Tweed and the Isle of Harris

by Angus Macleod

While Scotland is only a small nation with an historically small population the influence of the Scots upon the world of today is disproportional. Throughout history a disproportionate number of Scottish men and women have played incredibly important roles in the history of the vast majority of countries of the world. From the Founding Fathers to American Presidents, British Prime Ministers to the great many explorers and missionaries the Scottish have help shape modern society. However Scotland is most widely known for it’s tartan, Harris Tweed, bagpipes and the likes.

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.

To this day the railways have not reached the Isle of Harris in the Outer Hebrides and few in the Victorian era visited this remote island. However, in 1844, the Earl of Dunmore asked the weavers of the island to create a cloth for him. His wife encouraged the weavers to create other patterns and did much to promote the product. Due to the incredible properties of the cloth, Harris Tweed, it was the perfect material for the sporting clothes of the new visitors and very quickly it became the choice cloth of the upper classes.

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.

In recent years there has been renewed interest in this unique material. It has, at various times, made appearances on the catwalks of the world’s fashion centers and many still prefer it over other materials. It is still common to see men dressed in a Harris Tweed jacket but use of the material has, most recently, been much more diverse. Not too long ago Nike made a very large order for the material and produced a pair of shoes using it which proved very successful, even though they were often difficult to find.

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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