At least 5,000 years old, the Standing Stones of Callanish have their origins lost in time. They stand on the west coast of Lewis, the most northerly of the Western Isles.
Outer Hebrides – Long Read

Dyed in the natural colors of the landscape

Photo by Paul Tomkins

Outer Hebrides – Long Read Dyed in the natural colors of the landscape

Hello Scotland, where weaving Harris Tweed has long offered a winter income to farmers and fisherfolk in the islands of the Outer Hebrides on the stormy western edge of Europe. In recent years, the handmade cloth has been adopted by the fashion industry, helping to preserve a community that had been struggling for survival.

Robin McKelvie
Robin McKelvie

The click-clacking sound is so perfectly timed, it could be a Swiss watch –  except for the fact it is much louder. The noise is coming from a complicated contraption, inside a tiny room not much bigger than the machine itself. Sitting at one end, his legs pumping while a loom moves back and forth weaving long strands of wool, is a man wearing a check shirt and corduroy trousers, a shock of salt-and-pepper hair belying a boyish face. Above the man’s head is a simple sign: Luskentyre Harris Tweed Company.

I’m in the Outer Hebrides – an archipelago of 15 inhabited islands and more than 50 substantial uninhabited ones off Scotland’s west coast and home to world-famous Harris Tweed, one of the best-produced and most sought-after cloths there is. The man at the loom is Donald John MacKay – one of the islands’ 400 or so people involved in the tweed industry – and he is quite the celebrity in these parts. For Donald has woven tweed that has been used in Nike trainers.

Two days before, I enjoy the remote beauty of Scarista Beach on Harris. Sitting on the snow- white sands, surrounded by seals and seabirds, I meet John MacNeil, a native of Barra, one of the most southern islands. With typical Outer Hebridean hospitality, John insists on showing me the island – and introducing me to a friend of his, a Harris weaver who had completed a massive contract for Nike.

“Aye, it’s true,” says Donald gently with a modest glint in his eye when I ask him about the deal. “Nike heard of my work and asked me for a sample. I sent them one and then they came back with a wee order.” There was nothing “wee” about it – it was a contract for 9,500 meters of tweed. In true island style though, Donald didn’t panic. “I called a few of my friends and we managed to get it sorted out in the end,” he says. At the peak of the contract, much of Harris and neighboring Lewis, a total of 50 weavers, was working on the tweed for Nike.

At 16 I began to weave for myself

Like most of the weavers here, Donald learnt the skill from his father. “He was a long-time weaver, so it wasn’t a difficult decision for me to take it up. We grew up with weaving and when we were 10 or 12, we became involved in the process. By time I left school at 15, I could weave; at 16 I began to weave for myself and make a living.”

Donald’s work for Nike saw him pick up an MBE for his services to the industry. It is an industry that means everything to this remote, ragged and beautiful set of islands – for tweed is woven into their very fabric. Like French Champagne or Greek Feta cheese, Harris Tweed is a protected product of origin – it cannot be made elsewhere. It is also the only fabric in the world to be governed by its own Act of Parliament. According to the 1993 Harris Tweed Act, 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.”

“Tweed and the way the industry is structured is so important to the Outer Hebrides,” says Lorna Macaulay, CEO of the Harris Tweed Authority, the body that protects Harris Tweed. “It has social, economic and cultural connotations for us on the islands. Weavers must be self- employed and weave at their own homes – that brings work to the most remote, isolated and rural parts that otherwise might not have it. I struggle to think what they would be doing otherwise.”

Harris Tweed rose to its elevated position in the mid-19th century when Lady Catherine Murray, Countess of Dunmore, took responsibility for 150,000 acres of land on Harris after her husband’s death. She recognized the quality of cloth produced by two local women known as the Paisley Sisters, after the town where they had trained as weavers, and commissioned them to weave tweed into the Murray family tartan. She then kitted out the gamekeepers and ghyllies on her estate with jackets made from the tweed, and was quick to see that the hardwearing, water-resistant fabric suited the country sports lifestyle of English landed gentry.

“Nowadays, we would say she was a very clever marketeer,” says Macaulay. “The dyes in the wool were so deep and that set it apart then. She began to market it, much as we do now – as being from this faraway, hardworking, difficult but beautiful, place to make a living. She began to tell her London friends about it and it caught on.” Lady of the Bedchamber to Queen Victoria before her husband's death, Catherine had connections within the royal inner circle: she promoted Harris Tweed as a fashionable cloth for hunting and sporting wear and it became the fabric of choice for the privileged classes. To meet demand and ensure quality, the Countess sent young girls from Harris to the Scottish mainland for training and improved the yarn production process.

