As former manager of one of the UK’s most respected deep house clubs, Mike Donald already had plenty tales to tell. He was working in the beating heart of Scotland’s largest city where the booming bass of one of Britain’s best sound systems reverberated to beats mixed by some of the world’s finest DJs. Glasgow’s party people lapped it up and danced till dawn. It’s hard to imagine a more urban scene than this, which makes Mike’s current lifestyle all the more fascinating.
Mike then made the move from the Sub Club and the city to become a crofter on the far-flung Isle of Lewis. Crofting is a life of simple living and surviving through subsistence, and used to be commonplace in the Scottish Highlands before the Highland Clearances, when landowners forcefully threw the people off the land to make way for sheep. It involves living off the land around you, which often entails keeping animals and cutting peat for fuel. In modern days many crofters have alternative sources of income, such as taxi driving, but there is one industry that has gone hand in hand with crofting for over 100 years.
Weaving Harris Tweed truly is a cottage industry. Being weaved in a crofter’s home is one of the factors that qualifies the fabric to be the genuine article. The looms are pedal powered and occupy a room in the croft where the weaver sits astride the loom pedalling away, whilst the yarn becomes a broad swathe of fabric before him as he continually checks it’s going smoothly.
Mike told me of his new life as a crofter and Harris Tweed weaver.
What’s your average working day like?
I'm up with the sun, sink a couple of coffees while checking emails and then head out to feed the beasts and make sure all is well on the land. I'm usually sat at the loom by 9am, either tying in a new beam of yarn or actually weaving cloth which I'll do for the next 6 or 7 hours, taking a break every hour for more coffee or something to eat to keep the old energy levels up.
All being well I can be finished the day's target length of tweed by late afternoon after which I'm free to do what ever I want. During the spring and summer that would be tending to the vegetable gardens, in winter perhaps collecting fuel for the fire or animal feed from town. In the evening I'll sit down at the desk and get stuck into my other work, usually with a dram to hand and the fire burning. If the weather is good I might take off to a nearby loch and go fishing, visit family or friends or just turn in early, usually a good option in the winter when it's dark at 5pm and everyone is socially hibernating anyway.
The Office for National Statistics recently published research that showed the Hebrides, Orkney and Shetland are the happiest and most satisfying places to live in the UK. What aspects of island life do you think helps achieve a high level of happiness?
Whisky probably! My wholly unscientific take on the subject is that it's a complex combination of a lot of little things. Spiritually speaking, a lot of people retain a faith of some sort, the church in all its various denominations and schisms, still plays a strong role here in the islands.
A belief in something bigger than the self, a moral structure to live by, regular fellowship in song and meditative prayer all have obvious benefits; even the most secular atheist can concede that. But whether you're a believer or not there's a community here, bound together by a long history, the Gaelic language and a vibrant culture associated with the place. People rely on each other here, a helping hand is never far away, nobody is a stranger and trust in each other is higher as a result. I rarely lock my doors or car.
Then there's nature, we are immersed in it here. The sky above is 360 degrees immense, sunsets and sunrises can be seen from most back doors. The weather tends to be extreme, whether it's glorious spring sun or winter storms, people here genuinely experience meteorological phenomena.
If I had to summarise it, our happiness comes down to experiencing deeper sense of connection with life.
How does the boompty boomp of deep house compare to the clackety clack of the weavers loom?
It's funny, the clackety clack of the loom is incredibly like the percussion of House and techno music; anyone who has visited, who knows their dance music, says so. The beating of the reed on the cloth is simply a bass drum, the boards clattering are like snares, the weft threads rattle the parts like hi-hats, all in this repetitive loop as the loom turns over and weaves the yarn. It's very easy to mentally mix classic tracks into the noise, something I often subconsciously do while peddling away. Slam's Positive Education makes a surprisingly good partner to a herringbone tweed. I do love the silence these days but truth be told it's never truly quiet; the wind blows, the sea crashes nearby, birds sing, an old Massey Ferguson tractor will be sputtering away somewhere over the neighbouring crofts...just no neds screaming abuse or sectarian chants thankfully.
Have any of your favourite designers or brands used Harris Tweed?
Ah, too many! I wish I was a richer man so I could get their wares in my wardrobe. I always like the work of British designer Nigel Cabourn who is quite a Harris Tweed devotee himself. He recreates jackets and other clothing worn by old climbers, explorers and military types and uses Harris Tweed a lot. It's just this perfect mix of tailoring and tradition but done in a very modern way. As a reformed sneaker freak (not much call for them on the croft) it's always a buzz when Nike release a Harris Tweed edition of their shoes and as ex-skater it was cool to see New York's Supreme work with the cloth on their hats and jackets and last year's Vans shoes in Harris Tweed drop.
On a more traditional tip I like Margaret Howell's use of the tweed and there's some nice pieces coming out from Japan by Beauty & Youth / United Arrows. I've got a few wee side projects on the go at the moment, helping curious designers I like to get hold of cloth and make something interesting. Right now I'm doing something with Alexander of Stutterheim Raincoats fresh off the back of his collaborations with Jay Z and Kanye so that should be fun...
The crofter’s life can be very varied. What other interests or activities do you get up to on the island?
My crofting activity encompasses a bunch of different things, some traditional, some less so, each contributing in some way to bringing in money and putting food on the table. So apart from weaving I have a heap of desk-bound work doing marketing, copywriting and social media work for lots of different clients, many based here on the island and connected to crofting in some way. I grow my own vegetables and keep hens for eggs.
