It is a topic that clearly exercised the late Angus Macleod too, for his archive is full of notes on the subject and these have been particularly valuable in guiding my research, although whether he would accord with my conclusions or not is quite another matter.
Are the tales told part of the oral history of the people of the island, or are they a marketing spin invented in the late 19thC to add romance to the material and conveniently mask some of the less-palatable aspects of the Dunmore years, especially those of the 1840s?
Minutes of Evidence - 12th May 1847 John Tait Esq.
Third Report from the Select Committee on Sites For Churches (Scotland)
6290. Was anything done with a view to giving a market for the fabrics of the island?
Yes; Lady Dunmore intimated to all the people in Harris that the whole fabrics of the island, such as tartan plaids and stockings, would be taken at once by her, and paid for in ready money; and I may state that she has has received from there about 80L. worth of such fabrics, most of which have been brought up to England, and sold or given to her friends.
This represents the earliest datable, documented account of the Countess of Dunmore involving herself with 'Harris Tweed'.
No family tartan, no sisters from Strond sent to train in Paisley, or Alloa, or anywhere else.
£80 in 1847 equates to £5,360 today using the Retail Price Index (£57,800 using Average Earnings).
Her late husband had bought the whole of Harris 13 years earlier for £60,000.
This equates to nearly £5million using the RPI and almost £50million using Average Earnings.
750 times the amount 'taken at once' from the weavers & stocking knitters...
John Tait had had a long-standing & knowledgeable relationship with the family:
6259. I Believe you were one of the trustees under the will of George Earl of Dunmore, the grandfather of the present Earl ? -Yes, I was.
You are intimately acquainted with the affairs of the family, and assist Lady Dunmore in the management of the property ? - Yes, I have been consulted by her frequently.
The situation the Countess found herself in was undoubtedly complex: the Disruption of 1843; the death of the 6th Earl of Dunmore in July 1845 (shortly followed by the birth of his last child); the start of the Potato Famines in 1846; the requests for a Free Church or churches to be built; and the resettlement of Borve in 1847 all being major features that occurred in these five short years.
It seems a little too convenient that it is in the middle of this period that she is alleged to have set the industry on its way, especially as there is no concrete evidence of her visiting Harris at this time.
The very complexity of the situation, made all the more difficult by her acting as 'Tutor' to the small boy who legally owned the property, makes it extremely difficult to differentiate fact from fiction but the more of the former that I examine the less inclined I am to accept much of the latter. As I have made clear previously, almost all the published accounts of the origins of Harris Tweed were written decades after the events that they purport to describe (and after the death of the Countess herself) by people who had a vested interest in mythologising the Dunmore proprietorship of Harris. They were fellow 'establishment' figures (or their immediate underlings) and included a titled Lady or two, Ministers of the Established Church, Factors & Farmers.
She did make a payment of £1800 pounds in the Spring of 1847 which is the earliest documented evidence of the Countess assisting 'woollen manufactures, partly knitting and partly spinning.' on Harris. It equates to perhaps as little as £180,000 today:
"In the spring of 1847, Lady Dunmore, from her private funds, supplied seed oats, and a considerable quantity of seed potatoes, to the tenants. Some have repaid their advances, but a greater number have not. Her Ladyship also provided materials for employing females in woollen manufactures, partly knitting and partly spinning. For these two purposes she expended above £1800. Nearly £1200 have also been expended on boats, fishing-gear, and the erection of a pier at West Tarbert, for the encouragement of the fishery."
It is not entirely clear if the sum of £1800 refers solely to the knitting and spinning manufactures, or if it includes the seed oats and seed potatoes too, but what is significant is that it appears in the 1851 submission of the Parochial Board of Harris. and yet this account makes no reference to any subsequent encouragement occurring in the four years following this one-off payment.
It was, I suggest, simply an attempt at recouping some of the costs of the famine relief that had been borne ('from her private funds' probably because the Trust legislation made such payments difficult for her to make directly from the estate of her 6 year-old son), rather than a part of any properly planned enterprise. That would only appear a decade later, after the famines had ended and a certain 'Mrs Captain Thomas' had appeared on the scene. A decade later still, the 26 year-old 7th Earl's castle-building led to him having to sell the North Harris Estate for £155,000.
In conclusion, whilst there is evidence from as early as 1847 of the Countess providing some stimulus for the women of Harris to generate income from textiles, there is nothing to support the familiar myth of the origin of Harris Tweed which may well be rooted in true events but which, in it's well-spun version(s), is too full of flaws to be given the stamp of approval...
Note: Previous pieces that may be of interest: