Harris Tweed and the Isle of Harris

by Angus Macleod

Scotland is only a small country in the United Kingdom of Great Britain. For much of it’s history the nation and it’s people have been incredibly poor but from this impoverished society some of the most influential people came forth to make their mark upon our world. There are few countries in the world that have not been directly influenced by the hands of the Scottish but few consider this when asked to think of Scotland and most of us would rather bring to mind the likes of Tartan and Harris Tweed.

It can be said that most people think that Harris Tweed and tartan are very ancient but the sad truth is that they are fairly recent developments which only date back to Victorian times. Sir Walter Scott, the famous author, and others helped to create a wonderful image of a romantic Scotland which Queen Victoria fell in love with. Though tartan patterns date from this period the “traditional Scottish” created by Scott was heavily influenced by Highland culture.

It could be said that Sir Walter Scott and Queen Victoria created the Scottish tourism industry. Although there had been earlier visitors to Scotland they were few and far between as the country was remote and communication links were poor. Throughout the Victorian period interest in Scotland grew and, with the advent of railway systems, Scotland became the playground of the upper classes who indulged in hunting, fishing and golf.

While a small number of visitors ventured as far as the Outer Hebrides the majority wore Harris Tweed. Harris Tweed, produced only on the Isle of Harris (and Lewis) is a hard wearing and durable cloth of somber colors which was ideally suited for use in clothing for the Victorian and Edwardian upper class visitors. In 1844 the Earl of Dunmore had asked the weavers of Harris to create a cloth in a similar style to the Murray Tartan. Much encouraged by Lady Dunmore the cloth was made in various styles and quickly became popular.

Harris Tweed is heavily protected, it can only be produced in the Outer Hebrides and the methods used to make it have changed little over the centuries. The cloth is hand made and was used local wool, colored using dyes made from locally occurring plants. The cloth was incredibly tough and it was a long time before other products from abroad encroached into it’s markets however the industry eventually decreased.

It is still incredibly common to see somebody sporting a Harris Tweed Jacket and the material remains popular. Today it is increasingly common to see the cloth used in any number of diverse products ranging from handbags to running shoes from manufacturers such as Nike.

In recent decades the Isle of Harris has seem a massive increase in the number of people visiting the island and tourism is now a major element of the local economy. Traditionally there have been summer and winter industries in the Hebrides and the production of Harris Tweed has always had a vital role. Unfortunately in the last few years the tweed industry has been in crisis and, at this moment, it is in something of a state of flux with the main mill closing. There is little doubt it will still be produced but the future is uncertain.

The Isle of Harris has plenty to entertain the visitor though most arrive with the sole intention of relaxing. Of course the unique landscape, fantastic beaches and seascapes, are world renowned but many now visit to trace their family roots, enjoy sports competitions, attend Gaelic and Celtic music gatherings and many, many other reasons. You will be glad to hear that getting to the Isle of Harris is far easier than during the Victorian era. Today there are regular flights to Stornoway on the adjoining Isle of Lewis but the vast majority arrive by ferry from the Isle of Skye in the Inner Hebrides (which is now joined to Scotland by a bridge).

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