The Birlinn Yarn Company and Seafaring Sheep

by Meg Rodger 1 year ago
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Sheepskins and Knitting Yarn in the Outer Hebrides, Scotland.

Cones dunes 1

The shipping forecast issued by the Met office at 11:30 UTC on Friday 27 January 2017. Northwest Hebrides, Bailey – Southeasterly 6 to gale 8, becoming cyclonic gale 8 to storm 10 then southwesterly 5 to 7 later. Very rough or high, becoming rough or very rough later. Rain then showers. Moderate or poor, becoming good.

Winter on machair

January and February are always the toughest months in the Hebridean islands off the north-west of Scotland. For both humans and animals our resources and resilience are at their lowest point, the days are short and dark, the weather extreme and wild.

However, amongst all this there is still beauty and special moments of fiery sunrises, otter tracks to the shore and soaring golden eagles.

otter tracks 1

In 2015, I tentatively started The Birlinn Yarn Company from our family croft (small holding) at Sunhill on the small Hedridean island of Berneray in the Sound of Harris. We have lived here for the past twenty years, worked, renovated two properties and brought up two sons. We now produce deep luxurious sheepskins and a range of knitting yarn from our own fleeces and those we buy from neighbouring crofters.


Hebridean sheep, dark fleeced and horned, were originally brought here by the Vikings in their long boats around 800 A.D. Overtime the long boats, built for long distance sea voyages were adapted for inter-island travel and became the Hebridean galley or Birlinn. Hence the brand name Birlinn Yarn, what’s more they are still ‘seafaring sheep’ as we take them to and fro from the islands by boat.

Hebridean sheep on winter machair

Supporting and maintaining traditional crofting (small scale agricultural) practice, which has maintained equilibrium and respect for the ecology for hundreds of years, is very import to our business ethos. We use seaweed to fertilise our crops, keep stock to low intensive levels and every activity or action is measured against the impact to the environment.

Our agricultural activities are set mainly by the rhythms of the weather and seasons. Our sheep lamb on the croft, then once the lambs are strong enough we take them all to the islands for summer grazing. Here they graze on a wide variety of plants, including seaweed, a bit like trying to attain our 5/day fruit and veg – resulting in a good healthy diet.

In July, we return to shear all the sheep on the islands. We choose a good forecast, wait for a crowd of cousins to come up on holiday to help out and it always turns out to be a long, hard but very enjoyable day.

Sheering day

In the autumn the ewes are brought back to the croft to meet their boyfriend (the tup) and then they spend the winter months grazing on the machair (raised beach) to the West of the island. And so the cycle continues …

Amongst many other activities, I am also a practicing visual artist with an exhibition currently showing at Taigh Chearsbhagh Museum & Art Gallery in Lochmaddy, North Uist. While my current fascination is working with the wind to generate drawings, I am always taking note of the wonderful range of colours we have in the Hebrides.

Thus, just this week, I have launched a new organically dyed knitting yarn range reflecting the subtle tones and shades of the Hebrides. Our ecosystems here are as much Highland as Island given that our habitats range from moor, to machair, shore and sea. In relatively short distances, you can encounter gliding golden eagles, wild orchids, playful otters and roaring Atlantic breakers on the shore.

Reef organic dyed yarn with storm and moss

This range of organic dyed yarns have been produced as a unique and small batch to complement out natural yarns. By over-dying a blended yarn this has given the colours both texture and depth. The yarns come in four colours: Sgeir – Reef, Còinneach – Moss, Monadh – Moor and Duileasg.

Newton Hills standing stone close up

What next? Well, I hope this year to work with a knitwear designer who understands our ethos and brand to develop knitting patterns incorporating both the Norse and Hebridean heritage of our sheep and islands.

In the meantime, why not take a look at our website, be tempted and knit yourself a wee bit of the Scottish Hebrides.

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