Swan Songs?

Denise: The two of us are too busy, and value our sanity too highly, to watch TV indiscrminantly. That said, we do differ slightly in our intolerance of the trivial, the formulaic or repeats. One of J’s pet hates is a Channel 4 programme Homes By The Sea with presenter Charlie Luxton.  Grand Designs with Kevin MacLeod it certainly is not!  J prefers to catch up on ‘paperwork’ upstairs in the office! He says the programme is pure unadulterated sacherine – soft porn to those in thrall to a hopeless dream of an amazing house in an amazing place without any visible means of economic support.

But last night he made an exception. Begrudgingly! For one thing, the programme was visiting the Outer Hebrides: in fact in Harris. He’d caught sight of a trailer for the programme, and had picked up on an interior detail of one of the houses to be featured and said, abruptly: “That’s Borrisdale”.  And then a moment later – “Oh my goodness, that’s Sgarasta”.  Now, it’s one thing to have a house you know well featured on a TV programme, but two houses in one programme, that’s certainly unusual, you’ll agree, I’m sure. But for one TV programme to prominently feature two houses you’ve built, I’d say that’s really quite extraordinary!

Still, he wasn’t for watching the programme – and relented only when I challenged him to explain why earth not.

Oran na Mara, as it is now called, at Sgarasta – on the west coast of Harris is now one of leading self-catering houses in the Outer Hebrides. It’s prety much fully booked two years ahead, and that’s at a weekly rental of up to £3500 per week! J was not only project manager, he had a very considerable input to the design – and not just the technicalities.  J flatly denies it, but I’m certain that the house would have never been built without him. From what I know, one way or another, the project would have been abandoned. Now, with the house finished, everyone’s dazzled by the interior: it’s a pity they have no knowledge, let alone appreciation, of what went into making the building itself. J’s contribution – and the joiners who did all the most technically difficult work – is overlooked.

J’s contribution to the development at Borrisdale was very similar in scope to that at Sgarasta. The viewer of the programme would be forgiven for thinking that it’s just one house, but in fact it was always intended to be t8a Borrisdale, Isle of Harriswo – and ended up as three dwellings! On the programme the client said that the architectural inspiration was from a chicken shed, but that’s not right: the reference was to a standard design (approved by the authorities) of croft house that was once – the 1920s, in fact – very common across the Highlands and Islands, but is now becoming very rare. We’d used elements of the style in buildings we’ve built on our croft, including what is now the big chicken shed, but the reference is, strictly, to a particular period of croft house, and one that is instantly identifiable even today to anyone who knows the islands well.  J says this development certainly would have been finished without him: his contribution was to steer a way through struggles with cost and construction practicalities to achieve something much more in keeping with not only the context – landscape and cultural, but also the client’s deepening appreciation of that context and aspiration to adapt fully to island life.  The development won the Outer Hebrides Design Awards 2016 in the category Housing – Self-Design.  J’s unimpressed: he says it’s just designed the way it ought to be – with an understanding of and respect for the context.

J seems to want to leave his many years of professional life behind him – he says he prefers to be a present-day crofter, not a has-been engineer. He wants to live in the present. He says there’s nothing in his career he feels any pride in, other than perhaps expertise and integrity, which he says are the cornerstones of professionalism, yet increasingly seem to be treated as uncommercial idealism. Or something like that.

Whatever.  But two of your professional career’s projects in one TV programme?

Pictures are from – and link to – the owners’ websites.


The 4 Rs

Jonathan: Tomorrow, Denise will be on the morning flight from Benbecula to Stornoway. She’ll be back a week later. She’ll be having a very quiet time. Breakfast in bed. Reading in bed. Knitting in bed. Everything in bed. But it’ll not be a holiday!

Stornoway, on the east coast of the northern-most island of Lewis, is the largest town of the Outer Hebrides. Indeed it is the islands’ only proper town: and as such it is the principal settlement, seat of local government, and the centre of administration and operations for many other public institutions.

Accustomed as we are to a simple quiet country life, Stornoway – and indeed much of Lewis – seems almost a foreign land. There, in Gaelic, the weather is gendered masculine – not feminine as it is here: that seems to sum up the differences very neatly!  Rest Recuperation and Reading! Denise at An Garradh Mor, Isle of South UistWe have very little reason or inclination to go to Stornoway, and in fifteen years Denise has been there on just three occasions. Once was with me in 2005 to see Runrig at the Hebridean Celtic Festival, the other two were both last year, and for the same reason as this impending visit. Hospital. Surgery.

Hopefully this trip will sort the problem out for good.  She’ll be home, hopefully, late next week, but she’ll require a long period of rest and recuperation. It could be some weeks before she’s out of bed, and perhaps even a year before it’s safe for her to do the kind of physical work she’s used to – especially in the garden.  She’ll be very frustrated at times – but she’s just going to have to make the best of it.

Between the autumn and spring equinoxes, the weather in the islands is frequently severe to brutal, and indoor occupations are an essential to surviving the winters. For us, winter’s a time for planning and preparing for the following summer: designing garments, spinning and dyeing yarns, weaving, knitting, packaging … along with ordering seeds and supplies for the garden, cooking marmalades, painting and decorating the holiday cottages, refreshing or even rebuilding of websites …  It’s a busy time of year for us – possibly even busier than summer – but mostly spent indoors.

