Black Isle-based chainsaw carver Iain Chalmers tells James Hendrie how he swapped the kitchen counter for the timber shed and developed a successful full-time career.

I finally managed to meet up with chainsaw carver Iain Chalmers at his base in Cullicudden on the Black Isle recently, having first discussed the possibility of writing a feature on him for Forestry Journal in 2015.

Arriving at the yard, I saw a wide array of impressive carvings, many of which, Iain told me, were heading out to their new owners the next day. After we sat down on one of his bench carvings, I started to find out more about the man who is synonymous with Carve Carrbridge. Iain is also well known throughout the north of Scotland, if not the rest of the country, for his everyday but also, in many cases, iconic carvings.

I was surprised to learn that Iain started out as a chef and asked how he ended up swapping carving knives for chainsaws.

“I had worked in hotels when I was at school so when I left it seemed natural to train as a chef. I worked in the Arisaig Hotel in Lochaber for a while and there I met my wife-to-be, Mairi. We decided to move back home to Muir of Ord and I managed to get a job with Hugh Boyle, my friend’s father, who ran a forestry contracting business.”

This led to Iain learning the art and skill of hand woodcutting and he got his first exposure to chainsaws. They carried out a lot of work for Euroforest, in the north of Scotland, around the Black Isle and, in particular, for the Cawdor Estate at Nairn, where Iain worked in a squad of 15 to 20 other hand cutters. This was in the days before harvesters and the early days of needing to obtain chainsaw tickets. Iain said: “We worked on piecework rates, getting paid for what we cut. In terms of tickets, a guy would come out and test us on site. It was a job where I was learning lots about using a saw as well as about the trees themselves. Harvesters came along and they could cut timber much quicker than we could as hand cutters. It was clear to me then that the writing was on the wall.”

Forestry Journal: One of Iain’s first carves at Carve Carrbridge was a Porridge Bear.One of Iain’s first carves at Carve Carrbridge was a Porridge Bear.

Hand cutters started to be used in the areas where the harvesters could not reach and Iain explained that, in an attempt to compete with harvesters and to get the work, contractors had to cut rates. This, in turn, meant rates to cutters like Iain got squeezed. Iain decided it was time to move away from the woods, though he remained a cutter, this time of Christmas trees at Drynie Woodlands at Inverness.

“There are literally millions of, in the main, Nordmann fir Christmas trees growing and for the first year there I did a lot of cutting. This evolved into the whole job role of growing Christmas trees, their maintenance, and harvesting. During the five years that I did this, Mairi and I were married and we were living in Evanton. My next-door neighbour there worked at the Forestry College and he showed me a mushroom that he had carved. I took one look at it and thought I could do that better, and so I started to get the bug for carving.”

Mushrooms became the go-to carve for Iain. He also found that people wanted to buy them and they then asked him to carve bears, dolphins, eagles and more. He soon found that there was money to be made from carving, but not enough to do it full-time.

It was then, thanks to the support from his boss at Drynie Woodlands, Kjeld Kristensen, that he was able to carve in a shed at the Christmas tree farm at nights and weekends to start up his fledgling business. The advent of the internet opened Iain’s eyes to the world of chainsaw carving as a potential way to earn money. He told me he remembered the first time he searched for chainsaw carving and he saw what was being produced in America.

“It inspired me to start trying things out for myself. I started doing big bald eagles, then golden eagles. That said, some of my early attempts were not as good as they are today. Someone described one of my first ones as looking like a parrot. That just spurred me on to improve.”

Forestry Journal: Cedar logs are Iain’s timber of choice to carve with.Cedar logs are Iain’s timber of choice to carve with.

At this stage, he was using a felling saw and standard bar, but once again checking out the internet he could see in America they were using special chainsaw carving bars. Luckily, he had a sister in the States and she was able to get her hands on one. His chainsaw brand was Husqvarna and while he was getting more heavily involved in carving, he was still working full-time at Drynie Woodland.