Tweed-making had began to die off

There’s now huge demand for Harris Tweed: aside from Nike, the likes of Yves St Laurent and Chanel include it in their collections, Converse have made their legendary All Star baseball boots in Harris Tweed and former England soccer captain David Beckham is regularly spotted wearing it.

But it was not always this way –  although a booming industry until the mid-20th century, tweed-making began to die off as a profession in the decades that followed; the number of weavers like Donald who had the skill passed on to them by their fathers was beginning to fall as sales slumped with changing tastes. “I weaved for more than 20 years after leaving school until the late 80s,” he says. “But weaving was at an all-time low then. You could not exist on the earnings from it and I had to look for other paid work in a coal yard. You can imagine the two extremes – as a weaver I was reasonably clean and warm, as I was inside, and then I went to a dirty coal yard in all weathers.”

“If you look back to the 1960s, gentlemen’s outer garments – which is where Harris Tweed thrives - were a mainstay of a man’s wardrobe,” says Macaulay by way of explanation. “We then began to live in a world where central heating was the norm and people took public transport – the need for hardwearing wool began to fall. At the industry’s peak in the 1960s, we would produce 7.5 million meters of cloth a year – by contrast in 2009, we produced just 450,000 meters.”

Donald’s Nike order was a turning point for both him and the industry. “I always wanted to get back into weaving but there was not a lot of work,” he says. “I would weave for some of the bigger mills and they would pay us by the order. But I felt bad – there were people who stayed loyal to weaving and I thought they deserved the work more than me, so I set up on my own. Nike came to us as we would do small runs of just 25 meters – it was only after, when they came back for more, that I realized how big an order it was. It was pivotal to our success and a real turning point.”

One million meters of tweed produced

The Harris Tweed Authority, which replaced the old Harris Tweed Association with the 1993 Act of Parliament, also played a part. Its commitment to quality – every meter of cloth is inspected and stamped with an Orb trade mark guaranteeing that the material is “hand woven, hand spun and dyed by crofters and cottars in the Outer Hebrides” – and dynamic marketing techniques have seen sales rise. Now everyone from hard-bitten rappers to punky young kids sport some of the famous cloth and 2012 saw one million meters of tweed produced for the first time in 15 years, a 50 per cent increase on 2009 levels.

As I look through some of the materials at Luskentyre, Macaulay’s words about the depth of color in Harris Tweed take on more significance. The wool is dyed before spinning and there can be 24 different colors woven into one thread. Those colors take their inspiration from the dramatic landscapes of the Outer Hebrides: the burnished golds of Atlantic beaches, slate seas reflecting moody skies with thunderous clouds and the deep browns of peat moss, used to heat many island homes.

I get to sample the best of those colors by making the island of Barra the base for my stay. The island is a miniature version of the Outer Hebrides. It shares what the islands have in common: the epic sweep of scenery, the starkly white beaches that would put many a Caribbean isle to shame, brutal bare mountains and the bleakly beautiful interior of vast bog and loch. Then there is the gorgeous machair, the western strip of fragile grassy duneland that stretches back from the beach and comes alive with wild flowers in spring and summer.

The sea kayaking here is hard to beat

I’m staying here with Chris Denehy who runs the adventure company Clearwater Paddling. He swapped life on the mainland for Barra and has not looked back. “It is another world here – in a very good way,” he says. “The pace of life is so much slower and you very much feel part of the land and close to its nature.” Pointing skywards towards a couple of passing gannets to emphasize his point, he continues: “Most days I see more birds and animals than I do people. I’ve kayaked in Canada, the Caribbean, the Middle East and Europe, but the sea kayaking here is hard to beat.”

On one morning we take out the kayaks and make our way around the rocky coastline without another human in sight. Within an hour, I have seen an otter scurrying along the shore, a brace of golden eagles soaring high above and half a dozen other sea bird species. As we cruise into a little cove for lunch I come a little too close for comfort to an adult seal. He rears right up out of the water before torpedoing under my kayak.

