A Swatch of Scotland
Sunday, November 12, 2006
As a fan of Ian Rankin's detective stories, I know that the Scots have their own vocabulary for rain. "Smirr," for instance, is "a fine spray mist which drenched you before you knew it." Add some wind to the rain and you get "a scowthering gale." Then there's "mizzle:" miserable drizzle.
"So what would you call this weather?" I ask as I slide dripping into a taxi on the island of Lewis and Harris in the Outer Hebrides, some 40 miles off the northwest coast of Scotland.
"I'd call it bloody awful," the driver says. "What would you call it?"
Insistent, maybe? Unpredictable, certainly. As I'd soon learn, a single day here can offer a variety pack of weather ranging from upended-bucket rain to veils of mist, from curds of cloud to sun that transmutes freshwater lochs into basins of silver. Through it all, the wind blusters hard across the moors, over the white sand beaches and low treeless hills, demanding attention.
This place even has its own weather song. "Feels So Near," by the popular mainland Scottish singer Dougie MacLean, describes the howling of the winds and crashing of the waves on these very shores, awesome nature "right in your face." And it's been right in my face since I stepped off the plane, and trickling down my neck and seeping into my socks as well.
But as the taxi heads toward town, the rain stops, the cloud bank backs off and, as unlikely as it seemed 15 minutes earlier, a hesitant rainbow appears. The driver doesn't expect a response to his question, but I have one. "This weather is Something Else."
You could call it Challenging. Those persistent winds combined with overgrazing by generations of black-faced sheep have left the land heathered and wildflowered but treeless. Soil spread thin over ancient rock leaves little to till. But the poor crofters of Lewis and Harris long ago found a way to meet the challenge. They carded and spun their sheep's wool into yarn. They used wild plants and even chimney soot to make dyes. They set up looms beside their hearths, and the cloth they wove helped pay their cottage rents.
The product of their looms became the eponymous Harris tweed, legendary for its durability, warmth and -- very important, this -- smirr- and mizzle-resistance. Popularized in the 19th century by lairds who ordered the thorn-proof cloth for their gamekeepers, it has gone on to clothe politicians, poets, princes and real and fictional characters into the 21st century. A Harris tweed jacket was near the top of Esquire magazine's 2006 list of 10 "Things You Simply Must Have," editors noting the tweed's "deep link with a particular place."
I have arrived at that particular place, drawn as I am to destinations where "remote" is still an adjective. This is the northernmost of the Western Isles, a.k.a. the Outer Hebrides, Robert Louis Stevenson's "rainy, windswept archipelago" of 200-some islands, islets and even smaller "skerries." The chain stretches 130 miles north and south off the craggy northwest coast of Scotland; beyond these islands, the vast Atlantic swells and heaves.
Lewis, where my plane from Glasgow landed, occupies the northern two-thirds of this island and is more developed than Harris, my destination. Called the Isle of Harris although technically only one-third of an isle, the south is a place of hand-built, single-lane roads; heather-covered hills and kelp-covered shores; sheep with an air of entitlement; and hardy people with firm control of their emotions and a "mustn't grumble" approach to life.
Harris is known now as the home of the last half-dozen men and women who weave independently, creating their own patterns, choosing their own colors and operating their racketing, old, foot-powered looms in an untouched corner of the United Kingdom. Elsewhere on the island, others still weave by hand -- by law, all Harris tweed must be hand-woven -- but work for a mill that specifies colors and patterns and performs many tasks once done at home, and markets the tweed all over the world.
Hunched Against the Wind
The town of Stornoway, on the eastern shore of Lewis, is the departure point for a visit to Harris. The commercial center of the island, Stornoway has a population of 6,000-plus. Streets of gravy-colored houses edge a sheltered harbor, once a base for Viking longships and busy today with fishing boats and inter-island ferries.