Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Mägi at the Tweed Shop

“I'll see you in a bit,” I called out to the empty house as I set out to the shed to pull out the purple mountain bike that I use to explore Sutherland.

My bag slung over my back, I set out down the main street (only street?) of Culrain. Forty seconds later and I was  taking a right turn onto a walking path that also is designated for bicycles. Upon reaching the Kyle of Sutherland, a body of water that is between Invershin and Culrain and moves with the tides, I hoisted my bike onto my shoulder as I trekked down the steps. A few more steps down and I was set to go on the A836 to Lairg via the Falls of Shin.

Biking wherever I go is grounding and important to me. When I'm on a bike, I don't feel like a tourist. On a bike I can go further than I can by foot without the restrictions of public transportation or automobiles. With bikes I don't hesitate to stop at every notion I glance at on the side of the road.

Being up in the Highlands has felt better than washing my scalp after 5 days of the dead skin building up. Whenever I think of it, I breath in deep and focus all my attention on that breath. The air here is fresh and the landscape rural (but not untouched, unfortunately – as Scotland has been manhandled extensively).

I biked along the Kyle a bit until I came to a turnoff for the Falls of Shinn. Every local had told me to visit them. It's a short bike ride there, maybe 20 minutes or so. I had attempted a visit a few nights ago but got held up when I met a man and his son picking bilberries and proceeded to join them – purple-stained fingers and all.

I allowed myself a dozen minutes with the bilberries before pedaliing the last half-a-mile to the Falls. I couldn't find a place for my bike so I dragged it down the trail with me. Well, it was sort of a trail. It was more so a 1-2 minute-long path.

The falls were a murky tea colour as they crashed between a few rocks and carved out bits of a might-be-someday cave. You could spot salmon leaping with full gusto against the stream, as salmon do near the end of their lives. I was impressed. These little guys were attempting something even I would have immense difficulty with. I miss my, “Salmon: the fish that dies for love,” shirt. Marni gave it to me.

Tourists gathered around with their cameras and would point out every blimein' fish that leaped up, just in case we couldn't see. O – that sounded a bit harsh. I don't really mind them. I enjoyed their company. I just found it a bit unnecessary that they announce what we all could see.

I opened my pack and pulled out two delicious things: an apple (I can eat them in Europe – no allergic reaction!) and a letter from Tucker. Both were devoured and enjoyed. It was pretty, yes. I enjoyed it, yes. But, after years of living in the Pacific Northwest, I can't quite say it was spectacular. I've been raised around the salmon culture (mainly via public school education – did your public school take you to see the fish ladders?). It was pleasant, though, and I'll keep it at that.

After carrying my bicycle back up the hill, I continued on my way to Lairg. The man I had picked bilberries with the night before had told me it was only a few miles away and I figured it would be a good afternoon exploration.

Now the bike ride over to Lairg would be filed away in my mental file system of bike trips as exceptional and fairy-tale like. This is mainly because it was just like the stories I had read about Northern United Kingdom. It brought to mind the stories of James Harriot, a rural veterinarian in the UK, and Jane Austen. I cycled alongside the River Shinn, through woods and by expansive fields that went up into the hills. The fields are divided up by stone walls and, with the layers of the hills and heather and grass and stone walls with the sheep... it was perfect. I started to sing a Gaelic tune. Lovely day.

It didn't take long to get to Lairg and my pace doubled upon seeing the sign that told me I had reached the turn-off. A quarter till closing time, I made it to the visitor's center, tucked away in a quiet neighbourhood, which was a sweet resource. The lady helped me find a few brochures that could guide me through future afternoon and day-trips around Sutherland.

I cycled across the bridge to the heart of this small village of a few hundred residents. There was one place I had been hoping to visit and that was the Tweed shop. I expected them to be closed but was pleased to find them open. After stowing my bike behind the building, I found my way to the door and pushed it open, the bell making a satisfying, “Cling!”

Greeting me at the front desk was 18 year old Megan.

Welcome to the wonderful world of tweed.

Upon entering, neither of us probably thought I could buy anything, but I looked anyways. At one point I tried on a smart looking jacket. It wasn't quite typical but still held a lot of class. I then looked at the price tag. 440 pounds (which is a bit over/around $600). $600 for a blazer.