I decide to explore the islands from south to north, a distance of just 210km in all. I take the ferry from Barra to neighboring Eriskay, famous for inspiring the film Whisky Galore!, based on a true story when the SS Politician ran aground in 1941. The crew was saved by the local community – but the cargo of 28,000 cases of whisky mysteriously disappeared.

One of the smallest of the inhabited Outer Hebrides, it also played a huge part in Scotland’s history when in 1745 the small frigate Le Du Teillay landed Bonnie Prince Charlie to start The Forty-Five Jacobite Rising to return a Stuart King to the British throne. Despite gathering enough men to march on England and reach Derby, the revolution was pushed back to defeat at the Battle of Culloden less than a year later.

There is a sense of emptiness

I push on from Eriskay, across the causeways that link to South Uist, Benbecula, North Uist and Berneray. South Uist is typical of this quartet of islands. A scattering of small settlements cling to the coastal roads, but there is a sense of emptiness. The real tragedy are the “people who are not here”, whose sorrows are played out in derelict crofts and deserted villages that are a result of the Highland Clearances – the forced displacement of islanders in the 18th and 19th centuries to make way for agricultural lands owned by the gentry.

Later, from North Uist, I can see Harris over the water. While tweed made on any of the Outer Hebridean islands can bear the Harris name, the truth is there are only mills on Harris itself and sister island Lewis. While it feels as though it is just touching distance away, our ferry journey takes more than an hour as we criss- cross the sea on what feels like a crazily circuitous route. “The Sound of Harris is a tougher crossing than you might think,” says Callum, who works for the ferry company Caledonian MacBrayne. “There’s all sorts of stuff below water level you can’t see. We’d be cut up on those rocks in a minute if we didn’t have a good captain.”

I disembark with a renewed appreciation for dry land and soon find that while she is called an island, Harris is technically joined to Lewis, by a mountain range. Lorna, a waitress at the Anchorage Restaurant by the ferry terminal in Leverburgh, advises me not to mention this to anyone. “We’re not really an island, but the folk here are awful proud of being from Harris so I wouldn’t go pointing it out,” she says.

This pride in their heritage is what unifies people here. They grow up in harsh conditions in a rugged, unforgiving landscape. “The elements in our life were the land, the sea and the thread – all woven together," one islander tells me. "Our first house had no running water and we didn’t get electricity until the early 1960s. Light came from Tilley lamps, heat came from the peat we would burn on a stove that was also used for cooking.”

The winter days are so short

Perhaps it is this harsh upbringing that makes the islanders more likely to look to the positives of life in the Outer Hebrides. “They talk on the mainland about people suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder in winter,” says Tim Pickering, a kayaking instructor. “We don’t give it as posh a name up here, but the winter days are so short. It often feels like the sun has only just risen and then she starts to drop down again into the ocean. But the summer makes up for it when the sun never really sets. Until you have seen the big skies of the Outer Hebrides in summer, you haven’t really lived.”

When I press on to Lewis, I am picked up by taxi driver Les McNulty, who is sporting a kilt of Harris Tweed. “I thought you might need the services of a guide, so I dressed accordingly,” he explains as we drive up the island’s main road. Life here, Les tells me, is every bit as difficult today as it always was. “We still cut our own peat out on the moors. It’s the best way to heat our homes in winter,” he says. “It’s backbreaking work, but out here you don’t have much choice. You’ve got to be able to fix stuff too. If something breaks it is a long way to go to get it fixed on the mainland and a longer way to buy a replacement.”

Life has never been easy in the Outer Hebrides, but man has stuck at it when it would have been so much easier to quit. I find early evidence of man sticking it out here at Callanish, an epic stone circle that ranks alongside Stonehenge in terms of its beauty, sense of mystery and the sheer natural drama of its setting. “Callanish is a special place for us islanders. We all feel part of something bigger here,” Les explains. “Call it community, call it heritage, call it what you will. Here you can feel the weight of it all. We feel grounded, sitting among the ghosts of our ancestors.”

The traditions left by those ancestors are what have made the Outer Hebrides known throughout the world. However tough the conditions, however remote it may feel here, it is tweed that puts them firmly on the map. “I’m very proud of being from here,” Macaulay tells me back on Harris. “Wherever I go, when people mention Harris Tweed, I can say: ‘That is my home.’ There’s no doubt – if you are from the Outer Hebrides, tweed is in your blood.”

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