Woodside Croft is run by Beth, who has a beautiful flock of Shetland sheep as well as cattle, bees and a lot of fruit trees! In addition to her croft Beth is a wonderful soap maker – you can find her lovely soaps at Strathpeffer Spa Soap Company. Beth also makes delicious latte!
Beth and her flock live near one of the prettiest Highland villages, Strathpeffer which is an old spa town – and the views from the croft are stunning. All of Beth’s flock are coloured Shetlands and she tends to lamb late, usually well into May so as to be able to lamb outside without, usually, having to worry about the weather.
Maddie, her husband Neil, and their daughters Bella and Iona (and their families) manage an organic flock of Cheviots across two farms one, Coulmore, here on the Black Isle and the second, Rhidoroch, on the west near Ullapool. They have been farming organically for many years and, sadly, the fleece from their flock fetches less than normal Cheviot (so that even with clipping done by the family, mostly Maddie, they have had very little return for their fleeces). As a family they are very keen to see all the products from their land being well used and they are delighted that I am able to add value to their wool (as well as paying a good rate directly to them).
Cheviot wool is traditionally thought of as only fit for carpets, however this is really not the case if fleeces are carefully selected. I have picked first clip hogg fleeces from the Coulmore flock and the resulting yarn is strong but beautifully soft and smooth. I’m looking forward to working with Coulmore wool for many years to come!
South Muirnich Farm
Glenda and Ian are bringing an old croft back to life at South Muirnich, which is a wonderful wild spot to the south of Loch Ness with stunning views to hills and lochs. Along with their Highland ponies Glenda is building a flock of Icelandic sheep. I have thoroughly enjoyed meeting this flock, they are a characterful bunch – all somewhat good at escaping, especially Aragorn the tup – and, with their primitive Northern European Short-Tailed ancestry, behave very differently from the Scottish Mules I grew up with.
Icelandic sheep are double-coated with a strong outercoat called the ‘tog’ and a fine undercoat called the ‘thel’ which we have spun in the traditional Icelandic ‘Lopi’ method. Both coats have been worked together in an unspun fibre – which can be a little fragile until knit together when it becomes a very durable, and warm, fabric. Broken ends can be easily joined with a little moisture (otherwise known as spit-splicing!).
Eilean Dubh is a small flock of pedigree Bluefaced Leicester sheep kept and shown by John and Sheena’s children (one of whom is a school-mate of my eldest). They are based near Culbokie on the north side of the Black Isle (Eilean Dubh being the Gaelic for Black Isle). Their beautiful flock of majestic-looking Bluefaced Leicesters produce typically fine, silky and lustrous fleeces. They were my first experience of working with this special wool and I really enjoyed skirting them one warm afternoon this last summer.
Unfortunately John and Sheena have been unable to secure grazing for the future and were very sad to have to disband their flock – but pleased to know that their lovely sheep have found good new homes. I will be working hard in the coming weeks to find more local Bluefaced Leicester wool for future years as it has been a pleasure to work with this beautiful fibre.
Sally is the wonderful woman behind Meadows Flock. From the first moment I contacted her (as the Highland Rep of the Shetland Sheep Society) she has been entirely enthusiastic, helpful and positive about my plans for Black Isle Yarns. She has been keeping Shetlands for many years and I suspect has ‘enabled’ a great many other small flocks in the Highlands.
Sally rents a variety of small fields on the edge of the beautiful old town of Dornoch and her sheep are the friendliest I’ve ever come across. On the day we’d arranged for me to visit and photograph the flock unfortunately Sally had to go to a funeral, but she left out a bucket of feed and instructed me to call ‘sheep’ as I arrived………..and lo and behold I had a very willing set of models (including Fudgie the pony!).
Janet is a fairly new smallholder who Sally introduced me to. She lives inland from Dornoch in the stunning Kyle of Sutherland, on the edge of some very wild land indeed. Again Janet couldn’t have been more helpful (as well as making delicious coffee!) – I’m so enjoying meeting these lovely people with a passion for their sheep and an interest in what happens to their wool.
Her flock were a little more wary of me as a stranger but were clearly very comfortable with Janet……….Janet has adopted Sally’s ‘sheep’ call and they all came running at the sound of her voice, pausing and slowing down once they spotted me.
Jane is someone who is passionate about livestock and the land – not only does she work in a farm related role but she has a huge range of animals on her smallholding, including some very lovely sheep. Her land is on the edge of the Black Isle, not far from Beauly, and has beautiful views inland to Glen Affric and Cannich – a very lovely area with hill after hill on the horizon.
Her core flock consists of North Country Cheviots which are the main sheep around here. They’re not generally thought to have particularly exciting wool and it is often written off as being fit for carpets only. This is most definitely not the case with the fleeces from Jane’s flock!
Alongside her Cheviots Jane has some really special mixed breed ewes. You can tell from their names how much she loves and enjoys them! The ewes whose names I particularly love are Horse’s Daughter (Bluefaced Leicester-Cotswold-Cheviot cross), Monkey Face (possibly Gotland-Hebridean cross) and Frankenstein (Bluefaced Leicester-Cotswold-Cheviot cross).
Dan and Rachel, and their two wee boys, organically farm Fearniewell Croft in the heart of the Black Isle (only a handful of miles from our home). They work ”on a scale mid way between gardening and farming which means a close eye can be kept on things as they grow. The grass & clover feeds the cows whose dung feeds the soil which feeds the vegetables which feed us – no short cuts but the result is healthy animals, soil, vegetables and people.”
The small flock of Gotlands ”with a hint of Shetland” (thanks to a fence jumping tup a few generations ago!) is integral to the croft – Dan even hand clips with traditional shears. Sadly, until Black Isle Yarns, their fleece has only been used as insulation and slug barriers! We’re hoping that from now on their clip will be put to good use in countless knitting projects instead and hopefully treasured for many years to come.
Hedgefield is the show name for Jim and Linda’s award winning flock of pedigree Zwartbles. Their sheep are a very handsome bunch! The flock is based on the edge of the small town of Beauly – set at the head of the Beauly Firth (just a few miles inland from the Black Isle) it earned the name Beauly after Mary Queen of Scots exclaimed ‘C’est un beau lieu’ when she visited in the 16th Century (or a slightly less romantic version suggests that the name comes from the French Monks who set up the Priory in 1230).
Jim clips his best youngsters early ready for the coming show season which means we are able to benefit from these ‘shearling’ fleeces. The wool has a softer handle than that of mature Zwartbles and the fleece is a beautiful rich bitter chocolate brown with less of the bleaching that comes in with age.