Even before you step foot inside Borgh Pottery, there’s a wonderful sense of serenity as the soothing sound of a stream gently trickling its way to the sea sets the tone.
And thanks to an extensive refurbishment in 2015, the first thing you see as you enter the building is Sue Blair working her magic on the wheel.
It was in 1973 that Sue and her husband Alex relocated to Stornoway from Lancashire, as part of an initiative by the now-defunct Highlands and Islands Development Board, to breathe new life into socially and economically fragile areas.
Both pottery enthusiasts, they established the Stornoway Pottery just outside the town, before building the first part of the current premises in Borve in 1978. Sadly, Alex passed away in September 2013, and with the Pottery building in a state of decline, Sue was left with a dilemma.
Should she wind down the business, or instead, dive headfirst into redevelopment? Thankfully, she chose the latter.
“Over the past 40 years we’d managed to save some money which was earmarked for the upkeep of the Pottery building, so I didn’t feel any compunction about spending it,” said Sue. “This was the rainy day that we had saved for.”
This year represents the first full season Sue will find herself working alone, albeit in beautiful new surroundings. “I decided that if I was going to continue working, I might as well have somewhere nice to work,” she said. “I hardly spend any time in the house. The pottery is where I spend my life.”
The sheer amount of delicately crafted wares that make up the pottery is a sight to behold. The natural instinct – which almost overwhelms you – is to pick up a piece and touch it, to feel the grooves and texture, as if by doing so you are being told its life story.
A story which, Sue explains, begins in a lump of clay which is then thrown, turned, baked and gazed to become the work of art it is today. There’s something quite spellbinding about the whole pottery process. Indeed, what’s brilliant about Borgh Pottery is just that – as soon as you walk in you are likely to see Sue on her wheel, visually demonstrating a process of events that will ultimately result in a stunningly beautiful dinner set, or a casserole dish - whatever she has on her radar for that particular day. “Before the refurbishment you couldn’t see any of this,” said Sue, who holds a degree in Ceramics from Gray’s School of Art, in Aberdeen. “My wheel was tucked away in the back of the building, hidden from view. Now it’s the first thing you see when you come in. It’s like walking into a restaurant and being able to see the kitchen. I like that.”
Everything created by Sue is handthrown stoneware – it can all go in your oven and dishwasher, and it’s all high-fired and very durable. Sue readily admits that visitors to her pottery don’t fully understand the lengthy processes involved in manufacturing her goods. “I don’t expect them to,” she added.
“Some people come in having watched ‘The Great Pottery Throw Down’ on TV, which might have given a little insight, but the reality is that an awful lot of work has gone into each piece, that no-one ever sees – mixing glazes, packing the kiln twice, once for each firing.”
For a small business, Borgh Pottery offers a wide range of glaze colour and finish, from gloss to matte.
By using traditional techniques, Sue allows flexibility and scope in design, and is therefore much indemand for off-island commissions in stoneware or porcelain. “Our customer base has always been essentially local, with friends and family who visit regularly,” said Sue. “I also buy in a range of items to complement the pots in the shop. I try to choose something a little different.”
To follow Sue around the new-look Pottery is to get lost in time. “I’m really happy with the new Pottery and I look forward to showing people round,” she added.
Outside Sue and Alex opened the Borgh Pottery Garden in 1995, creating a sheltered environment for birds and other wildlife. A stroll around the garden reveals a surprising variety of plants, shrubs, and interesting finds from beachcombing on the nearby Atlantic shore.
So a visit to Borgh Pottery is much more than merely browsing over Sue’s handiwork. It’s a journey into the history of each piece of clay, and indeed Sue can point to some works that were inspired by the colour and atmosphere of the surrounding scenery on a particular day.
A panorama of the Borgh Pottery garden