Barvas Ware and Incomers

The theme of incomer was prominent this week, both because the ridiculously talented Alex Boyd published my portrait with my husband online as part of his series on the contribution of incomers to the islands but also because I was working with the amazing Jana on the Barvas Ware Project this week. Jana is originally from Germany (as is Alex, coincidentally) and one of the themes from documents Euan, Development Officer for Museum Nan Eilean, shared with us was about Barvas Ware latterly being made for anthropology tourists.

Purvai has also been a big feature with the Colin Mackenzie link with India, and the wonderful arts festival at An Lanntair. Much of the past fortnight has involved sharing Kathak dance from Kanchan and Tabla drumming with Dal across care and day centres.

Many of the older people we have been working with are not native to the islands, having moved here for work or family support at some point. None of us this week, not even those born here, had seen or experienced Barvas Ware before this project and we have all been able to explore and learn about it together.

Two people from the Barvas area attending the day centre, were able to give information to Euan about the pottery during handling sessions three weeks ago, which was very exciting.

Jana has a beautiful approach to language, learning Gaelic words as we go along from older first-language Gaelic speakers. We talk about techniques, first trying a pinch pot and then moving on to coiling. ‘You sausage it’, she explains.

‘I love the way you use sausage as a verb’, I smile.

Jana laughs, ‘sausageing, yes!’, as she demonstrates how to smooth the coils together. ‘You don’t press it, that compresses the clay, you just go up and down with your fingers.’

‘I’m not artistic at all’, confesses Bella, who is ninety and sculpting a plate with her bare hands in Raku clay.

‘I think that everyone is artistic and creative,’ says Jana, ‘maybe somebody at school, maybe one teacher, told them they aren’t creative, or not so good at this or that but we are all creative in different ways.’ I completely agree. We all decorate our homes and choose what to wear and how to have our hair. And being ‘good’ at something can, I think, mean eagerness to explore and learn about the medium.

Jana talked about Raku clay with us, how it features tiny pieces of fired clay, which strengthen the object when exposed to extreme temperatures and stress in open fire firing. She explains that the Japanese Raku technique also includes shocking the fired clay in cold water, and that Barvas Ware technique involved milk glazing, for the fat to seal the porous, fired surface.

Jana talks about her failures with exploding pieces in her fire but that it can be avoided if there is no air or gaps in the piece and if all of the areas on a piece are approximately the same depth. ‘But I was able  to use the broken pieces for my own Raku clay so it wasn’t wasted.’ she laughs.

We came up with some authentic Barvas type shapes and some experimental sculptures as part of three sessions in two care homes and a day centre. All three settings had enjoyed a visit from Euan with the Museum Barvas Ware handling collection recently, so we had all experienced the authentic pieces in advance.

We tried out the distinctive, decorative patterns with cutting at the edges and made plates, bowls, milk jugs, cups and teapots. ‘Did you know,’ asks Jana, ‘that Barvas Ware teapots had no useful spout?’ as she creates a beautiful, usable spout on her own, creating a flower of toothpick holes through the clay, where she attaches her spout. ‘A teapot is one of the hardest things to make, getting the proportions right to pour liquid out of the spout neatly. Our tea sets and mugs are mostly made with plaster moulds and slip clay, a wet clay mixture, now. Then you can reproduce a good design over and over again. This is too hard with hand building. A good ceramicist can do quite a good job but it will never be quite the same.’

Jana also talks about the tourism aspect of the pottery. ‘You can tell it was made for tourists if it wasn’t usable as a teapot.’ This corroborates Euan’s thoughts on the sugar bowl being unlikely to be in general, crofting use on tables in homes at that time, and that it was more copied from English designs for the tourist trade, a far removed piece from the original croggans, used as practical vessels for holding and transporting food, perhaps soup for lunch.

The rest of the Barvas Ware project will involve a community making day or two at the museum, a library 3D printing session, digging some authentic local clay and remaking Barvas Ware pieces with that and firing the completed, air dried pieces in a peat fire on a beach.

Rachael Thomas and Helen Pickles, current and former staff at the Highland Folk Museum have written informative blogs about Barvas Ware and the re-making of it on their High Life Highland blog and are generously supporting us with their knowledge as we navigate our re-making.

Donald Angus, staff at Solas Day Centre, followed what the clay wanted to do and folded it on to itself, creating a Barvas Pasty, much to the amusement of the group. ‘I’ve learned so much about clay today!’, he says, grinning.

We had some fantastic sculptural explorations of the clay, too.

New Lochs Social Group

I’ve been living on Lewis for four years now. It’s not an immense island but there are still tucked away villages that I haven’t yet discovered.

