Travelling to the land of Harris Tweed – part one

Reading Time: 9 minutes

Ever since I rediscovered Harris Tweed it has been a desire of mine to travel to the Hebrides and seek out it’s roots. Last year we did a mini-tour of Scotland and ended up in Ullapool, the village where the ferry to the Hebridean islands leaves from. Just a three hour trip on the ferry and I could have been in Stornoway! It was not to happen then, but imagine my delight when I was contacted by the Harris Tweed Authority, asking if I’d like to come over and visit them! (If you can’t imagine how delighted I was, bring up a photo of me on your phone and shake it up and down, and that’s about how excited I was, ok?). Finally, a chance to see the sights, feel the wool and discover if the lore of the legendary tweed was fact or fiction!

The weeks before setting off I was following the weather forecasts closely. The Hebridean weather is very similar to the weather in Scotland, mainly strong of wind, moist of downpour and moody in it’s variances. Not really a destination if you’re planning to work on your tan, to be honest, but as will be shown, you can get lucky here as well. My trip took me via Bergen and Aberdeen to the small airport in Stornoway, the largest town on the islands. Getting off the plane into a cold drizzle did not disappoint, this was part of the island experience!

This was actually the last photo I took, as the ferry left Stornoway harbour. Through rain rain we see the Town Hall, where the Harris Tweed Authority reside.

This was actually the last photo I took, as the ferry left Stornoway harbour. Through rain rain we see the Town Hall, where the Harris Tweed Authority reside.

I was met by Jane from the Harris Tweed Authority. Now Jane is a relative rarity on the Islands, being a person young of age. I was shocked to find that in the years 1991-2001 the Islands lost 10.000 inhabitants, most of them young folks. Now that is a statistic that doesn’t say much until you realise this meant the population took a massive 28% dive from 36.000 to a mere 26.000. This does sadly raise questions about the future of the Islands, though I am assured there has been a change over recent years.

Piles and piles of wool, ready to be dyed and processed.

Piles and piles of wool, ready to be dyed and processed.

After a brief swing by the hotel to drop off my gear it was straight into action visiting the mill that resides in Stornoway itself. There are currently three mills on the islands and this was the McKenzie mill. This is the mill owned by Brian Haggas, notorious as the man that both almost killed and saved Harris Tweed back in 2007. As the story goes, Brian Haggas, Yorkshire-born businessman, did the sums on how the Harris Tweed industry was performing and saw that business-wise it was a mess. Far too unstructured and far too inefficient. So he bought the largest mill, reduced the number of patterns to a standard four and piped all the fabric into producing reasonably priced tweed jackets in China. At this point, pretty much a fatal wound for Harris tweed. What happened then though is a testament to the feisty spirit of the islanders, as they what was happening to their beloved tweed (and let’s face it, the main income of many islanders) and restarted a second mill, the Harris Tweed Hebrides. While the McKenzie mill has now expanded their patterns to a dozen and takes care of the efficient bread and butter variations, Harris Tweed Hebrides provides the bespoke and less common tweeds, thereby completing the range once again.

After being inspected by the Harris Tweed Authority, the lengths of freshly finished tweed are stamped to show authenticity.

After being inspected by the Harris Tweed Authority, the lengths of freshly finished tweed are stamped to show authenticity.

I’ll be covering the actual process of creating the tweed from a sack of wool separately, but I can reveal that it was a lot more complicated and involved than I had imagined. Also, for a nerdy guy like me it was very cool to see all the quirky machines in use. Not a huge amount of modern machinery, but a lot more Wallace & Gromit, in the best possible way! If you ever wonder how smart humans can be, take a look at the machine that tests the yarn diameter in the McKenzie mill. You will not be disappointed.

After the most excellent tour of the mill it was back to the centre of Stornoway to visit the Harris Tweed Authority itself. With offices in the town hall, rightin the middle of Stornoway, the largest town in the islands, it’s clear that Harris Tweed is central to the Hebrides, and the Authority is central to the Harris Tweed industry. I enjoyed a cup of tea and a chat with Lorna, boss and the longest serving employee at the Authority. Hearing tales of how worlds collide when the la-de-dah world of Parisian high fashion meets a crusty crofter was great, and a reminded of how great the span is between where the tweed originates and where it may end up used. Certainly further than the 1400 kilometres of actual distance might indicate.

