On experimenting with tweed
I have a commission for a red scarf for a plant lady, and I’d thought I might combine the red with a dark Jacob’s or similar. Inspired by the black and red bladderwrack from the very first beach (in my cover photo) I find that this project, to be sent to Wales, can benefit from some Hebridean coastal inspiration as well as act as a tweed experiment. I’ve used the same tweed yarn that they use in Harris Tweed before, stumbling across a thoroughly uncommunicative Leodasach (I think I am spelling that differently every time and resolve to look it up again) online selling it on industrial-sized bobbins for tuppence. Like an islander or a Dartmoor pony, it is hasslesome to work with. (At least, I imagine islanders to be strong-minded; I’ve only had gracious encounters thus far.) I’ve used it as a warp (longitudinal) thread nonetheless, but woven in a thicker, softer weft for a wide sett (8-10 threads per inch) and a (relatively) fast-growing cloth. I examine the tweed samples from the Lewis Loom Centre bazaar. 28 threads per inch is a lot of threads, and a lot of threading. I graduate a heathered burgundy with a tweedy rust and do a test patch with an almost-fluorescent sphagnum bog moss green.
I love the colour result – the shot effect of Thai silk, which is one colour when you tilt it one way and another when you tilt it another – but curse the coarse hair-shirt effect and my imperfect technique and marvel at what by comparison is the incredible softness of the Real McCoy. Harris Tweed goes through many finishing processes – beating, steaming, washing, brushing, shaving, possibly a touch of felting (though I think they have more beautiful names than that, even in English), and my hand weave is very crude by comparison. For the next length I use a very soft Alpaca weft,
but for all its softness the cloth would still make your back sore if worn straight off the loom. Back to thinking of the bladderwrack again, I use a thick, softish Jacob’s, experimenting with twills and undulations, varying the weave pattern for an organic feel,
but I’m still not pleased.
(Until later when I photograph them and they come to life in their seaweedy role!) I cut all of this off the loom and change the set, spacing the warp more widely and eliminating a third of the threads so I still have a scarf width. I’ve seen some handsome Harris Tweed bags, hoodies and crafting aprons made with a chunky-but-elegant sporting style this week, and my next two garments seem to reflect these: less the woodland whimsy or seaweedy tangle, and more the bold, smart and functional: tweedy, but with softer, chunkier wefts, and straight lines. At first I don’t like them, until I consider their influences: since one of the reasons for being here is to learn from tweed, in that respect these snugs are a success. The Diggory Brown (www.diggorybrown.com) crafter’s aprons, belts, cuffs, guitar straps and shapely Hebridean blacksheep kilts are strikingly earthy, trendy, chic and practical all at once. Hmmm. Perhaps I should just stick to blankets.
I shall run all these photos by the customer, but I don’t think I’ve got the red scarf right yet.
On finding the farthest sites
After a reality-day where I get my washing done, buy some supplies, do my rubbish and recycling and go online, I follow the road as far as it will go, and it takes me to just the right spot: beyond the last hamlet, beyond the long-abandoned nunnery, beyond the torpedoed passenger ship graves, beyond the beaches and campervans to where only a very few sheep have made a path. On one side rocky peaks reportedly as tall once as the Himalayas, and on the other, the rocky shore and a sea full of islands, reefs and gannets. Somewhere I could be for months. People not far but nowhere in sight; no room for anyone to park beside me; no need for pleasantry or judgment. As it happens, on day two somebody comes into view on ‘my’ pebbled beach (I am relieved to hear other visitors also talking like this) and they are picking the litter that I’d thought I might pick before leaving so I join them, and enjoy both their company and their local knowledge, as conversation ranges from conservation and sports medicine through art to archeology. Apparently the Vikings do not deserve their bad name in clearing the trees from these islands: the temperature dropped a few degrees and that’s the main silvestral challenge. I am not totally convinced, as where the grazing animals can’t reach, such as on top of needles of rock and scarps, alders and rowans are, as I understand it, starting the reforesting effort. But what do I know.