I also have a flock of Hebridean Sheep, 17 ewes and 2 rams. They're a native breed, very tough and hardy, thick black fleeces and crazy horns. Their meat is excellent, quite gamey compared to normal lamb and apparently low in cholesterol if you're worried about that sort of thing. I'd planned to keep pigs and bees in 2014 but my hands are pretty full right now and it's an added financial expense too. I've never kept livestock so there's been a steep learning curve and it's no fun when you screw up with living creatures so I'd rather go slowly and learn to look after them properly rather than rush in and do it badly.
The croft itself always provides it's own work in terms of upkeep, chimneys need swept, drains and ditches cleared, grass cut, feed ordered , equipment repaired...it's never ending sometimes. But it beats having to commute into an office every day or put on a suit and endure endless meetings and deadlines.
How does your croft compare to where you lived in Glasgow?
Haha! My most recent abode in Glasgow was a new riverside apartment about 5 years ago. Now live in a wee 1950's Board of Agriculture bungalow that adjoins the 5 acres of croftland I work. It's not very glamourous, certainly not compared to the place I left behind. No dishwasher, no gas central heating, no walk-in rainhead showers, no floor to ceiling windows, no Smeg white goods, no balcony with a view, no hardwood floors...no fancy furniture or none of that. Just some garish carpets, basic furniture and a big open fire.
But it's solid, I can see the sea from the back door and right now it's home. There's a big old stone barn I've converted into a weaving shed and office which is ideal for my purposes even though I need to share it with mice and spiders and the roof is a little leaky when the wind blows rain in from the north.
How does the nightlife compare to Glasgow? Where do you go on a Saturday night?
Usually to my bed! After 15 years of heavy socialising in bars and clubs the last thing I want to do these days is be around drunks and boozers or loud music. But there's a good live music scene here if I feel the need, lots of talented young artists and bands and plenty visiting musicians so that might be on the cards but generally it's a much quieter life these days. To be honest I've been so busy getting established here that I'm exhausted by the weekend. Nevertheless I certainly plan to come out of this self-inflicted hermitage in 2014 and back into social circulation a bit more.
How did you find the transition when you first moved to Lewis?
I learned a lot, from the outset.
The day I moved onto the croft, I had this 3 metre long, impossibly heavy Harris Tweed loom to install in the new loom shed which lay through two gates and down a steep rough path. The thing is a behemoth and a nightmare to manoeuvre even with two people so I called someone I knew in the area and asked if he could lend a hand or two. Within half an hour he had half a dozen men, people I'd never met in my life but were happy to help a complete stranger out with some manual labour at a moment's notice.
Turned out we had an ex-headmaster, a former mechanical engineer, a couple of labourers and a trainee church minister in our ranks to tackle the logistics of getting the massively immobile contraption from the back of a lorry and into its new home. It was like a military exercise with ideas, inventions and makeshift solutions coming thick and fast, all on a sweltering summer night thick with clouds of biting midgies eating us all alive. It took a couple of hours of serious, uncomfortable graft but we got it done thanks to a bunch of supremely generous and kind people who gave their time and energy without having to be asked twice and for no recompense but my thanks and gratitude.
Generally though, croft life is chaos. Nature and animals don't work to schedule and bizarre situations always crop up. The first few months were pure Carry On Crofting, I was embarrassingly inexperienced, chasing down an escaped lamb in my Birkenstocks sandals probably sums it up, running madly through the fields, sheep shit squeezing between my toes, before rugby tackling the wee blighter and rolling us both into a flooded drainage ditch as I did so. Hopefully nobody but the other sheep saw me in my ignominy.
How does the future look for the Islands?
I'm optimistic about the islands future.
I think there is a sea-change in the way people relate to money and work, the life-work balance is becoming increasingly tilted in life's favour. More and more people are seeing the value of a life well lived, realising that there's more to living than shopping and the latest consumer goods. People want to be healthy physically and mentally, feel satisfied with their job and be connected to nature and each other more. The islands and crafting offers that in spades. We're more concerned about the food we eat and our environment, we're starting to realise that the simple things often hold more value than the complicated pursuit of status and material goods.
The biggest priority for these islands I believe is to ensure we keep up with the internet age. Fast, reliable broadband connection for every house in every village is going to be crucial to reversing the decline in population and right now it's struggling. I'm lucky to have around 7MB speeds which is sufficient to swap files, send images, download film and music, do all the essentials of remaining in a 21st century world and run a business from these remote parts. But many villages struggle with no better than dial up speeds which is a disgrace in 2013. If young people can go away for their further education but know that it's possible to return and start businesses back home with an effective internet connection to bring the world and it's many markets to their doorstep then I know they will do just that. And if local industries like Harris Tweed, renewable energy (we have the best wind and wave resources in Europe), niche food and whisky production and so on continue to grow then we'll enjoy all the offshoots that these businesses provide. The world is getting smaller and if we can stay connected to it then why go live anywhere else?
How does the future look for Harris Tweed?
Touch wood, very positive. Lessons have been learned, the right people are at the helm and the industry is in very good shape to meet the demands of a market that appreciates a luxury product, made in a unique way in a very special part of the world.
Harris Tweed will always be about quality over quantity and style over fashion so I have no concerns about the desirability of the cloth waining. In fact I think more people will come to realise its qualities as time goes on.
What I worry about is passing on the skills and craftsmanship of weavers to a new generation as the older weavers retire and hang up their caps. We need an island retaining its young people through giving them good reason to want to stay and live here, helped by an industry that pays weavers enough money to make producing the cloth an appealing and worthwhile endeavour.
We need to keep embracing new technology and techniques to continue bringing the ancient textile to the wider world.
We've had Harris Tweed for over a 100 years, here's hoping it lasts another 100 years more.
Mike Donald writes for the Harris Tweed Authority and is helping promote Ian Lawson’s book on Harris Tweed, From the Land Comes the Cloth.