On Becoming a Spinning Wheel Sleuth

I went to Scotland expecting to fill my bag with skeins of yarn. I never expected to fill my bag with parts and pieces of a spinning wheel.

I also came home with a story to tell.

On April 11, 2018, we flew from Nashville, Tennessee to London, England, then took the train to Edinburgh, Scotland. After renting a car, we visited

Falkirk,

Sterling,

Oban,

Mull,

Tobermory,

Ft. William,

(stopping along the way for occasional sheep gazing and wool collecting)

Glenfinnan,

Spean Bridge,

Loch Ness,

and

Culloden Battlefield

before settling into Inverness for the night.

It was perfect. On a warm Scottish evening smack-dab in the middle of our trip, we sat in a Scottish pub listening to traditional Scottish music sipping a wee dram of peaty Scotch whiskey.

All of our Scottish dreams were coming true.

I am a Graham. My genealogical tree reaches back in Scotland to Sir Patrick Graham (1235) Laird of Kincardine and includes John de Graham, who fought alongside William Wallace at the Battle of Falkirk, and James Graham, 1st Marquess of Montrose, who is buried and memorialized at St. Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh. Much of this trip has been dedicated to learning more about this clan of mine and understanding the deep part of my soul that feels at home in this commanding landscape.

But if you know me at all, you also well know that I am a fanatic about wool…its history, its tradition, its making, and its use. There is a lot of that to be found on this island.

As we often do while traveling, we seek out and search for antique stores and curiosity shops (as they are often called in Europe). Sometimes that quest is as easy as a Google Maps search but often it requires questioning locals about the best places to visit. Clay had done the research and he had an interesting shop in mind.

On this somewhat overcast morning in Inverness, we stopped in at a local bakery near our B&B for lattes before heading to “The Merchant: Antiques to Modern, We Buy and Sell”. I stopped to look at some items near the doorway and then proceeded down the left-side aisle as my eyes adjusted from the bright light outside to the darker interior of the store. Much to my surprise, I immediately spied a small spinning wheel sitting on the floor.

Though dusty and dry, she was adorable.

Oh, my goodness.

Are all the parts there?

Wheel, footman, treadle, driveband, whorl, flyer (and all its hooks), bobbin, mother of all, uprights, maidens, table, legs…

all present and in good shape.

I gently use my hand to coax the wheel to the right. The flyer moves easily and smoothly. My mind is racing.

Dare I?

I place my right foot on the treadle, give the wheel a flick to the right and start pumping. Immediately, she sings a beautiful song. With hardly any effort at all, this girl is spinning.

Wait a minute. Get a grip. I’m in Scotland with an Osprey Porter 46 and a small backpack. What am I thinking?

I collect myself and move down the aisle. I have no business looking at a spinning wheel here. I’m after a much smaller souvenir of this trip. I think that if I get far enough away, I’ll forget this nonsense and come back to reality.

Trying to compose myself, I make a loop around the other aisle, interested in seeing what the others have discovered. I find Chief and blurt out, “Did you see the spinning wheel?” I can’t help myself. Always my greatest supporter and enabler, he follows me back to the wheel.

Chief gave it a good look and lifted the wheel for a peek at the underside. The yellowed label says, “Made in Scotland. Haldane Kirkcaldy Fife”.

My heart is racing. A spinning wheel made in Scotland. That’s all I need to know.

“Do you think we can get it home?”

After a thorough inspection, Chief believes we can disassemble the entire wheel and fit the pieces into our backpacks. He does not hesitate to say, “If you want it, let’s get it”. That’s why I married him.

After a bit of negotiating with Moira, the deal is done and I am walking out of the shop in Inverness with a vintage Scottish spinning wheel under my arm.

What just happened? I may hyperventilate.

We walked to our car and I took quick photos of the wheel before we began taking her apart, piece by piece. Moira kindly supplied a couple of plastic bags and Tif found a ziplock for the smallest parts. I’m sure that we looked a funny sight on the narrow sidewalk with the four of us hunched over the slowly disappearing spinning wheel. The bag with the longest pieces fit in the trunk with all of our backpacks, but the wheel, treadle, and table will ride in my seat with me for the rest of the trip. I don’t mind.

The rest of our day was a blur as my shaking gradually subsided until I remembered that I just bought a spinning wheel in Scotland. In all honesty, those episodes came quite frequently. In Inverness, we perused an old bookstore and a quilt shop, mailed our postcards, and then headed south for Perth with a delightful lunch and tea in Inverdruie. Each time I got in the car, I was reminded that a spinning wheel was along for the ride. Mildly worried about how we get her to Indiana, I tried to put that in the back of my mind and carry on. We are smart people. We will figure it out.

The little Haldane found a temporary home for the two days we spent in Perth, exploring that area and then day-tripping to St. Andrews for tours of the college, cathedral, castle and eastern coastline, which was majestic, magnificent, and breathtaking, by the way. It almost made me forget about the spinning wheel. Almost.

The next day would be the test… packing everything up for the train ride back to London from Edinburgh.

As it turned out, the mother of all, uprights, flyer, maidens, shortest legs, and other small pieces fit into my Osprey, nestled in and among my clothing. The table, back leg, footman, and treadle fit into my small backpack with only the longest ends poking out the top. I squeezed the wheel into a bag of other souvenirs that I held in my right hand. We could really do this thing.

At Heathrow, my small back pack was pulled from the carry-on conveyor belt because the treadle assembly, with its two metal end-pieces, looked “suspicious” but with some explanation and a search of my knitting projects (which added to my credibility), the kind inspector deemed me “not a threat”. Whew.