I thought that Leurbost was largely in the area (from Stornoway) turning right after the cottages past the garage opposite the school but no, there is a turning further up on the left, which offers some breathtaking views over the hills, even on a wet day, and hosts a lovely community centre hall.

Maggie Smith had booked the hall for the purposes of starting a new social group to help tackle loss, isolation and loneliness, one of the key themes of our BIG Lottery funder, and important for our work with Life Changes Trust, too.

Maggie welcomes us all with a warm greeting and an explanation of the project and funders ‘It’s really an excuse to get together’, she smiles, before introducing us all.

Chris Hammacott demonstrated block print work on to fabric, we heard all about the glorious yellow Austin Seven outside, Roddy talked about how he came by his 1920 melodeon and played and sang for us and Euan, Museum Development Officer, shared the wonderful Barvas Ware handling collection with us all.

Roddy told several hilarious stories about how Gaelic speakers struggled with English after moving to Stornoway and he sang local songs alongside adapted versions of more National/international songs. He played a beautiful medley of traditional songs too.

There was gorgeous home baking, which ten of us enjoyed along with the music, the artefacts, the print making and at the end, we had a closer look at the glorious, sunshine yellow car.

Mairi took photographs to record the event.

The next session is mid September Weds 19th. All are welcome, bring a friend or neighbour and it’s free. We will have Mhairi Law with us in September, print making cyanotypes and offering photography support for our walk.

Purvai is here!

Come and see our amazing South Asian festival celebration that is Purvai tonight at An Lanntair, beginning with a delicious Indian banquet! You can book at

On Tuesday, we took the wonderful Kanchan Maradan to the ward ceilidh at Western Isles Hospital to dance Kathak for everyone.

Kanchan talked for about ten minutes about the history of this dance art form and about how she got into dancing, following along to the dances in Bollywood films. It surprised us to learn that Mumbai born Kanchan actually learned Kathak in London!

She talked about how the dance is storytelling and showed us some movements, devotions to Krishna with a flute and Ganesh with the elephant trunk and ears.

I remember Dr Stephanie Bunn, of the Department of Social Anthropology, University of St Andrews, telling me during our Woven Communities project work together, ‘We are all Anthropologists.’ Indeed.

We passed around Kanchan’s heavy strings of bells before she tied them to her ankles, looping one end around her big toe to hold it firm as she wound the string up her strong ankles.

‘My brother says he wouldn’t like to get a kick from me’, she laughs, referring to the weight of the bells toning and strengthening her legs.

It struck me again, how insights into cultures from distant places connect people with storytelling, as we saw with Dal last week. ‘Kathak is a very beautiful dance, it is storytelling and you can see from the movements. We used to gather in courtyards and tell stories about gods, mostly. We have so many official languages in India. And so many gods. And they all have stories.’

I ask Kanchan about the make up and jewellery.

‘God is within us’, she explains, ‘I do feel pressure to get ready to go out but I quite like that. It’s a celebration of God within us.’

I quite like that too.

Purvai Preview

An Lanntair has the incredible Purvai festival coming shortly, with workshops, a banquet, a concert and artists/musicians from all over the world coming to perform for you in Stornoway.

As ever, we have been sharing this event across the community with people who might not be able to make it in to the An Lanntair venue.

Our first session was a multi generational event between the Grianan and Solas Day Centre groups on Tuesday 7th August and today, on Weds 8th August, we went to Dun Berisay home.

Next week, we will be at the Tuesday Ceilidh at Western Isles Hospital, for all of you who happen to be in hospital at the time and then we will visit two more centres before the big concert at An Lanntair on 17th August.

We took along Dal (Dalbir Singh Rattan, also known ad the Tabla Jedi) to our sessions.

Dal has been working in a very interactive way, following a very similar style to a ceilidh, with singing, storytelling and teaching songs and how to drum.

I have been very inspired by the responses and interaction of the people attending our sessions because I have seen so much research about language and learning new languages, drumming, movement and music patterns being so beneficial for the brain. To be able to see this play out in front of me during such fun sessions has been a real joy.

I can see people thinking through the patterns and following them accurately, and picking up Swahili in a song to be able to sing it back. And all of this in a ‘follow-me’ style, which is very common in the Hebrides to teach new skills.

I have felt very inspired, particularly by one lady, who was very apprehensive that she wouldn’t be able to play the drum, when she actually managed to accurately pick up a drum rhythm and sing in Swahili simultaneously by the end of the session! I told her that if she can do that, she can do anything!

During a Q&A moment, we asked Dal about his recent trip to Buckingham Palace, which we enjoyed hearing about enormously! Rubies and diamonds, gold caskets, tabla and the Queen’s residence. What an experience! The best part of this story, though, was about Dal’s Grandfather, who is 91. He taught Dal Tabla, took him to his lessons regularly and was so moved by Dal being invited to Buckingham Palace to perform, that he squeezed out a tear full of pride. I think a couple of us in the room welled up over that one too.