A quiet winter's evening by candle light and power cut. Denise. An Garradh Mor, Isle of South UistThis year, we’ll be as busy as ever – but with a twist. Much of what Denise normally does – her daily routines and more physical tasks – will fall to me. No doubt that’ll be subject to her tuition and supervision!  Without a doubt, it will! Denise will have more time for quiet thought and gentle hand-work. Together, we see this winter as an opportunity for research and reorientation – discovering new ideas, learning new skills, and steering ourselves in new directions.

New directions … or perhaps better put, new expressions. New ways to express our core values, which are at once both very simple and very complex. Keywords: Natural ; Local ; Self-made ; Hand-made ; Indigenous ; Traditional ; Skilled ; Useful ; Unique ; Simple ; Tangible ; Personal ; Intrinsic, Connected, Universal  …

Over this winter, and continuing over the coming years, we’ll be steering ourselves clear of the creeping gravitational pull of mass consumerism, locking onto a path defined by those values we always have and always will hold dearest. Some of what we have been doing in recent times will fall away.

The first of our Uist Landscapes range of hand-spun merino wools was a one-off. We think it may have been in 2006 and in the colours we now call Atlantic. It was instantly popular – and still is the most in demand. Denise tried other colours. They were very popular too. We started to buy the pre-coloured merino tops in bulk, to reduce cost.

Denise blending and carding dyed merino tops into rolags for Uist Landscapes - AtlanticTo maximize on the investment, we devised the Uist Landscapes range, and gave each colour a name. Denise perfected the spinning to produce the yarns extremely consistently, so that customers could buy a number of skeins – for a large project – with confidence ; and so that if they later found they needed more, they could order another skein or two – and it would match up with what they bought before.  As a result, sales of Uist Landscapes, and everything made with them, continued to grow.

Most of the stock for each summer is built up during the preceding winter. Each year Denise has spun more than the previous winter, but each year it’s earlier and earlier in the summer that Denise finds she needs to spin more to maintain stock in the garden shop or at Kildonan. And this pressure to produce – to re-produce old ideas, is at the expense of time to think, to create the new.  Isn’t this what it means to be a victim of your own success?   It isn’t really what we set out to do!

Denise’s will not be able to do much spinning this winter. Plying of singles into 2-ply yarns will be out of the question for quite a few months. I don’t have the high level of skill required for this particular work.  We have therefore taken the decision, in principle, to discontinue Uist Landscapes. However, as we have a lot of material in stock, it will be a few years until the last skein is sold, so for those in need of an additional skein or two, rest assured we’ll not let your project remain unfinished! Otherwise we will be using the remaining stock of merino ‘tops’ more spontaneously, with ad-hoc designs in very limited quantities – never to be repeated.

More importantly, we’ll working with a multitude of fresh ideas and new materials and techniques. What these will result in … ? Well, we may give some glimpses of work-in-progress, over the winter; but as we ourselves, right now, have absolutely no idea, you’ll have to wait until next Easter (when we re-open the Hebridean Woolshed’s garden shop for the summer) to find out!

Denise is taking with her, to hospital, a few skeins of black Shetland with silk …



Yarnitecture, by Jillian MorenoDenise: Over the past 35+ years of spinning we’ve accumulated quite a collection of books on spinning, weaving, dyeing. We haven’t bought any recently. Truth be told, they do seem so often to be little more than re-formulations of what we’ve all seen so many times in previously published books. But having seen ths new book  – Yarnitecture, by Jillian Moreno – reviewed by a WordPress blogger we follow, we were so impressed that we went online immediately and ordered it.

Yarnitecture brings a welcome new perspective to the craft of spinning. Instead of starting with the assumption that the reader has a fleece and a spinning wheel (or at least a drop-spindle) and wants to produce something with them, – anything!, it turns the whole thing on its head and starts with the knitter or crocheter having a project in mind, and wanting to produce a yarn that’s just right for the job. Both of us are excited at the prospect of working with the ideas and techniques of this book … and producing a yarn with an immediate use in mind!

Hot Hot Hot!

Denise: We’ve already harvested and frozen more than enough hot chillis to last us until next year, and there’s still plenty in the greenhouse. Anyone wanting some fresh hot chillis for free, just call in at the walled garden in the next day or two. Call us first on 01878 700828. After that they’ll be going onto the compost heap, where hopefully they’ll fire up the compost for the winter!


Denise taking down-time. The Big Garden Croft, Isle of EriskayDenise: As Autumn advances, visitors to the islands become few and far between and the roads and beaches fall quiet. So too at The Big Garden and The Hebridean Woolshed! Over the years, we’ve tended to keep the shop open until … well, until we thought it was about time we packed stock away to protect it from cold and damp of winter.  That could be as late as the end of November!

This year, with customers increasingly expecting to find our opening hours on the internet – and us to keep to them!, we decided we could do with more down-time (though that could turn out as more time to make new stock for next year!), so we set the end of the season at 30 September. Except that it won’t be … it will be the 29th.  That’s when I’m flying off to ‘foreign lands’ (a-ha! you’ll have to wait to find out where I’m going to!), and J will be kept busy doing … well, doing everything. I’ll be having some real down-time, complete with breakfast-in-bed, reading-in-bed, waited on hand-and-foot.

So, if you’re wanting any Big Garden jam, chutney, lemon curd (there’s two jars left!), fresh herbs, Hebridean hogget lamb – and of course anything from the The Hebridean Woolshed, you’ve got until next Wednesday. After that we’ll be open only for eggs and preserves: anything else and – well, we’ll see you next Easter!