Here’s J with our lovely daughter Becky, just arrived at BEB from home in Aberystwyth.
My mum, Betty Barbara Gregory, pictured here in 2014, passed away yesterday afternoon. J and I warmly thank the staff at Taigh a’ Chridhe Uile Naomh [Sacred Heart care home, in Daliburgh] for their loving care of Betty, not just during the 18 months and more that she was a resident, but since she first went there for day-care twice (later thrice) a week in late 2013.
Betty’s wishes were to be cremated, and her ashes to join those of my sister Barbara, my father, Keith, and and other family, at Hutcliffe Road Cemetary, Sheffield.
We will remember her in the midst of our daily lives.
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! We 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, sometimes savage, 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.
This 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.
To 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 …
Jonathan & Denise: The day’s been overcast, dreary and wet, and we’re glad to be home from a trip to Benbecula. Fleece jackets are returned to the row of coat hooks in the hall – still flecked with cat hairs from our visit to the vets. We would have brushed the hairs away … but for the fact they’re Molly’s, and there’ll never, ever be any more of them. We’ve laid her in her basket by the Aga, for the other cats to find and to acknowledge.
Molly was born in Brockton, Shropshire, 10 July 1995 – during a thunderstorm. A few weeks later we saw an ad in the Shropshire Star … Denise and the girls came home with Molly and her sister Meg.
Chalk and cheese! Molly was always the ‘superior’ of the two – and knew it: physically bigger, stronger, with a thicker more richly coloured coat, a self-confidence and what might be called presence. Meg couldn’t compete with her sister on physical attributes, but made good by acquiring social skills that endeared her to her human friends … but the weaker constitution and made her vulnerable to disease, and in 2009 – at age 14, she died of kidney failure.
Molly, too, developed kidney problems, but – unlike Meg – seemed to find a way to cope, though at times seeming as if she was at death’s door. Her strength of constitution – not to mention her character – saw her through again and again, and she continued to enjoy life to the full. As other younger cats joined our family – Pickle just a few weeks after Meg’s passing, then Dusky and the others – Molly’s self-assurance was challenged by the sheer cheekiness of the newcomers. It took her a long time to come to terms with the upstarts, but in time they learned to respect her age and dignity, and her to acknowledge that … well, that they were good company, lighting up her increasingly quiet life. Tabatha – if not the youngest, certainly the smallest – was no threat to Molly’s status as ‘Senior Cat’ ; and Tabatha in turn found in Molly’s company a refuge from the bullying of her peers. Winter evenings, Molly and Tabatha would settle down together on the settee, enjoying the warmth of the fire. Occasionally, Pickle – jealous of their privileged place beside Denise, would squeeze in!
Over the past two years or so, Molly became increasingly frail and needing constant encouragement to eat enough. But just a week or so ago, Molly’s health took a very sudden turn for the worse. Her appetite had not been good for a long time, but now she could no longer be tempted with delicacies such as salmon, or ham – or even sponge pudding with custard (yes, really!). Some old favourites returned – tuna, tinned cat foods, cat biscuits, but only a little. Very little. Already painfully thin, she lost weight rapidly, and was increasingly struggling to walk in a straight line. In the past week she lost sight in one eye, and started sneezing blood clots. Yet she continued to take herself to the litter tray, to her water and food bowls, and would routinely climb the stairs to spend a few hours in the office or our bedroom. Yesterday, and the day before – for the first time since last autumn, she suddenly decided to go for a walk around the garden, visiting all the greenhouses, and touring all the paths. We found her asleep under the tomatoes in Greenhouse Four.
And yet … last night, just before bed-time, we found her asleep in her basket with blood drooling from her mouth … and she seemed to have suffered a stroke. We stayed up with her late into the night …
This morning she was more perky … but it wasn’t going to get any better, was it? And we didn’t want it to get any worse.
Molly has been with us, day after day, longer even than our own two daughters. She’s been a big part of our lives and we’ve grown to both love and respect her. We will never forget how much she has meant to us!
Jonathan: It was the mid 1970s when Denise and I met – both students in Portsmouth. It was too late to be hippies, too soon to be yuppies – and anyway just being ourselves was more than sufficient for us. So when we came across John Seymour’s ‘Self Sufficiency’ – the famous Dorling Kindersley ‘Complete Book of …’, then just new on the bookseller’s shelves – the path ahead to self-realisation opened out excitingly before us!
At first we assumed that continuing with our chosen careers would be the means of accumulating the wherewithal – money, skills, experience – to set out on a life of self-sufficiency, but as time passed and our family grew (and our finances groaned!), the destination appeared ever further out of reach, and ultimately unattainable. So we did what we could. Wherever we’ve lived – and our homes have been many and varied, we’ve found ways to put principle into practice, albeit never as comprehensively as in the Seymours’ many books – and certainly never as picturesquely! Spinning, weaving, making our own clothes, growing our own food, keeping poultry, home-baking, taking responsibility for our own education and entertainment: we did what we could according to the circumstances and opportunities that lay before us – and within us.
When, opportunities were few, our means too meagre, and the way ahead blocked at every turn, hopes of a more fulfilling life ebbed. But then – out of the blue – we’d stumble on fresh inspiration, and hope would spring anew! And then one day (and yes, it really happened just like that, as in a fairy tale!), when hope had all but died, the phone rang and …
… And here we are now, with land and livestock, workshops and websites, crafts and customers … But you know, in the end – and how ironic! – none of these has come from capital accumulated during our previous lives, for there was next to none : they are entirely the fruits of our labours (oh, and what labours!) since starting over.
Over the years we’ve revisited John Seymour’s writings many times, and have increasingly found the term ‘self-sufficiency’ to be unsatisfactory. It does not really do the job: it is misleading, self-centered, and ultimately self-defeating. There is no man or woman, or family, or community, that is sufficient unto itself. We need neighbours – all of us! But, having no better term for it, we describe our way of life – in respect also for another broadcaster and writer that inspired us, Jeanine McMullen – A Small Country Living in the Outer Hebrides.
Here in Uist, we do all we’ve ever done in our many homes over the years, all at the same time, and more besides. It’s hard work and no holidays, and outgoings always seem to prevail over incomings ; but in the moments we have to pause and reflect, we recognize that in our own do-what-we-can version of self-sufficiency, we have at last grown into the people we were so long just rehearsing to be.
To John Seymour, smallholder, teacher, broadcaster, writer – we owe respect and admiration. But we cannot think of John without instantaneously thinking of Sally Seymour, whose contribution to their partnership does not seem to receive the recognition she deserves. With a longer perspective, we now find the books we go back to again and again are John (and Sally’s!) earliest books on the subject, The Fat of the Land, and I’m a Stranger Here Myself, the first of which in particular captures the vigour, self-belief and buoyant hope of those pioneering days in the 1950s to early 1970s.