«Travels in the Scottish Isles: The Hebrides, Orkney and Shetland»
by Kirsti MacDonald Jareg
Translated by Guy Puzey
When Dr Johnson, author of A Dictionary of the English Language, decided to leave behind his comfortable existence in London and travel to the Hebrides with his Scottish friend James Boswell, Boswell’s wife objected. What business could they have on these islands west of the Scottish mainland? She received the following answer: ‘Madam, we do not go there as to a paradise. We go to see something different from what we’re accustomed to see.’ Much has changed since Dr Johnson’s expedition in 1773, but many people still travel to the Hebrides for the same reason: to experience something different. Priceless qualities. People with time to chat and to say hello. Unlocked doors, bicycles and cars. Clean air and the sky full of seabirds, purple heather moorlands with wandering herds of deer and a golden eagle resting on the upward breeze. Beaches with clear, turquoise blue water that even the Thai tourist board has used in its brochures. An embarrassing advertising blunder by Thai authorities, of course, but what else could it be, ask VisitScotland, than ‘a compliment in disguise’?
The Inner Hebrides lie along Scotland’s west coast and stretch from fertile, whisky-marinated Islay in the south to mountainous Skye in the north. To the west of Skye lie the Outer Hebrides, on the other side of a stretch of open sea: the Little Minch. This is where blue men from the Gaelic underworld drown adventurous seamen voyaging to the outer isles, or Innse Gall, ‘the isles of the foreigners’, after the Norsemen who colonised the Hebrides. The Outer Hebrides extend in a long arc out towards the open Atlantic. The next stop beyond their unbroken white beaches is America.
THE INNER HEBRIDES
Kintyre, a peninsula – almost an island
The Kennacraig ferry landing on the Kintyre peninsula is little more than that. A ferry landing. Places like this are without lives of their own. They are parasitic. They come to life when ferries dock and, for an allotted length of time, they feed off the greasy exhaust of diesel engines, the bleating sheep staring out from behind the bars on the back of pick-ups, wet cyclists shivering, babies crying impatiently and tourists drumming on their steering wheels, feeling that they’ve been waiting far too long. The ferry’s belly opens and out roll its contents: some cars with kayaks on the roof, others with bikes tied on the back, the gangway clanging as the cars drive ashore. Men in yellow high-visibility vests and red helmets wave the waiting cars on board. There’s space for them all, patient or impatient. The drivers put on the handbrake and get out of their cars. A lone car alarm soon starts to wail – somebody locked their car in a moment of distraction – and other alarms soon join in, like a
pack of wolves. A final farewell as the ferry slips away from the pier. Left behind, the ferry landing makes no fuss. It takes strength to have to be the one always left behind.
‘The ferry to Islay was due to leave at 5.30 p.m., but it’s been delayed,’ says the lady behind the desk at Kennacraig. It’s Easter. I’m in the low building that houses a waiting room and the ticket office. The windows are steamed up with the respiration of wet waiting passengers. On the wall behind the desk, someone has hung up small trophies, banknotes from Sweden, the United States and Italy.
Outside, the cars stand queued up in parallel lines. It’s raining and it’s getting dark. Far out in the Sound of Islay, I can vaguely make out a vessel. A car ferry belonging to Caledonian MacBrayne, or CalMac to its friends. The state-subsidised, berated and praised CalMac, linking together the Hebrides. Black and white ferries frequenting over twenty ports. For many people, this day marks Jesus’ last supper with his disciples, but for CalMac this is the last day of the winter season.
Once, Norway was about to annex the entire Kintyre peninsula from Scotland. The whole thing was down to a blunder by Edgar, King of the Scots. In 1098, he and King Magnus Barefoot of Norway signed a peace treaty. ‘You shall have the Hebrides, or what you call the Sudreys,’ said the Scottish king. The Norwegians had already controlled the islands for a long time, but it was now time to formalise a contract about the Norwegian territories. ‘But,’ added Edgar, thinking he was being crafty, ‘you shall only have the islands that you can sail round with the rudder shipped.’ By messing with the definition of what makes an island, the Scots lost Kintyre, or Saltire as the peninsula was known to the Norse then. Because who could have imagined that King Magnus was equally cunning, that he sat at the tiller while his boat was dragged across the narrow isthmus joining Kintyre to the rest of the mainland? The ancient Icelandic poet and historian Snorri Sturlason describes the incident in Magnus Barefoot’s Saga:
[…] when King Magnus came north to Cantire [Kintyre], he had a skiff drawn over the strand at Cantire, and shipped the rudder of it. The king himself sat in the stern-sheets, and held the tiller; and thus he appropriated to himself the land that lay on the farboard side. Cantire is a great district, better than the best of the southern isles of the Hebudes [Hebrides], excepting Man; and there is a small neck of land between it and the mainland of Scotland, over which longships are often drawn.
