For centuries, a creel was used in the Isle of Lewis to carry earth, seaweed and manure to meagre plots of earth, hard earned in barren places. The creel was also used to carry, peats, fish and sometimes even babies and young children during long journeys.
Back in 2004 in the village of Geshader in Uig, there was a solitary tenacious willow bush, in the tumble down stone walled willow enclosure, on each croft in the village. The prevalence of the willow beds a testament to the role of the creel in crofting life over several generations.
Since tractors and plastic fish boxes were introduced, the art of making willow creels was no longer a necessity. The process of framing and weaving a creel, became a vague incomplete memory in the community, with only the late Donald MacDonald of Gisla practising the craft in Uig in living memory.
In Shawbost on the Westside of Lewis, Donald MacArthur had learned the skills from his father and gave demonstrations at the local museum. Donald came to Uig to lead a Creel making workshop in the Community Centre in November 2005, funded by the Council’s Community Learning Fund.
To give flexibility and strength, the willow suitable for creel making, has to be from a regularly coppiced source. There was not enough locally coppiced willow available and a batch of suitable willow wended its way the length of the country. There were to be five participants on the four day creel making course. Dawn Susan living in Great Bernera was one of the participants on the course in 2005.
In 2013 Dawn organised the Autumn Gathering of the Scottish Basket Makers Circle to come to Lewis. Among the basket making opportunities was the traditional Hebridean Creel. Due to Donald MacArthur’s ill health on the day, Dawn stepped in to tutor the only course in Scotland, where you can learn to make a Hebridean Style Creel.
Another development is that the raw material used by generations of creel makers, to make the extreme load bearing creels, is now available locally, with coppiced willow beds in Uig, Bernera and other areas.
The cultural tourists who attended the creel workshops in 2015, learned to shape and weave their own creels. They took home newly learned craft skills and an original Hebridean creel. Each one the product of an indigenous craft skill, revived just in the nick of time on the west side of Lewis.
@ Magaidh Smith