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Scottish Craft Adventure Part 3 – Orkney

1 Oct


Finally, I have found time to tell you all about the last stint of my Scottish road trip – a visit to the Orkney Islands.


Orkney is an archipelago around 8 miles north of the Scottish mainland, made up of around 70 islands, less than a third of which are inhabited. It is an amazing, mystical place, where it can be seemingly sunny, rainy, windy, overcast and foggy all at the same time. Orkney is popular with fans of ancient history and archaeology because of it’s UNESCO world heritage status for the neolithic structures you can visit there.

I took a ferry from John O Groats, past the Old Man of Hoy, to the town of Stromness on Mainland (the largest island in the Orkneys). The sun was setting as I made the crossing, giving the most amazing light as I took pictures of the Old Man, a huge, ever-changing sea stack which uncannily resembles a figure, stood in the crashing waves, guarding the islands from trouble.

On my first morning on Orkney, I drove out to see the Ring of Brodgar, a 5000 year old stone circle, which I thought would be very much like Stonehenge. Not so! Not only is the Ring of Brodgar the most northerly stone circle, is is also utterly enormous, at over 100 metres in diameter. It is also positioned on a stretch of land between two lochs, which means the light reflecting off the water makes the whole environment feel utterly magical.

The Vikings invaded Orkney around 1000 years ago, and believed that the stones were actually Gods who, after a night of revelling, stayed up too late and were turned to stone as the sun rose. The stones are so large, that as you look up at them, with the clouds moving quickly in the background, you can almost imagine that they are coming back to life.



I also visited Skara Brae, which is a neolithic village that was completely covered in sand until a freak storm in 1850 ripped the coast line apart, revealing the untouched stone dwellings beneath, perfectly preserved. I’m not even going to try to describe the place – suffice to say, this is Bucket List stuff: one of those sights you simply must see before you die!

I also had the once-in-a-lifetime experience of stepping inside a number of neolithic burial tombs, not least the Tomb of the Eagles on South Ronaldsay, and the world-famous Maeshowe on Mainland, which pre-dates the Pyramids (!). The experience was certainly something that I will never forget, not least because I was following a long line of visitors to the ancient site – the first people to discover the site were the early Viking warriors, who used Maeshowe as a shelter during their raids. So, amongst the amazing stone carvings almost 5000 years old, you will spot lines of Viking graffiti, written in runic alphabet. Simply amazing.

Of course, my trip wasn’t just about neolithic adventuring – I also made sure I found time to sample some of the best that the Orkneys had to offer. Not least, ales from the Orkney Brewery, and a wee dram from the acclaimed Highland Park Distillery. Well, it would have been rude not to…

I also, predictably, immersed myself in the arts and crafts heritage of the islands. Orkney makes this super-easy for visitors, by promoting an annual Orkney Craft Trail, which signposts you to artisan workshops, galleries, boutiques and exhibitions.  I found myself on a virtual treasure hunt across the islands, looking for the next Craft Trail sign, leading me towards some of the islands’ hidden treasures.

I spent a lot of time on South Ronaldsay, a large island to the South West of Mainland, which is reachable by road bridge. It was here that I visited the Tomb of the Eagles, and also had the chance to visit the beautiful Italian Chapel, a stunning place of worship built and decorated by Italian POWs during WWII. You can still sense the blood, sweat and tears of the POWs that went into building it – the Chapel was a real labour of love that gave the prisoners something to focus on, and deserves a blog all to itself really!


Whilst there, I chanced upon a fantastic studio which was a yarn shop, gift boutique and art gallery in one. It was called The Workshop and Loft Gallery, and it was hidden down a street in the village of St Margaret’s Hope. The Workshop is a craft cooperative which was set up 35 years ago by local artisan producers. It stocked knitwear, textiles and yarns, as well as jewellery, ceramics and wonderful art work from local artists.

It will come as no surprise to you that I ended up buying some local yarn as a souvenir of my trip – especially as it was lambing season whilst I was there. Across the islands you could hear the bleat of sheep and watch the gamboling of cute fluffy little creatures as they learned to use their legs for the first time.


I bought some skeins of yarn which had been transported down from North Ronaldsay island, of an aran weight. The rare breed, North Ronaldsay sheep are unusual, due to the fact they live on a diet of seaweed. I don’t know if this adds any special quality to the yarn!


Also on South Ronaldsay was the Hoxa Tapestry Gallery, which was filled with the impressive, large scale tapestries of local artist, Leila Thomson. If you are lucky (sadly I wasn’t), you can watch Leila work from the gallery. Her tapestries are moving (emotionally not literally!) depictions of life, death, nature, family, memory and the Universe….pretty big themes! If you make it to Orkney it’s definitely worth seeking out this gallery –  the pictures on her website simply do not do the works justice.