THE OUTER HEBRIDES
An encounter with a weaver
‘D. J. & M. D. Mackay Luskentyre Harris Tweed Company’ reads the text on a green sign next to the road, past the churchyard. Donald John and Maureen Mackay’s tweed weavingloom mill shed and tweed outlet. Real Harris Tweed is stocked here. The weaver Donald John has just come home from New York, from a Scottish sales exhibition as part of Tartan Week.
A casual passer-by could be fooled into thinking that the modest premises indicate this is an insignificant local shop where the proprietor weaves to put food on his plate. In 2004, Donald John received a call from the shoe manufacturer Nike. They wanted to make shoes – out of Harris Tweed. ‘We need around 10,000 metres of material,’ said Nike. Donald John could barely believe his ears.
Donald John has been a weaver all his life. Like his father. And his grandfather. And like all the others working in the craft trade on the islands, he claimed that he never learnt the job. Watching the shuttle going back and forth was a part of his upbringing. He is paid between £12 and £17 per metre, depending on the quality. Machine-woven cotton fabric is sold at fivefold sums by interior design companies. ‘Isn’t it possible to get higher prices?’ I ask in disbelief, indignant at the underpayments. ‘Well, if you put up the price, then there’s the risk that… I don’t know, I don’t know, we’re holding on like this anyway, so…’
Hairy rolls of material lie stacked on wide shelves. A tweed jacket dangles from a coat hanger, tweed caps lie spread across a workbench. Shoulder bags in a classic black-and-white zigzag pattern hang on a hook. Donald John shows me the only pair of Nikes he has left. He did have two pairs, but he donated one of them to an auction to raise funds for the victims of the tsunami in December 2004. The bidders queued up, as the shoes had already become collectors’ items.
Among the rolls of fabric I recognise the Nike pattern. ‘One moment.’ Donald John fetches a magnifying glass and holds it up in front of the green tweed. On the other side of the thick glass, an undergrowth of thin, colourful threads shoots up. I am taken aback and study the material without the magnifying glass. It looks green again. ‘This is what makes tweed so unique,’ says DJ, as he is known. ‘Every thread of wool that’s spun is in turn made up of five or six colours. It goes back to the times when wool was dyed with plants and people didn’t have enough dyestuff to colour larger amounts than, say, five kilos. But then they maybe had to dye twenty-five kilos, so they had to spin yarn in different colours.’
Harris Tweed got its colour from the fearless flora that thrives in the Outer Hebrides: the roots of the water lilies that float on the small lochans gave a black colour, lichen was scraped off grey rock to give a rich, reddish tint, the heather flowers provided a pastel green, the ribwort plantain gave a blue colour, the yellow groundsel served up a lemon shade, while the willow leaves gave a soft yellow. The plants, one sort at a time naturally, ended up in a large three-legged pot together with the wool, and were left to simmer until an experienced woman nodded and said yes, now we’ve got the right shade. Then came the turn of the next colour.
‘What makes the fabric so special is its vividness, the vibrancy, it makes it alive.’ Donald John’s grey eyes become alive too, in correlation step with his enthusiasm for the excellence of tweed. The combinations of colours were often secret recipes. Traditionally, tweed was often plain or undyed. It was only later that tweed became almost synonymous with the herringbone pattern, the black-and-white zigzag design.
Today there are over seven hundred colours to choose between, according to Donald John. Synthetic colours took over from the vegetable dyes long ago. The vegetable dyes were too cumbersome, and besides you never really knew how they would turn out. Nobody could have full control over the plants’ interaction with the wool.
From famine to the catwalk
The ‘Harris Tweed’ brand was born out of hunger and poverty in the 1800s. The potato blight came in with full force from 1846, and some years later, the Inverness Advertiser newspaper reported that the poor of Harris survived thanks to the compassion of their neighbours, and shells they gathered along the shore. But an extraordinary number of people had suffered a sudden death. This aroused the journalist’s suspicion: were people actually starving to death out there on the edge of the ocean? The newspaper blamed the owner of Harris, Lady Dunmore, and Her Majesty Queen Victoria for being completely unaware of the consequences of the famine.
How accurate was this assertion? The tweed industry was commercialised precisely around the time when Alexander and Catherine Murray, the Earl and Countess of Dunmore, owned Harris. But according to the ‘bible’ of Harris Tweed, the thick blue book The Islanders and the Orb by Janet Hunter, the facts end there, with different versions of the story taking over. A less known version came from Lady Dunmore’s son. His notes report that starving women from Harris used to knock on the door of the Dunmore estate to sell their home-woven tweed to her ladyship. The material was inspected, weighed, measured and paid for, and in the autumn the rolls of fabric were sent to the mainland and distributed to dealers in England and Scotland. According to her son, this took place from 1839, before the great famine disaster that lasted from 1846 to 1850. So how could the Inverness Advertiser accuse Lady Dunmore of ignoring the people on her estate slowly turning into skeletons, with the children getting protruding knees, with the elderly bedbound and with the mothers unable to breastfeed their newborns? If her son’s version is true, Lady Dunmore was not unaware of the famine and tried to raise funds for the hungry.