Iain had started to take over more and more of the shed for his carvings. He was gaining orders through word of mouth and had also set up a new website. The turning point was an invite in 2004 to the Royal Highland Show to give a demonstration of carving alongside Peter Bowsher and Andy Maclachlan. He set off with a few carves to sell, which he did, and came back with orders for eight benches.

Forestry Journal: At the Royal Highland Show in 2018, Iain, Pete Bowsher, and Andy Maclachlan carved a bear for Doddie Weir’s MND charity auction. Pictured left to right: Graeme Hodgson (RHS), Iain, the bear, Doddie and Andy.At the Royal Highland Show in 2018, Iain, Pete Bowsher, and Andy Maclachlan carved a bear for Doddie Weir’s MND charity auction. Pictured left to right: Graeme Hodgson (RHS), Iain, the bear, Doddie and Andy.

“I knew that I would make enough money from these to pay the mortgage until Christmas! When I got back from the show, I went to see my boss Kjeld and discussed about going full-time into carving.

“He was very encouraging and told me I needed to do it, so I quit working for him, but instead of kicking me out of the shed I was carving in, Kjeld told me I could stay there. So, I was able to carve and build my new business from there with his blessing. I will always be grateful to him for this support.”

Iain’s wood of choice to carve is western red cedar, because he finds it very durable and soft. It is, however, quite a hard timber to source supplies of and he is always on the lookout for it.

Forestry Journal: The Scottish Totem Pole, which had a westie, salmon, squirrel, thistles and a big coo on top of it. This carve was the winner at Carve Carrbridge 2013.The Scottish Totem Pole, which had a westie, salmon, squirrel, thistles and a big coo on top of it. This carve was the winner at Carve Carrbridge 2013.

As he built his carving business, Iain continued to attend many of the local shows in the north of Scotland, including those at Lairg, Nain, and the Black Isle. Any money raised was reinvested in the business with the purchase of new equipment. Iain still does most of his carving with a chainsaw, using a pencil grinder for final detail work. Others may prefer to use die grinders and Dremels, but Iain still likes to carve with his saw – right down to the eyes.

In the early days, there were only four full-time carvers and a few doing it part-time in Scotland. Peter Bowsher was one of them and he became very much an inspiration and great help to Iain. They were able to discuss carving techniques and Peter was quick to offer advice and constructive feedback, which Iain is clear helped to shape his carving and help him see things in a different way.

His business started to outgrow the shed at Drynie Woodland and the search was on to find a new base. Having rented, Iain wanted to buy his own place, and found his current base at Cullicudden.

Forestry Journal: A wizard carved by Iain at Culloden Road at Inverness.A wizard carved by Iain at Culloden Road at Inverness.

“The first job was to dig up the ground and prepare road and run-in to the site that would allow an artic truck to get in with a lorryload of timber, turn and offload, and be able to get back out again. My brother and I built three sheds, bringing in a mobile sawmill to mill the wood required from my own sourced timber. The reason for the three sheds was so that I had one shed to carve, another to sand and the final one where the painting could be done.”

Iain is now established at Cullicudden and while most of his carves stay in the Highlands of Scotland when they are sold, he does ship finished carves right across the UK. While it was word of mouth and his website that drove orders in the early days, it is now through the phenomenon of Facebook that Iain finds he gets most of his orders.

“With 18,000 Facebook followers for my page, I find it to be a great selling tool. There is an instant audience that I can advertise to right away when I have carves to sell or new carves to highlight. Facebook means customers can be right across the country but I can courier carves, secure on pallets, to anywhere. It has become so successful for me that I now use my website to showcase my work, and take my orders through Facebook, phone and text messages.”

Forestry Journal: Early Morning Alarm Call which is a carve of a fox getting into a hen run, chasing the hen, with a pig looking over the fence. This was a winner at Carve Carrbridge 2012.Early Morning Alarm Call which is a carve of a fox getting into a hen run, chasing the hen, with a pig looking over the fence. This was a winner at Carve Carrbridge 2012.