Anyway, with time being short I also spent as much time as possible exploring mainland and some of the other neighbouring islands. Mainland is home to many artists and craftspeople, with one notable one being potter Andrew Appleby, known locally as the ‘Harray Potter’, after the name of the Mainland Parish in which he works. Andrew runs Fursbreck Pottery, which has shops in both Kirkwall and Stromness. I throught the items were beautiful, and I couldn’t resist buying some handmade ceramic buttons to remember my trip by.


I also visited countless other studios and galleries, but I don’t want to bore you completely! Suffice to say, the heady Orcadian combination of ancient historical sites, wild landscapes, and creative outlets left me fizzing with creativity and ideas.


I took hundreds of photos of natural textures, which hopefully I would like to recreate in some craft project, using my North Ronaldsay yarn, my Fursbreck ceramic buttons, and a few other things that I picked up along the  way.


Hopefully I will be able to incorporate some features that remind me of the fascinating layers of history I encountered across the islands – Neolithic burials, Viking graffiti, and WWII buildings.

DSCN3033As we know, all good things must come to an end. Eventually it was time to begin the 14-hour, 580 mile journey South, back to Doncaster which I have always affectionately thought of as ‘The North’. This holiday taught me that it is anything but! Thanks for being patient in waiting for posts from my adventure, I hope they were worth the wait. I promise to be a little quicker in writing up the results of my makes from the items I picked up along the way!

12 days, over 1000 miles, and an unforgettable adventure.

Scottish Craft Adventure continues…Ballater to John O Groats

13 Sep

Apologies for the delay in posting this blog! I’ve been so busy with other things that I haven’t had a chance. I guess Scotland is very much on everyone’s mind this week, but I’m not going to share my opinions on the referendum here. At the very least, the news this week has given me the kick I needed to get this blog post written.  Although it’s a little late (actually nearly 6 months late!), here is the second installment of my Scottish adventure.

So, following my adventures in Edinburgh and Crieff, I finally arrived in Royal Deeside. My family and I used to spend all of our holidays in this part of the world when I was a kid, so it was really nostalgic to go back now – I’d been away for 15 years!


The Royal Deeside landscape is utterly beautiful and unspoilt. The added bonus was that the weather was unseasonably warm, dry and sunny during my trip, so I really got to see the region at its best: clean, fresh streams, sparkling in the sun, winding their way through the heathery mountains, interspersed by ancient forests of pine. Bliss.

It was so wonderful to be back in Royal Deeside. I spent my days perusing craft shops and galleries in Braemar, pottering around Ballater village and taking long walks and bike rides in the countryside. I was really lucky to see some red deer on my travels – some a bit closer than others! I had the fortune/misfortune to see one from just a few feet away when it jumped in front of my car! I am happy to report that there were no injuries, although the deer and I both had rather a fright!


As mentioned, I visited Braemar, which is has its very own, bespoke sporran shop (sorry to be a tourist, but how Scottish!) and is the home of aptly titled Braemar Gallery. If you are visiting this part of the world, you can’t miss it – there is a knit-bombed, giant Haggis called, appropriately, Purl, standing to attention outside.
DSCN2607Purl was created by the Deeside Knitwits, a local community knitting group. How fantastic!DSCN2608Whilst in Braemar, I also had the obligatory hot chocolate in the Fife Arms Hotel, which is certainly ‘the done thing’ whilst visiting. I was also lucky enough to be there on a rare day when Mar Lodge was open to the public – truly spectacular! Braemar has its own Creative Arts Festival, which is taking place in October this year – well worth a visit.
DSCN2757From Braemar, you can go walking in the most amazing scenery. I spent a day in scorching sunshine, walking around the Linn of Dee, which was breathtaking. I also seemed to be quite attractive to this little grouse, who seemed rather insistent in getting in my car at the end of the day – sorry buddy!

DSC_0096  Whilst I was up in that part of the world, I became utterly obsessed with Harris Tweed. It’s absolutely everywhere and it’s gorgeous! I couldn’t afford much of it, but when I saw these buttons on a stall at a church fete in Blairgowrie, I couldn’t resist. Now I must find something to use them on…

It seemed too soon, but it was finally time to leave Deeside and continue my trip North. I had a long day ahead of me, so after making an early start, I made it to over the mountails to Culloden for 9am, and spent a few hours walking around the misty battlefields, learning about the Jacobite uprising. It was really moving, and it’s good that the battlefield has beeen preserved by the National Trust for Scotland.

By 11am I was passing Inverness and heading upward, over the Moray Firth and up towards the top of Scotland. I have mentioned Kingcraig Fabrics in my blog before. Kingcraig is a fantastic yarn shop that I found on Ebay, and they are based on the North East coast, at Brora and Dornoch. When I discovered that I would be able to visit the actual shops on my trip, I was so excited!

