Caption: Alison in her Traditional Shepherdess Outfit
Caption: Alison walking in the Howgill Fells
Caption: Each Tweed has a story to tell about the land from where it came....
Caption: Guided Walks with the Shepherdess
Caption: Alison meeting HRH Prince of Wales
Caption: The iconic bag the Shepherdess is known for...
The Shepherdess….. conjures up images of sheep, wool, fells, lambs running around the fields on warm spring afternoons. An idyllic image to some I suppose. Alison O’Neill has come back to her roots in the Howgill Fells to farm the land near to where she grew up. She has been farming here now for over a decade and has a small flock of native Rough Fell sheep and hopes to add a small flock of about 20 Herdwicks this autumn. She combines this traditional profession with being a mother, guided walks (barefoot being her preferred footwear), inspirational talks, TV appearances and she can now add designer to her list of accolades. Her range of Shepherdess Tweed products has been received with rave reviews from those lucky enough to already own one of her bags, jackets, skirts, dresses or waistcoats.
The Love of the Land
When talking to Alison the pure love she has for her flock and the land she walks everyday shines through. The original shepherdess Hannah Hauxwell who found fame on TV and with her writing was more headscarf and wellies kind of farmer. Alison is one of the most glamorous shepherds I have met, (and coming from a family of sheep breeders I have met a few!!) Lipstick, mascara and nail varnish are part of the daily uniform, after all you never know when a potential customer will pull up in the yard looking to purchase a tweed jacket!! Although she might still be in her ‘muck’!!
I myself was brought up on a farm close to Sedbergh and know the hardships encountered by our hard working farmers. In writing this I have had to look back on my own upbringing. Like Alison I was brought up with Rough Fell sheep and my dad has a passion for sheep like his father before him. I know it rules your life be it lambing time, clipping or hay time. I can’t say I got the farmer genes though, they went to both my sister and brother, both of whom are successful farmers now in their own rights. I vowed never to marry a farmer and couldn’t wait to get to civilisation!! But I certainly have an appreciation of the land and what it can provide to both stock and man. It is in my later life that I have started a love affair with the local landscapes. Taking up walking has made me realise that the walk to the top of a fell or mountain reaps rewards with magnificent views and the tranquillity of the Howgill Fells and is second to none.
The Harris Tweeds
The tweeds that Alison uses in her new range of bags tell a story of this land and the sheep that graze upon it. When helping renowned landscape photographer Ian Lawson with his book, From the Land Comes the Cloth, Alison spent some time in the Outer Hebrides where Harris Tweed has been woven for nearly two centuries.
The red Harris Tweed that The Shepherdess has become identifiable with is inspired by the red of Scalpay Lighthouse, the bouys in the sea and the fishing boats bobbing in the powder blue sea’s and the greens of the land. The brown Harris Tweed is inspired by the colours of the heathers and land on the Isle of Harris along with the stags.
But it is the Castle Harris Tweed that has a special meaning to Alison and indeed to these islanders.
While on the Isle of Lewis Alison got to know the local estate workers of Amhuinnsuidhe Castle and impressed them by getting stuck in among the sheep pens and proved there was a bit more to this Cumbrian lassie with the red nail varnish and lipstick. She ended up having tea with the current custodian, Ian Scarr-Hall, within the walls of the great castle. . He must have seen something special in this particular hard working lass as up until then the Castle Tweed design had only been used by the Gillies and other estate workers of this exceptional property. Ian gave her the special permission she needed to have exclusive use of the design because I’m sure he knew she would be able to use and promote the Castle Tweed with the heart and passion that is so deserved! And the rest they say is history – Alison now has exclusive rights to the tweed and it is even hand woven by the most famous weaver of them all - Donald John MacKay MBE on the Isle of Harris.
The castle has significant connections with Harris Tweed and how it has become the iconic handmade material that it is today. Lady Dunmore, whose son Charles Murray the 7th Earl of Dunmore built Castle Amhuinnsuidhe (originally called Fincastle), is responsible for getting her clan tartan woven by the weavers on the Isle of Harris in 1846. This was such a success she became quite the business lady and managed to devote a lot of her time to marketing the tweed to her wealthy friends. There was soon a good demand for the islands cloth and it was not long before merchants where selling the tweed the length and breadth of the country. Harris Tweed was born. Since then Royalty, stars of the silver screen and the rich and famous have all chosen to wear these now iconic tweeds.
The Orb symbol is in fact the oldest trademark in continuous use and when it is seen you can be guaranteed that the product is genuine. The definition of Harris Tweed contained in the Tweed Act of 1993 clearly defines Harris Tweed as:
“Handwoven by the islanders at their homes in the Outer Hebrides, finished in the Outer Hebrides, and made from pure virgin wool dyed and spun in the Outer Hebrides."
Herdwick is the native breed to the Lake District and has become iconic. The herringbone design of this tweed and the rustic feel of the finished product seem to have meant to be! Although this is 100% Herdwick it is currently woven in Huddersfield but plans are afoot to have the tweed along with a Rough Fell tweed woven a little closer to home.
Now that Alison has launched her tweeds what is next? Well she has a book due out this autumn, Shepherdess follows the story of Alison throughout a year working on her farm in the Howgills. “Embracing the harsh realities of life in a remote and physically challenging environment, her story is an inspiration to all. Ian Lawson captures the charm of everyday moments, creating a picture of a life lived with passion and heart. With insightful narrative from Alison this tender memoir and portrait of a woman in tune with her surroundings and her innermost self is truly humbling”
Her bespoke range of clothing is set to expand.
And, of course, her guided walks continue and the summer will no doubt be busy for the Barefoot Shepherdess.
HRH Prince Charles Earl of Rothay
Alison was lucky enough to be introduced to HRH recently at The Rheged Centre at Penrith to see how the Countryside Fund and the Campaign for Wool are helping local communities. She was very flattered when he acknowledged he had heard of her!! One of her Bait bag’s made from the Herdwick Tweed was given to him as a gift for Camilla so keep an eye out for her using it!!
The Shepherdess & No.6
We are proud to now stock the Bags that Alison has designed herself and are 100% made in the British Isles – from the wool of the sheep, the leather, the metal work - all British!! The tweed is handwoven here in the British Isles. We are the first shop in England to stock them and only the second in the UK, the first being on the Isle of Lewis – long way to go for a bag (but maybe worth it!!) Sedbergh is a little closer.