As we were checking out of the Harris Hotel in Tarbert I told the woman at the desk that we had an appointment with the weaver Donald John MacKay, and asked if she knew where his studio was and if she could give me directions. With a big smile, and in that lilting Scottish accent I love so much, she said, “Oh, aye! Take the right turn up the hill and not down into town and just stay on that road until you come to a cattle crossing with a bus stop and a phone booth; then, turn right and he’s just down that road.”
We were early for the appointment time that I had set up with Donald John’s wife, Maureen. We saw no signs to indicate exactly where the MacKays lived, so we just drove to the end of the road. There we found one of the most beautiful beaches I have ever seen. I found out months later that Luskentyre Beach has been voted the most beautiful beach in the UK, and understandably so. We walked on the soft powdery sands that must have gone on for miles and listened to the soft surf of the Sound of Taransay as we watched clouds move over the hills of North Harris and the island of Taransay while rainbows formed over the crystal green waters. Later, I read that there have been stories of huge paw prints seen on the beach, presumably left by a fairy hound. It makes the Fairy Pool we found nestled in the little hills by the beach even more intriguing.
Coming back up the road, we were at a loss as to how to find the right place until I noticed a man out trimming the hedges in front of his house. I swung the car up into his driveway. His amazement turned to curiosity as he heard the accent in my “Good Morning!” He answered my question by smiling and nodding to the next house up the road, saying that I was very close. The next question was his. “Am I to suspect from your accent that you are not in your own neighbourhood?” What followed was another of those wonderful and all-too-short conversations I have been fortunate to have with Scots in all parts of the country. They all make me want to sit and talk with them for as long as they’ll have me.
Luskentyre comes from the Old Norse Lios-cinn-tir “headland fort” (Losgaintir in Gàidhlig) although it doesn’t seem that anyone has ever found remnants of a fort near there. What the little settlement is famous for now is the Luskentyre Harris Tweed Company and one Donald John MacKay, MBE. By law all Harris tweeds are woven in the homes of the island’s weavers on treadle looms; no other tweed can use the name “Harris tweed”. (Read more about plaids and tweeds here)
When Marsha decided to take this trip to Scotland, and to have me be her guide, the first item on her “to do” list was to get a Harris Tweed coat. I expected that could be easily done. We’d go to Harris and get one. What I wasn’t expecting was that I would start an email conversation with Maureen MacKay that would lead us to be able to visit Donald John in his studio. During the research for the trip, I came across a few references to Donald John MacKay and how he was responsible for the resurgence of Harris Tweed as a modern fashion trend. His tweed designs have been used in both Nike and Clarks shoes and the demand became so great that he enlisted the work of every weaver on Harris to help him complete the orders. Due to his artistry Tweed is no longer the fabric of days gone by; it has become a modern trend that sets the style in all areas of the fashion industry. MacKay creates many custom tweeds; he showed us one that he had created for a wedding gown that was strikingly beautiful.
Despite all the fame he has had from his weaving, Donald John is both unassuming and welcoming. He was very gracious to us during our visit. Maureen had said that they would be leaving on vacation the day after we made our visit, so there was no weaving on the loom but he sat and talked with us for a while. MacKay is part of a generational line of Harris weavers. His father and grandmother both wove cloth. He started out his life in a Black House (Gàidhlig: t(a)igh-dubh), a traditional house of the Hebrides and Highlands built with earthen-packed dry-stone walls and a roof of thatch or turf over wooden rafters with a central hearth surrounded by a flagstone floor. He was one of many children and when the opportunity came, he was sent to live with his aunt in her White House of mortared stone walls (taigh-geal). It is that same house that is his home today, and just across the drive is his weaving shed.
He talked of being quite young and watching his father as he wove. As he got a little older, he was allowed to help and as he grew he took on more and more of the weaving. He’s been weaving in his own shed for nearly 45 years. He clearly loves to weave. He said that he couldn’t think of anything else he’d rather be doing or any other place to be doing it. “The land the sea and the thread all woven together”, he said.
We left the weaving shed and made our way back up Luskentyre Road to the A859, heading south along the coast of South Harris. The hilly landscape of Harris is markedly different from the rolling moors of Lewis. In fact, it is the landscape that separates the two. The name Harris is a Gaelicization of the Old Norse Hærri, meaning “higher”. Just about five miles down the road from Luskentyre is the community of Seilebost. We stopped in at Hebrides Art, an art gallery and café that sits on the coast side of the road. We enjoyed our snacks: lemon drizzle cake and decaf latté for me and a gluten-free and dairy-free orange and almond slice and hot chocolate for Marsha, and then enjoyed the works of various local artisans. I was told by the owner that “Seilebost” is from the Old Norse for “Sheila’s beach”.
After another ten miles of winding down the coast and admiring the jaw-dropping beauty of the landscape, we came to the village of Leverburgh (Gàidhlig: An t-Òb). I had found the Anchorage Restaurant at The Pier online and planned for us to have a bit of lunch there before we continued on around the Isle and back north to Tarbert via the Golden Road (nick-named for the amount of money it cost to build it). We sat at a table by the window, looking out over the water to the (uninhabited) island of Ensay (Easaigh). It was obvious that the restaurant was popular with the locals, and soon we found out why. First came the Ricotta Fritters which, had we not split the order, would have been a full lunch on their own. For a main course I had the Mushroom Risotto with Nutty Mountain Cheese and Wild Thyme and Marsha had the Chicken Burger with Goat Cheese. It was a leisurely lunch. The food deserved to be savored.
We needed to get back to Tarbert to check in for the ferry to Skye by 3:15 PM, and we had some very important shopping to do first, so we decided not to gamble on the longer way back and return the way we came. It was not a disappointment. We got to see everything again but the view was dramatically different going the opposite direction. We arrived back in Tarbert and went directly to the Harris Tweed store. At first, it looked like Marsha would be disappointed in her search for a coat. She’s a tall woman, and finding something with sleeves long enough can be difficult. As she perused the front racks, I pushed my way (literally) in to the rows of jackets and coats hanging tightly together in the back part of the store. I wasn’t even looking for color or style, just the correct size. “Found one!” I called out as I scrambled out from behind three rows of coats. The result of the search was a perfect fit in a wonderfully rich color and great style.
There was just enough time to have just a bit of tea at the First Fruits Tea Room right near the dock before it was time to get the car parked and get settled on the Caledonian MacBrayne, as we headed to the Isle of Mists.
I love fiber and textiles, so when I knew we were going to Scotland, I dreamed of buying a Harris Tweed coat or jacket. The coat Kate found in her foray into the racks is that dream made real. It is beyond perfect with the fit and style of a custom hand tailored garment. After the unforgettable meeting and talk with Donald John MacKay when I learned more about the personal history of the weaving of Harris Tweed, buying a coat took on a whole new meaning for me. My coat is not only stunning, but it is a piece of art imbued with the history, tradition and landscape of the Western Isles.
~~ Marsha, Fiber Artist