Travelling to the land of Harris Tweed – part two

After a busy day one getting to know the nitty gritty of Harris Tweed and discovering Stornoway (catch up on it here), day two I was up early and rearing to go. Having read the Hebridean crime novels and the accompanying photos book by Peter May, I was very excited to experience it first hand. Not so much the murders, mind you, but the Callenish Stones, the blackhouses, the views and yes, even the peat bogs.

First stop was the blackhouse museum. Blackhouses are the traditional Hebridean dwelling. Built from what was available to withstand the harsh winter. A wall of stones and a thatched roof held down with canvas, rope and rocks. Basic housing for the entire household, including animals. The humans would have their sleeping space at one end, the animals at the other and in the centre a fireplace with a hole in the roof to expel the smoke from the burning peat.

Fascinatingly the museum also features a modernised blachouse, where the inside has been upgraded to, what I can only imagine, is the standard of the 1950s. Very much more liveable, apart from the floor still sloping quite violently towards the doorway. Everything else has been made to fit. The museum also features a genuine looking crusty crofter working an original Hattersley loom and thus provided my first meeting with a weaver of the day.

It was becoming apparent at this point that I was not going to experience the delights of the traditional island weather. While there was a little wind, the sun was shining from a clear blue sky and it was quite wonderful. We stopped at the Callanish Stones. These are stones that have been standing for around 4000 years, confounding locals and visitors since they were first set upright. It must be gratifying for those ancient pranksters to know that people are still visiting, still photographing and still pondering their significance so long after.

From there we stopped at a nearby croft. Now, I had always assumed a croft was a small farm or similar, but it turns out a croft is a piece of land. So a crofter is a landowner. A croft may have house or farm on it, or it may be just that, a piece of land. The croft we stopped at had a small house and an outhouse on it, and this is where Kenny does his weaving. In the outhouse he keeps a Hattersley Mk1 set up to show visitors how old-school weaving works. Authentic in every way, down to the dents in the wall from when the shuttle flies off it’s track. This is a great display though, as it really brings home how tough it must be to work in a stone outhouse all year round.

In the other room though is a modern loom. Double width, operated by bicycle style pedals. It also features a more advanced way of “programming” patterns, similar in style to the punched cards of early computers. In fact, apart from the stipulation that the tweed has to be “handwoven”, hence pedal power, having a more modern double width loom is probably a boon to the weaver. Kenny was great company, a dedicated radio listener and keen weaver. For him it’s a great way of combining with crofting and letting a holiday home.

So far I had only been on the Isle of Lewis and now we headed down to the Isle of Harris. This caused me a little consternation, as the islands aren’t actually separated by anything at all! No ferry, no bridge, not even a measly causeway. I can only imagine it’s a quirk of island geography, or possibly another ancient prank. It was also becoming very clear to me that the landscape was, in the same way as the Scottish highlands, very much like the mountain stretches of central and northern Norway. Combine this with the open and friendly people I met and it felt very much like the Norway of my younger years.

Tarbert is the other town on the islands and also the other ferry port. Hence there is, quite naturally a large Harris Tweed shop there. I was hoping that the “Harris Tweed Shed” was still going to be there. This is a place of legend, as when Haggas bought into Harris Tweed, he liquidated the entire stock of twwed. It was estimated at time that there was around half a million pounds worth of tweed in store, all sorts of vintage and newer patterns and colours. Quite the treasure trove, you’re probably thinking, and by all accounts you’re right. This pile of woolly loot was taken to Tarbert and made available in over the counter. Over the years it has been visited by everyone from tweed aficionados to home sewers to groups of Savile Row tailors, and nowadays there isn’t all that much left. I did find a length of very nice brownish herringbone though. The last length, I might add, so now that too is history.

The Harris Tweed shop in Tarbert is a huge shop inside a small shop, so it’s packet to the rafters with every description of tweed item possible. This makes it a little hard to scope it out, so you’ll want some time to really delve through the stock. A fair amount of the stock was the usual fayre, though I did spot more than a few items of interest. I can only imagine the number of cars that roll off the ferry and straight into the parking lot here.

Of course, Tarbert is also home of the Isle of Harris Distillery, with whisky under production and gin for sale. A fine-looking modern building and what is quite likely a decent gin. The sea kelp flavouring promises a welcome change from the ubiquitous “complex botanicals” of every other brand. A fine looking bottle as well.

