced people with sheep and left the islands dotted with broken down homes.

 

The Hebrideans are a fiercely honourable lot. A monument on the road between Tarbert and Stornoway marks the spot where Bonnie Prince Charlie came ashore from Scalpay after the failed Jacobite rebellion at Culloden in 1746. Despite having a reward of £30,000 for his capture, no one, regardless of their personal loyalties, turned him over to the authorities.

Eilidh (Ay-lee) is a 25 year old from Berneray, a tiny island of brilliant sandy beaches and fertile machair (macker). We met her running her tiny gift shop on the island, after she “came home” from six years on the mainland for school. She truly missed the island, and wants to stay. That mentality is music to the ears of an aging population, who wonders what will happen when the young people all move away. She is representative of many, of varying ages, that feel the pull of the island life back home.

North Harris Eagle Observatory

Others, like North Harris Trust Ranger, Daryll Brown, came to the island for work and have found a way of life. As a Marine Biologist, Daryll loves to expose people to marine and wild life on Harris and Lewis. As an outdoor enthusiast, the island is a playground where he can mountain bike, surf, snorkel and even wild dive for lobster. (Are you grabbing your fingers right now?) He can also afford a home, something that resonates with those of us from the Fraser Valley in BC. Other in-comers to the Hebrides were looking to slow down after they retired and they fell in love with island life. They love the pace of life and the sense of community.

Sea Eagle on the Isle of Harris

The Hebridean Way is not for everyone, which is just fine with those who love their string of jewels called the Outer Hebrides.

 

 

 

Harris and Lewis, a land joined by contrasts

The largest island in the Outer Hebrides is Harris and Lewis. Its name makes it sound like it is two islands but it is one land, though each part is distinct in its geography and its character. Islanders would be able to tell where you’re from on Harris and Lewis simply by your accent but we weren’t that attuned yet!

Our home in Ardasaigh, just outside of Tarbert, Harris.

Our home was in Ardasaigh, in Harris, just outside of Tarbert where the ferry comes in. We lived in a refurbished blackhouse. When we saw our home from the top if the hill, we thought it was a house within a thick stone wall. In fact, the roof of the house rests on an inner wall rather than extending over the walls like most of us are used to. After touring a blackhouse museum, we learned that this construction was intentionally done to maximize warmth and to keep the roof from blowing off in high winds. The inner and outer walls were insulated with peat or grasses. The roof was made of two layers of thatch and in a traditional blackhouse, the heart of the home was the peat fire, which was never allowed to go out. Because the houses had no chimney, the ceiling (and everything else in the house, people included) ended up covered in soot and smelling like smoke or “peat reek” as it was called. Every year or two, the roof would be re-thatched, the inner thatch put on the fields for fertilizer, the outer thatch becoming the new inner roof and a new outer roof placed over top. Labour intensive, to be sure, but indicative of the lives of crofters who wasted nothing. As you can see from our photos, our house had a modern roof (and a regular fireplace, so no peat reek). The walls were at least 4 feet thick and we were grateful for that whenever the wind was howling.

the view from our bedroom window; you can see how thick the walls are by how deep the window-wells are.

The geography of Harris and Lewis is a mix of mountains and forests, rocky hills, peat bogs, sandy dunes and machair (meadows) and spectacular beaches. When I say “mountains and forests” I recognize that all this is relative, given that I am a British Columbian from Canada. The highest peak in Harris is An Cliseam, 799 metres (2,621 feet), compared to Grouse Mountain in Vancouver, say, which is 1,231 metres. And when I say “forested” I mean there are actually sections of land that are treed, as opposed to miles and miles of peat bog and heather, but there is nothing here that resembles the forests of BC.

the “Golden Road” is called this because of what it cost to build. This section of landscape doubled as Jupiter in 2001: a Space Odyssey

The mountains are more southerly and along the southeast coast look lunar. In fact, part of the landscape along the “Golden Road” (called this because it cost a fortune to build but there’s nothing golden about it, it’s a horrendous road to drive) doubled as the planet Jupiter in “2001: a Space Odessey”. Further north in Lewis, it is endless peat bog as far as the eye can see.

