Jess Hartwell is part of the second generation of her family to run Skyeskyns, a tannery and five-star visitor attraction on the Isle of Skye that’s won a legion of fans for its famous sheepskins, as Peter Ranscombe reports.
Few entrepreneurs can have as pretty a view from their place of work as Jess Hartwell does on the Isle of Skye. Based at Loch Bay on the Waternish peninsula in the north-west of the island, Skyeskyns shares its beautiful surroundings with sheep in the fields, eagles in the sky and seals in the sea.
It’s an appropriately rural setting for a very traditional type of business. Skyeskyns is a tannery that turns British sheepskins into leather, creating woollen rugs that last for decades.
While it may be part of an ancient industry, the company has a very modern outlook. Online sales are an increasingly-important part of the business and it also has a strong social media presence, connecting it to a flock of fans around the world.
Even on a wet and windy Skye morning, there’s something beautiful about Waternish. And a tour around the tannery marks a welcome escape from the elements.
As well as producing the sheepskins, the tannery is also a successful tourist attraction, with a five-star rating from VisitScotland. Guests are taken into the tannery on the ground floor of the building and are shown the machinery and production process, before heading upstairs into the showroom for a chance to browse the range of sheepskins, from natural white or Hebridean brown through to cappuccino colours or fleeces with spots.
Some of the more weird and wonderful extensions to the range include Icelandic, Merino and Norse skins, along with cow and reindeer hides from other producers. Sheepskins can be stitched together into doubles, triples, quads and sets of eight to create larger rugs, while its other products include beanbags, cushions, keyrings and pouffes.
The business has come a long way since it was founded in 1983 by Lydia and Clive, Hartwell’s parents. “People locally thought it was a hair-brained idea,” laughs Hartwell. “This was Skye in the 1980s, before the bridge, when nobody hung their washing outside on a Sunday. People didn’t think it would last beyond a year, but we’re still here, going strong 34 years later.
“Mum and Dad were lucky enough to have a croft here in Waternish in the 1980s and had a small flock of black-face sheep. But crofters at that stage were being encouraged to diversify because crofting wasn’t particularly sustainable and – considering our location out here in the sticks – some out-of-the-box thinking was required.
“At that stage, raw sheepskins on the island as a by-product from the food industry were just being sent to landfill. Dad thought that was a huge waste and that the whole animal should be used. He had a good friend who was involved in the leather saddle business, who encouraged them to go down the tanning route.
“They set it up with their future in mind. They worked away at that point off the island as teachers, but always planned on coming back to Skye ultimately, which they did in 1999.”
Both Hartwell’s parents were teachers at Rannoch, a private school in Perthshire, with Clive teaching English and later becoming deputy head, while Lydia taught French and history. “Tanning was a bit of an escape during the holidays – something completely different,” smiles Hartwell.
The family returned to Skye for holidays and the occasional weekend to keep an eye on the business, which was run by a small and dedicated staff on a day-to-day basis, including local man John Macleod, the company’s original tanner. Macleod and Clive trained together as tanners at the University of Northampton, while Hartwell’s older brother, Jean-Paul, was also involved in the business on Skye during its early days.
“I’m not sure my brothers and I had much choice in getting involved in the family business,” laughs Hartwell. “We used to earn pocket money during the school holidays by tanning sheepskins with Mum and Dad.
“It wasn’t really your average teenage occupation, but we loved it, it was good fun. I became more involved after university and a spell working in London, before deciding to move back to Skye.
“Back then, we were attending a lot of exhibitions around the UK, which were a marketing exercise for the business. One evening over a bottle of wine and dinner in a hotel, Dad and I decided that setting up a proper exhibition programme would give me an opportunity to be more involved and a chance to stay on Skye, where it can be tricky for young people to find a way to be here.
“The landscape is incredible – once it gets under your skin, it’s hard to resist the pull. If you like the outdoors then it’s heaven. Between the Cuillin mountains and the dramatic coastline there are endless options for outdoor activities.”
Those same elements that created the dramatic landscape on Skye can also cause the odd problem for entrepreneurs trying to run businesses on the island. As Skye prepares for high winds, the company’s team is busy taking down a yurt, a large tent that has housed a pop-up café next to the tannery during the summer.
“The weather is a fairly major challenge,” she admits. “There’s no other way to overcome that challenge than to be prepared.”
The “YURTea&coffee” experiment has been a success during its first season and has given tourists an extra reason to make the journey to Waternish and visit the tannery. There are already plans to erect the tent again next year and, if the café continues to be a success, then a more permanent structure will be considered.
“The brain drain is another challenge,” she adds. “We’ve been very lucky with our team, but staffing is an issue in rural areas.
“How do we keep young, skilled people here when there’s a lack of affordable housing? That’s an issue that faces all rural areas.
“Skye is now a year-round destination – not everything closes down in October, as in the past. There are many more opportunities available.
“We’ve worked closely with Highlands & Islands Enterprise – formerly the Highlands & Islands Development Board when we set up – and it’s been a great support to us and helped us to develop graduate placements within the business.
“In the past, new ideas and innovation weren’t welcomed by everyone. A sheepskin tannery and visitor attraction were unusual. We’re not on the main road in Waternish, so overcoming that takes a lot of ongoing enthusiasm and dedication to the dream.”
Hartwell also points to logistics as an issue. Despite the bridge opening in 1995 to link Skye to the mainland, businesses are still charged by logistic companies as if it’s an island. Broadband is another challenge. Despite sheepskins being easy to post and the success of the business’s online shop, Hartwell admits that much of the Highlands still struggles with the slow speed of its internet connections.
Despite the issues created by being based on an island, the company has grown to employ 18 full and part-time members of staff and will turn over about £950,000 this year. Hartwell is proud that Skyeskyns can now offer people jobs all year round.
Over the summer, a stooshie erupted between the BBC and Police Scotland. The corporation originally reported that “Police Scotland are warning visitors without reservations to stay away from the Isle of Skye as the island struggles to cope with a massive influx of tourists”, before the force took to Twitter to correct the story, saying: “We haven’t said anything like that at all – our timeline asks people to be prepared, park/drive sensibly and keep the place clean.”
Understandably, the rumpus angered many local tourism businesses. Skye’s population of 10,000 people swells to more than 60,000 during the summer months, highlighting the importance of visitors to the local economy.
“Skye can certainly manage the numbers,” says an adamant Hartwell. “Our infrastructure does need some work, but there are local groups addressing the issues and proposing some great ideas, such as park-and-ride schemes to take the pressure off local hotspots. Government investment is essential at this juncture to support these and help protect the environment that draws the visitor numbers in the first place.
“Skye has always been popular but the past couple of years have seen a massive increase after our landscapes have been featured in so many films and adverts.
“Skye can cope and will cope very well.”