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Sunhill, Isle of Berneray, North Uist
Outer Hebrides, Scotland, HS6 5BQ

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WHY BIRLINN, THE HEBRIDEAN GALLEY?

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WHY BIRLINN, THE HEBRIDEAN GALLEY?

Meg Rodger

At this time of year on the croft at Sunhill, our Hebridean sheep are content to munch away at their winter grazing down on the machair. Machair – what is this machair? Well, machair is the term used to describe the low-lying grass plain, almost unique to the Outer Hebrides, where crofters grow their arable crops and, in the summer months, there is an abundance of wild flowers.

Our Hebridean sheep winter grazing on Berneray machair.

Our Hebridean sheep winter grazing on Berneray machair.

Berneray machair summer flowers.

Berneray machair summer flowers.

Since it is a quiet time of year for crofting, I thought it would be an opportunity to expand on how we developed the Birlinn Yarn logo for my new knitting wool venture.

New DK knitting yarn with all new Birlinn Yarn labels.

New DK knitting yarn with all new Birlinn Yarn labels.

As I have already explained elsewhere on this website, a long time ago (circa 800 A.D.) the Vikings arrived on the shores of the Hebrides in long boats, bringing with them their northern short-tailed sheep, warriors, wives, wee-ones and grannies (in that order no doubt).

Our island takes its name from the Old Norse Bjarnar-øy, which either means "Bjorn's island" or possibly "bear island" – so it was either full of blond headed warriors or bears.

Further, many of the islands in the Sound of Harris, some of which we use as summer grazing for our Hebridean sheep, have Norse names such as: Vaccasay, Votersay, Tahay, Sarstay. So the Norse definitely left their mark and were very much seafaring.

A detail from the first Sound of Harris chart published in 1857 showing some of the islands with Norse names.

A detail from the first Sound of Harris chart published in 1857 showing some of the islands with Norse names.

In time the Norse settled, their long boats built for speed and long sea voyages were adapted for inter-island passage and became the birlinn or Hebridean galley.

The Hebrideans, in particular the MacDonald clan, were unruly and saw an opportunity in the birlinn. They adopted it as their battle craft, waging war on the Vikings and in 1158 the dynasty of the Lord of the Isles began. The Vikings went home soon after, but they left behind their genes, birlinn boat design and their sheep.

There is little archaeological evidence of the Norse long boats or birlinns in the Hebrides. What evidence there is comes in the form of stone carvings. One of the best preserved and most detailed examples can be found in St. Clement’s Church in Rodel on the Southern tip of the Isle of Harris.

So last Easter, when I was beginning to develop my ideas for branding my knitting yarn business, I set out with my boys across the Sound of Harris (we did catch the ferry this time). It was a beautiful spring day so we went by bike.

Boys at St. Clements, Rodel, Isle of Harris.

Boys at St. Clements, Rodel, Isle of Harris.

The ferry journey from Berneray to Harris on the CalMac ferry takes around 50 mins with a 30 min (max) cycle up to Rodel. St. Clement’s Church was built in the fifteenth-century for the Chiefs of the MacLeods of Harris. The stone carvings are stunning, including several grave slabs of knights in armour belonging to various MacLeod chieftains. This thankfully occupied the boys, while I photographed what I had come to study. One of the few depictions of a birlinn complete with detailed rigging, oar holes and rudder.

Stone carving of a birlinn, St.Clements Church, Rodel, Isle of Harris.

Stone carving of a birlinn, St.Clements Church, Rodel, Isle of Harris.

It was from this carving that I drew my early concept for the Birlinn Yarn logo. In due course, Kristina Low took it on further, designing and developing it into the brand that we now use across our website and merchandise.

I like to think, as we take our sheep back and forth by boat to their Sound of Harris grazings, that a long time ago their ancestors were to and fro across the same waters in birlinns such as the one in Rodel Church. Hence they are still very much seafaring sheep …