Luskentyre beach, big sky, gorgeous sand, clear waters

What Harris and Lewis does have is beaches: spectacular, yellow/white fine sand and crystal clear, blue/green water. Our warmest day on Harris, it reached a balmy 24C (a heat wave by Harris standards) and we went to Luskentyre Beach, which was “crowded”; there must have been 20 people there, including us!

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Lewis is the larger part of the island and Stornoway is its main town (population approx. 6200.) Lewis is less mountainous, which makes driving a little nicer since there are less single track roads, and the landscape is more rock and peat. We drove all the way out to the Butt of Ness where there is a beautiful Stevenson lighthouse set on the cliff top with nesting fulmars, diving gannets and soaring gulls all around. We came down the west coast and visited some of the archeological sites that this area is famous for: the Broch at Dun Carloway, the Blackhouse Village at Arnol and the Callanish Standing Stones.

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Our time here, indeed our time in all of the Outer Hebrides, was too short. The contrasts are what give these islands their unique character: rugged peaks and stunning beaches, peat bog and sandy machair, forested valleys and rocky hills. I think geography and climate informs the nature of the people who live there, not just in terms of their behaviour but also their character: the wind can be cold but the people are warm and this is what we will remember most about our time here in the Outer Hebrides.

We love it here, can you tell?

 

 

Signs, signs every/no where a sign…

One of the great things about being in a small space – like a wee string of islands – is that you’re not inundated with billboard signs. In fact, we’re pretty sure we haven’t seen a single billboard sign since arriving in the Outer Hebrides, which is good because the views are so breathtakingly stunning, that you don’t want a stupid billboard getting in the way.

Unobstructed view of one of the spectacular beaches on the Isle of Harris

 You also don’t want anything to distract you from the business of driving single track roads with no shoulders, few guard rails and plenty of wayward sheep.

 We’ve also seen a few signs that we’d never seen in our part of Canada (B.C.):

 

Sheep – not sure why they bother with this sign, you’re liable to see a sheep before you see the sign. 

honestly, you can see them coming for miles!

Deer – we have seen deer in Scotland (on our first trip 6 years ago, on the mainland) and on this trip way, way off on a distant mountain top (we had to use binoculars to locate it and even then it was tiny.) What gets me about these signs is that they feel unnecessary here in the Outer Hebrides – you can see for miles, which makes me think you can see a deer coming for miles too. At least that’s what we thought until today, when a local indicated that the deer will come down in the fall, when darkness is the dominant state (light from 9:30 – 3:00).  

Otter crossing – set up along causeways built to connect islands but that interfere with the regular migration routes of local sea otters, who tend to be creatures of habit and don’t care if you built a causeway right along their route, they’re going to continue crossing there anyway. 

perhaps the most important sign when driving in the Outer Hebrides

Passing Place – this is a vitally important sign here. These are set up on single-track roads where they’ve created a little bump-out that allows you to pull over in the event that there’s a car coming the other way. Evidently it was cheaper to simply build the occasional bump-out than to actually build an entire two-lane road. This is Scotland, remember, the land of thrift. 

There have been times, however, that we’ve actually wished that there had been a sign or that the signage was slightly different. Here in the Outer Hebrides, they are fiercely proud of their Gaelic roots and language, so every sign is written first in Gaelic, then in smaller text in English. Some maps are written in Gaelic first, others with English first, so it can get confusing and frustrating when you’re driving by a sign that indicates several things and you don’t have time to read it all.

 Road signs will also point you in a direction but will rarely tell you how many miles it is to your destination, so you don’t really know how far it is. Today we went to Luskintyre beach on the recommendation of a fellow traveller, Toby, who said we had to take the road “all the way to the very end.” If we hadn’t had that advice, we likely wouldn’t have stopped there at all: the road sign is very small, in Gaelic only, and doesn’t indicate exactly how far it is. Thankfully, John easily engages people in conversation so Toby’s encouragement led us to this spectacular place: 

it actually reached 24C here yesterday – heat wave!

The bright side of all of this is that we’re learning a new language (sort of), having great conversations, and experiencing another way of life that is in many ways, very attractive. I guess that’s a good sign.

