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The House of the Feathers, Sketches in Wool by Alice Starmore

Sketches In Wool

Nothing to my mind represents the beginning of life on this earth more perfectly than an egg. In early Spring every crevice and shelf on the stacs and cliffs of the archipelago contain the eggs of around one million seabirds. For the people of Hiort, eggs were a vital part of survival and they risked their lives to harvest them by being lowered from the clifftops on ropes or rowing to the outlying stacs and climbing the sheer cliffs. Calum Macdonald recounted how it was every young boy’s ambition to visit all the islands and stacs to take part in this extremely hazardous operation. Landing places were literally a footsized outcrop of rock which had to be leapt at barefoot from the sgoth (Hebridean wooden boat) in a heaving sea. Girls also took part and looked forward to a stay on Boreray. For them, they had the relative safety of leaping from the boat into the arms of an anchored man before they climbed upwards of a thousand feet to the little dwellings and green pastures at the top.

Gannets on St Kilda

Sailing around Boreray and the stacs is an experience like no other. This is the domain of the birds and the sounds and sights of thousands of them on every ledge and wheeling in the sky around you is unforgettable. Though I am well-used to heaving seas and high cliffs I still found it unimaginably awe-inspiring and humbling that through sheer necessity, people became adept at traversing places that are on the very edge of human possibility.

Therefore, as the perfect beginning to this project, I have begun with the symbol of the egg. I knitted these in my Hebridean 2 Ply in Solan Goose, Driftwood and Pebble Beach and shaped them to fit perfectly in my hands. I then very quickly embroidered them with abstract images of birds, feathers, stacs and the wonderful arcs and shapes of the stone structures around the Village Bay. I felted them so that the images became faint, as though they were shrouded in the mist that frequently swirls around Hiort. They will serve me as initial tokens and I will look at them occasionally to see if they will bring forth some further directions.

The House of the Feathers, Sketches in Wool by Alice Starmore
The House of the Feathers, Sketches in Wool by Alice Starmore
The Queen of the Waves, Sketches in Wool by Alice Starmore

Conachair is the highest hill on the main island, rising up protectively along with its neighbour Mullach Mòr, to shelter Village Bay from the north winds. Viewed from the bay, Conachair (below left) presents a rounded, comforting shape that belies the heart-stopping drama of its north face: its 430-metre cliffs dropping straight down into the ocean are the highest sea cliffs in the British Isles. From the summit it is possible to mentally trace the shape and size of the rim of the volcano by turning and viewing each island and stac in the archipelago. It then becomes clear that the core of the volcano lies under An Linne, the four-mile wide deep-water ocean pool between the main island of Hirta and Boreray.

Cleits studding the moor on St Kilda
St Kilda village

As if the unique beauty of the archipelago seen from the summit of Conachair were not enough, the wonders that lie hidden beneath are also truly extraordinary. The underwater scenery is spectacular with huge tunnels, gullies and arches filled with marine life such as technicolour jewel, plumose and sagartia anemones and myriad soft corals and sponges. This underworld has only been revealed to man in the last 40 years or so, but it has been familiar to Hiort’s seabirds from time immemorial. Their view ranges from the heights to the depths and watching gannets rising up in the air to a height of 30 metres and then making arrows of themselves to dive straight down at a speed of 100kmph is exhilarating even for the watcher.

Imagining what sights the gannets see as they plunge down through the clear water was the starting point for this particular sketch in wool. I was also thinking of the close relationship the women of Hiort had with the seabirds and of the incredible risks they took to hunt and gather, so I made this sketch as a sheath that can be used to carry a knife or other useful small items, such as knitting needles, which they were rarely seen without. I started by knitting the shape in sea colours. I then felted the piece so that the colours meld from dark to bright, rather like light on waves, and then covered the piece with abstract embroidery based on the intensely colourful undersea life. I knitted seaweed tassels and twisted cords to depict the ropes so vital to human life on the cliffs and sea. I plan to extend this into other items for my Hiorteach Queen of the Waves.

St Kilda - Hiort

My last view of St Kilda was in the evening, sailing back to the relative calm of the Island of Lewis & Harris ahead of a storm. The image above shows Hirta (and Soay on the extreme right) in the distance from the back of the MV Cuma. From this perspective Connachair's rounded shape disappears completely, leaving only a sharp peak and a sheer drop from summit to ocean.