But it is not this version that has been mythologised, writes Hunter. The popular account of the birth of the Harris Tweed industry has been repeated, somewhat uncritically it could well be said, in books, articles and official reports, as well as by the islanders themselves. The story of the Harris Tweed industry has begun to live its own life, it has been told so many times that it has become true. And maybe it is. It goes more or less like this: in 1844, Alexander Murray, Earl of Dunmore, ordered large quantities of Murray tartan tweed, the pattern that identified the Clan Murray. He wanted to dress up the gamekeepers and other employees on the estate. If this is true, Hunter writes, the Earl was one of the first estate owners to make his own uniforms for his ghillies, a fashion that soon caught on. When Queen Victoria bought Balmoral four years after the Earl of Dunmore had dressed up his staff, the cult of the Highlands and of tartan was in full swing.
I asked the genealogist Bill Lawson on Harris if the Scottish clan system had any meaning at all in today’s society. ‘Only if you sell tartan!’ Bill shook with hilarity, but pulled himself together between the salvos of laughter. ‘Maybe clans have some meaning in some parts of the mainland, if the clan chieftain lives locally,’ he conceded. ‘But not here. How much tartan do you see around you, except at weddings? Most tartans are made up anyway. Many were invented in the 1800s, and now even football clubs have their own tartans too!’ He is right. Glasgow Rangers have their own tartan. So does Aberdeen Football Club.
So in the 1800s, the Highlands and the Western Isles were very popular, and the summer guests from the upper classes spent weeks on estates and at castles. The ladies painted, went for walks or embroidered, while the men cut down bracken, stamped through the heather, forced their way through the burns – ‘Ah! Such splendid clear air! – and hunted grouse and deer or fished for salmon in the rivers. ‘Jolly fine tweed, Sir,’ they might have said, admiring the Earl of Dunmore’s tweed suit. The ladies might have clasped their pale, well manicured hands; they could quite fancy their husband wearing a suit like that! Soon tweed was in demand in both London and Edinburgh. Lady Dunmore was delighted; this meant earnings for the poor islanders knocking on her door and begging for help. Their problem was that they did not have the necessary means or contacts to sell their material. But she did, and she used them, gladly even, is the impression we get. She sold the material to friends in higher circles and established contacts with firms in the big cities. And the prices and the demand grew. The Harris Tweed industry had begun.
A peculiar odour
As mentioned, there are several variants of the story about how Harris Tweed found its way onto the catwalk in New York, Tokyo or Paris. In any case, it is indisputably true that tweed soon became popular in the British upper classes. The rough, warm and water-repellent woollen fabric in natural colours was well suited to the image of a rugged hunter or fly fisherman. Tweed jackets, tweed trousers and tweed hats became the standard attire, whether for grouse hunting or for the pursuit of political careers. In the Harris author and BBC broadcaster Finlay J. MacDonald’s nostalgic and realistic autobiography Crowdie and Cream, he tells of the weak but unmistakable odour of wool and urine that spread out through the upper house of the British Houses of Parliament on damp days. The smell emanated mostly from the eldest aristocratic members of the House of Lords. And no, it was not leaking urinethey had not been caught short. The scent, which was discreet, it must be admitted, came from their high-quality tweed jackets, made in the old way and intended to last for their whole lives, at least. Perhaps the jackets were even inherited from their fathers, just like their titles and seats in the Lords. Now, readers may wonder what urine has to do with tweed. In Crowdie and Cream, MacDonald recounts how everyone in the family, as well as neighbours, guests and friends, were asked to use ‘the tub’ if they had to pass water. ‘Where do you keep the tub?’ was the Harris equivalent of the more mondaine ‘Excuse me, where is the bathroom?’ The tub, a large tank that stood in the barn or the outhouse, was slowly filled up, and the contents were left to sit until they reeked of a sharp stench that could chase a cat out to sea: ammonia. The foul-smelling liquid was ready for the job of dissolving the oil in the greasy, ready-woven woollen fabric. As well as fixing the vegetable dyes. On pre-war Harris, urine was the simplest, and the cheapest way of obtaining ammonia.
When the tweed leaves the weaver’s loom, it is stiff and hard. In order for the material to be useable for clothing and blankets, the stiffness and excess oil had to be beaten out properly. By waulking. In his book Back to the Wind, Front to the Sun, the late Angus MacLeod, from the neighbouring island of Lewis, tells his memories of waulking as the form of social gathering that it was. The women sat in pairs straight across from each other around improvised tabletops, and the warm, wet and oily tweed, reeking of urine from the tubs, was beaten and kneaded to rhythmic waulking songs until it had been cleansed of superfluous oil, shrunk and twisted to the correct length and breadth and softened so that it would be good to wear. The shrinking would ensure that the tweed jacket would never tighten on its owner’s shoulders, even if it became damp. And if one day it should feel tighter, that could not be blamed on the tweed.
Today, waulking, urine in the tweed and inherited titles in the House of Lords are all anachronisms, but perhaps a few lords are still sauntering around the Houses of Parliament wearing a hand-beaten tweed jacket from the interwar period, emanating a faint fragrance of urine.