 

What Lies Between

Just north of Barra lies the little chain of islands called The Uists, all connected by causeway. These beautiful islands lie between Barra and the larger island of Harris and Lewis.

a wee Eriskay pony

On our way to our next home, we drove through Eriskay, the smallest island in the Hebrides. It’s known for a few things, some more famous than others. This is the land where Bonnie Prince Charlie first set foot in Scotland landing on a beach now called the Prince’s Strand. Eriskay has its own ponies, much like Shetland ponies only perhaps more potbellied. It’s also known for the sinking of the S.S. Politician, a ship that was loaded with 250,000 bottles of whiskey, which the inhabitants of the island valiantly saved – and drank. (The tale is commemorated in the book Whisky Galore, by Colum MacKenzie and a movie of the same name, which we are going to see this week.)

the altar at St. Michael’s

And finally, Eriskay is known for St. Michael’s Church. This church has a unique altar: it’s made up of the prow of a rescue boat, it’s a beautiful tribute to a place that’s tied to the sea. We had a fantastic chat with Father Ross, who speaks fluent Gaelic, English and French (and apparently several other languages.)

Our that-roofed cottage in Benbecula

We learned that when you travel between these islands, you go “down north” and “up south”.  We don’t know why but that’s what we were told, so that’s what we did: we left Eriskay and headed down north to Benbecula. This was described to us as “no man’s land” – what lies between South and North Uist. It marks the space between the Catholic south and the Protestant north. Our home was a traditional thatch-roofed cottage, owned by Niall (Neil) Campbell who works for Gallic Media. The cottage was his family home growing up, later became dilapidated, and has been restored to be used as a vacation rental. It’s fantastic. It’s also well situated as a home base while exploring the area.

Benbecula is a lovely little island that has the benefit (or curse, depending on who you ask) of supporting a military base, which means it has a great grocery store, a petrol station and an airport. It also has an amazing beach – where we found the shipwreck that John mentioned in our last post.

Our Lady of the Isles

In South Uist, we visited the elegant statue of Our Lady of the Isles. She’s beautiful, holding her baby Jesus up high so that he can bless all that’s around them. She’s also a huge reminder that you’re in Catholic country.

Grey Heron, fishing.

We went looking for Loch Druidibagh to see if we could find the Red Necked Phalarope or the Red Throated Diver. We thought we were going to find an RSPB hut with a person in it who would tell us more but there was no such thing so, without meaning to, we drove right past it to Loch Sgioport. Since we were there, we chose to hike the hills and had lunch at the ruin of a cottage overlooking the secluded loch. The sun shone and it was wonderfully quiet. On our way back, we found Loch Druidibagh and walked for a long way on its well-built board walk but alas, by then it was so windy, no birds were out and about. On our way home, we stopped for well-earned tea and cake at the café in the Hebridean Jewellery shop. Leaving here, we experienced what we so often do when traveling Scotland: we found what we didn’t even know we were looking for. The café is situated at the sea and John spotted a Grey Heron on a beach between two grassy knolls. We stopped the car to take his picture, then went for a walk and saw so many birds: ringed plovers, oyster catchers and black-capped gulls. It was a great end to a beautiful day.

this panorama shows you just some of the surrounding lakes

North Uist is described as “half-drowned in lochs” and it’s true. There’s more water than there is land. We visited the excellent museum in Lochmaddy with its focus on life by the sea and which also had an excellent exhibit of artwork from the North Uist Fine Arts School. We then headed out to the RSPB Reserve at Balranald. What a fantastic place! We walked along a well-marked trail along the “machair”: grassland along the sea that is abloom with wildflowers like poppies, bog cotton, buttercup, and more. We saw all kinds of sea and shore birds, and were happily taking photos when the rain began.

these are poppies on the machair, there’s no photo of gale force winds or us soaking wet because we were protecting the camera!

Oh. My. Gosh. I don’t even know if it was raining all that hard but the WIND. Unreal. It blew the rain right through most of our clothes. By the time we got back to our car we were dripping but grateful for a warm car, a warm home to go to and, as John said, grateful even for the ability to be able to do what we are doing. I think what we re-learn each time we do a trip like this is that the destination isn’t as important as the journey itself. What is truly important is what lies between where you start and where you’re going.