Interview Gillian Welsh
I grew up in Wokingham in Berkshire and moved to Skye in 2005. I was driving buses when I first arrived, and I’d been a postman before that. I’d also been in the Navy – you couldn’t say I had any designing or making roots. But in 2008 I saw an advert in the local paper looking for someone to work at Skyeskyns.
I knew nothing about tanning at the time but the idea appealed because it meant working with natural materials and using my hands. I learnt most of the craft on the job, although I did take some courses in technical tanning in Northampton. That mostly just gives you the scientific or theoretical aspect of tanning; all the actual doing is something you have to practise to learn.
Skyeskyns is one of only a handful of sheepskin tanners left in the UK. My assistant Becky and I start early, usually about 6am, and work until 2pm or 3pm.
We have to go through a 14-step process to complete a skin, so each day will be dedicated to one of these processes.
We could be washing raw skins, preparing them, putting them in the tanning bath, drying them, brushing or finishing them.
We do very little to the wool itself – it’s all about the skin.
You need to do the basics well to produce a beautiful finished product.
We’ve become a visitor attraction and it can be quite a challenge co-ordinating production around a small tannery while there are tours going through constantly in the summer.
We’re working with an organic material that will deteriorate quickly if we don’t keep to our schedule. You never know what will come out of the tanning bath.
Most of our machinery is from the 1920s and 1930s. One piece even dates from the late 19th century.
The machines are getting old now and are starting to be less reliable, but we want to keep the traditional feel of the tannery.
We do experiment, though. We have recently moved over to mimosa tanning [using tannin from tree bark] – it’s more environmentally friendly and produces beautiful leather. It will be interesting to see how well it sells over the next 12 months.
The process of designing the tanning recipe and experimenting with it has been challenging but rewarding.
As long as a commission is legal and ethical, we would consider most requests. We did a highland cow hide a number of years ago. It was huge and really too big for our machines but it was fun and turned out okay. It took quite a long time and needed three people to do it, but it was a satisfying job.
Living on Skye influences every part of my life and work. I love its landscapes and natural environment. My wife and I have a small croft, so I also spend time looking after our animals – we have sheep, ponies and a few chickens.
If I wasn’t a tanner, I’d like to have been a gamekeeper or a professional deerstalker. I enjoy shooting – archery or rifles – which I believe is part of the careful management of the balance of nature, as well as being a great way to explore the island.
The job can be stressful sometimes, but I take to the hills with my two dogs and it helps me wind down. Seeing a customer choosing and buying a skin is very enjoyable, but being outside in the wild is my passion.
We’re not making something out of nothing – we are enhancing nature. The fleece is already there. We are preserving it and making it look even more beautiful. That’s the motivation and inspiration behind everything we do.