Tuesday morning we were up for our usual breakfast and out the door as quickly as possible. Lots to do! Quick stops at a nearby shop for supplies and a visit to Solas Bookbinding.
Then we were off to visit Birlinn Yarn Company on the Isle of Berneray. Our host, Meg Rodgers, is what I would consider a true crofter of the islands – someone with many skills and interests that allow her to make a living from diverse income streams. She and her husband Andy moved to Berneray as a young couple. His family was from there and he’d grown up visiting in the summers. They were among the first of the islanders to actually restore some of the old buildings rather than abandoning them for something fresh and new. They took Andy’s family house down to its bare rock walls, cleaning and hauling out the debris of a few generations. Then they rebuilt and restored using traditional techniques of the isles. At the time, there were hardly any people left who knew how to construct a thatch roof. They sought out the true old-timers of the nearby villages and slowly began to learn to construct what was needed. After their family expanded, they moved to a second croft, called Sunhill, restoring another old island home (though not a blackhouse, with thatched roof) and bringing it to life in a mix of traditional and contemporary building styles.
We arrived at the croft and split into two groups. One went down to the wharf, preparing to go out on the water with Meg’s husband, Andy. The other stepped inside for tea and a talk about Birlinn Yarn. Turns out that restoring old houses was not the only unusual step taken by Meg and Andy. They also sidestepped the commonly kept Cheviot breed of sheep, raised here for its abundant white wool, and turned to an old breed that had been living on the islands for generations. These islands have long passed back and forth between the seafaring peoples of the northern Atlantic. The Norse settlers brought sheep with them – a hardy breed which could sustain itself in the harsh conditions. These sheep eventually became the Hebrides breed. They are dark sheep (called black, but really more like very dark brown). They are able to live on the islands and feed, lamb, sustain themselves with very little need for protection or intervention. At the time Meg and Andy decided to work with a Hebridean flock, there were hardly any extant sheep.
Meg has built up her flock over time and keeps them on the croft and on the scattered nearby islands that surround Berneray. Yes! The sheep live on the islands! By themselves! With occasional visits from owners, shearers, vets, etc. (The other group, headed out on the boat was going to see that very thing – the sheep out on the islands.) An astounding thought for someone who has spent time on sheep farms both in the UK and at home, where sheep are checked daily, moved from pasture to pasture frequently, and carefully monitored/assisted at lambing time. These Hebrideans pretty much take care of themselves.
Why, then, did they become so scarce? It’s the story of many of the old (or “heritage” as we call them) breeds. In the industrial age, commercial mills began to process great amounts of wool into cloth. They wanted only white wool, and of a certain length, for efficient milling. So breeds with colored wool, a course hand (“hand” is how the wool feels to the touch and often relates to the thickness of the strands) and/or long staple (length of their wool) began to be a liability for small farms rather than an asset. Crofts which formerly kept sheep to feed and clothe themselves could now make money selling the white wool of other breeds, despite the fact that the breeds needed more care. Very few crofters kept any of the old breed.
Birlinn Yarn is part of a new wave of livestock farms that recognize the value and necessity of maintaining these old breeds. In a nutshell (seriously – a nutshell – because there is SO much more to be said on the topic), without healthy and sizeable herds/flocks of foundation livestock breeds, our food (and wool sources) are endangered. Many people know about seed banks and why they safeguard the genetic diversity, flexibility and adaptability of plant food sources for humans. Existing flocks/herds are the equivalent for animal food sources. Livestock cannot be saved and stored. It must be maintained, generation to generation, as living communities. By keeping this flock of Hebrideans, Meg and Andy illustrate a commitment to both the traditional way of life in the island and a contemporary effort toward sustainability. Kudos to Meg for also developing an income stream from the undertaking. Her yarns are lovely. They are milled and dyed to perfection. And though the wool is not buttery soft, like Merino or Rambouillet or Colorado CVM, it is good, strong stuff, suitable for all kinds of uses. For many knitters, the idea of supporting a small family farm and a conservation sheep breed is strong motivation for buying. I’m one of those knitters. Especially after this trip. I wish I could bring more knitters to see this place, this process, these hardworking folks.
We walked with Meg through fields of her sheep, visited the original home they renovated, then made our way down to the village’s nurse’s station/historical museum. Here, townsfolk have created a beautiful pictoral history of the island. We had a short time to review the exhibit, but I opted instead to sit with one of the curators and ask some questions: What exactly is a croft? Who owns the land here? What rights do crofters have and how do they determine everyone’s use of communal resources like grazing land, peat cutting (many folks still cut and burn peat as fuel), etc. ? Is every island actually owned by an old, aristocratic family?
And that, my friends, is a conversation for the next post…