 Iain has carved quite a few things for Landmark, including turning two windblown trees with their root system into an archway. He also produced a large wooden sofa for them to use as an attraction in the forestry adventure park. The totem pole in the car park is one that Iain carved, as well as the carvings in WonderWood at the Park. For Iain, being the local carver and having his carves at the park, which is a major visitor attraction, is important to him.

He has also completed a number of carves at the Cairngorm Mountain base camp. These carves are of all the different wildlife that can be found in the National Park and include everything from insects to squirrels and capercaillie.

Iain has also carried out a lot of  works for East Dunbartonshire Council, including a bench that he carved at Bearsden’s Kilmardinny Loch. The bench was carved out of a felled large beech log and has a pike, frog and dragonfly and a series of other wildlife carvings on it. In the same location, Iain has also carved a 14 ft. Gruffalo from a 200-year-old beech tree. He has done a series of other bench carvings as well as an owl carved to appear as if it is perched, looking out over the loch.

“I did another Gruffalo along with seven other carves including a wizard, some fairies, trolls and dragons from trees along Culloden Drive in Inverness. Each took a couple of days to carve and meant I had to spend a lot of time in a cherry picker to get up to the height of the tree stump to do the carving work. This was a job for the local community council with involvement for Highland Council and again it was good to be carrying out carving on my own patch.”

Forestry Journal: Mairi and Iain model the Love Your Bum seat carves which are now at Landmark Carrbridge.Mairi and Iain model the Love Your Bum seat carves which are now at Landmark Carrbridge.

It would have been remiss of me not to speak to Iain about Carve Carrbridge.

“The event started in 2002 with Pete and Andy carving at it. I did not feel I was at a level to do myself justice so I waited until the following year before making my first appearance at the event. I have been a regular carver there ever since. I have managed to win it three times, which is great, but the award that I cherish more than others is the People’s Choice Award. To me, that is a recognition that the people who are attending like what I am doing with my carves and vote for me.”

Iain’s run of three straight wins from 2011–13 saw him carve ‘Four Bears on a Horizontal Log’; ‘The Scottish Totem Pole’; and finally ‘Early Morning Alarm Call’. The last was a carve of a fox getting into a hen run, chasing the hen, with a pig looking over the fence. This still holds the record as the highest auction price gained for a piece sold at Carve Carrbridge.

Iain was quite honest to say that his early carves at the competition were not quite to the standards of his carves there today or the day-to-day carves he does for his clients. One of his earliest at the event was a bear eating porridge, because at that time the World Porridge Making Championships were held in Carrbridge on the same day. Iain told me that he thought, “It was genius at the time!” A look at his carve this year, ‘O’ Wee Timorous Beasties’ shows just how much his carving has developed. It was also one that, for the first time, Iain practised before going to the event to ensure he could complete it within the four-hour time slot allocated, such was the detail in it.

Forestry Journal: Iain picking up his People’s Choice award at Carve Carrbridge 2019.Iain picking up his People’s Choice award at Carve Carrbridge 2019.

The key to Carve Carrbridge, Iain is clear, is to make sure that your saws are razor sharp, full of fuel and that you have a bit of apprehension to start with, before the adrenaline takes over. With regard to his saws today, Iain’s saw of choice is the Husqvarna 560XP with a standard 15-inch bar, which he describes as “being a manic chainsaw, powerful but lightweight, fast, yet with the ability to be able to allow precision carving work”.

He has an old Husqvarna 254 for felling trees, as well as 346 and a 550. Stihl are favourites for the big jobs, with a 660 for cutting up bigger logs, and he spends time buying up any of these saws when they come on the market. Of the newer saws, Iain uses a Stihl MS 201 with a carving bar for the more detailed work.

I left Iain next to a family of badgers carved from another big bit of wood. He told me he loved carving and would probably carve until he drops. I can certainly say he does it very well and I can understand why he wants to keep doing it.