One of the tweed shops in Stornoway.

One of the tweed shops in Stornoway.

The final destination of the day was the Harris Tweed Hebrides shop in Stornoway. This is a shop owned by the second of the mills, so they are very much involved in the inner workings of Harris Tweed. Now, you’ll no doubt have read my diatribe on the awfulness of the Old Town in Edinburgh, and the cookie cutter tourist tweed shops. Now imagine if those shops had been inverted and had instead become nice shops with attractive goods. Nice though, right? Well, that’s the Harris Tweed Hebrides shop for you. Apparently there is one just opened in Edinburgh, though the online selection is nothing like what is in the shop. Quite astonishing really, to find a business actively not wanting to sell their wares, when their wares obviously superior to their primary competition. Make sure you drop by though if you’re there. Note: Shops in Stornoway close early.

I enjoyed a pleasant dinner in the local arts and community centre, sadly foregoing my promise to my wife of taking every opportunity to try local specialities. At this point I’d been awake since 4 am and a burger and a couple of pints of cider was just about right. I did stop to think that an arts and community centre must surely a sign of prosperity and hope for the future generations.

In the evening I went for a long walk around Stornoway. Like Ullapool it’s an unspoilt and real town. There is no doubt they get a fair amount of tourists and visitors, but unlike a lot of other Scottish towns, they’ve not sold their soul to tourism. This is a place where people live, not only in the summer, but all year round. I found myself really warming to Stornoway. Even the weather was very pleasant, sunny and dry. Something else that struck me was how friendly people were.

An authentic old Mk1 Hattersley loom on display outside the ferry terminal. Solidly built!

An authentic old Mk1 Hattersley loom on display outside the ferry terminal. Solidly built!

Down by the ferry terminal I found a clear sign of pride in the local weavers: An original Hattersley Mk1 loom. This is the prettiest of the looms, where the cast iron parts are as much a work of beauty as a marvellous piece of engineering. As as the way for many machines, as efficiency of function and economy is brought to the fore, the design itself loses much of the detail that made it so remarkable in the first place. Remarkably this machine was made in Yorkshire in 1919, so in two years time it will enjoy a grand anniversary.

Stornoway even has it’s own castle, recently restored and very spiffy with castle grounds featuring proper big, old trees unlike most of the islands that are mainly without growth over knee height. I forgot to ask if there ever had been trees, or if they had been felled to fuel the fires of the industrial revolution as on the mainland. Houses on the islands were mainly variants of brick, stone and concrete, though I did notice that there were a number of very handsome looking new houses that were built from wood.

Stornoway castle has been renovated to former glory and is open for guests.

Stornoway castle has been renovated to former glory and is open for guests.

The evening ended on a fine note when I found a cluster of vintage Bentleys in the parking area of a local hotel. Their unrestored, yet well kept condition, perfectly complimented the surroundings and I’d have loved to join them for a jaunty ride on the roads north to Ness.

Part two can now be read here. This is when things get even more exciting!

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3 Comments

  • shaun brown 20/06/2017 at 15:53

    So thats what you were up to!
    I enjoyed that thank you
    My Kilt Jacket and Waistcoat are made from Harris Tweed in a Lovat Blue (which is essentially green),the only items of clothing i have ever had made for me.
    I am ashamed to say i have never visited the Hebrides ,something which we intend to fix this summer along with Islay and Mull.
    Look forward to the next instalment!
    Shaun

    Reply
  • Mairi 21/06/2017 at 16:20

    Enjoyed reading this as brought back memories of my visit last year on the Harris Tweed trail, although I visited the Shawbost Mill. Did you visit the weavers working in their own homes? I’m returning in August to visit more weavers and buy more Tweed for my Harris Tweed booties designed for well dressed babies.

    Reply
    • nick 21/06/2017 at 16:58

      Hi Mairi, I sure did visit them, it’s in part two! ?

      Reply

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