I was able to visit both shops, and the staff were really friendly and welcoming. The lovely lady at the Dornoch shop told me that owner Shaun and his wife were up the road at the Dornoch shop that day, so she directed me along the coastal route so that I had the added bonus of seeing the basking seals on the Embo coast! You definitely don’t get that in most yarn shops.


Kingcraig had a wonderful selection of gorgeous natural yarns and woven materials. I learned that Brora had once been home to famous and very successful woollen mill called Hunters of Brora – the mill employed many people in the town and helped put Brora on the map. The mill has now closed, but some of the yarns sold at Kingcraig are high-quality remnants from the old Hunters mill.

After spending far too long choosing, I came away with some beautiful olive green yarn which was 95% merino, 5% cashmere, and some lovely cornflower blue lambswool. I also picked up a few oddments at 50p each.

As well as gorgeous yarns, Kingcraig also sold woven fabrics by the metre and had remnants to choose from too. Being naturally indecisive, I was unable to choose between all of the fabulous patterns, so I ended up buying a whole bag of remnants, in every colour imaginable!

From Kingcraig, I took a leisurely drive up the East Coast towards John O’Groats, stopping for the obligatory picture at the most northerly point. It was time to leave the Scottish mainland and head for the Orkney Isles, for the final stretch of my adventure!

Scottish Crafting Adventure – Edinburgh

7 Sep

As mentioned several weeks ago, I spent the Easter break on an epic road trip across Scotland and the Orkney Isles. Unbelievably, I had 10 days of sunshine out of 12 – I was surprised to return with a tan from a holiday so far North.

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I had an utterly fantastic time, going on lots of beautiful mountain walks and bike trails, discovering breathtaking nature and wildlife, and, of course, partaking of a generous helping of arts and crafts.

My adventure started in Scotland’s bright and bustling capital, Edinburgh. The city is full of the most wonderful gift boutiques and yarn shops. I spent a lot of time (and money) in the Grassmarket area of town – in particular, at these two shops:

The Red Door Gallery, 42 Victoria Street, is a fantastic find for handmade items and quirky gifts. The staff in there are really helpful and were able to give me information on the designer of any item I picked up. I finally fell in love with a pair of gem-shaped, laser cut perspex earrings, which had been designed by Orcadian jewellery designer, Kirsteen Stewart.


Just a few doors down the road from The Red Door was K1 Yarns, a veritable treasure trove for those of us that want high-quality, unusual and locally sourced yarns. I pretty much fell in love with every single skein I picked up in the shop! However, using my superhuman willpower, I managed to resist, as I was hoping to engineer a trip to Kingcraig Fabrics into my holiday.


Edinburgh is a fascinating city, full of history, mystery and heritage. After touring the Scottish Parliament, walking up to the Observatory on Colton Hill and perusing what felt like a hundred souvenir shops on the Royal Mile, I was in need of a break before tackling the touristic behemoth, Edinburgh Castle.

Right near the top of the hill sits a Tartan Weaving Mill, which was just the sort of crafting break I was looking for! As well as being able to buy every imaginable shade and pattern of tartan, you can actually watch it being made in the basement of the building.

I hadn’t realised there were so many different patterns of tartan! You were able to buy the material by the metre, and there was also a good selection of offcuts to choose from. I really wanted to buy some materials which I could use for a patchwork project when I returned home. Therefore, I chose three offcuts of tartan, each being a different design but similar shades of colour.

During my trip, I also had time to visit the utterly amazing National Museum of Scotland – so inspiring! There was so much to see in there, but of particular interest was the exhibition on traditional Scottish weaving. I also spent quite a lot of time looking at the Pictish and Viking exhibits, in preparation for my sightseeing further North.


Alas, it was finally time for me to leave this beautiful city and resume my journey North towards Royal Deeside. Of course, there is always time for a little crafting en route, as I had booked in to make a paperweight at Caithness Glass. However, on my way there, I found an absolute gem of a craft shop: Lagom Felt Studio, in Crieff.


Tracy and her husband run the shop, which is a specialist fibre art shop and craft workshop. They stock a wide range of weaving and felting materials and tools, with a specific emphasis on Scottish alpaca fibre and locally-sourced rare-breed fleeces. The pair were really friendly and were happy to chat about any items I picked up. Tracy also mentioned that she too has a blog, which is here!

Tracy is super talented and runs workshops on wet and dry felting, from absolute beginners to intermediate. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to come to a workshop on my trip, as I was only passing through the area. However, I will try to make a detour on my next Scottish trip!

As you know, I find it virtually impossible to leave a craft shop without purchasing something. This was bound to happen at Lagom Felt, as all their items were gorgeous. Firstly, I bought a remnant reel of handspun yarn, which I thought matched my Edinburgh tartans quite well. Secondly, I spotted a basket full of gorgeous, unique, hand fired clay buttons, each of which was glazed in lovely colours. As you can see from the picture above, I chose the oak leaf, which, for me, really symbolises Scotland. When I was a child, we regularly visited a place called Craigendarroch, which means ‘Hill of the Oaks’…but more about that in my next post.

