This morning we bade farewell to Fairbank House over a breakfast of pancakes and set out for our final lodgings in Callendar. Before that, however, we decided to do something a bit different and follow up on some signs we’d been seeing as we drove around Speyside yesterday for the “Knocando Woollen Mill.” We’ve already tried to see woollens being handmade during our hunt for Harris Tweed on the Isles and failed due to poor timing – so why not investigate a different type of woolcraft here?
The mill’s undergone a recent renovation thanks to some money from the EU (I wonder what happens to that sort of thing now?), and to reach it you descend via one of those now-familiar tiny one-lane roads with passing places into a little sheltered valley with a river running alongside, bright and merry in the morning sunshine. The greenery eventually parted, directing us to a spot where we could leave our car; hopping out, we ambled down a little gravelled path until, eventually, we reached a scene straight out of a Thomas Kinkade painting by way of a fantasy novel.
A cluster of little buildings in the usual white stucco, cheery red doors bright and welcoming in the sunshine, surrounded a gorgeous little garden of flowers in a rainbow of colors. The gravelled path led in a neat loop past a cafe (it seems to be in the rules that all Scottish attractions include a cafe), something labeled “The Old Cottage” and “The Old Shop,” and a bigger building that was obviously the mill itself. A black-painted waterwheel turned sedately, fed by a lede from the river nearby.
Pastoral as hell, in other words.
Thoroughly charmed, we made our way over to the mill to investigate; a sign out front explained that today they were spinning and carding natural brown Shetland wool and encouraged us to come inside for a look – so this we did.
I don’t know how much experience you have with industrial settings (I am tempted to add “dear reader” here, like a Victorian writer), but when I go into one I generally expect…I don’t know, noise and grit and a general atmosphere of misery. Not so much, here. There was a quiet rumble of machinery, and a young bearded fellow piling armfuls of rough nubs of brown wool into a hopper for the first of two carding machines, great hulking things with rotating barrels lined all round with metal wires like very fine-bristled hairbrushes, combing the fibers straight and smooth and (importantly) largely parallel. On the other end a wide, felted band of rough wool was carried along a cloth belt to a second machine, where it was gently laid and layered at 90 degrees to the fibers’ current orientation as though someone were piping out icing the color of milky coffee.
The second machine, tended by a young lady in Doc Martens and a T-shirt for a band I couldn’t readily identify but was probably (at a guess) punk, passed the wool through a second series of wiry rollers and out again as a much narrower band of unspun wool, wound onto a series of bobbins that would then be loaded, about thirty at a time, into the pretty fast spinning machines that lined one side of the workroom. These weren’t in operation at the moment, but a later video would demonstrate how they worked, pulling the yarn out…and twisting…and winding the lot into spools of thread that could then go to the looms.
The looms also weren’t running this morning, but they look…pretty much exactly the way looms you’ve seen in movies look, and function about the same as well: the warp threads are tied in by hand, carefully threaded through a headache-inducing tangle of combs with little “eyes” in the wires in accordance with the pattern selected for weaving. Given that much of what the mill produces is tweed of various sorts, which often has a fairly delicate pattern with just a few threads of a contrast color here and there, I’d be pretty worried about mis-threading…but then I guess I haven’t had hours on hours of practice, either. Once that’s all done, the magic happens: the looms fire shuttles of wool back and forth to actually weave the pattern, slowly producing a bolt of pretty cloth.
If the cloth in question is to be used for a purpose like, say, upholstery, then the process is finished. If it’s to be used for something soft, however, like a scarf or pillows, then the final machine in the mill comes into play. This raises a “nap” on the fabric for a softer hand by passing the fabric gently through two more great big rollers. Instead of metal wires, however, these are lined with the natural equivalent: the heads of burdock plants, which are heavily encrusted with little “hooks” that catch at the fibers and raise a warm, fluffy halo.
The entire process takes place in pretty much the one old building, though a more contemporary facility tucked in behind the mill appears to house some sort of experimental turf: it wasn’t open to the public, but peeking in through the glass windows showed a workshop where several folk were busily doing mysterious things with colored threads.
The accompanying exhibition told us a bit more about the mill and environs. Once, a long time ago, the entire valley would have been covered in little mills like this one, which was built in the 1700s, but only the mill at Knockando remains in operation today. (The mill-wheel is largely cosmetic, sadly, though it does generate a little power.) Other mills were lost to combinations of various factors: land takeover as part of “the clearances,” economic depression, or in many cases a huge and devastating flood.
