Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Knitwits Yarns

My builders have been brilliant and I now have a secure false shop front and tomorrow the old front comes down - I am willing to bet large sums of money that the 1960's glass isn't going to come out in one piece, which they are confident it will - we shall see. Bizarrely, we didn't shut at all today as customers were happy to make their way past fit builders in singlets, step ladders and drills to get their wool fix (it appears that nothing comes between a woman and her knitting but, on the other hand, perhaps fit builders in singlets should become a permanent feature or I could teach them to knit and we could have fit builders sitting on step ladders knitting - oooh, that's something to dream about tonight, girls).

But I digress - you can linger on the previous bit if you want - the bit about the Outer Hebrides will wait for you ..........

We flew to Benbecula via Glasgow and the weather deteriorated the further north we got. The Outer Hebrides are, basically, that long line of islands which run down the very far north-west of Scotland. Benbecula is squished between North Uist and South Uist in the southern bunch of islands and, regrettably, it isn't architecturally beautiful. It was an RAF station (hence tarmac runway) but the buildings reflect that and, as our host - Mary - said, it's not a great welcome to the Uists. Mary is an extraordinary lady from New York (who has lost none of her accent) who somehow ended up in the Outer Hebrides and has done an amazing amount of work there restoring (and recording) some of the old traditions.

We were staying on Grimsay which is a little island sort of squished between North Uist and Benbecula on the east side. For this we were grateful - apparently the weather on the west is always far worst than the east.

This is where we were staying:

and this is the view from the house:

We stayed here with Louise Butler who has the seriously unenviable task of putting together the feasibility study for the mill on Grimsay. It's a fantastic project but there are so many angles that it's turning into a major task. Louise was a superb housemate and, dare I mention, late night drinking companion - we all had a bit of a hoot.

Mary actually lives about a mile down the road and we stayed in the croft she bought for visitors and where she has restored the old boat shed. One of the reasons for the weekend was the ceremonial opening of the old Stewart boatshed where generations of the family built the steady little Hebridean craft. The tradition was in real danger of dying out until Mary got funding for a new boatshed and the last remaining boatman taught his craft to a new generation. Thankfully, the work goes on and boats are continuing to be repaired and built on Grimsay. The old (restored) boatshed now looks like this:

The islanders were incredibly hospitable and amazed how far we'd travelled - until a couple from Seattle arrived and we were well and truly put in our place. We went out on Friday night and ate the excellent local Salar Smoked Salmon (which you can buy on-line and is highly recommended - one of Rick Stein's Food Heroes), the local sea trout followed by the slightly bizarre carrigeen pudding, which is made from local seaweed (left in the rain to wash the salt out) and then boiled up with milk. The seaweed turns the milk into a jelly. On its own it's a little yucky (in my opinion) but with a side serving of local ice cream and fruit compote it was really pretty OK. As you'll gather, hospitality in the Hebrides came with plenty of food and I can only pray that my Weight Watchers leader isn't reading this.

Saturday morning saw the best of the weather so FB and I set off for a little walk. We were here:

How that first line of letters is pronounced "Kallin" is beyond me but then Gaelic (Gallic) is all foreign to me. All the locals speak Gaelic and switch from that to English with gay abandon. We found a local ram (and being a knitting trip, we photographed him):

Not sure what he makes of it all but I guess a new spinning mill up here might increase his chances of survival. He didn't offer an opinion. We walked to Kallin harbour:

This was en route

and this is the harbour itself. We had an interesting chat with a scallop fisherman here - practically all their catch goes to Spain - he reckons it's easier to find Hebridean scallops in Spain than in the Hebrides and - true enough, on Saturday night the huge lorries trundled in to collect their loads bound for the Spanish markets on Monday morning.

