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Why build a mill?







When Donald and I brought sheep back to The Hirsel in Ardgay after a 30 year absence, we chose a hardy Scottish breed - Hebrideans – and are glad we did: they’re a perfect fit for our outdoor system, thriving on rough grazing in our mix of field, meadow, bog and woodland. They’re highly valued for conservation grazing and for sheepdog training. But in 2016, our first shearing taught us how little their fleeces were valued. As we started looking into what to do about that, we learned we weren’t alone.


Archaeological evidence suggests that sheep arrived in Britain with Neolithic settlers around 6000 years ago. Evidence of woollen fabric has been found in Scotland dating to the bronze age[1], and by 700 CE[2], Britain was exporting wool to mainland Europe. By the 11th century, it was the source of great wealth across the British Isles. But by the 16th century, cheap imports and an emphasis on meat production brought a decline in the British wool industry, with the 20th century rise of synthetic fabrics further lowering its appeal. In Scotland, older farmers tell of being able to pay the rent from the sale of their annual wool harvest, but for farmers today, it’s an expense, only carried out for the welfare of the sheep. Farmers and crofters across the UK trade stories of binning, burying, or even burning their wool harvest, rather than go through the labour and expense of shipping it to the Wool Board, due to prices paid for it dropping so low.


This isn’t just a costly waste of a natural, regenerating, multi-use fibre, but also shocking from an environmental standpoint: 50% of a clean fleece’s weight is stored carbon, pulled up from the soil through grazing. When burned or sent to landfill, that carbon becomes CO2 and is released into the atmosphere. But when wool is made into long lasting products, such as clothing, housewares, or insulation, that carbon can be stored for years, sometimes generations. Once we’re finished with them, wool products can be reused or composted, putting that carbon back into, and feeding, the soil.


But today, there are very few mills in Scotland that will take a farmer’s fleeces and turn them into wool products for them – and none of these “consignment” mills in the Highlands, though some mills like Knockando Woolmill continue to process wool for their own product lines. Most wool must travel to depots around the country, then to the Wool Board in England. If Highlanders want their wool processed into yarn, and can’t do it themselves, their wool often travels to mills as far away as Cornwall for processing. At a time of reduced support and higher input costs, the minimum weight requirements, transport costs, waiting times, and processing fees to have our wool processed make this difficult or impossible for many of us. Our wool has become a burden, rather than a sustainable income source. That’s why we’ve joined with other farmers, crofters, and crafters to create Highland Wool CIC.



Early support by the Highlands & Islands Climate Hub, Firstport, and the Ardgay & District Community Council through the Beinn Tharsuin Windfarm Community has enabled us to settle into a collection of farm outbuildings at The Hirsel, until our 200-year old stone barn can be renovated and repurposed as a low energy, no-waste mini-mill. The future mill will be small, to fit into a small nature-friendly farm, and every aspect of the business will take environmental and financial sustainability into account, from recycling and reusing farm-sourced water, to powering the mill through passive and solar energy, to designing flexible work schedules for rural employees who may themselves have farms or crofts to manage.

A tip from a supporter, leading to the discovery of abandoned equipment in a barn near Oban, was quickly followed by a crowdfunding campaign and a pair of generous loans, making possible the purchase of a Belfast picker (to open washed fleeces, turning them into woolly fluff), and a Walker carder (nicknamed Sweet Caroline) which will, when repaired, turn fluff into carded wool. The carder has been dated to sometime in the late 19th or early 20th Century, and is need of repairs, but was in use as recently as 2011 (by Val Grainger, The Woolly Shepherd), so we have no doubt of its ability to be brought back into use.


Until then, the Highland Wool team is learning to process wool using the Belfast picker and a table-top electric carder. By early 2024, we expect to be proficient at producing 100g ‘rolags’ (a carded mesh of woollen fibres used for spinning, felting, and weaving) from Hebridean and Shetland sheep. We’ll then be able to take in small batches of local farmers’ wool, while broadening our skills with more sheep breeds from across the Highlands and Islands.

Highland Wool won’t reverse generations of industry neglect immediately, and certainly not on our own – it’s taken a supportive community far beyond our small team to just get this far! Instead, we hope to one day be part of a wide network of small mills serving farming and crofting communities – and wool lovers! - across Scotland (again).

To find out more: contact Donna Gillies: info@highlandwool.scot, or visit our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/HighlandWool.


(Pictures: The Bruce in 2015, the farm's first ram in 30 years; Beatha's ewe lamb, 2022; the surprising variety of shades in Hebridean wool; The local team [Anna George, Donna Gillies, Janet Charge, Donald Gillies] welcoming Sweet Caroline to her Highland home, pic by Siliva Muras; Sweet Caroline, lying dormant in a Scottish barn, waiting for us to adopt her.)


Article originally published in The Kyle Chronicle, 2023 Winter Edition, Editor Siliva Muras.


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