In August 2019, Dearbhla Kelly and Joanne Whitelock from the Ballyraine Training Centre in Letterkenny, Ireland, visited Lewis and Harris. Both areas have a strong weaving tradition and are facing similar challenges. As Dearbhla explained: “Right now, hand weaving in Donegal is in a precarious position. We have skipped a generation of weavers and are faced with similar problems you faced in the past. It is our goal as a Further Education and Training provider, to assist the continuity of the craft and support local industries.” Currently in the process of developing a qualification relevant to the Donegal weaving trade, their main aim was to meet with colleagues on this side of the Irish Sea and learn about their experience in developing the SQA National Progression Award Harris Tweed. In 2010 the Comhairle’s Education Service with the support of the SQA led a development group tasked with designing a qualification that would address skills shortages in the local Harris Tweed industry. The course has since been validated and is delivered in Harris and Lewis. It has proved a great success in raising awareness, developing skills and providing a pathway to work in the Harris Tweed sector.
During a very busy two days, Dearbhla and Joanne were given the opportunity to meet with members of the Harris Tweed Authority, experienced weavers and those who completed the weaving course. They also visited The Harris Tweed Company in Grosebay and Sir E Scott School which had be at the heart of the development of the Harris Tweed qualification.
Iain Stewart, who had been greatly involved in organising the visit, concluded: “It was a pleasure to meet colleagues and to meaningfully contribute the Outer Hebrides’ experience of establishing a National Qualification in the traditional Tweed industry. We wish them the best luck with their own efforts.”
While on the island, they also took the opportunity to visit e-Sgoil and learn about the Comhairle’s new approach to delivering education. Headteacher Angus Maclennan explained the principle of tailoring the curriculum to support the demand of local businesses, while Richard Tarves, business manager, spoke about the ambition to turn the islands’ unique culture and language into a marketable asset. Coming from Irish-speaking communities themselves, both Dearbhla and Joanne showed a keen interest in efforts to promote the use of the Gaelic language and provided valuable contacts engaged in similar work in their community.
It is hoped that this visit will be only the start of a long and fruitful partnership. Dearbhla and Joanne made every effort to continue relations by issuing a number of invites for return visits to Ireland.