I guess this rounds up the first few stops of my trip, so that’s enough for now. Next time, the Scottish Highlands!

Paperweight making at Caithness Glass

7 Jun

On my Easter trip to Scotland, I arranged a visit to a place which I hadn’t been to since I was a wee nipper – Caithness Glass. The factory and visitor centre is in Crieff, Perthshire, and I remember being dazzled by the sight of craftsmen blowing hot glass and plunging implements into roaring furnaces to make stunning glass pieces when I was young.


I read on the Caithness Glass website that they offer visitors the chance to make their own glass paperweight – this certainly appealed to me! I presumed I wouldn’t get to actually influence all that much, but I was happy to have the chance to see close-up how glass items were made.


I arrived at the visitor centre and was introduced to Martin, one of the craftsmen who works at Caithness. He showed me around the workshop, pointing out the furnaces, the kilns, the workstations. He said that the first job was to choose the colours for the pattern inside the paperweight.


The colours are formed by granules of coloured glass – displayed on a series of shelves in colour order. Martin told me that the coloured pieces work much in the same way as pottery glazes – some of them melt at different temperatures, giving different effects. Also, some of the granules are fine, like a coarse sand. Others look more like ice cream sprinkles, or are as coarse as gravel – all of these will affect the melting and mixing speeds of the colours, so will affect how the finished piece looks.

I was given some metal trays to collect colours on. I chose a fine, pale grey, a coarser pale yellow and a granular, dark blue. We set them out on the worktop by the furnace for mixing into the glass.


Martin collected a big blob of molten glass on the end of the pole, and began turning it evenly, to ensure it stayed centred on the pole. Every so often, he would hold the pole still, so that the glass would bend to one side. He would then flip it over, to keep the glass moving properly. He then gave me the pole, and together we rolled the molten glass in each of the coloured trays, to fix my chosen colour flakes to the molten glass. Then, the whole pole went back in the furnace to heat the mixture up to a good temperature for working on.


Martin then asked me to sit down and begin rolling the pole against the metal rails – this allows the glass to start cooling whilst keeping its shape. I was given a wet, wooden, curved mold, which I used to shape the top of the glass blob whilst cooling it slightly. He was a very patient teacher! I was surprised at how heavy the glass was, so it took a little getting used to – I eventually got the hang of the technique to roll the shape.


I couldn’t see the colours which had been added, but Martin explained that all the colours disappear whilst molten, and would return when the glass cooled.


I was then given a metal spiky tool, which I used to poke dents all over my blob. Martin explained how this was going to create air bubbles in the finished design. More glass was added, and then we went back to cooling and shaping the glass again.


Using large metal tongs, I created a neck to the glass blob, which would become the base of the paperweight. After a while, the glass had cooled to around 900 degrees (!) so I was able to use a sharp knife to score a line around the narrowest part of the neck. Martin then took the pole over to the cooling kiln, and firmly tapped the pole against the worktop – the finished paperweight cleanly broke off, like magic!


Glass is brittle when it cools too quickly, so at this point, it went into a cooling kiln, at a degree of 500 degrees, so that its temperature could lower gradually over the next 24 hours. Then, it could be removed from the kiln to continue to cool.


The whole experience took around 25 minutes, and it was great fun! I feel like I really learned a lot! It was great being in the real workshop where all of the Caithness paperweights are made, and to be making my item alongside other craftspeople making items for commercial sale.  Martin was a great teacher and answered all of my incessant questions. He even agreed to being in a workshop selfie!


You may be wondering why it has taken me so long to post about my glassmaking experience, as it took place 6 weeks ago. Well, as I was in the process of gallavanting around the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, the lovely staff at Caithness said they would send my paperweight home for me at the beginning of May.

I eagerly awaited its arrival, but sadly, it did not appear! I became increasingly despondent as I checked the post box, day after day. I checked with Caithness to check it had been posted on time, and it had. After checking with the post office to no avail, I came to the conclusion that it had been lost in the post. How disappointing!

However, just last week, I received a phone call from Caithness. My paperweight had been on a jolly tour of the postal service of England and Scotland, and had arrived back at their factory. It was sent once again and arrived here last week. I am so utterly delighted with it! It’s not only a wonderful souvenir of my holiday, and a memory of a fantastic experience at the workshop, but also I love the way the colours swirl around inside the globe.

The wonderful people at Caithness even engraved the base of my paperweight with my name and the date that it was made – preserving my amazing holiday for years to come.


…and perhaps my favourite feature – from this angle, it looks like it’s smiling!

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