We have been back from Harris for three weeks now and I always thought I would want to write this instantly. In actual fact, I just couldn't begin it. What Harris is all about can never be summed up by me in a silly blog post, but today on my way back from the school run, in the late summer sun, I thought I would just write my thoughts, now that they have rattled around my mind for a while and are beginning to settle into some kind of order.
First off, its a bloody long way away! It took us two days just to get there ... in a car ... with three children! Needless to say way too many sweets were consumed (sorry Jamie). All those families whose children were quietly reading their books on the ferry, eating home made sandwiches were offset by my three on their ipads, eating ice cream. Still, at least they had nice bags!
The short ferry trip from Uig on Skye to Tarbert was part of the adventure though and when we arrived, I really did feel for a day or two that we had landed on the moon. The landcsape is quite bleak, I feel bad for saying that because it is undeniably beautiful, but its rockiness certainly on the southern Harris part of Harris and Lewis, is unforgiving. But I loved the contrast between this and the incredibly beautiful beaches, the colours of which were so amazing that a friend assumed my photos had been photoshopped!
We had two sunny, warm days spent on Luskentyre beach. I can't imagine there is a more beautiful place on earth.
Without wanting to sound like Judith Chalmers, we stayed in an old cottage right on the coast, overlooking the sea just a few miles out of Tarbert where we could see the ferry coming in and out each day. Except sunday. Nothing happens on sundays. It was a stunning location and I loved it and the beautiful, tweed covered, Ercol chairs in the kitchen.
I came for the tweed though, obviously, but I knew I had to pace myself. The first time I went into the tweed shop in Tarbert, this was surprisingly easy to do as I was so completey overwhelmed by the quantity and choice, I had to leave ... empty handed. The shop itself is like every shop there, pretty unassuming. You would never know what treasure lies inside from the exterior. This is not a place where anyone puts on airs and graces, it is what it is and the tweed speaks for itself. There is no need for the frills of trendy 'southern' haberdasheries. I went back later in the week with a list ...
... and no, of course I didn't stick to it - where's the fun in that?!
The highlight for me and the children was the day we visited Christina Macleod of 'Christina's Harris Tweed' up in the Port of Ness in the north. For me, because I got to meet Christina and see her weave. For the children, because while I was doing this they 'found the best playground ever' just around the corner! Christina weaves from a shed in the garden, as do the majority of weavers on the island. Her loom is an old Hattersley loom that she rescued from being chucked out a few years ago, in perfect working order. She was weaving her signature single width pink basket weave tweed when I visited, I recognised it instantly from her Facebook page.
Christina is an independant weaver which means she can work on her own patterns and sell them independantly from the tweed mills, of which there are, I think, three. Her tweeds still get sent to the mill to be checked over and finished, but are then returned to her to sell. Her loom has a wonderful thick layer of wool fluff collecting on its underbelly, its a lovely record of all the cloth that has been woven on it. After I had tried (and failed in a stupendously embarassing way) to weave myself, we walked down the road to her friends shop where she sells her tweed. As we chatted she told me that many years ago there would have been 20 or so weavers just on this road, now there are maybe 3. The noise of 20 looms at full tilt would have been quite something to hear.
Across the island people are weaving Harris tweed, it has to be woven at the weaver's house and finished on the island and no more than two people per household can weave it. This is I suppose to ensure that the tweed can never be produced by anything resembling a 'factory'. The wool is dyed before it's spun so that each strand can contain a complex mix of colours which gives the woven cloth its distinctive flecked appearance. Its no secret that the colours of the wool reflect the landscape of the island and this really makes sense to me now.
The fact that this small island with its weavers in garden sheds can supply the world and all its fashion houses with Harris tweed still amazes me. The Clo Mhor Harris Tweed Exhibition tells the story of Harris tweed and has a stunning tweed sample from one weaver, who from his shed at the bottom of the garden, supplies Nike! The exhibition itself is perhaps the closest the island gets to a tourist attraction, its in a little purpose built gallery next to an old school, which is now the shop.
We had a fab week and I hope that one day I will go back. Maybe on my own next time though for this is the face your children pull when you take them to yet another tweed shop...
Here's my stash. Now I just need to get stitching!