Week 5 | Outer This World: 08.02.10



February 9, 2010

“Nightclub, top ten beach, liberated bed-hopping local population and ultra-fast broadband…give it a few years and perhaps the Outer Hebrides will be the new Prague or Vegas.”

Gonzo Architecture

Our trip to the Outer Hebrides began at 5.30am in the departure lounge of Luton airport: two teachers, one twenty-something groupie and the students of ‘Studio 10’ from London Met University.

The group

Each of us expected to learn about the remote working practices of companies like Harris Tweed, a few of us knew we would be meeting two London émigrés and ‘wabi-sabi’ devotes running a pottery and photography studio in a converted church, but none of us expected to learn about the island’s twisted mating practices straight out of The Wicker Man.

Did you come across Willy Russell’s ‘Our Day Out’ when you were at school? It’s a TV-play about a busload of scruffy Scouse kids going on a school trip to Wales to rob the owners of a roadside sweet shop…

Well, our trip to the Isles of Lewis and Harris in the Outer Hebrides was nothing like that. The Outer Hebrides is in Scotland for starters, and we had to get a plane to Inverness airport before we caught our rickety old bus to the back and beyond of the middle of nowhere. 

Twelve hours after our trip had begun, we arrived at Ullapool and boarded a ferry for the three-hour crossing to Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis (conjoined to the Isle of Harris, but both somehow claim to be an isle…?). 

The boat crossing

Saying goodbye to the mainland, half of Studio 10 relaxed on the upper observation deck of the ferry to watch the snow-capped mountain scenery disappear from view. The other half of Studio 10 disappeared below deck in search of their sea legs and a forgiving toilet cubicle.

Lorna from the Harris Tweed Authority met us at our hostel. She informed us that Kelly would be responsible for our tour of the mill the following day, but that evening she was confronted by a group of well-dressed but weather beaten design students who had spent the day battling the wind, braving the cold, suffering bouts of sea-sickness and overcoming the misery of low-cost air travel.

The hostel

Lorna’s first question was to ask us whether we had seen the recent BBC4 documentary about Harris Tweed. She told us the islanders were a bit miffed that the BBC had portrayed them as wide-eyed and naive villagers, but orders for the local tweed have increased since the programme aired. 

‘Of course we have,’ we replied, lying through false smiles and gritted teeth and hoping our weary students didn’t want to set fire to us under a large, locally weaved, Harris Tweed wearing wicker man for making them come all this way when they could have watched it all on TV.

Nevertheless, at the end of a long day, we were able to assuage grumbling stomachs with some typical Scottish fare – a curry from the local Indian restaurant – and with full bellies we all decided that our intended whirlwind tour of the island in a rusty old mini-bus was the only way to get to the heart of Harris Tweed and cover this story in any real depth. As Dr. Gonzo said: ‘How else can you cover a thing like this righteously?’

Twelve facts about Harris Tweed that won’t help you win Trivia Pursuit…

Day two took us to see the Harris Tweed mill.

The mill

Since the film ‘Wanted’ came out, we all think that weaving is just a front for the international brotherhood ‘The Fraternity’, a band of assassins who take instruction from the ‘Loom of Fate’, a giant mechanical device which gives the names of its targets by weaving binary code into intentional mistakes in the fabric. 

Following on from which a heavily tattooed Angelina Jolie bumps people off whilst riding around on the top of the ‘EL’ train in Chicago. 

In other words, weaving has never been so sexy.  

But this time, Hollywood has played fast and loose with the truth. Weaving is nothing like that. Nobody from Studio 10 spotted anything untoward at the Harris Tweed mill, nor did we see anyone famous. Not even James McAvoy turned up for work, and he’s Scottish. 

We did meet a weaver called Norman, but he certainly wasn’t an assassin, and we did see a genuine celeb at the end of the trip, but we’ll save that excitement for later. 

Also, if you haven’t seen the film yet, don’t bother. It’s pretty rubbish, and Morgan Freeman’s psychotic weaver-come-assassin character is even less convincing than his dodgy Nelson Mandela accent in ‘Invictus’. 

Besides, we had come all this way to uncover the truth about weaving. We wanted to find out the hard facts. We needed to meet the real people – film and TV can only tell us so much. 

WARNING: The following facts are so particular and superfluous to your everyday lives that they can’t even be found on Wikipedia. Take two facts a day with four fingers of scotch and do not be tempted to share them with your friends and colleagues, unless you are actively trying to get phased out or fired.

The mill

Here goes…

Okay, okay, bad start. That’s almost exactly how the Wiki entry starts, but don’t lose faith. There are more interesting facts to follow…

The sheep

Through the Keyhole

To complete our picture of the wool-to-yarn-to-tweed production line, we went to visit Norman, a real-life weaver working from his home on the Isle of Lewis. 

Norman

For all you weaving enthusiasts out there, Norman works on a single width Hattersley loom, an old school loom that most weavers don’t use anymore, and he works his magic from a small twin-roomed outhouse building behind his home. 

The first room houses the loom and the ‘Weftwinder’ – a machine that puts yarn on to the shuttles, ready to be used on the loom. Heated by a peat-fuelled open fire, the second room is where Norm prepares the yarn before weaving. He also keeps a light box in there for when he checks and repairs the finished tweed.

The Weftwinder used to be hand powered, so as a young child Norman used to help out his uncle for cigarette money.  Today it is the only part of the process that can be powered by electricity.  If weavers are caught using power on their looms, they can be struck off for breach of the trademark and prevented from producing Harris Tweed.