This one was perilously close to going under as well after its long neglect, but was rescued from loss and decay by one of our tribe: a young social sciences student who felt strongly that the mill was part of local heritage and deserved to be maintained. He did not, sadly, know anything about the actual process, but luckily this mill had run for a long time and there was still at least one old-timer around to teach him the ins and outs. So it is that – again thanks to that EU money – the Knockando wool mill is still up and running, producing mainly small “boutique” runs of specialty tartans and tweeds, often in collaboration with other organizations. (In the shop there were a variety of these patterns on display and for sale, including the “Knockando” tartan that reflects the design of one of the mill’s windows – a large central pane surrounded by smaller ones – and a design produced in collaboration with a Swedish organization in bright, vivid colors.
I confess to a moment of weakness; I picked up a scarf in a bright, colorful plaid of the “mini moorland” pattern. It’ll go with just about any color of coat I can think of, and in any event it feels kind of cool to support a business like this one. I wasn’t alone, either; as we roamed the grounds a fellow visitor was carefully arranging her own purchase (a larger shawl) for an Instagram-ready photograph among the garden’s flowers, the pinks and yellows and blues of the blossoms matching exactly the threads shooting through the earthy grayish-green of the background.
There’s something about visiting a place that is just so thoroughly…pleasant that has a buoying effect; this was perhaps lucky, for as the road brought us up and out of the green, rolling hills of Speyside the sky began to cloud over, and we soon found ourselves driving through the kind of light but steady rain that’s been with us at least once a day since our arrival.
And so, we drove for a time. The number of sheep gradually became less (though of course they did not disappear entirely); the rockiness of the countryside further abated as we approached the border with the lowlands. Not completely, though: our next destination, Callander, sits right at the jumping-off point for quite a bit of outdoor activity, much of it in the mountains of the Grampians or the Trossachs.
A search for a visitor-information centre brought us to a stop none of us had anticipated and that few of us were entirely certain what to make of: The House of Bruar.
That sounds grand, and in a sense it is, but it’s not, as you might think, a stately home. It’s a store, a huge and rather elaborate one, advertising itself as the paragon of Scottish country stores. From this I glean that the Scots and I define that phrase a bit differently. When I hear “country store,” I think of the tiny Meador Grocery down the road from my grandfather’s farm, with the plywood-walled addition that housed its banks of flattened videos and the Friday night fish fry. This? This was something of an entirely different species.
To give you some idea of what we were dealing with, we entered via the “Menswear Hall,” which had a “Cashmere and Knitwear Hall” below that. From there it was an easy walk to the “Country Living” hall – a sprawling two floors of linens, kitchenware, and decor with antlers – and thence to the wing containing the restaurant, food hall, ladies’ wear hall (with annex for leather and furs) and children’s wear hall…all of it forming a great U around a central glass-roofed courtyard.
Inside, the various “halls” were crammed to the gills with frighteningly posh goods: gourmet food, cashmere sweaters on sale at £149 (down from £200!), decor liberally embellished with antlers, hip flasks that cost upwards of £130, crystal bowls etched with patterns of red squirrels that I was afraid to breathe in the general direction of, let alone pick up to look at the price…
In other words, it was Bass Pro by way of the Hamptons.
Somewhere in Scotland there are people who think nothing of visiting this place and dropping the equivalent of thousands of Canadian dollars on a tweed suit, or hundreds of dollars on a picnic hamper of gourmet bits and bobs. Somewhere in Scotland there are people for whom “the country” means genteel pursuits like riding and cricket and boating and golf; for whom this is the equivalent of stopping to gear up before going to the cottage for the weekend. Somewhere in Scotland there are people who are as far removed from the idea I have of “the country” as I am from the surface of Mars.
The masses. The classes.
The one percent. Or, from certain points of view, the problem.
Hardly anyone there was OF “the classes,” mind you. I suppose the rest of the folk visit to shop aspirationally, treat themselves, or perhaps just daydream about what it might be like to be part of the problem in their own right.
We did find the visitor information centre, in the end; the young man there pointed out a couple of the locations on our historic Scotland passes that he’d been to. The first of these, Stanley Mills, was en route to our destination for the evening, so we headed there.
At first, despite the signage, we thought we’d made a mistake. Oh, the buildings looked about right – tall stony edifices that made a rough square, a street lopping off one side of it into a chunk of freestanding…offices, from the look of what we could see through the windows. Certainly not open to the public – though there was a nearby power station with an obvious “here’s how this power station operated a hundred years ago” placard out front, so we had to be close.
Eventually, we made our way to one end of the “u” portion of the square, where another sign finally directed us to the right point of entry. The staffer on duty explained a lot by saying that only part of the mills were retained as a historic site; one side of the “u” was condos, while the freestanding chunk was indeed office space, rented out by the Trust.
All righty then: onward, in any event.
The Stanley Mills were named, as one might already be thinking, for a Lord Stanley; when industrialization became a Thing in the 1800s, he felt that getting on that particular bandwagon might be a good plan, and there was a burgeoning market for cotton in its various forms, so he bought up some used equipment from down in England and then gave all the crofters on his land an offer: Come work at the mill! Better housing and jobs for everyone!
