Granville Swanney

It is with heavy heart I have to tell you that Granville passed away at home on Thursday, after a short illness. Not only is his passing a personal loss for many of us on the island and beyond, Granville was the last person making Orkney wheels in the County.

Granville at his home on Flotta, Orkney
Granville at his home on Flotta, Orkney

I first became aware of Granville’s spinning wheels back in 2003 when I was living on Flotta the first time. I saw a wheel in a friend’s house and asked who made it. I was told Granville, and I knew straight away I wanted one of his wheels! When I have saved up the money, I went to get it, only to find that he had two different styles of wheel. I spent ages deciding before choosing the sloping bed one. A few years later I bought one of his upright wheels.

My upright Orkney wheel made by Granville
My upright Orkney wheel made by Granville

Granville was born in Stromness and from a child, he loved to watch his grannie spin. He was fascinated both by the wheel, and by the way his grannie’s hands worked with the wheel to make a shock of fleece into a smooth thread. Unlike many boys of his era, he never minded having to stay in and card the fleece as he watched the wheel turn.

An upright in progress
An upright in progress

It wasn’t until many years later that he made his first wheel. He had been working with wood since he was a boy, but it was when his wife, Jean, became the teacher on the island of North Ronaldsay that he saw a working wheel again. He borrowed one, and made a half size copy “to get the process right”. From then on, he made many wheels, some of which have travelled the world.

A rare sight!  Two sloping bed wheels together - mine and Jane Cooper's
A rare sight! Two sloping bed wheels together – mine and Jane Cooper’s

Granville had two main designs. The upright wheel was based on that wheel from North Ronaldsay, and the sloping bed one was based on his grannie’s. He changed the design of that one “making the bed shorter and altering the angle to make the lines better”.

My first Granville wheel - chosen for its elegant lines.
My first Granville wheel – chosen for its elegant lines.

Despite making wheels, and liking to watch people spin on his wheels, Granville never learnt to spin himself. He didn’t realise that Orkney wheels were different from most wheels, as he had only come across Orkney wheels.

Jane trying her wheel in Granville's house.  Jean's wheel is in the background
Jane trying her wheel in Granville’s house. Jean’s wheel is in the background

Granville was a modest, unassuming man, who like to produce a perfect finished product. Recently he had completed beautiful display cabinets for Flotta’s new Heritage Centre, and had refurbished an old Orkney wheel for the same centre which will be used for demonstrations. In time my two wheels will go to the same centre, so that others will be able to see how he made them.

Old Orkney wheel, originally from Birsay, which was refurbished by Granville
Old Orkney wheel, originally from Birsay, which was refurbished by Granville

Granville’s funeral is at 12.30 on Tuesday, 26th August, here on Flotta. If anyone wants to come I can meet them off the 11.20 boat from Houton.

Granville in his workshop
Granville in his workshop
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17 thoughts on “Granville Swanney

  1. I am so very sorry to hear of Granville’s passing. Not only your friend and community, but the world has lost a master craftsman and one of few who made good, hard-working, and beautiful spinning wheels…works of art that also worked.
    May he be remembered in the hearts of his friends and family, and live on in the wheels he built.

  2. I am so sorry to hear of his passing. It is doubly sad when we also lose a real craftsman who gave so much to the joy of others.

  3. A virtual hug from Downunder. It is always sad to lose a real craftsman – and, from the photographs alone, they are works of art.

  4. He was a hero in the world of fiber arts. I am sorry for your, Orkney’s, and all of our loss. On Tuesday morning, I will spend a moment of silence in front of my little (non-Granville) wheel, in prayer and thanksgiving for his life and legacy.

  5. A very fitting tribute to a very talented man who I had the pleasure of knowing. Please pass on our condolences to Jean and the rest of the family.

  6. I cannot add to any of the above comments other than to say how sorry I am to hear of this through your most fitting tribute to your good friend. May he be long remembered for his beautiful wheels. x

  7. So sorry for this loss Liz – I never knew him and have never seen his beautiful wheels, but feel the loss too. xx

  8. I was very fortunate in being able to attend the funeral today. As just one of those spinners who treasure their Granville Swanney wheel, it was good to be there for all those spinners from around the world who would have been there if they could.
    The Kirk was, unsurprisingly, as full as the ferry had been from mainland Orkney. The service was befitting such a talented wheel maker who chose precision and integrity over ‘bling’ for his wheels. It was an example of quiet Orcadian modesty but with an overwhelming sense of the love, esteem and affection shared by those who best knew him.
    Jane Cooper

  9. So sorry to hear of the loss of such a creative craftsman. He definitely left behind a fine legacy in his spinning wheels – a lasting heritage for family, friends and community.

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