Norman describes weaving as like getting paid to go the gym. At the same time as powering the loom with his legs he must constantly use his hands to change the shuttles over as the yarn runs out. The hardest game in the world; thirty years, man and boy… 

Broken ends are the bane of the weaver’s life. Norman listens to the rhythm of the loom. His ears are attuned to the sound of the machine. He can actually hear any mistakes as they happen (perhaps weavers would make good assassins after all?).

It is a shame that the operators of the old-fashioned style looms belong to a dying breed. 

Calvin, the second weaver we visited, worked on a double width loom and the modern machine resembles an exercise bike connected to a loom.  The weaver works the pedals and there is an alarm to signal mistakes. It sounds straightforward enough, except when Kev had a go on the machine his size 12 Shoreditch winkle pickers kept hitting the floor. 

There is no accounting for clown feet!

Pottering Around

On day three we went to Luskentyre Beach, which at some point must have been voted in the top 10 most beautiful beaches in the north west of Scotland. The beach looks out towards Taransay, the island where the BBC filmed its reality TV show ‘Castaway’… 

The beach

We know what you’re thinking – Ben Fogle is the celebrity we spotted on the trip, but you would be wrong. 

After he cried in a canoe with James Cracknell, and after he cried with James Cracknell in a tent close to the South Pole, Fogle is probably too busy trying to find another confined space to cry in with James Cracknell to be crying alone on the isle of Taransay. But don’t worry, you will find out about our A-list celebrity sighting soon enough.

Black sheep house

Traipsing off the beach in sand-covered Converses, we continued on our trail through Blacksheep House, the modern reinterpretation of a traditional Hebridean cottage that won Grand Designs’ best house and best conversion in 2008.

Afterwards, we dropped in on Nickolai and Beka Globe, a husband and wife team who have converted a church into the Mission House Studio: a pottery workshop for him, a photography studio her and a marital home for both of them. 

Formerly an ex-graphic designer, Nickolai told us his lifestyle now adapts to the seasons. In the winter, he lives like a hermit and focuses on his work (bar the odd visit from a studio of London design students), and in the summer he opens up his workshop as a gallery for tourists to view and purchase his ceramics and his wife’s photographs.

The mission studio

They live by the philosophy of ‘wabi-sabi’, which is either the spicy purple-coloured dish from Yo Sushi or a ‘comprehensive Japanese world view centered on the acceptance of transience’. 

Characteristics of the wabi-sabi aesthetic include asymmetry, asperity, simplicity, modesty, intimacy, and the suggestion of natural processes.

While the husband’s away, the wife will…create a knowledge economy in the Outer Hebrides! 

Later in the day, we attended a lecture by Donnie Morrison on the subject of creating a knowledge economy in the Outer Hebrides. 

Donnie’s job is to place highly skilled inhabitants in remote jobs by making use of ‘tele-working’ and the Internet. 

Mobilising a glut of highly skilled but under-employed workers on the island – particularly women moving back to the island with their husbands, he has created an online register of the island’s skilled inhabitants that, amongst other things, lists their available skills and matches them up with available positions. 

The focus is on high skilled jobs because lower skilled jobs tend to be outsourced to cheaper locations abroad.

As a result of his work, there are now islanders working as legal secretaries for big law firms in London and assisting the metropolitan police, both jobs they can do without having to leave their homes. 

All this is possible because the island refused to wait for BT to install broadband and invested £7 million in the network themselves, making the Outer Hebrides the rural area with one of the best Internet connections in the UK…and perhaps the area with the largest amount of cash stashed under the mattress (Incidentally, we noticed that the Scottish £10 note features a picture of the village in Nigeria where one of our students was born in, which is…err…bizarre to say the least).

Similar to the research we have undertaken, Donnie noticed that not everyone has the discipline to work from home, so they have constructed small communal offices in rural townships where individual workers working for different companies could get the feeling of working in a bigger organisation (although in some cases it was the other islanders causing the distraction, so home workers had to resort to putting signs up in their windows and doors to stop their neighbours dropping round for a chat). 

We also heard about some interesting island mating rituals. 

Thirty years ago women could not go into the pubs, there were no restaurants and there was only the occasional village dance, so girls struggled to meet suitable men to settle down and marry. 

The accepted practice was for a girl’s parents to allow a potential suitor to come into their house and spend the night with their daughter, provided the man came in after they had gone to bed and left before they got up. 

In a few instances, the men even had to walk through the parents’ bedroom to get to the daughter’s bedroom.  

This was done in order to find out if a couple where ‘compatible’ and therefore suitable for marriage. 

The system is said to have worked reasonably well, though you would get the odd chancer who spent two to three years ‘searching’ for a compatible partner. 

Since the practice has now stopped and the island’s women have been allowed into the pubs, teenage pregnancy has become a serious problem on the island. My super-sonic sonar radar tells me this might be linked with freely available alcohol, lowered inhibitions and a lack of parental supervision, but we all know what happens when outsiders intervene in island politics. 

On a completely unrelated topic, our final day finished in the local pub, where we immediately doubled the numbers. Later on, Studio 10 did some group bonding at the local nightclub, the only one on the island, where they were treated like celebrities. 

We know what you’re thinking now: nightclub, top ten beach, liberated bed-hopping local population and ultra-fast broadband…potential stag location right? Give it a few years and perhaps the Outer Hebrides will be the new Prague or Vegas. Sorry Norm, Donnie, George, Nickolai, Beka, Kelly and Lorna.

So, just who was that celebrity we saw at the end of the trip…only Simon from ‘The Inbetweeners’. We spotted him hanging out in the departure lounge of Inverness airport as we waited for our delayed Easy Jet flight to Luton. 

Twenty Scottish pounds says a celebrity of his calibre paid the extra three quid for speedy-boarding.

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