A trip to the Highland Folk Museum and Skye, July 5th-10th

This was the first major long distance research trip of the project. We drove up to Kingussie where we visited the Highland Folk Museum’s unparalleled collection of Highland baskets, and then travelled on to Skye, where we met Caroline Dear, the great heather and hair moss expert and artist, as well as Jonathon MacDonald, founder of the Skye Museum of Island Life, who, earlier in his career, had also worked at the Kilmuir basket factory on Skye.

The Highland Folk Museum

Frame basket at the Highland Folk Museum QP22

Rachel Chisholm, curator at the Highland Folk Museum, had been very helpful with preparation for the visit, sending us a comprehensive print out of the collection in advance. With museum visits, it is always difficult to achieve seeing as much as one would like of the collection in a short visit because of the time required to process each artefact carefully. Rachel really supported us with this, allowing us to photo the baskets, and we saw and documented almost every basket we had hoped to.

The museum has a very comprehensive collection of Highland and west coast baskets. What has become clear during our research for this project is that there is far less material available, either in museum collections or documented in archives, for baskets from the west and the Highlands, as opposed to from the east of Scotland, or the Northern Isles. This is not because baskets were not used in the west. Far from it, they were a feature of almost all aspects of life, and basket use in crofting in these regions in many cases endured far longer than in fishing in the east or in Lowland agriculture. However, as Isobel Grant, who made this great collection, commented, she found that people from the Highlands and west coast were far less proud of their heritage than elsewhere. Indeed, she said that people simply did not think she would want their artefacts for her collection. This being said, she still managed to acquire many important and representative examples of baskets from these regions during her collecting of ‘all manner of homely things’ for the Highland Folk Museum.

Thus, there were many straw and bent grass coiled baskets, ciosans, formerly used as meal measures from the Uists and the west coast. From North Uist, also made from bent grass, were several beautifully constructed horse collars, revealing the effort which went in to making these everyday artefacts used for working with animals. There were willow bannock baskets from across the Highlands, willow frame baskets, probably made by Travellers from Wester Ross, straw bee skeps of many shapes and sizes, several with caps, oval willow mudags for holding fleece to be spun, and a range of pot scrubbers and brushes made from heather, bent grass and even one from hair moss. There were several excellent peat creels, including one made from heather from Badenoch, another from rattan from North Uist, and an example from Skye, very fortuitous, since so few examples are to be seen on Skye itself. One of the most significant pieces was a bent grass grain sack from South Uist. This woven sack, made from the same technique as woven saddle pads, is the only other example, aside from the one collected by Erskine Beveridge for the National Museum of Scotland, of a basket known in Gaelic as plata mhuillin, or plata shil, and used to protect grain from splashing by salt water while transporting it by sea to the mill.

Grain sack Highland Folk Museum, QP23

We were also allowed to visit the furniture store in the museum, where we saw how basketwork from willow, rush and straw was used in furniture, made at a time when it would have been cheaper to make chair backs and seating from locally available plant materials rather than imported stuffs, or even wood.

Suffice it to say that there is a great debt owed to the collecting of Isobel Grant in the 1930s, which, along with the continued work of the Museum, enables us to see this material today and understand its role in people’s lives in the past. (More on Isobel Grant in the People section of this website; in Highland Folkways; and in Edinburgh Central Library which also holds her photo-archive.)

Skye, including a visit to heather artist Caroline Dear and the Skye Museum of Island Life at Kilmuir.

 Caroline Dear is a Scottish Basketmakers Circle member who has been immensely supportive of this project. She hosted us on Skye, generously sharing her knowledge of regional basketry, local literature and archival sources, and of the use of heather and hair moss and other local materials. She also participated in the Woven Communities Symposium, presenting both a paper on heather and other plant materials used in regional basket-making, and leading the introductory workshop. She is currently working on a feature about heather for this website.

While we were on Skye, Caroline invited us to her studio, where her work revealed a profoundly impressive exploration of the potentials of heather, hair moss and other materials. She also recounted several local stories, including one about two brothers from South Uist who used to travel to Uig in order to cut hazel for making creels, and another account of a Skye postman and his son who made frame baskets from willow over wire frames. It was always very valuable to discuss research with local basket-makers and textile artists. Watching basket-makers at work inspires local people to tell the practitioners of the use of basketry through personal family experiences and memories, as illustrated by Caroline’s account.

It is ironic that while Skye is famous for its former basket factory at Kilmuir, which supplied much of Scotland with baskets for the herring industry, and that while there are many picturesque postcards of crofters working with mudags during spinning, or carrying creels when collecting peat or seaware, yet almost no baskets exist in public collections from this island. We discussed this with Caroline, and her view was that this could perhaps be attributed to Skye’s popularity as a tourist resort, even in the late 19th and early 20thcenturies, so that possibly tourists had bought them as souvenirs, or that Skye had come earlier than other western isles to the import of plastics and other consumer goods which became substitutes for baskets. A further possibility might be that the perception of domestic and other manual work associated with baskets as shameful, as Isobel Grant described, also impacted earlier on people here, and may further account for Skye’s lack of existing basketry heritage.

Peat creel, Skye Museum of Island Life

Our final day in Skye held a meeting with Mr Jonathan Macdonald, founder and custodian of the Skye Museum of Island Life, followed by a tour of the museum. During his life of more than 90 years, Mr Macdonald had worked for the Skye Osier Company, also known as the Kilmuir Basket Factory, which was set up in Skye through the Highland Home Industries Bureau in 1908-9, and closed in 1956. He had also set up the Skye craft shop, famous for its variety of crafts, before founding the museum in north Skye near Kilmuir in1965. The museum consisted of several renovated thatched cottages, including a croft, a weaver’s cottage, a barn, an old smithy and a ceilidh house. Mr Macdonald kindly agreed to see us, despite the numbers of visitors daily passing through the museum. He talked of the willow sites established in Skye at Monkstadt, St Columba’s Loch and at Hungadder, both of which supplied the Company, and working for the company itself. A man had to make 18 quarter crans a day in order to make a realistic living, he said.


The Ose, or Skye basket

All the artefacts in the Museum were illustrated with beautiful drawings and texts which detailed the practical uses associated with each object. There were examples of mudags for spinning fleece, a ciosan, a beautiful condition peat creel, heather ropes, and the Ose or Skye basket. Through the work at the Kilmuir basket factory, this basket became associated with Skye in the 1950s. It was sometimes called a ‘hen basket’, reputedly first made to carry a broody hen, although its origins are much older than the Skye basket factory, and it is found on British illuminated manuscripts from the 12th century onwards.

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