Thankfully, our plane across the big pond was not full so there was plenty of room for my wheel pieces to stretch out a bit. Us, too. The Hasslers and the Haldane were admitted into the US without a question.

Welcome to America, my little piece of Scotland.

Now comes the interesting part, if you’ve stuck with me for this long.

Before we left Scotland, I starting researching Haldane Spinning Wheels and quickly found a group on Ravelry, (the world-wide website for all things fiber, knitting, spinning, and crocheting) called “Haldane Fanciers”. I discovered that Haldane Spinning Wheels were made for a relatively short period of time in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s in Scotland, but they have a big following and are truly well-loved and collectible wheels. I was anxious and excited to learn more about Haldanes and specifically more about my wheel.

After looking at the threads in the group, I was having trouble identifying the model of my particular wheel so I started a new thread asking for assistance and including pictures of the wheel I found in Inverness. Quick responses identified my wheel as a “Hebridean” but there were certain details that were confusing to me. My wheel is Scotch tension with a bar across the uprights and peg tensioning; the known Hebredians are double drive. My wheel has a more “rustic” flat flyer than the typical Hebredian horseshoe shape. My table appears to be oak rather than beech. My legs have four decorative rings rather than three. With even more research, I found a couple of discussions that claimed wheels like mine were different enough from known Hebrideans that they might even be copies or imitations of true Haldanes.

I found all this to be quite interesting but I was puzzled by the fact that the label on the underneath side of the table clearly said “Haldane”.

The label was a mystery to the folks on the thread, too. There seemed to be no known explanation. To me, the key had to be in the place name “Kirkcaldy”. Haldane’s main workshop and showroom was in Gateside, Fife. No one knew of any connection between Kirkcaldy, Fife and Haldane Spinning Wheels.

Not satisfied to let things be, I dug further into the Ravelry threads. This time, I found a three-year-old post from another spinner who had a wheel more closely resembling mine than the better known Hebredians. And fortunately for me, she included a picture of the label on the underneath side of her wheel.

Same size label.

Same ink color.

Same font.

Different city name.

Mine: Haldane Kirkcaldy Fife

Hers: Haldane Gateside Fife

Could there have been a Haldane factory in Kirkcaldy before the one in Gateside?

One might think that all this would be easily solved by contacting Haldane who, though no longer making spinning wheels, is still doing a booming business in Glenrothes. No so fast. After discontinuing the production of spinning wheels and the retirement of their master wheel wood-turner and maker, all archives and records pertaining to their spinning wheel manufacturing were lost. There’s nothing. Nada. Zip. Zero. Believe me. I tried.

All we have today are sketchy remnants of labels, assembly instructions, and brochures saved over time by individual owners and collectors. The record is far from complete.

Having exhausted the resources on Ravelry and unable to let the mystery go, (particularly after cleaning, conditioning, polishing, and spinning on this sweet wheel) I tried another route. I needed to know the rest of the story.

First I tried reconnecting with the antique dealer in Inverness. She shared that she acquired the wheel from an individual who bought the wheel new, hoping to learn to spin but never did. She did not know the date the wheel was originally purchased. That explained the pristine condition of the wheel and the fact that the label was still intact. It had pretty much been a decorative item and never actually used. Sad for the wheel, lucky for me.

Back to the drawing board.

After locating email addresses for town officials in Kirkcaldy, I wrote to several people asking for any information that might be available about a connection between Kirkcaldy and Haldane spinning wheels. Most responded promptly but there was no new information to be found.

One last try.

I turned to FaceBook.

A search of “Kirkcaldy” on FaceBook yielded a group named, “Kirkcaldy and Dysart in Old Pictures and Postcards”. I asked to join.

In this group, I posted a picture of my wheel and it’s label, and asked for any information regarding a connection between Kirkcaldy and Haldane. Maybe, just maybe, someone would remember a store front or shop located in Kirkcaldy even though I’d been told more-than-once that Haldane had never had a presence there.

What kind and generous folks! But really, aren’t all Scots kind and generous folks?

Lo and behold, a fellow spinner and Haldane owner in Kirkcaldy, who clearly understood my ambition and passion, found an advertisement from 1971 for a Hebridean wheel JUST LIKE MINE on Katherine Street in Kirkcaldy, of all places.

EUREKA.

Further, another Kirkcaldy resident told me that he remembered Haldane taking over the former Leon Turning Mill there. While that mill was completely torn down in 1977-78, the timeline works perfectly for production of my wheel in or around 1971 in Kirkcaldy before Haldane eventually moved to Gateside.

I know that we all have strong opinions about FaceBook but my goodness, without this connection, I’d still know nothing.

What does this mean?

Simply put, from the evidence and personal recollection I have gathered, my little spinning wheel is one of the earliest known Haldanes around. I have purchased the original advertisement and it will soon be delivered to my house. It appears that this early model more closely resembles the traditional Hebridean Island wheels, with its peg Scotch tensioning system and the horizontal bar between the uprights, than the later, more well-known models. In subsequent years and models, the wood was changed, the drive system moved to double drive, the flyer was refined, and the decorative bands were altered. I do not know why these modifications were made in the later Haldane Hebrideans, but that’s the stuff of imagination and something I like to ponder. Perhaps, in time, I’ll find out more. For those of us who have these beauties often considered outside the Haldane stable, it is gratifying to know more about their true identity and history. They are indeed, very important pieces of the story.

I kind of like being a wheel sleuth.

Now off to make a little Haldane history of my own…..happy spinning!

2 comments

    1. Oh, thank you Liz! The trip was a dream come true for us, and then to find this treasure was a delight. With your Scottish roots, you must be sure to go. The landscape is beyond description. You would love it.

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