Elwick Mill

My dad, David Holmes, was (amongst other things) a potter. He specialized in a Japanese form of ceramics called Raku. A rough translation of the word ‘Raku’ is ‘for pleasure or enjoyment’. My dad’s Raku pots were exquisite creations: ornamental teapots and vases in rich lustrous shades of deep turquoise and lapis lazuli with the magical shimmer of shield bugs. My dad had huge rough, square practical hands.

You wouldn’t imagine his hands could create such delicate things. My dad became a potter in his thirties after completing a degree in ceramics. Before this he’d tried many different ways of making a living. He’d been a handyman, a taxi driver, a builder, a photographer, a landscape gardener and a burger vendor.
My dad spent the last 16 years of his life on Shapinsay, a small Orkney island. He said of Shapinsay: “I’m not sure whether I found Shapinsay or Shapinsay found me.” He was very happy there and said he felt that he’d found his own little paradise. mill-5

His home on Shapinsay was Elwick Mill, a former corn mill built in 1883. When you approach Shapinsay from Orkney mainland there are 3 buildings that dominate the edge of the island. The first is Balfour castle with its sharp spires and fairy tale turrets. The 2nd is a large white house, formerly the doctor’s surgery, which glows in the sunlight. The 3rd is Elwick Mill which, to me, looks like a small French chateaux- sturdy, pleasing and open with its generous front door.
My dad came across Elwick Mill whilst on a trip to Orkney with his friend Gordon Kitchen. The mill was derelict and in a state of disrepair. He fell in love with it and it was for sale.
“I’m going to buy that Gordon.” my dad said.
“You’re mad David!”
“Maybe I am.” my dad replied.

He bought Elwick Mill in 2000 and began the renovation and restoration of the building. pots 3He set up a temporary workshop and gallery and, with the help of the islanders, restored the mill lade and wheel. He had big plans for the rest of the mill. He intended to turn the top floor in to a comfortable home for himself and to make the ground floor an artist’s gallery and studio which he hoped would encourage people to visit the island. He also wanted to provide a campsite and artist’s residencies. He also had more fantastical ideas such as a walled, glass-rooved garden where he would grow tropical flowers and lie in a hammock looking up at the stars and a kiln in the belly of a 30 foot fire-breathing dragon which would live on the lawn at the front of the mill and provide a spectacular sight as you approached the island at dusk on the shorter days of Autumn and Winter.

With minimal resources he did a great deal of work on the mill but sadly, he died of cancer in 2015 before he had time to complete his plans.

We, his children, have inherited the mill and, like him, we have fallen in love with the place. In my head, there was never any question that we would sell the mill. For me, the mill has come to represent my father. When I’m up there I can feel him everywhere. He is in the dry stone walling of the lade and the willow tree arch on the way up to the dam. gloves 1He is the ghostly wood smoke which still lingers even though it’s probably been over a year since he did his last Raku firing. He is in the swallows that arrive in May and leave in late September, the swallows that keep returning. He is in the raucous October gales that worry the slates on the roof. He is in the calm, still nights crowded with stars when the bay is tame and slick as silk.


Photo by Sandy Macdonald

We’d love to honour my father and complete his dreams; to keep the mill as a place for us and also the community. We, his children, have inherited his creative sensibilities and, if we could keep the mill, would love to complete the gallery, to organise residential creative writing/sculpting/pottery/arts holidays and retreats. We’d like to create a sculpture trail in the grounds of the mill featuring a giant scrap-metal auroch. We’d like to get that big clay dragon breathing out fire across Elwick Bay.


Unfortunately, for the last two years of his life, though he tried to ignore it, my dad was too ill to keep up with everything and, consequently, incurred several debts. In order to secure the mill and attempt to fulfil his dreams we need to cover these debts. Sadly, if we can’t cover these debts we’ll have to sell up. We have no money and the only way we can consider raising this money is, by the kindness of others, through Crowdfunding. We are not a charity and it’s a big thing to ask. It’s a very difficult thing to ask and it feels strange to be asking but it’s the only thing we can think of. A I said above, as well as keeping the memory of my dad alive we’d hope that, in the future, the mill would be an asset to the island, a place that the community would have a share in, an artistic hub on Shapinsay that would entice people to visit.
It’s been a very difficult time for us all with the shock and sadness of my father dying. He’d planned to live until he was 110! It’s also very difficult situation with the mill but one of my dad’s mottos was ‘Just do it!’ so that’s what we’ll try to do.
We’ve set up an Indiegogo crowd funding page for Elwick Mill. You can find it by following this link



7 Responses to “Elwick Mill”

  1. I have no idea how to help. But I’ll say a prayer and light a candle

  2. What a wonderful place the mill looks and what a fabulous way to honour your dad’s dreams and memory. Will help in whatever way we can x

  3. There are places in this world that not enough people have seen, places that need to be saved because they are more than just stone and bricks. I know that this mill is close to your heart but it could be close to the hearts of so many. It is a place that needs to be saved and breathe again with your dad’s fire.

  4. Up to my knowledge, his business partner was condemned in September 2015 by the Kirkwall Sheriff Court as she has stolen his money … As Mr Holmes’ children, you could ask for the order to be applied … You would get about £2000 + interests … With an attachment of earnings you could get the money for sure … If you want Mrs Bru’s address, details etc Just ask me.

  5. Gaia, you should enter the blog you wrote about Elwick Mill for the George Mackay Brown short story award – it fits the brief perfectly and is full of poetry. I can give you the link to it if you wish, it will publicise your project and there is a small cash prize too. Gill & Mark

  6. I love your style of writing. I’ve just read ‘Coastliners’ by Joanne Harris, and it reminds me of that. You could consider writing a novel of his life along the way.
    Have you got pieces of his work you could auction, on a site linked to the above story?
    Will share your page and wish you success in your venture!

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