Still, I looked around. I checked out the jackets and vests. I had told myself to keep my mind open. If something really grabbed me, if I really loved it, my wallet was open.

Open in a shop like this?

I've been raised frugal. I can do frugal. I do frugal daily.

But I also like to not keep my fists too tight. Money is money and I don't like to obsesess over it to much. If there's an opportunity I see, I don't want to pass up on it just for the costs. The only reason why I would pass up is if I think that money could later on be used in a more valuable way.

I'll fork over the dough for:

1) Awesome life experiences.
2) Ticket fare.
3) Something that has a cultural/sentimental connection to a memory.
4) Something of guaranteed quality that will be of use.

So I took a second look at those jackets.

Oh snap... I'm blogging at shopping in a tweed shop... what has happened to me?

Anyways, the jackets. They had these shooting coats for women. I asked the shopkeeper about them and she educated me about their quality. Later I got to know her better and she came from a similar “wealth status” as I did (definitely not the top). I know folks who are just trying to sell you something and folks that know that they're selling you something worth your cash.

Later that night I went online to research the brand. There were a bunch of men discussing it on a hunting website. Someone asked if it was any good. Numerous folks showed up to claim that the only singular fault of these jackets were that they were just too warm at times. I wanted the coat for Alaska so that wouldn't be a problem. They spoke of their own experiences and of their wives. They had bought these coats and they had yet to let them down.

This is what I was looking for. I need a good-quality thick-jacket that's made for being outside, fine with getting dirty, and made to last. $100 or more for a good jacket is pretty standard so it wasn't too unreasonable.

I also was eying a vest. I wear vests just about every day (except for in 50 C weather in Ukraine, then I don't). My last two vests have been worn just about into shreds. This current one is starting to get holes and all the stitching is looking loose and murky. I really like vests. A lot. Now I was, for the first time in my life, face to face with a well-made tweed vest in a small shop in Scotland that cost a bajillion dollars but was oh so nice.

I tried it on. “It actually fits you!” the shopkeeper said. She futher told me that a lot of people in the shop tried on the vest and it rarely actually fir them. She turned around so I could see the back of hers. There's a slit in the back with sort of a red pocket-y part. I don't know how to describe it. Anyways, with hers, the red was popped open a bit. Apparently it's not supposed to do that. With me, it lay flat. I was also able to close it. It fit me better than most of my clothes ever fit me and had  a red silk lining.

I continued trying on the two items in different combinations. Small vest. Little vest. Vest with coat. Coat without vest. Coat with jumper. Bigger coat with jumper. Smaller coat with jumper...

We continued to chat and learn about each other's lives.

She wanted to know my age and was surprised I was traveling this far out and away from home on my own. I wanted to know how she ended in in Lairg (her partner's folks own the tweed shop and they live above it).

She had had a busy day. A lot of folks come from long ways away to visit the shop. She talked about how young girl (not really, some in their twenties) come in and point to item after item and say, “Daddy, I want that,” and “Daddy, can I have that?” And their fathers oblige and they leave with a stack of tweed items, each valued at $100-600 each. She deals with a lot of rich people.

They try to sell as many made-in-Scotland tweeds but she told me a lot of the business has moved south... to England. All items that I checked the labels of were sewn in Scotland or England. There was room after room of tweed and moleskin pants and wool sweaters and scarfs and socks to wear with your trousers (oh the tweed trousers!).

I asked more on where business came from and she mentioned the estates. Apparently quite a bit of business comes from the surrounding 70 estates in the area. Estates involve property and animals on them and a few other dimensions I'm not sure I fully understand yet. The rad thing (and for me, surprising and mind-boggling) was that many of the estates each have their very own tweed. They have their own pattern and that tweed was designed for and is made exclusively for them. So these estates will go and get a huge roll of tweed and then take it to this shop which is where they can get the tweed made into different items. Then, everyone at the estate can have matching vests and hunting coats and the like.

“Would you like to see the estate tweeds?” she asked me. I eagerly said I would and she took me to a closet behind a rack of clearance items. Inside were huge rolls of tweed. It was beautiful.

The whole shop was beautiful.

“Would you like me to put these on hold for you?” she asked. I said that would be nice. Over the next week or so I'll give it thought if I want to buy them or not. This isn't a purchase I can make on a whim.

I exited.
Biked home.
It was exhilarating.
Dinner was delicious.
And I feel good.

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