From Tarbert we followed the road south. This was my first sighting of a real live peat cut. From the plane I had noticed the geometrical shapes cut into the landscape, from where peat had been cut out and removed. Once you know what to look for you can also see it from the road. As I understand it, a peat cut is a personal thing, so if someone has started cutting then you start your cut somewhere else. Why would you even want to cut peat? Because you can dry it and burn it in your stove, and there’s massive amounts of it, and it smells nice. I actually agree on the smell, it’s evocative.

Seilebost beach, a place so beautiful it’s used to promote beach resorts in Thailand. Apparently.

Almost at the end of our trip we came to what are probably the most spectacular beaches I have ever seen. Seilebost and Luskentyre are huge swathes of white sand and clear blue sea, and on a day like this it was like being in paradise. I’m not sure what the temperature of the water might be, probably the wrong side of seriously nippy, but for the eyes it was a visual feast. A number of people were surfing, but it was still utterly peaceful and great. Luskentyre is the most well known, but locals will staunchly insist Seilebost is the prettier beach, so we enjoyed a walk there, sharing space with wild rabbits. I’m not making this up.

Near the beaches is where we visited Rebecca Hutton, an independent weaver of Harris Tweed operating as Taobh Tuath Tweeds (“Northton Tweeds”, since you asked). Being independent she has weaves her own patterns and sells her tweed directly customers. She is still part of the regular process in that the mills supply yarn and process the finished tweed (more about this later) and the Harris Tweed Authority inspect and stamp the finished product. Rebecca produces her tweed on a vintage single-width Hattersley Mk2 in a purpose-built shed in her garden. I did notice the dents in the wall from the loom shuttle, so there was no doubt in my mind that this was an authentic setup!

Rebecca is a good example of the younger generation of weavers, seeing a job that offers both the opportunity of combining weaving with other commitments and by being independent also a creative direction. I had a great time talking to Rebecca and was again struck by the humour and friendliness of islanders. Maybe the long hours spent alone weaving make people appreciate human interaction more?

Rebecca (right), independent weaver and Jane (left) from the Harris Tweed Authority

It was in Rebecca’s stock I found the tweed I wanted to take home with me. At a distance it look deep green, closer up it’s a feast of primary colours. Woven from special heavy weight yarn it’s like vintage weight tweed, notably heavier than today’s tweed. Add in that it’s woven in single-width on a vintage Hattersley Mk2 in Rebeccas shed and I was totally sold. And there was enough on the roll to sew a jacket. Annoyingly I will leave you with: More on this later.

Rebecca’s Hattersley Mk2 about 1/4 of the way being tied up for a new piece of work. Only 696 threads to be tied!

I’ll give you one piece of knowledge Rebecca imparted though: Take a magnifying glass to your tweed and see the colours actually in there. I’ve often wondered how a tweed could look plain and straightforward one day, and maybe two weeks later I’ll notice entirely new nuances. And similarly a while late again. Now I know.

This is a piece of heavyweight Harris Tweed, almost dark green from a little distance, a firework of primary colours up close.

Everywhere I went on the islands it was hard to break lose and leave. Increasingly I found myself thinking it would be great to live here. I was even checking out the ads in the Stornoway estate agents windows. Yes, the islands are remotely situated compared to many other places, but no more than a short flight from airports on the mainland. Yes, the weather can be harsh, but provably there are days when the weather is world class, and surely there are many factor counter poor weather. The scenery is great, the roads well kept, the people are friendly and … there is always the Harris Tweed.

The next morning I found myself on the 7am ferry to Ullapool on the mainland. I had high expectations for this, but as it turned out it was a fine enough modern ferry and the 3 hour crossing was smooth, but the weather had gone bleak again and there wasn’t really much to look at. I’d have loved to stop at the Seafood Shack in Ullapool for a portion of “Cullenskink soup”, but they were yet to open.

From this point on it’s another story, though keep in mind I did have a roll of heavy tweed in my case.

If you missed part one, you can find it here.

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


1 Comment

  • Charlotte Engstad 25/06/2017 at 11:03

    Love the photos and the story! And especially the one about the dents in the wall. The first time i saw this (i na German weaver’s shed), my imagination run wild making up scenes with an ice axe and a jealous lover. Now my floor is full of dents as well, flying shuttles are actually close to murder weapons.


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