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A long overdue update

Welcome to October, and an autumn of wind, rain, cooling temperatures…and wool, wonderful wool! The Campaign for Wool is in high gear, and the team at Highland Wool has been going full tilt too – mostly! At the height of our busiest period, Donna and Donald Gillies came down with Covid after avoiding it for more than three years – our timing was truly awful! – but even that showed what a great team and group of supporters have gathered to make the mini-mill happen, as things kept rolling along without us. But let’s roll back a few months, to bring you up to date…


In February, we received funding from the Highlands and Islands Climate Hub, our local Community Council via the Beinn Tharsuinn Windfarm Community fund, and a Start It grant from Firstport. This, with support from The Hirsel farm in the form of workspace and additional funds, and lots of excellent advice from too many people to name, allowed us to start our Pilot Project. We built a wall in one of the farm’s sheds to create a workspace, bought a sink and some pipes for the washing system, retained an accountancy firm, built a website (thanks to Director Katharine Sharp!) and got going.

In July, we started attending the new local community market in Ardgay (sharing a table with The Hirsel) to start developing our pitch and making our case to the community. By August, we were ready to take a stall at the Lairg Crofters Show, where we were joined by the talented Anna George on her spinning wheel, and in September, we took a stall in our own right at the Ardgay Community Market. Spinners Katharine Bagshaw and Anna George were a big hit in the crafty corner, and we shared some nice chat with local farmers and crofters who are looking for woolly solutions. Meanwhile, Director Rosemary Champion was busy telling our story in articles for Smallholding Magazine and The Crofter.


Backtracking to May: Jill Bowis (https://www.kintaline.co.uk/) told us of a neighbouring farmer with mill equipment stashed in his barn… and thanks to Jill’s tip, we contacted Vinh, and he made us an offer we couldn’t refuse: £5000 for a collection of equipment that included a Belfast picker and a heritage carding machine – exactly what we needed! Both had been sitting in his barn for 12 years, and need a lot of clean-up, but the Belfast picker is in working order. He’d bought it all intending to start a mill on his farm, then life made other choices for him. He agreed to hold the equipment for us while we raised the purchase amount, so long as we put a 10% deposit down, and Donald Gillies fronted that deposit for us. And then we launched our Crowdfunder, aiming to raise the purchase costs plus a little extra for transport and repairs. To date, that effort – your generosity – has raised just over £4000, from 132 donations. With one or two notable exceptions, donations are tending to be small, ranging from £5 to £50, which may not sound like a good thing…but we think it is, as it shows how many folk who have little to spare in these challenging times want to see this happen. Sparing anything at all just now is hard for us all, so we’re extra grateful that you’ve done so. The entire Highland team has been inspired and energized by this funding push and your response to it. Donations still trickle in, even though I’ve been too busy with other tasks (and recovering from Covid) to promote the campaign much, and we’ll let it tick along for a while longer.


A notable exception to the typical donor is Sue Ullrich. She’s different, not just because she donated a sum more substantial than many others have, but because she lives in the faraway land of Wales. As she believes, like we do, that the carbon storage qualities of wool are sabotaged by lengthy transport for processing, she’s unlikely to ever use Highland Wool’s services to process her own Shetland wool. BUT she shares our vision of a network of small mills across the UK, supplementing the work of the larger consignment mills, and filling in the gaps where they can’t help. So she supports Highland Wool, in the hope that others will be inspired by our efforts. In addition to Sue’s very generous donation to the Crowdfunder, she made a friendly loan of £2000 to Highland Wool. (Thank you, Sue!) This means that, with Sue’s loan combined with the Crowdfunder and Donald’s loan of the deposit, we – YOU! - have raised over £6500!


Thanks to all of you, we’ve now paid for the equipment, and Donald has brought the Belfast picker home. It needed a good heaping of tlc when it arrived, but will soon be working for all of us.

He’ll soon make a second trip to pick up the heritage carder. There are other bits and pieces of equipment included in this collection, which we’ll sell on to raise monies for the repair of the carder. In the meantime, the sourcing and purchasing of the equipment has led to other developments: Donald has been researching the history of these machines, and found the person who owned the equipment before it spent 12 years in Vinh’s barn. And he’s made contact with engineers located closer to home who have experience with these kinds of machines and are interested in consulting on/helping with the necessary repairs. He’ll tell you all about this part of the story in a future update.


Meanwhile, we’ve cleaned the picker up enough to start using it, and replaced our Classic (hand-cranked) carder with an e-carder, thanks to the final instalment of our Pilot Project funding (a special shout-out goes to Karen Fitzimmons, our relationship manager at Firstport, for her support and advice). While an e-carder is still too small to process the amount of wool we’ll eventually be taking in, it’s a huge step up from the hand-cranked carder, and these two pieces combined will make do, until we can repair the industrial sized carder. Thanks to all who have helped get this equipment to its new home in the Highlands. As those who’ve thought about building small mills already know: finding equipment and space are two of the most challenging tasks, and we couldn’t have come this far without every single one of you.


In other news…

· The team’s been working for a while on a website and logo. It was a tricky assignment, and our thanks go to Director Janet Charge, who took on the task of engaging and working with a graphic designer (https://www.artexperience.me to deliver the final product. The results will soon be seen on our website and social media, and we’re lookimg forward to your feedback. Thanks to Sally Wild for great advice about the direction to go in with the design.

· We rescued 270 Shetland fleeces from landfill, thanks to a callout from their source farm on social media. These fleeces will be cleaned and sold on as washed whole fleeces or carded batts to raise monies for the repair of our carder.

· The water recycling design is being made reality. The Hirsel, and by extension Highland Wool, is supplied by our own spring – we’re not on the mains. This, as well as our no-waste ethos, means recycling is going to be central to our water usage plan. The designs include gravity and solar powered filtration, a very small amount of mains electricity, siphoning points for testing, and two very large water tanks. Watch for a video to appear once we have it far enough along to share with you.

· Speaking of sharing… I was delighted to meet Luci Ireland last week, the new Community Engagement Officer covering east Caithness and Sutherland for the Highlands & Islands Climate Hub. She visited the farm, and I was able to walk and talk her through our plans, and show her the state of things. It was especially good to show her the water recycling system we’re building, as this was the focus of the grant the Hub gave us for the Pilot Project. The Hub was the first funding organization to support Highland Wool, and it is fitting that Luci was the first of our funders to see our progress in person. With a farming background herself, she understands the challenges of balancing farm life with a project like this, and I look forward to welcoming her back again in a few months, when everything is humming along in the processing shed.

· I’ll be attending the Scottish Smallholders Festival this weekend – if the trains are running! – and carrying our new business cards and flyers with me. There’s a lot going on about wool at this year’s festival, and I’m hoping to meet a few like-minded woolly people while I’m there. If you’re there this year, give me a shout via our Facebook page, and we might be able to meet up and share some woolly chat.

· Remember: our Facebook page belongs to all of us! Please feel free to make it your place to meet up, ask us questions, and tell us what you’re thinking. Post articles you think we should see. It’s going to become a busier page in the near future, as we start coming to you with questions about what you want from Highland Wool. In the meantime, I hope to see you there soon.


If you’ve gotten this far in this very long update, you’re going to hear it again: Thank you! This project has been on our minds at The Hirsel since 2016, but only started looking like a reality a year or so ago, thanks to all of you. If you have any questions about anything in this update – or any feedback at all about what we’re up to – don’t hesitate to drop me a line at info@highlandwool.scot. I look forward to hearing from you!

Warm woolly regards to you all,

Donna Gillies Director/Project Manager 12 October 2023

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