Skye crofters apply ancient skills to create sustainable success story
IN this week’s SME Focus the story of a visionary family business that has created valuable jobs on Skye highlights the key contribution small firms make to the wellbeing of Scotland’s Highlands and Islands.
What is your business called?
Where is it based?
On the family croft on the Waternish peninsula of the Isle of Skye. I may be biased but I’d say it’s the most dramatically beautiful part of the island.
What does it produce?
We are manufacturers and suppliers of finest quality sheepskin rugs. We produce our machine-washable fleeces using the time-honoured skills of wool-on tanning in our traditional exhibition tannery. Our sheepskins are sustainably sourced as a by-product from the meat industry and we are one of only two remaining commercially producing sheepskin tanneries in the UK.
We offer to tell the story of leather-making to thousands of visitors through guided tours of our traditional workshop. Our showroom also stocks a wide range of cashmere, wool, alpaca and leather clothing, as well as footwear and accessories.
Whom does it sell to?
Our core market are the visitors to Skye who come to our tannery and showroom. We also sell online and at national and international exhibitions. So our customers include the general public, interior designers and hoteliers. We also offer a private tanning service.
What is its turnover?
How many employees?
15, including myself and my mum.
When was it formed?
Why did you take the plunge?
My parents set up Skyeskyns when I was three years old. They originally tanned some skins in an old local Nissen hut before the purpose-built tannery was established on the croft. In those days the local abattoir was just sending sheepskins to landfill and my dad felt it was a huge waste and that the whole animal should be made use of. Mum and dad ran a small flock of blackface sheep at the time and tanning sheepskins was also a form of crofting diversification. Dad and our first tanner, John MacLeod, went on a tanning training course at a specialist college in Northampton to learn the craft.
What were you doing before you took the plunge?
My mum and dad were both teachers and we would spend all our school holidays on Skye, helping them as they learned how to make sheepskins!
How did you raise the start-up funding?
We were helped by the Highlands and Islands Development Board which was a forerunner of Highlands and Islands Enterprise who still support us to this day. We are now a major employer in an area of fragile economic status.
What was your biggest break?
There have been many breaks but, looking back, I think a turning point was the first time we paid for professional photography and the impact the resulting marketing brochure had on our footfall.
What was your worst moment?
Dad passed away in April 2014 very suddenly. He was very much part of the day-to-day business, was our master craftsman and carried so much business knowledge in his head. He was innately courageous and charismatic, and radiated a belief in the business, our team and its future; his death has left a large hole in all our lives. When he died, my mum and I stepped into completely different roles overnight. I was on maternity leave at the time for my second child, so juggling everything and adjusting to new responsibilities whilst finding space and time to grieve for my dad was a huge challenge.
What do you most enjoy about running the business?
I love being able to work with my amazing mum and our general manager, Dave, on this! We are so lucky to have such a skilled and inspiring team, some of whom have been with our family business for well over ten years now. I am responsible for marketing too, which is great fun. Strategy planning is also something I get a kick out of as I enjoy throwing the big ideas around.
What do you least enjoy?
Not having the time to spend in the tannery itself anymore. I spent so much of my time over the years helping with the production and seeing skins being transformed into something tactile and luxurious that I miss the hands-on crafting element. Maybe once the kids are at school our tanner Pete and his assistant Becky might let me don a pair of rubber gloves and get involved once in a while…
What are your ambitions for the firm?
We have quite a few things in the pipeline:
We’re developing our online and mail-order channels this year and supporting that with the on-site development of a dedicated packing and storage facility. I would like to see the web sales take an increasingly large role in our overall sales share as our international profile continues to expand.
Skye is a different island nowadays and Waternish has forged the way in becoming the first area to promote itself as a year-round destination for visitors through a joint local marketing initiative to remain open throughout winter. This, along with our growing online presence, has allowed us to offer year-round employment to our staff and I’d like to see our local role go up further still over the next few years.
I’m aiming to develop our own tanning capacity and looking forward to working with the proposed new local abattoir in Portree.
We are also looking to build both our interior design and international sales channels.
What are your top priorities?
Getting the new storage and packing facility up and running;
Maintaining and developing relationships with both customers and suppliers;
Building on our 5-star visitor attraction status and continuing to promote our own eco-credentials;
Developing our in-house accessories production.
What single thing would most help?
High speed broadband would be hugely helpful. Skye has been in the news recently due to the state of our internet provision. We have a fraction of both the upload and download speeds available to us that are normal to much of the rest of the country and yet we pay the full tariff regardless.
What could the Westminster and/or Scottish governments do that would help?
Both governments could look at ways to incentivise the retention of young, skilled people in rural areas. Although we have been incredibly lucky with our team, one of the big challenges facing businesses in far flung parts of the country is being able to recruit people with the requisite skills. Living costs are extremely high in the Highlands and finding somewhere affordable to live is nigh-on-impossible for most young people. It’s imperative that the governments work harder to maintain our local education, health and transport services and find more ways to help accommodate people that want to stay in the area but often feel they have no choice other than to relocate to cities.
What was the most valuable lesson that you learned?
I genuinely learn something every day from this business and the team we have, but in particular my dad taught me how important it is to show appreciation to all the people around you. That and to listen carefully to your gut instincts in relation to what’s right for your business.
How do you relax?
Taking a quiet walk down the croft to the shore and exploring the rock pools with the kids and Jenny the sheepdog. Most days you can see right across to the Outer Hebrides from Waternish and a view like that always brings a peace with it.