Sally Magnusson inspirations

Inspiration behind a life of pee

They say inspiration can be found in some unlikely places and for the BBC presenter Sally Magnusson it has been the pee-tubs of Harris.

Until relatively recently, human urine used to be an essential part of the Harris tweed production process and was stored in tubs outside almost every croft.

Soaking wool in pee was the best way to strip it of its oiliness, as described in Finlay J Macdonald's memoir 'Crowdie and cream'. 'Not only did it clean the tweed but it gave it that distinctive aroma about which the gentry of the Home Counties used to rave,' wrote Macdonald.

Little did the tweed set imagine that the distinctive smell came from the most natural of sources. The discovery of this unusual use for human urine propelled Sally to find out more and led eventually to her book 'Life of pee: The story of how urine got everywhere'.

She will tell more about Harris pee tubs and other inspirations when she appears along with Kirsty Wark at an event in Glasgow's Mitchell Library on 13 March. It is part of the National Library of Scotland's popular series of talks asking prominent figures to reflect on what has inspired them. Tickets cost £8 and can be booked by phone on 0141 353 8000 or by visiting Glasgow Royal Concert Hall online or in person.

Some of Sally's other inspirations are disposable nappies and Mozart's clarinet concerto. But it is what she has found out about pee which has proved to be a real eye opener.

'I learned that urine was in fact the most versatile chemical agent known to man for thousands of years, used to make dyes, scour cloth, pickle metal, produce gunpowder, make alum, weather bronzes, heal wounds and cure chilblains — among many other uses. It was bought and sold, collected and solicited, even at one point taxed by the Roman emperor Vespasian. As a journalist I was hooked. This was absorbing social history of a kind that had simply never made it into our history books.'

Sally added: 'I’m delighted to have been asked by the National Library of Scotland to share some of my inspirations and to find out from Kirsty what has inspired her. It's going to be great fun and I'm very much looking forward to it.'

11 February 2013

Speak me