Below is a closer view showing a section of the cliff face beneath Connachair. To gain some sense of perspective look for a tiny white dot equidistant between the shard of cliff sticking up in the lower right hand of the image, and the green grass on the slope of the neighbouring cliff to the left. That tiny dot is a gannet in flight. The bird has a 6ft wing span, and this image shows less than half the height of the cliff face.

Cliffs at St Kilda
The Queen of the Waves, Sketches in Wool by Alice Starmore

Healing wells are an important feature of Hebridean culture, with some wells even reputed to heal specific diseases. There are seven notable wells on Hiort and the most famous of these is Tobar nam Buadh, translated as The Well of Virtues. It is located in the Gleann Mòr in the North West of the main island. The water from this well was considered to have such great healing qualities that invalids from the other Outer Hebridean islands made their way over the ocean in the hope of being cured. The belief that spirits resided in the well continued well into the nineteenth century and it was necessary for those who drank the water to appease the guardian spirit by leaving a small gift. Pebbles, shells and buttons were considered appropriate.

I knitted and felted nine whelk shells in each of which I enclosed an embroidered felted button in honour of the spirit of Tobar nam Buadh. At this stage I feel that these will become a feature of a larger work.

The Heroine's Ropes, Sketches in Wool by Alice Starmore

In Gaelic legend there was an era called An Aois Òg (The Young Age) when the Earth was far different from what it is today, and land bridges existed across oceans. The fact that this concept is close to geological reality is something that I find quite staggering.

On Hiort, Taigh na Bana-Ghaisgich (The Heroine’s House) is situated close to the Well of Virtues in the Gleann Mòr on the North-West of the main island. It was later known as the Àirigh Mhòr where the women resided in summer whilst tending the cattle. According to a legend of Hiort, the building was the home of the Bana-Ghaisgeach (Heroic Woman) who in the Young Age went hunting deer on horseback over a plateau that stretched from Hiort, forty-odd miles across the ocean, to link with Harris.

I love this grand legend – it immediately conjures up visions of this heroic woman who, if she and her companions could scale monumental sea cliffs, would think nothing of galloping on horseback over a plateau of her own creation to hunt large creatures never seen on Hiort. I see her dressed in gold and green to command these creatures of the Harris hills and she surely would bring with her some strong ropes, as these have always been essential to survival on Hiort.

Early ropes were made from carefully prepared hide. It required a great deal of skill to cut a single long strip, beginning from the outside and cutting deiseal (clockwise), spiralling precisely to the centre. Three of these strips were then plaited together before the whole length was enclosed in a peilid (sheepskin). The most precious heirloom a father could bequeath his son or daughter was his rope, which was considered worth at least two of Hiort’s very best cattle.

I made the Heroine’s ropes by twisting my Hebridean yarn of Golden Plover, Lapwing, Bogbean and Machair. I made sure I did this clockwise and to enclose them, I knitted and felted a cover in my Celtic key and knot pattern, which I then secured with a rope decorated with felted beads embroidered with antler and eternal knot designs. Her costume will begin to form from this beginning.

The Queen of the Waves, Sketches in Wool by Alice Starmore

My father was a fisherman from age fourteen to his forties, and his tales from various ports of call were very entertaining. His most terrifying tale was of a visit to Hiort. On a calm day of rest he took his vessel’s small rowing boat for a spin beneath the towering cliffs, and on a whim he decided to visit one of the caves, of which there are many. During his exploration he inadvertently found himself in a small cave suddenly cornered by the biggest and most aggressive bull seal he had ever encountered. He had only an oar for his defence and after a struggle he finally managed to repel the beast and give himself enough space to beat a hasty retreat.

I made this sporran in memory of his story, which used to scare the daylights out of me, not least because I knew the size of a bull seal’s sharp teeth. This sporran, filled with suitable charms and tokens, will make for a peaceful passage over the ocean. This is an idea for something that may worn by a traveller from one island to another.

I have called it Skildir as I think it suits the name, and this is the name from which St Kilda derives. There was never any saint and it seems that the name St. Kilda came about through an error by an early cartographer who inserted a stop between the S and the K of Skildi – a Norse word meaning “shields”. It is worthy to note that from a distance the islands can appear to sit on the ocean like Viking shields.

The Queen of the Waves, Sketches in Wool by Alice Starmore
Stacks Of St Kilda