Meet Natalie Cairns-Ratter: mother, tanner, crofter and musician.
Why You Should Know Her
A classically trained musician, Natalie moved from Edinburgh to Shetland, where she now lives with husband Tom and baby son Lucas, and runs her business, Shetland Tannery.
Seeing a gap in the market for high quality, sustainable products which use surplus materials and by-products of the local meat industry, Natalie undertook training to become a tanner, processing animal hides into leather and sheepskin – a job not for the fainthearted – to become the only licensed tanner in Shetland.
Her ingenuity and new skills enable her to make beautiful hand finished slippers, sheepskins and mittens, honouring traditional craft processes in the making of her gorgeous contemporary products. She balances running her business with being a mother, crofter and still finds time to teach violin.
Hello Natalie! Running a tannery in Shetland is a world away from playing classical violin in Edinburgh! How did that come about?
I came to set up the tannery as I simply wanted to change a waste product into something high quality and beautiful.
It’s such a great idea, doing something with all the leftover sheepskin that would otherwise be dumped.
I am the only tanner in Shetland, according to Animal Health and the council. As some of the processes can pose a risk, you have to be licensed and monitored by the authorities – this is a really good thing, as it makes sure we are doing our job right and provide the best practises and products.
Up until the nineties, there was a prominent sheepskin tanning industry [in Shetland] run by very talented and skilled men. Sadly they can no longer process, but their families have been vital in helping us set up. I am so grateful to these families, as they have a wealth of knowledge and were so encouraging, and wanted to see the machines being used again.
What are the best bits about your job?
I love my job as never two days are the same. When I started Shetland Tannery, all of my effort was on the manufacturing of our product, but since we have expanded I can focus more on retail and growing our brand.
Is there anything about owning your own business you don’t like?
I don’t like making mistakes, but no one in business does, we are only human.
Tanning seems like an industry that would be predominantly male. Have you found that to be the case?
When I did my training in Northampton, the lead tanner on the course was a woman. This was so encouraging and inspiring as at the very start of my journey to start the business, already I had come across a woman at the top of her field, demonstrating how to use this heavy machinery. The tanning industry in Britain, on the whole, have been so supportive in us starting. I spoke with a other tanneries, and they all gave brilliant advice and wanted to help. I was given great study books and even tours of their tanneries. So I was well received by men and women in the industry. From the start it has felt like being part of a family.
You’re also involved in crofting. How do you find the gender balance there?
There are lots of women involved in agriculture and crofting especially in Shetland. I was recently at a Women in Agriculture conference, and it was so inspiring to meet so many women like myself running a business, bringing up a family and working on much bigger farms. When I first came to Shetland to do lambing, it was the women in crofting I aspired to be like. From amazing lambing crofters, to intelligent vets and vet nurses to women who are crofters who are in high up positions of power, women in Shetland involved in agriculture are the backbone.
You trained as a classical violinist at the University of Edinburgh – what was your goal then?
Yes, I still do Classical Violin and I still teach part time. I wanted to be a violin teacher, but then sheep took over… leading to me working full time with sheep. I still love music if not more since I’ve become a mum, as I’ve been teaching my son since he was in my tummy!
Do you ever miss the city?
The main reason I miss the city is because my twin sister still lives there, and my parents, just across in Fife. But the wonders of FaceTime make that so much easier.
Has motherhood affected how you work, or how you feel about work?
Motherhood has affected my work massively. I have definitely more patience and I am more sensitive to my customer’s needs. I would say it’s definitely been a change for the better. Yes there are days I struggle, I’m sure a lot of mothers do, but you just have to go with those days and know they will pass. Also my twin sister is now part of Shetland Tannery full time and my husband is my strength, he has kept me going, and without my family I wouldn’t have been able to have managed.
What are the best bits of motherhood?
The best bits of motherhood are the immense love and joy it brings. The laughs, the experiences, the little quirks – smelling my babies head.
What do you find the hardest?
The hardest bits are probably the guilt. And hormones.
Is there anything about it that has surprised you?
Probably my time management now!
With running a business and looking after a croft and baby you must be super busy. Do you have any tips on trying to manage it all and stay sane?!
When I am working and being a mum, the most enjoyable thing I love to do in my spare time – which is rare – is play my violin. I also really like running too, when it isn’t windy!
You can find out more about Shetland Tannery here.