Sunday, 5 December 2010

It's the weather to remember John MacGregor

As the temperatures plummet I still see young people wandering around scantly clam. That's up to them. I am snuggly warm  The  story starts a good while back when one spring I took myself off to walk the Western Islands -south to north. I was on the final stretch and had just visited the Callinish Stones. My destination that evening was Garenin on the NW coast of Lewis. In the late afternoon I came across little corrugated iron shed, the door was open and inside were three other walkers talking to an elderly man who was operating a weaving loom. The man was John MacGregor and he was explaining to the three visitors the weaving process.John had retired from the Harris Tweed organisation a few years ago and now operated free lance.
The three visitors he was talking with were typical of folk I met walking the Islands, one was German, one was Canadian and one Australian.  The shelves in the weaving shed had finished bales of tweed done to John's own design. Also pinned on the walls were two quotes. One, as befits a wee free Churchman, was from the bible:

Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.

which I later tracked down as from the epistle to the Hebrew. The second I still can't find despite several searches. It was from Thoreau and essentially said that if you were a quality craftsman no matter how remote you are located people will come to you to buy your wares. John certainly followed the injunction in Hebrews and as I stood in the isolated weaving shed it was obvious to was a living example of the Thoreau assertion.

John was the warden of the small Gatliff Hostel in a renovated black house in the village he was born. He and his wife Pat were brilliant wardens and spent many hours talking to hostellers and telling them about the area and its culture.

Before I left I went back to John's shed and and bought some tweed which I sent back by post. On my return I had it made up unto a suit  and that is what (25 years later) is keeping me warm.

The story ends in part with John's death and his obituary that appeared in the Herald part of which is below. I subsequently had a letter from his wife who greatly appreciated all friendships that she and John made whilst looking after the hostel. 

John took up Harris Tweed weaving as a profession and excelled as a designer and weaver. He won numerous prizes for his tweeds and one of his proudest moments was when he demonstrated his weaving skills to Her Majesty the Queen at a Craft Point exhibition in Beauly in 1981. Much of his own character was evident in the beautiful cloth he produced. His choice of colour and patterns were mere replicas of the colour, warmth, and pleasure he brought to other people's lives by his affectionate personality and friendly smile.

John was a founder member of the Carloway Historical Society and one of the founder-directors of Urras nan Gearrannan, a trust set up to restore a village of blackhouses. The first such blackhouse to be renovated became a Gatliff Trust Hostel and, when wardens were required for it, Pat and John MacGregor were the obvious candidates for the post. From 1991 to 1997 they played host to some 4000 visitors and the postcards, letters of appreciation, and comments in the visitors' book speak volumes about the quality of the MacGregor hospitality. Visitors came from all over the world and many returned more than once. Immensely proud of his culture and heritage, John was taken aback once when a German tourist asked him: ''What is it like to live in such a remote and inaccessible place?'' John replied that he thought Gearrannan was the centre of the universe and listed some of the various nationalities of the past week's visitors: French, German, Italian, Australian, Alaskan - and asked the bemused tourist: ''When did you last have an Alaskan on your doorstep?

1 comment:

  1. O how very happy I am to see this video clip of John on his old Hattersley loom. I am a writer and just this very day, I was working on a new book which will not be finished for another year or two, but reached the point (in walking through the island on a pilgrimage) of arriving at a point that brought bsck memories of John. That was why I googled his name and found your memorial to him. Here is what I wrote earlier today. It is first draft, and the way that writing a book like this goes, it may never see print, but I will share the draft with you:

    Next is the turn off to Tolsta Chaolais. It’s a road ending that always makes me think of my old friends from that village, now long passed away, John MacGregor and his Yorkshire wife, Pat. I wrote about John in Soil and Soul. What I didn’t mention there is that kept a copy of the Bible in the youth hostel at Garenin, Na Gearrannan. He kept it on a ledge right in the most prominent position by the entrance. Tourists would come in and, naturally, lay their stuff down on top. This gave John the occasion to arrive to collect the fees, and make a great song and dance about the need to respect the Bible, and not to dump things on top of it, and while he was at it to explain the village’s expectations for visitor conduct on the Sabbath day. “John’s Bible trap” was what I called it when I’d bring human ecology students there for their field trip.

    Just a little way down that road is a nondescript spot where he’d always make us stop the minibus. He’s say in a reverential loud voice: “How now, brown cow” … and point to the place where, many years ago, he’d buried his favourite brown cow that had passed away there, then he’d burst into laugher at his own pretence at pomposity and have us all joining in a chorus of “How now, brown cow” – the vegetarians too.


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