Margaret Anne Elder – Herring Girl Collection, Barra

By Julia Welstead

Knitting is a skill often learned from a grandparent, with perhaps more time on their hands than a busy parent. For Margaret Anne Elder, learning to knit at her Granny’s knee became the inspiration for her Herring Girl Collection and Granny’s intricately knitted jumpers are the source of the many traditional patterns she now uses. 

Seeking a way to illuminate and honour the hard work ethic and stoicism of the Herring Girls, Margaret Anne dreamed up a knitwear collection whilst still working within the Social Enterprise and Community Development world. Ironically, it was being told at a work appraisal that she was ‘too enterprising’ that triggered her decision to resign and build her own company. With the story of the herring girls on her mind (her own Granny was one) she launched her knitwear range at the Mòd 2019 by knitting pieces for the Barra choir. 

Whilst this gave her new venture plenty of publicity, funds were required to set up the framework of the business: yarn, knitters, a website, images, leaflets, labels and so on. Again, in an ironic twist, Margaret Anne decided to raise her own funds rather than apply for a start-up grant, and worked out that eight weeks of B&B in her house would suffice. This meant she did not have to shoehorn her idea into the requirements of a grant application, but could focus on the strong story and brand that the herring girl history offered. 

Keen to keep everything local, Margaret Anne uses local freelance knitters and models (often from her own family). Stephen Kearney of Little Day Productions for photos, with accompanying music by Mick MacNeil (of Simple Minds fame). Both are from Barra families and live in Barra. 

Mugs of coffee in hand, Margaret Anne shows me through to her studio space, which is clearly a hive of activity. Floor to ceiling shelving stores yarn, finished pieces, labels, leaflets and packaging. She unwraps two stunning jumpers knitted by her Granny and points out the different patterns, explaining that they all hold meaning. A panel of ‘true lovers’ knot’ is knitted into a Barra jumper, whereas an Eriskay jumper will have the ‘footprint’ pattern, such that a fisherman’s identity can be ascertained. The ‘marriage lines’ pattern is popular, with its obvious sentiment. Anchors, sails, fishing nets, shells and ‘tree of life’ are all traditional patterns. 

The herring girls followed the fish on a seasonal basis – Barra, Stornoway, Broadford, Wick, Lerwick, Nairn, Peterhead, Aberdeen, Great Yarmouth – and each piece is accompanied with an informative story tag about the origin of its pattern. Colourways of ‘seas of green’, ‘oceans of blue’, ‘shades of the shore’ and ‘colours of the croft’ add an evocative depth to all the garments. In another nod to the origins of the knitting tradition, each freelance knitter is identifiable by their historic family boat name (every fishing family kept the same name for successive boats) rather than using their own name. 

Margaret Anne has also taken on commissioned pieces where she will design and incorporate something unique and meaningful to the customer – a Chinese symbol for instance – but these commissions take time and energy away from her core passion, which is to highlight and honour the fisherwomen who worked so hard by breathing new life into their knitting tradition.

As a very basic knitter myself, I am in awe of the skill involved in the pattern work and the attention to historic detail incorporated into contemporary design. I’m also hugely impressed with the energy, vision and guts with which Margaret Anne has taken her nugget of an idea and grown it into a thriving business. She herself is a product of, and credit to, her hardworking and tough female forebears, and with a daughter, a grand-daughter and her cousin’s two daughters all taking an interest, the Herring Girl Collection looks set to thrive and flourish.

Browse the full Herring Girl Collection in Margaret’s isle20 shop.

This series is written by Julia Welstead in partnership with the Scottish Islands Passport. The Scottish Islands Passport App can be downloaded from Google Play or Apple’s App Store. A physical copy of the Meet the Makers Travelogue is available in the shop.

We love the Scottish Islands Passports’ Island-Centred Ethos, especially how the app also highlights ways you can contribute to the islands you love.

Read the rest of Julia’s series, and meet more amazing island makers.