Good for Any Time

First there was Skye, then Lewis, and now this...

Even though I’ve been hanging around universities for most of my adult life, part of me still doesn’t feel academic. It isn’t that I haven’t been schooled in the arcane ways of the Jargon and the Text, or had it drummed into me that academic writing avoids words like “isn’t” or “drummed”.

It’s because I haven’t owned any tweed.

Everyone with an M.A. in Obsolete Clichés knows that academics wear tweed. A gown is just for graduation, but a scratchy woollen blazer lasts a lifetime. True, that lifetime ended somewhere in the early 1960s, but who are we to reject an age-old Hollywood tradition?

For a few measly pounds, I could skip the academic rigmarole and go straight to tenure. It’s even easier than sending off for a mail-order Ph.D. in Tantric Theology.

And here I was, in the true home of tweed. Berwick-on-Tweed had been a sad disappointment; the foundations were all concrete, as far as I could tell, and none of the streets were paved with it. As for Tweed Heads in New South Wales, they looked like ordinary skin and bone to me.

Harris Tweed is in fact made all over the Long Isle. Our first sight of it was up in Ness, on the way to the Butt of Lewis. A handmade sign pointed to a small shed, which contained a green-painted 30-year-old loom powered by bicycle pedals fixed between the base and the seat. The shelves held samples of cloth and a few finished items, as well as homemade photo postcards of the woman who made them, sitting at that same loom.

Eventually a man turned up to take our money (clearly no scholar, because he wasn’t wearing any of the goods). I paid five pounds for a scarf that would have cost twenty-five on the Royal Mile. I’m not sure how much I’ll wear it around my itchy neck, but I can always wave it at promotional boards like a bullfighter.

It was good, but it was still one step away from the ultimate: Harris Tweed made in Harris.

We returned to Harris in fierce conditions; an electronic sign outside Tarbert said that crossings to the Uists at Leverburgh were closed, and they weren’t the only ones cancelled that day.

We spent the night on Scalpay, an island joined to Harris a few years ago by a high bridge, which had another electronic sign warning of crosswinds. Our B&B, Hirta House, was just on the other side, and is another I’d thoroughly recommend; its owner’s interests in Boswell and St Kilda made for a fascinating read of her library and chat after breakfast. Hearing about St Kilda made a trip to Harris seem pedestrian; it lay only forty miles to the west, but in this weather you’d be lucky to reach it alive.

Scalpay was pretty much a bald hunk of rock, like most of Harris and a good chunk of Lewis. The rock is gneiss, one of the hardest and oldest on earth, and the solid curves of the hills and mountains are among the clearest signs I’ve seen of the power of glaciers, as impressive in their way as the valleys carved from softer rock elsewhere. It’s as if the bones of the planet have been planed smooth by ice in sweeps lasting ten thousand years.

We saw more evidence throughout the next day, setting out in a steady drizzle along the Golden Road around the bays of South Harris. The deserted landscape was nothing but rain, rock and peat, a blend of grey and brown which suddenly made sense of the national cloth; tweed is camouflage.

In one of the tiny villages dotted along the winding road, a sign pointed to a house where tweed was sold, and I turned off. It turned out to be a clutch of houses, all of them selling the stuff. We parked at the end of the lane and walked up to the first, where a kindly old lady showed us into her shed.

Inside was a loom even older than the one we’d seen in Ness, its iron frame black with antique oil; it looked like the century-old examples in the Stornoway Museum. “Still works well, aye,” said the old lady, in an accent which left no doubt that its natural tongue was Gaelic; a cross between Norse-inflected Orcadian and Gaelic-speaking Irish.

She didn’t actually have a lot of tweed for sale, but I felt bad about leaving with nothing, so I bought a pair of thick socks knitted out of the same scratchy wool.

“These will be good for winter,” I ventured.

“Oh, aye,” she said. “Good for winter, good for summer—any time, really.”

We wandered in our summery Gore-Tex to another of the houses, where an old man showed us into yet another shed (his wife was away). This tweed seller definitely was wearing the goods, from cap to boots; any woollier and he’d be carpet.

“Where are you all from?” he asked.

Australia, we said, but we live in Edinburgh at the moment. “Oh, the big island.” Our home girt by sea couldn’t be more different from his, but just being girt made us kindred spirits.

Jane bought an old-fashioned but practical tweed bonnet, with a flat band across the forehead and elastic around the back: headgear for headwinds. It got a lot of use.

“We do mail orders to America, you know,” the old feller said. Tweed obviously doesn’t insulate the short-term memory. “We had a reporter here from the New York Times once.” It was true—on the wall was an article with pictures of this very shed, pitching brown jackets and scarves to mid-’90s SoHo. “Here,” he said, “have some cards for your friends in America.” Okay. Here, American friends, have one.

We left the tweedy commune and headed for a turn-off to the northern beaches. Just as we reached it, the steady rain turned into an unsteady gale. The blades of a nearby windmill looked like they were ready for take-off. I’m all for gentle breezes, even the odd stiff one, but this would make a stiff breeze look stuffed. You wouldn’t want to fly a kite in it, or you’d tow the earth out of orbit.

On the other side of the hills, the legendary azure seas of Harris, which grace so many postcards and brochures, looked pale green and grey; I could only assume that the cards show an experimental test Harris, and that we were stuck in the control. With no point in stopping for a walk, we reached Leverburgh and Rodel far sooner than expected.

Rodel, luckily, has one sterling indoor attraction: the 16th century church of St Clement’s, with its intricately carved tombs of the local lairds. Antlers, cardinals and caravels were all etched into the stone above figures of knights with swords. None of them were wearing tweed.

With nothing else to do, we drove on to see more of the rocky bays on the southern edge of the island, lingering for a picnic at Lingarabay—more a gap in the rocks than a bay, with one or two houses. Rain trials had been suspended, pending recalibration of equipment.

A flock of sheep watched us eat. When we were done we joined them on their side of the fence and went for a walk through their bog. A pitiful bleating came from the top of the ridge beside us; a lamb was stuck there, calling down to his mother from behind the fence along the edge. We climbed up from the end of the ridge to try and chase him down, but he kept butting at the fence, anxious to break through and plunge to his mother and/or death (and, depending where she was standing, to her death as well). Short of plunging with him, there wasn’t much we could do—the edge was too soft to hold us—so we went back down and carried on.

After taking a few macros of moss and getting a bootful of water (those new socks came in handy sooner than expected; good for spring), I squelched back to the car after Jane and her dad. The lamb was now safely down on the ground... bleating up to the cliff-edge, where his mother now was.

The weather was improving, which was good news for the ferry, but it was still way too early to catch it. We doubled back to a beach near Northton (it sounds better in Gaelic: Taobh Tuath), where I made the mistake of facing the car inland when I parked. As soon as we opened the doors, the wind sprayed the dash with sand; the rain had stopped, but the stiffness clearly never does. Jane’s coat swelled up like a balloon as we stood on the edge of the dune, looking onto the sparkling Sound of Harris.

A couple of hours of sparkle-watching and a coffee and cake in a Leverburgh tea-shop later, we were on the small ferry to Berneray on the north end of the Uists. The piles of shopping bags in the back of the locals’ hatchbacks was a sign that, however little this felt like the big smoke, we were now leaving it; the Uists support six thousand people on a string of islands as long as Lewis & Harris, which are home to three or four times as many. As far as Britain is concerned, we would soon be about as far from the big smoke as you can get.

→ Wrap yourself in Harris in The Western Isles, part three. One more to go.