There is a grave by the edge, delineated by smooth stones, and more that make a cross and an anchor. A little handmade white-painted wooden sign says ‘At rest’ and another says ‘In peace’. No name, no date, but adult-sized, and not too many years ago.
I wake up thinking of Bob Dylan. Although I am a fan, I don’t usually do this, and wonder if he’s ok. The next morning I wake up thinking of Kris Drever. This is less random because he has a gig tonight in Stornoway, but since I’m in such a stunning spot, working well, enjoying the quiet and not wanting dirge, I decide not to go. I am probably missing quite a special event, as he gets together with a Shetlander and a Leodasach to explore islands and song, and I am probably doing them a disservice too, as he certainly has skill. ‘There is an altar down my street, I lay my wages at its feet’ goes over and over in my head and before I’ve got up I’ve written a song called ‘There are no fences’. It’s about sharing, territory, exploitation and boundaries, ends with ‘there are more fences’ and has tight rhyme and metre (try rhyming ‘kindred’, get me), but I’m not ready to share it yet as some of the facts are not straight (sorry, Vikings) and it needs a tune. (But thanks, Kris!) On my way back from a long, boggy walk I complete the chorus of a Selkie song I began writing a year or two ago.
I fill the water tank with brown stream water, hoping that boiling it won’t lessen the effect of the huge amounts of iron and other minerals when I drink it in my fruit teas. Have you ever noticed your poo going a very dark greeny brown when your iron intake increases? Well. (Dealing with your compost loo, you notice this sort of thing.)
On encountering eagles, musicians and Gaelic
There’s a solitary duck who flies over noisily a couple of times a day, and I wonder why. There’s also a miaowing that can’t possibly come from the cormorant on the water, but there are certainly no cats out there (I check), so I guess it must be the eagle – more adult cat than the kittenish mew of a buzzard. I’ve seen her twice up close – within 20 feet of the van the first time, landing on a rock to longsuffer the hoody’s righteous wrath, and flying towards me within 10 feet of the van the second time, being harangued by a tiny-looking gull. When she lands the second time I see her white tail: a sea eagle, the largest of all.
I reluctantly leave this spot, but know that I will be back soon. Where there is just landscape, I fit in. Where there is a wonderfully noisy town full of thumping festival, with real musicians and real Gaels, less so. But I enjoy a Gaelic language class (interesting learnings below, if these sorts of things interest you), some Gaelic language singers, and some stargazing.
When I first went to a sit-down folk gig on Mull, I was dismayed, as up until then lively music had been for dancing to. But now, I like duos and trios – no more than that – whose seated gigs and musical prowess have all the splendour and dignity of a baroque concert and a Menuhin violinist. (Look up Martin Hayes, if you don’t already know him – pure Grace. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z2K_lJtFaIU)
HebCelt is not like this – there are too many drumkits and bass guitars; the tents are too big for the PA systems; the PA systems are too loud for me; the power supply is too small for pounding Salsa Celtica, who bring it all to a halt, twice. However Alyth MacCormacl’s voice in Gaelic is beautiful; my friend Hannah Fisher is ethereal with indie-Celtic-Americana Mullach boyfriend Sorren Maclean; and Karen Matheson’s waulking songs have great rhythms thanks to aforementioned Sorren (on bass guitar, but I’ll forgive him – acoustic he’s a whizz), a great young acoustic guitarist Innes somebodyorother (one to watch), Donald Shaw’s beautiful arrangements, and the creative acoustic bass of a man I later happen upon in the wee hours in a lock-in. Le Vent du Nord are like a French-Canadian version of Scots-klezmer outfit Moishe’s Bagel: heartful Breton, Italian and gypsy-feeling, full of passion and pathos and politics, and real showmen. And then there are Idlewild, whose introverted, island-dwelling singer and his wife I’ve met and like, and Shooglenifty, and Afro-Celt. At 11pm I wander deserted streets in search of ‘The Caladh Sessions’, and feel unusually safe in little, cosmopolitan Stornoway. The music, when I find it, is too Indie for me, but the atmosphere is nice, and I befriend a warm, lively and politicised woman travelling alone from Edinburgh. I leave, tired, at half two, and wander the streets back buswards, but stop to peer through a hotel bar window on hearing some true folky strains: and there is my friend Hannah, beckoning me in, unlocking the door to join the people I’ve just been watching on stage. I meet a local lad – a crofter, guitarist and surfer Callum Buchanan, I must look him up, band name Sea Atlas – whom Hannah knows through Dougie MacClean, and we find we’ve encountered each other before, at our favourite beach. I’ve been offered a converted croft house to rent near there, but been unable to identify it. I was hoping it was a particularly lovely one on a flower-littered machair, but apparently Dougie owns that. Damn. Eamon Coyne, from Dublin, Roscommon and Glasgow, leads a spontaneous session whilst Hannah and I natter until broad daylight drives me to bed (and her to another session on a boat).