Wee problem with this statement: if you didn’t want to take him up on the offer, you couldn’t just carry on working the land if you wanted to. He had other plans for that land, thanks, and if you weren’t going to join the mill and contribute…well, then, kindly bugger off, you useless gits.
Second wee problem with this statement: while the housing almost certainly was better, whether the jobs were better was…debatable, and that’s even if there was one for you. The mills only rarely hired men, you see. Why do that when you could pay women so much less, and children even less than that?
They were the sort of working conditions that brought us Upton Sinclair and Karl Marx, too: absurdly long hours, low wages, and horrifically dangerous conditions. The machines were noisy, and most workers had hearing damage; small children had to scurry under machines to clean out fibers and could easily lose fingers or hands in the process. A fine dust of cotton detritus filled the air constantly, giving many workers a terrible cough that lingered, perhaps for the rest of their lives – and worse, it was highly flammable; a single spark could set a huge area alight in an instant (needless to say, the fire escape protocols weren’t well-developed, either.)
Still, production was steady (with the exception of a closure from about, oh, 1860-1865…some sort of trouble or other in the States) and eventually the mill secured its future – for a time – by developing a technique for producing strips of linen that were used in cigarette factories to help form the cigarettes before rolling; this was a closely guarded secret, and the women (always women) in that part of the factory got to work in an area with blacked-out windows. Later came work crafting heavier goods – for example belts of heavy cotton, soaked in tar, that would run heavy machinery and power things like tanks during the war.
In the end it was synthetic fibers that caused the mill to shut down – though not at the time or for the reasons you might think. Hoping to capitalize on the vogue for acrylics, the mill switched its machinery to accommodate this new wonder fiber…but then, when cotton once again became popular in the 80s, the mill could no longer afford to switch back to supporting its earlier product.
That’s right. The place ran right up into the 80s before finally shutting down.
The presentation was excellent, I’ve got to say. Lots of interactive presentations for kids (and playful/curious adults) to play with, including a simulation of the “let’s get the cotton fibers out of the machines without losing a finger!” game that those long-ago kids had to play and some really nicely-done demonstrations of the physics of the machinery – and the waterwheels and turbines that gave the mill its power before gas and electricity came along.
But it does make for an unintentionally compelling (and slightly disturbing) contrast to the morning’s exploration at Knockando. One of these mills is (now) essentially a small artisanal operation; the other is a pretty bleak, if interesting, reminder of how little most of us appreciate where the things we wear and eat and decorate our homes come from. Certainly I doubt that those someones who shop at the House of Bruar on their way to a weekend’s blithe enjoyment of rural pursuits spend much time thinking about it.
Do the people in the lofts ever think much of the suffering that went on in the buildings where they lived once? Should they? Perhaps sites, like people, can be redeemed over time? Can happy lives lived in a place make easier its fit in the world around it, even if they cannot erase its history?
As we headed out to Callander for the evening I spent some time looking at my hands. Fair, soft skin, neatly-trimmed nails, if a bit uneven in length. By the standards of those mill workers in 1850, a high-born lady’s hands. But it wouldn’t be one’s hands that mark one out as of “the classes” today, would it? Our mill workers now are waitresses working for below minimum wage, call-centre employees paid by the call and desperate to rack up as many as they can. I may not lose a finger in a machine, but do some of us not bear other scars, less visible?
Perhaps grimmer thoughts than are really appropriate for a holiday.
Our lodging for the evening was the Abbotsford Lodge in Callander. While I don’t think any of us really knew quite what to expect, I feel pretty confident that nobody was expecting what we got: a large house with multiple levels, an unusual fusion of European and Asian/Indian-style decor…and sort of creepily-good service throughout. Our landlord spotted us hanging around in the lounge to plan our next move and offered everyone a complimentary dram of whiskey; the ensuing conversation informed us that he was an ex-oil man who’d met his wife in Kazakhstan and eventually settled in to run a guest house because it involved less trekking around to very very dangerous places. (This explained his wife’s very unusual accent: someone whose first language wasn’t English that learns it from a Scot results in some very curious pronunciations.)
He also, by extension, revealed himself to be a pretty canny sort of fellow; I believe the drink was at least partly an excuse to investigate how put off we’d be on the idea of coming to Scotland thanks to Brexit (not that much) and partly a means of securing that all-important positive TripAdvisor review. (I never use TripAdvisor at home, but here it seems to be by far the preferred Yelp-equivalent.)
On his recommendation we headed to a local pub called the Crown Inn for some venison casserole (in my case, anyway) and a chance to watch some of the football match between Wales and Portugal. The pub proved to be more of a family restaurant than a proper pub, and the Welsh lost, to everyone’s sorrow. Everyone loves an underdog, no? And Portugal wins so much at football already!
Ah well. They fought well in any case (though Mark still very much prefers baseball.)