Monday, July 15, 2013

North Ronaldsay

Today we flew to the tiny island of North Ronaldsay, population 60. This is the island famous for its unique sheep that live on seaweed. I read about them years ago in Spin Off magazine and again in Wild Fibers magazine and have wanted to visit this island and its sheep ever since. Very early this morning 8 of us hardy souls and die hard fiber nuts flew at 400 feet elevation over the Orkney Islands to the very remote island of North Ronaldsay in this plane We landed at this airport on the tiny island! It's hard to see the sheep in the next photo but there are 3. There are hundreds if not a few thousand on the island. This is the bag that I want to get some Ronaldsay fiber for. I plan to spin and then knit it using this primitive fleece. It's the bag that was recreated by The Shetland Museum for their Gunnister Man exhibit. Gunnister Man was unearthed in the peat of the Shetland moor a very long time ago (1600's I think). Well I got enough fiber for the bag and also for a vest. I emailed Jane who runs the mill there before we even left on our trip and she set it aside for me. The mill here is an interesting story of how a cottage industry on a remote island was saved. The story begins with the sheep. You see these sheep are special, very special. No one knows exactly how they got to this island or when although there are several stories. But we do know that to keep the sparse grasslands available for other livestock the islanders blocked off the fields from the rocky shore 150+ years ago. The sheep were left on the other side of the 6 foot high 13 mile long stone dyke that was built around the island's perimeter! Well the sheep lived and even thrived. They survive almost totally on seaweed! Tey are what's called a primitive sheep, dating back many, many years. Most primitives have guard hairs as well as an undercoat. These guard hairs are course and they cause the wool to be very itchy against human skin if left in the fleece after preparing the fleece for spinning. These sheep, I learned, have a very greasy fleece. I was expecting a very course fiber when I arrived due to the outer hairs. I quickly realized how wrong I was and how I totally misunderstood the purpose of the mill. About 10 years ago Jane and her husband who live on the island traveled to Prince Edward Island to look at a Belfast Mini Mill. This mill has done marvelous things for cottage wool industries because it's a small manageable mill used for wool processing. Jane gave them a sample of her rough fleeces and much to everyone's surprise when the mill did its magic of washing, dehairing, and carding the fleece what they had was an amazingly soft fleece! It turns out the undercoat is so very soft. Reminds me of musk ox fiber which is called, quiviut. So this is a very special sheep indeed!! Pics of the mill which is near the lighthouse and some of the precious fiber Something else that was totally surprising was the cafe. I didn't expect a cafe there. And I certainly didn't expect an amazing cafe with delicious gourmet food, handmade chocolates, and the best fresh French pressed coffee! Best coffee and food of the trip! We were shocked. Flying back to Orkney and looking down on this unique and special place Note: the farm we are looking down upon is a very common looking Scottish farm or croft. On Shetland they call the farms "crofts". I assume they do here too and maybe even throughout Scotland. Today was the most special, magical day of my trip. It was what I came over for and to visit the heart of fiber world with my friend Lesley. Hope you are able to find some simple magic in your day today too. Warmest thoughts to you all, Mary

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