The lady next to me was a music teacher and she enjoyed the feel of the drum skin, the sound of it reverberating on her hand and conducting the music. She even had a little sing with us.

There was so much love in the room, one lady even shouted across to Dal “I love you!’.

I think he picked up some new band members. Some of those drums are heavy, though – I didn’t make a very good roadie!

I have uploaded a few videos of how to speak ‘tabla’ and how to sing the lullaby in Swahili. Also, some of the brilliant people picking up the rhythms and songs so fantastically.

We have yet to offer two more session in care centres, revisit Solas/Grianan and to go to the hospital ward ceilidh on Tuesday 14th August with Kanchan, the dancer.




Soundcloud link to the lullaby we all sang in Swahili at Solas/Grianan

And here are two more videos – the story of Buckingham Palace and how to speak ‘tabla’.

Tuesday’s ceilidh

This Tuesday, we were enjoying a local village magazine from Arnol/Bragar/Shawbost. It had some wonderful old small ads from the 1960s, which we spent a long time reading, while munching on barley and cherry scones.

‘Barley doesn’t have much flavour, I used to cook with it but the cherries are a good idea’, a lady from Bragar explained.

It was a wonderful insight into the economic landscape of the 1960s because the salaries were listed, and we had a feel for the kinds of jobs available at the time. A manager for the Daliburgh care home (called an ‘old people’s home’ in the ad) earned around £600 a year and had to spend around £200 of that on accommodation and board. There were ads for waitresses and housekeepers, a nanny (‘must be fond of children’ – really? You actually had to state that in advertising for a nanny?), bar, hotel and restaurant staff, a night sister on the hospital maternity ward.

There was a recipe for a very frugal version of a chocolate cake from the London ‘Ministry of Food’. Water instead of milk, cocoa instead of chocolate. Margarine instead of butter. I’m sure, in the Hebrides, butter would have been easier to come by.

11 of us gathered this time, including staff, people from the ward and visitors.

We met about a special NHS Western Isles memory box after the ceilidh.

Completing the peat project cycle with a walk

Sometimes, I think we all speak separate languages with our words. Even something as simple as ‘I love you’ can mean so many different things. Maternal love, sibling love, deep friendship, love for a parent or other relative, loving someone for who they are or being in love.

So, when the first woman from Shawbost that I met in a care centre as I moved to the island, (Granny Annie) told me ‘I carried the peats home in a creel made by the basket maker’ (Domhnall MacArthur), what did that mean? I had no experience of it.

I told my neighbour that I would do this and he said that he had grown up with Domhnall as his neighbour. He informed me that I couldn’t do the walk without knitting a sock. All local women were always knitting a sock. I had never knitted a sock. My first attempt was a hilarious, twisted affair, where I managed to join the rib upside down and knit to the end of the rib in an infinity loop. A sad day for knitting.

The peats we cut in May were dry enough to bring home, so, in exchange for baking (as is often the Shawbost way – although brothers with a tractor used to charge £6 a load to bring peats home in this village), a lovely neighbour brought ours and other neighbours’ peats back on his tractor trailer (pictured). He left me a creel full to walk back.

I started to build a cruach/peat stack. I managed to herringbone the first two layers but I quickly discovered that it is a skill that I do not possess, akin to building a dry stone wall. The peats dry a bit wobbly (probably because of our lack of skill at neat cutting and a little because the ground they are laid out on to dry is tufty with rough grass and not exactly flat). There is immense skill in building a neatly herringboned cruach because it is essential to have a good eye for the pieces to choose to interlock neatly. I did make a small stack on two pallets, about a fortnight’s worth, but it is back breaking work and I needed a rest half way through! That was just for two weeks. Imagine the size of a stack to last the winter!!

Dawn Susan made me a creel, which is a thing of beauty and which smells divine. She also wove me a gorgeous strap. I was ready to do the walk.

At the peat bank, we had had some rain and the ground was very boggy. I had to avoid filling the creel over-full, as was the way, because I was literally sinking deeper into the bog with each additional peat. I stopped filling it as it was just under the top. ‘There’s a skill to over filling a peat creel’, nodded a lady from Tolsta, recently, at a session with Dawn Susan. Yes there is. There’s more skill than I have to carry an over full creel, too!

And I set off walking. Up hill was easier than down hill, because leaning forward distributes the weight better. And then I reached the river. Wow. I find these wobbly stepping stones a challenge unladen. My centre of gravity was so altered that I was not confident in getting across dry, still in possession of the peats and with unbroken ankles. But somehow, with a lot of hesitation, I did it.

