South Uist is a really magical island. It’s famous for the almost-continuous machair and sand on the west coast, but it’s the east coast that I find really enticing. With the exception of a few clusters and occasional lone houses, few people now live in this area. Infrastructure and expansion around the 1960s meant that those households still living on the coast* were faced with the reality that the services and facilities being afforded to communities in the west would not be extended to those in the east.
There is an abundance of excellent walks to be had in South Uist. When you start exploring a bit you begin to understand the difficulties in supplying services to this area. Walking overland is arduous, long and pretty impractical. On paper it seems to make much more sense to travel by sea, though what the waters around the east coast are like I don’t know. Perhaps going by horse, as many likely would have, is easier than just on foot. These photos are from a walk around the headland at the end of the Loch Aineort road last month. We followed a route – roughly- recommended in the Cicerone guide to walks in Uist. It’s excellent and much recommended.
*population movement anywhere is a complicated business – there are many and varied additional reasons why people had been moving away from this area.
More on the fleecey-yarny side of things from Uist Wool. We spent a part of each day working with fleece. First day we graded, sorted and cleaned fleece from ten different breeds, following the guides of length and softness determined by the mill (more photos in my earlier post). Second day we experimented with the dry fleece, carding and spinning both by machine and by hand. Sheila of Scalpay Linen tutored us for this hand-spinning section. I liked her approach to spinning and choosing fleece: everything goes; there are no wrong choices. This suited me fine as I spun by spindle for the first time in a long time (Icelandic & Cheviot) creating something which could almost be called yarn.
We later moved down to the mill itself where the mechanised yarn-making process happens. I was impressed by how much human effort still needs to go into creating yarn. Despite commercial machinery speeding up the process, the Trainee Mill Engineers still have to know the exact ins and outs of the machinery and the fleece itself in order to create a balances, consistant yarn. Oiling the fleece involves a particularly hands-on process.
Thank you to Dana, Sheila, Maddie & Neil who so carefully demonstrated and tutored over the two days. Thank you Mairead, Hazel, Catherine, Chris for good company. I have a new-found respect for yarn producers of any scale seeing the skill and effort which goes into every metre. Seeing some of the yarn prototypes already produced was really exciting and I was delighted to be able to take home some of the exotic fleece we were experimenting with ourselves. Uist Wool are working an admirable mix of innovation and local heritage – I can’t wait to see what comes onto the market next year.
I’m constantly impressed by the industrious nature of people on Uist. It’s not uncommon in rural areas for folk to have multiple jobs but here there seems to be an almost irrepresible entrepreneurial spirit among the locals. People do not just have second jobs, they run entire businesses in addition to having multiple jobs.
Sometimes businesses are created as a response to needs for particular services, in turn creating employment opportunities and keeping business within the local economy. A really great example of this is Uist Wool. A year ago the doors were opened to a new mill building. A year from now there will, all being well, yarn available to buy on a commercial scale from the mill.
There’s no question that this enterprise is a bigger one than many cottage industries but it arose, like so many other businesses, as a response to local needs. The focus here is on spinning from three distinct sheep breeds – Blackface, Cheviot and Hebridean. These sheep breeds are well suited to the landscape and climate of the Outer Hebrides, as you’d expect, and as such the yarn which Uist Wool aim to produce will be beautifully representative of the surrounding environment.
The mill is in a phase of testing various donated fibres finding what works and what doesn’t. As part of this Uist Wool this weekend hosted a two-day Introduction to Woolwork workshop for people interested or involved with wool at some level to get hands-on experience of what exactly goes into producing yarn. I went along and am very grateful I did.
More to follow.
Uibhist a Tuath. North Uist.
I’ve been here a month now,on and off. Each day I feel fortunate to have the opportunity to live, for however long, in a place so astonishingly beautiful. I worry my photos make the island look desolate and empty of people, but it is not so. There is always something happening, something on and the community here is really strong. It always takes a while to settle into a new place; I’m looking forward to exploring more as I find my feet.
In suffering the well-documented problems of lack of internet here, and with the prohibitive costs of getting it set up (>£350!!!) it looks like updates here will be less regular then they even were before. At least my knitting is benefitting from a lack of distractions. Hopefully more soon.