By Iain A MacSween
Famed for its expertise in producing traditional wooden boats, the small island of Grimsay is bracing itself for the international spotlight once more, following the creation of a new wool mill.
Uist Wool has emerged after several years of development by a group of dedicated volunteers, and although the enterprise will not be fully functional until 2016, already massive steps have been taken in establishing a world class wool mill in the Uists.
The project is currently managed by Dana Macphee, originally from Crossbost in Lochs, Isle of Lewis. Dana says the mill is the realisation of a long-held ambition, although one which necessitated a real leap of faith in its potential.
She said: “I did a degree in textiles and in 1989 I heard that Museum nan Eilean were looking for someone to help for about 6 weeks. I ended up there for two and a half years!”
Dana loved the job so much she studied for another qualification and became a museum curator. “In 1996, a museums officer post was advertised for Uist and Barra,” she said.
“The plan was to be here for a couple of years then move back to the mainland to continue my museum career but I’m still here.
“I worked at Museum nan Eilean until 2007, and then I was in Taigh Chearsabhagh for just over three years.”
Plans for establishing a new Mill in Uist started with the Wool Development Group in 2008 and Dana became involved as a volunteer in 2009. By 2010 the community consultation and feasibility study was completed that fully supported the setting up a wool mill in the area.
“After that I took a year out to fully dedicate my time for fundraising and filling out forms,” she said. “Through my work in the museums I had gained a bit of experience at fundraising, doing the invisible work to get projects off the ground. I really enjoyed it though.
“It was a leap of faith but I was very lucky to have other people involved who have been great at encouraging me.”
“One of the members of the group had land in Grimsay which was available, and the croft had been part of the Stewart family for many years. It belonged to the original Grimsay boat builders.
“So because there was a heritage of boat-building here, we felt a strong motivation to bring industry back to a place that had a traditional connection with a specialist craft.
“It’s part of a general regeneration for Grimsay and ties in with the existing fishing industry and boat building and repair activities along the road at Kallin Harhour.”
Uist Wool is classed as a community benefit society, and is a registered Scottish charity.
“That allows us to obtain grant funding for development, educational work, training and such,” said Dana. “We are allowed then to trade and all profits are ploughed back into the charitable activity.”
Dana found funding from the European Social Fund and the Heritage Lottery Fund for the training project CALANAS which started in 2012 and concludes in June this year.
Over the past three years Uist Wool has offered a range of workshops and short courses designed to develop interest in working with wool and the Mill.
Part of CALANAS included a placement scheme and the mill currently has three full-time and three part-time Mill Craft Engineer trainees learning about the production process and technical activities associated with running a wool Mill.
It also currently hosts a short term course in Heritage and Practice in Woollen Textile Production “Those on the short course get paid an allowance, as some are taking time off work,” said Dana. “The mill placement scheme was open recruitment with a training bursary.”
Uist Wool runs out of three buildings, of which the main unit is the newly-built Mill that houses a combination of heritage and modern machinery which have been sourced from places such as Argyll, Yorkshire and Canada.
The plan is to add a top storey on to the main building later this year, The Wool Centre, which will host an exhibition area and allow customers to buy yarns which have been created downstairs.
“In summer this year we will begin operating as a trading enterprise plus our ongoing charitable activity,” said Dana. “Once the Wool Centre is complete it will be much easier to host exhibitions, workshops and events and welcome visitors in to see what we do.
“This year is a bit of a transition year, and although I can’t say for certain when building work will start on the top level, I hope it’s in June.
“When you are merging an annex onto an existing building you have to take the roof off, and we have a lot of machinery that we have spent a lot of time and energy getting into working order.
“We are conscious that we can’t have the mill running when that work is taking place, but there are other things we can do such as wool grading, etc. We will still be kept very busy!”
If all goes to plan, work on the building will be complete by late Autumn, with a view to being fully functional for 2016. “We are very much looking forward to welcoming visitors,” said Dana.
“We hope to develop a programme where people will take part in specialist workshops and get a chance to experiment with local wool, and get the hands-on experience that as knitters, you rarely get. A lot of people have enquired about that.”
One advantage of a wool mill is the readily available material with which to work. And Dana says that she intends to make it as attractive as possible for local crofters to supply Uist Wool with plenty of good quality local wool. “The wool on the sheep grows every year and something has to happen to it,” she said.
“If we can keep the value here, pay people a bit more than they are getting for their wool at present, then we can convert that into something very desirable.”
The next two years, said Dana, will be ‘all about establishing the Mill and Wool Centre as a productive asset for the local area’
“We are moving from the point of start-up, research and training, from being grant –supported, into earning money, and paying people a realistic living wage,” she said. “And as well as that we hope to support the local creative industries, not just here, but all over the Outer Hebrides. There’s great talent all over the islands.”
To get to this point, Uist Wool has had 24 funding applications received favourably, bringing in almost £900,000 of investment to the project. “I had to do a double-take when I worked that out,” she smiled.
“If I did a value calculation on the amount of voluntary goodwill we’ve received in that time I’m sure that figure would double.”
And she added, she had a small confession to make. “I don’t actually knit though I love wool!” she laughed. “I am a reluctant knitter, but I am absolutely stunned by other people who do knit, as it is such an art. I’m very lucky to have people around me that do the knitting for me!”
By Iain A MacSween