But, of course, we were there to talk about knitting. There is a great tradition of spinning, knitting and weaving in the Hebrides but it's all but died out. Mary (and others) would like to build a mill and revive the industry so she'd put on a display in the croft of Hebridean knitwear and tweed. Interestingly, there was a jumper knitted for Marks & Spencer at the Bayhead Factory (in the good old days when M&S proudly boasted that all its products were made in the UK). The wool was pretty rough by today's standards - M&S customers were obviously tougher then!

There were also some amazing examples of children's first knitting projects - this was a Primary 6 school project (a 10-11 year old):

I wonder how many 10 year olds could knit those now! Or, indeed, this top from 2nd year (13-14 year old?):

There was also this glorious fairisle and I hope to God the knitter of this was older than 14 because, if not, I'm putting away my needles right now and giving up for ever:

At the bottom you can also see a peek of a rather beautiful cushion.

FB gave out talk, which was graciously received and I hope enthused the islanders of the fantastic opportunity they have. It would be wonderful to see a mill back in the Outer Hebrides and we would love to be a part of its birth. Of course, they also have the wonderful heritage of tweed and this bolt was left casually draped over the (cold) Rayburn - absolutely beautiful:

I had an amazing conversation with an old lobster fisherman in his 80's who was telling me that his Mother had a loom when he was a boy. She wove blankets by commission and wove Harris tweed. The weavers weren't paid until the clothes their cloth was turned into were sold. An early example of exploitation in the clothing business, perhaps - and a reason why some older people aren't interested in having a mill on the islands as it brings back unhappy memories.

At the end of Saturday we had a feast of local food (more food, yes, I know ..) - traditional scotch broth, lamb stovie (a delicious "stew" where the potatoes literally disintegrate and thicken the broth) and a choice of Seaweed Carrigeen (again) or Cloutie dumpling - yes, I chose the dumpling - which was absolutely delicious and put an uncomfortable strain on my trouser top button. Then we had a wonderful Scottish folklore expert and story teller called Margaret Bennett telling us about the Celtic Calendar and this amazing special cake called Struan and, guess what, someone had cooked one and, obviously, we all had to taste it - I was seriously concerned by trousers wouldn't take the strain:

That's Danna (which, being Gaelic is probably spelt Fhgoerna for all I know) with the Struan which, as you can see, comes out like a sandwich. It was served warm and spread with butter - oh, bliss! I forgot to mention by the way that Danna (Fhgoerna) and her amazing team cooked the whole of our dinner (for 32 of us) on 2 gas rings by the light of 4 gas lamps - we ate in the new shed/community building - they are an impressively resourceful bunch - if it was up to me, you'd have had baked beans on toast. (We also have special reason to thank Danna [Fhgoerna] who lent us [virtual strangers] her car for an emergency dash to the nearest shop [12 miles] for alcoholic necessities - this lady is a true star.)

We were all very fortunate to have supper on Sunday night with Margaret Bennett and her assistant and Margaret was telling us about the traditions of Michaelmass (pronounced as 2 words - Michael Mass), which is celebrated on September 29th (yesterday). Girls would traditionally knit garters for their sweethearts and give them carrots - apparently carrots grow very long and straight in the Uists due to the sandy soil so you can image the connotations!

There is far more to tell (including the potato dish competition I previously mentioned [FB's particular highlight], the burning cockleshells [yes you did read that right] and an extraordinary arrival late on Sunday night) but it's getting late and this blog is getting way, way too long and you're all probably losing the will to live now so I'll continue with the rest tomorrow - some of it is worth waiting for - honest - you'll never guess who arrived on Sunday night in the middle of a power cut - you really won't - you couldn't make it up. I'm going to keep you guessing ..............


  1. Oh please don't leave us waiting too long. Can't wait. I'm thinking along textile lines or cookery lines. KF?? No, he surely couldn't be there

  2. Yes, fit shopbuilders... a sound investment for increasing your trade margins!

    Lol @ trouser trouble. A friend of mine once had the top button fly off after a long and heavy dinner, so your fears are not unfounded...

    I personally don't mind long and entertaining blog posts sprinkled with pictures, just so you know!