I bought just one day’s ticket to the festival, feeling indulgent at spending that, but Hannah and Sorren kindly put me on the guest list for the third day. When it’s over I decide to leave town rather than outstay my welcome, even though where I’m parked up by the road beneath the trees near the inner harbour all feels well. I head over a misty moor at the recommendation of a couple of people: it is great to know that after 11pm there is still some daylight and to know also that there will probably always be a place to park if I follow the dead-end roads, and here I still am several days later on a peat-track with a beautiful view, relatively undisturbed beyond yet more beautiful beaches. I meant to head north for a Gaelic language singing class, but have had to stay here. This lochen, and many I’ve seen from the roads, is full of water lilies, and this one also has Greylags. The wind and rain keep the midges away. Another motorhome pulls into the car park in the bay below me. A Leodosach in his seventies has come out from the suburbs on his shiny new L-plated scooter with his fishing rod and a small rucksack. He says it’s a long walk out and he’ll stay overnight. Off up the track he goes.
Gaelic according to Grisela (who probably doesn’t spell it like that)
I learnt how to say a few things, and enjoyed making the sounds and deciphering the spelling, but rather than the vocab, here are the principles and facts of grammar from the workshop:
Gaelic has 18 letters, not the 16 I was told previously. (My mum says it’s a Romance language, though I’m skeptical. Grisela just knows that it’s Indo-European, but that doesn’t help much, because it’s pretty much bound to be.)
A grave accent, à, lengthens the vowel.
‘H’ is a modifier, often silencing the consonant it follows, e.g. an mh = v, whilst an fh, dh or th is merely aspirated.
A negative starts with a ‘ch’, whilst a positive ends with an ‘ee’ sound, apart from in the most common verbs, which are irregular (always the way).
There is no indefinite article, they just use the object, or ‘um’ for a specific object, so ‘a strawberry’ is ‘sùbhan laìr’ whilst ‘the strawberry’ would be ‘um sùbhan-làir’ (I don’t know what ‘strawberries’ would be, anyone know about plurals?).
Between certain consonants there is a ‘svarivakti vowel’ (corrections welcome): often a schwa that is included in speech but non-existent in the spelling, e.g. ‘Alba’ is pronounced ‘All∂ba’. I suspect, looking at the place names around here, that such vowels later become part of the spelling too, as in Tolsta (English), Tolastadh; Laxdale (Lacasdel); though I’m just guessing – maybe it’s the other way around: possibly the Anglicised spelling contracts things that the locals retain from the Gaelic even when speaking in English. (Some Scots say ‘fillum’ for ‘film’ – a svarivakti (?) vowel.)
Possession: one only calls ‘mine’ body parts and immediate family; all others, and other things, are either ‘at’ us or ‘with’ us; we don’t possess them.
Syntax is all skew. (For a native English speaker.) They say ‘Be you cold?’; ‘To be she lovely’ (where ‘she’ is the weather – ‘it’s lovely’); ‘Not knowledge at me’ (‘I don’t know’); ‘Jumped me up’ (‘I jumped up’).
Related colour words cross over between dialects, so some might call the same colour either grey or blue.
There are diphthongs and silent vowels, but where both vowels are pronounced, e.g. if there are two broad (open) vowels together, they are pronounced as two syllables. So fuar, cold, is foo-urr. ’You must pronounce both syllables’, says Grisela. ‘There is time for words, here.’