The other side of the river, I had realised exactly why I was advised to make a pad for my lower back to keep the creel off it. It is completely essential because the hard willow does dig in exactly where the creel touches at the base of your spine. I grabbed a jumper and tied it around my waist, tucking it up to double up. Perfect. ‘ I made a pad with old clothes’ a woman from Tolsta told me.

It’s a pretty steep uphill trek back to the road after the river. Breathlessly, I made it back to the road. It was a lot easier on the road. I wondered how long the road had been there. ‘I helped to build the road at Shawbost with my neighbours’, Granny Annie told me, ‘with buckets and shovels’. Wow. So all this hard labour without a road and to actually have to build the road?! Walking this load across the machair would have been so much harder, and I am told that a special kind of partial sock was often knitted, to protect the feet, while still giving the freedom to feel the earth under them. So almost barefoot, on boggy moorland, with a much heavier creel than I had, I was starting to understand how I wasn’t getting a true picture of the scale of effort and labour involved.

The walk along the road was fine. The strap was wonderful and very well designed to distribute the weight as comfortably as possible. Dawn told me of women who had been rope-burned, using a rope, bleeding and blistered by the end of it. Why would women do this? Perhaps because they were helping someone out, unprepared? Or because they hadn’t had opportunity to make a strap? Or was it about resilience? Do we get to a point of not caring enough to protect ourselves from discomfort?

I managed the rib section of a sock on my walk, untwisted this time!

On arriving home, the peats looked adequate for one day. One day. How many days in a winter?? How many loads needed to be brought back for about eight months??? Little wonder there are so many images of women carrying peats, they must have been doing it for weeks and weeks. And I also realised that a peat stove/fire needs a lot of tending, so these epic peat walks needed to be done between tending the fire. Stoke fire, be certain of it…Go! Walk fast to the peat bank and back as fast as possible, stoke fire again. While looking after a toddler or baby, in some cases!

So I think that although this experience was tiny in the grand scheme of peat carrying, and I did realise that as I fantasised about a hot shower half way across the moor, it did make me think about the issues that I hadn’t considered before. Walking the peats home doesn’t mean one walk. It means hundreds of walks. I do know how a creel and strap feels on a body now and what a difference a road makes.

Women of the Hebrides, I salute you!

Croft created yarn

Look at the beautiful colours of this home-grown (from a no kill flock), home spun and croft dyed from rose and dahlia root yarn by textile artist Chris Hammacott’s Croft in Back.

I am learning to knit a sock, as many women have told me they did all the time, out of necessity. One lady living in a Harris care centre, still knits socks daily. Beautiful socks with an extra ribbed heel for comfort. They might possibly be the best socks in the world.

I have also sent a parcel of it to Shetland, in exchange for Shetland wool for a lady in South Uist, originally from Shetland, to compare with local wool.

Barvas Ware

Have a little look at this blog by Helen Pickles as she leaves her year long project at the Highland Folk Museum.

Barvas Ware pottery and ourselves feature significantly 🙂

On Monday, we have the joy of sharing Museum Nan Eilean’s Barvas Ware handling collection with two care centres and a day centre. Then we will hold some remaking sessions.

Baskets in Tolsta

Dawn Susan brought a selection of different baskets along to Alzheimer Scotland’s Dementia Friendly Cafe at Tolsta on Tuesday.

We all chatted about different uses for baskets and which ones had been made through the project.

We talked about my upcoming epic walk with a creel and peats through Shawbost (epic for me but everyday for the women of Shawbost in years gone by). We talked about the strap and the back pad.

‘I made it with old clothes just stuffed together and tied it around my waist – firm but it kept the creel off my lower back. And it was full! Piled high! There is quite a skill in that, you know, stacking it high so it doesn’t fall.’ One lady keenly shared her first hand knowledge.

Dawn learned creel making from Donald, a basket maker in Shawbost, where I now live. I will be making a podcast about the peats with my neighbour, shortly. I wonder if he remembers him?

We spoke about the original chicken-in-a-basket where a basket was popular in the 1960s as a handbag. It was the right shape for a broody hen.

One basket Dawn brought along was a copy of one from the Highland Folk Museum and the shape would keep eggs separate, which was a very clever design.

Dawn shared the story of the Ciosan, through the Woven Communities Project.

She also spoke about her oak basket, great for herring sorting and her frame/hoop baskets and how they are made.

We decided to hold a basket making day in Tolsta in January, when the willow is ready.

We finished with making a silent wind chime and a snail, made with the same materials but divided in different ways. 7/2 and 4/5 for 9 lengths of willow.

The tea was lovely and I brought a peach cake and plum tart, plus some cherry almond scones.

13 if us enjoyed the session and Roddy John (from Ness) led grace.