Mrs Stewart Mackenzie is working almost on the same lines as my late mother, whose name will remembered and memory revered in Harris for all time. (Applause.) She began her work in Harris between 60 and 70 years ago, and when I was sorting some old papers connected with our estate in Harris I came across a number of cuttings from old newspapers dated 1832 to 1839. It appears it was at this latter date that my mother laid the foundation-stone of the homespun industry in the Long Island. In those days the webs were taken by the women to the houses of Rodel or Amnsuidh, where they were duly inspected, measured, and valued according to quality. As soon the price per yard was agreed upon, my mother paid cash down for the web. These webs were then stored in Harris, and, at the end of the season, were forwarded to Dunmore House in Stirlingshire, from which depot the cloth eventually found its way to the various clothiers in London and the large provincial towns. My mother’s system was one of pure philanthropy, because whatever profit she was able to make on a resale of the web was credited the weaver in Harris, whereas, if there was any loss on resale, it was sustained by mother herself. That was the system my late mother inaugurated between 60 and 70 years ago, and continued to work upon for 50 year, and until her death. (Applause.) During that period of half-century she conducted the homespun industry single-handed, and without any extraneous assistance from irresponsible philanthropists. I purposely make point of mentioning this, because I have noticed that some contributors to the public press have lately written a lot of nonsense about this Harris tweed industry. They talked about it if it was mushroom creation of the last few years, and the direct outcome of some new and carefully-considered system of philanthropy, whereas, as a matter fact, it was in active operation before those who are now interesting themselves in the work were born. (Laughter and applause.)
Source: Inverness Courier – Friday 28 September 1906.
Image © THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
The above is an extract from the address given by the 7th Earl of Dunmore during the lengthy opening ceremony of an exhibition, which the reporter suggests ‘should be seen by everybody with an interest in Highland scenery’ (italics added), held in the Market Hall (presumably in Inverness?) for just three days.
There is much to dissect in this part of the Earl’s speech. He refers to newspapers from 1832, which was two years before his grandfather purchased the estate on 5 March 1834, and 1839. He suggests this very early date, five years earlier than the popular story of the industry’s birth in 1844 as described by Mrs S Macdonald (Sarah Grant) in a publication for The Scottish Home Industries Association in 1895, and states that ‘Amnsuidh’ was the destination for some of the webs of cloth. If so, they would have lain on the moss and grass for over a quarter of a century to be collected for it was he who had the ‘proposed lodge’ (to quote from the notated 1804 Plan of Harris), that became Amhainnsuidhe Castle, built in 1867.
It is interesting to note that during those same twenty eight years Big Borve, Middle Borve and Little Borve (all 1839) were cleared, as was Raa on Taransay (1840s), and crofts at Direcleit and Ceann Dibig were bisected to provide homes for people cleared from Borve on Berneray (1851). Borve in Harris had been resettled but was cleared again (1853) and finally Direcleit and Ceann Dibig were cleared (1860s). The potato famines also took place (1841-1856) and perhaps mention should be given to the clearance of Seilibost (1838).
Amidst all this turmoil it is certainly true that the Embroidery School was established in An t-Ob by the Earl’s mother (1849) but was she really conducting the ‘homespun industry single-handed’?
This is where we reach the irritation that is clear in this speech, the fact that ‘some contributors to the public press have lately written a lot of nonsense about this Harris tweed industry. They talked about it if it was mushroom creation of the last few years, and the direct outcome of some new and carefully-considered system of philanthropy, whereas, as a matter fact, it was in active operation before those who are now interesting themselves in the work were born.
Almost a quarter-of-a-century earlier the Napier Commission had revealed the work of ‘Mrs Captain Thomas’; the wife of navy hydrographer, pioneer photographer and archaeologist, Frederick William Leopold Thomas the naval hydrographer, in supporting the nascent Harris Tweed industry and it would appear that her story had been recently reinvigorated in the press. I have yet to discover these articles but this speech by the Earl suggests that over a hundred years before I began researching the true origins of the industry the popular narrative was already being questioned.
Less than a year after he spoke these words Charles Adolphus Murray died on 27 August 1907at the age of 66.