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History of the Scottish Woollen Trade


October 1935


The Historian of the Scottish Woollen Trade does not need to go very far back in time to reach the beginnings of the era of organisation - the emergence of the old craft as an industry properly to be described as The Scottish Woollen Trade. Many of us can remember to have heard from our fathers' and grandfathers' personal reminiscences of the very early days - the days when the old scattered craftsmen were beginning to find separate existence difficult, and when these disjointed particles were coming together and crystallising into these larger units that formed the beginnings of the firms that stand at the head of the industry today.
Galashiels may claim to be the chief centre though not the real fount and origin of the Scottish Woollen Trade, for its Weavers' Corporation dates back to 1666, and its Manufacturers' Corporation to 1777, handy dates to bear in mind. It must be remembered in discussing the early history of the trade, that weaving was a craft universally disseminated throughout the length and breadth of Scotland, which accounts for the scattered distribution of the mills at the present time.
Not unnaturally before the age of railways the craftsmen of the different parts of Scotland tended to travel along slightly different roads. Thus the West, taking advantage of the development of its connections with America, grew into the great Lanarkshire Cotton Trade. In this district the making of very light cloths followed the development of the cotton trade. Silk and wool were added to the cotton, producing shirtings of all kinds, and the highest skill of the craftsman was ready for the introduction of the Paisley shawl. These beautiful shawls were originally copied from Indian shawls brought back from Kashmir by the Glasgow traders who had spread throughout the East and particularly through India, since the Union had turned the vast energies of the Lowlanders from war to trade, and for several generations a Paisley shawl was almost as indispensable to a bride as a wedding ring ! Even now, in textile design, the influence of the East, which was introduced by this intricate and skilful trade, is still seen in the "Pine" motive, and in the richness of the use of abstract colour.


Before the end of the eighteenth century the industrialising of the West was well developed. John Gait, in the "Annals of the Parish" gives a sympathetic and very realistic impression of the cotton workers both in prosperity and in depression. Lord Cockburn in his "Journal", writing as a lawyer rather than a literary man, describes the terrible state of Paisley in 1843 : "Indeed what answer can be made to 10,000 people who violate no law, but simply stand on the street and say truly - "We have no work!" . . . This is an entirely new element in the population and the prospects it conjures up are terrible. ... I see no ground for expecting that so long as we are a nation of manufacturers we can ever be uncursed by these heart-rending visitations."


The Northern side of the Forth - the Hillfoots - following one trend of the West Country, developed its old serge trade almost solely into the shawl and knitting yarn trade, and later into linings, tartans, and fancy materials generally. So by natural growth it became the chief home of the Scottish part of the ladies' trade, which in general tended to be too insubstantial for Scotland.
"Blithe Aberdeen" took the old Lindsey Woolsey - a linen warp crossed with wool - evolved a great industry in that thriftiest of cloths, the Aberdeen Wincey, and formed, as it were, a sort of link with the great old Linen Weaving Trade of the East Coast, which was always specially concentrated in the Kingdom of Fife. Down the East Coast this developed under another side of the Indian influence into the Jute Trade of Dundee and Angus.


The detached North developed an exotic trade in Chinese, Persian, and South American Wools. It is interesting to follow the lines of these developments of the Scottish Woollen Trade. It is in these highroads and byroads of commerce that we can trace our local and national history more truly than by the study of the larger and more striking happenings of politics. When our young men went over all the world seeking adventures and fortunes, they never seemed to forget the possibilities of grafting new branches on the old stock. The Moray Coast traded largely with the Pacific Coast of North and South America. The early nineteenth century saw a fleet of little schooners, manned by eight to twelve men, sailing from such villages as Garmouth, at the mouth of the Spey. Round the Horn they went, right up the coast as far as the Columbia River, where Portland in Oregon now stands. As one modern steamship owner said, "The Lord was kind to little boats in these days." So these young men brought back bales of Vicunas, Alpacas, Llamas, and other strange wools for the mills at home.


All this time the Highlanders and the Islanders continued on their way as craftsmen, the men weaving, the women spinning, dyeing the wool and finishing the cloth in the intervals of extracting a difficult and insufficient livelihood from their crofts and from the sea - much the same today as a hundred or two hundred years ago. Immovably immersed in the old ways, the Highlands and Islands have shown a strange resistance to change. It is perhaps good for the State to be reminded now and then that material prosperity is not the only object of life, that the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever, and that the appeal of money just does not exist for some people. This was discovered in a peaceful way by our hard-headed Lancastrian, Lord Leverhulme, in the failure of his far-reaching plans for the development of Lewis and the betterment of the Islanders.


A hundred years earlier the North passed through the long and painful conversion to sheep and cultivation, culminating in the first decade of the nineteenth century in the great Sutherland Clearances, one of the most pitiful stages in the long history of our country, a piece of history so clouded by the agony of broken hearts that even to this day the truth is not to be discerned. As out of strength comes sweetness, so out of these tribulations the Empire and the World have been enriched by the development of many remote lands. In Canada, in Australia, in the United States, in New Zealand, the ruthlessly transplanted Highland stock has flourished and has brought forth fruit.


The Scottish Borders, with Galashiels as centre, plodded steadily along the road of solid common sense, producing the solidest of everyday cloths - Gala Tweels and Gala Greys, and later, with the Government help under the Act of Union, Blues, such as have ever since formed the staple wear of our seagoing men, and it was really from this Border trade that the modern Scottish Woollen Trade most directly developed. The country of the Scottish Borders is a true sheep country developed from the earliest civilised times by the Monks of the great Abbeys, and so logically the proper foundation of the Scottish Woollen Trade. So far as the Borders are concerned, Gala- shiels is the obvious centre, and it is there that the Scottish Woollen Technical College was built in 1909, leaving Hawick to supply the teaching for the knitting side of the Woollen trade. Galashiels is on one of the main lines from Scotland to London. It is the junction for the Tweed Valley group, Peebles, Innerleithen, and Walkerburn. Selkirk is but six miles away. Hawick and Langholm are not far, and even the scattered centres to the East, St Boswells, Earlston, Kelso, and Duns, are not very remote.


The other concentrated area is the district with the homely name - the Hillfoots - that rich, narrow, alluvial plain between the precipitous Ochils and the Firth of Forth. Stirling, where Bannockburns unknown of Bruce came from; Alloa, famed for knitting yarns ; Dollar, Alva, Menstrie, Tillicoultry. For the rest there are mills scattered all over Scotland - large and small, founded on the local needs of long ago, sometimes developed into large concerns, sometimes remaining as little country businesses serving the needs of the farmers round their doors. In fact our Scottish Woollen Trade is truly National and truly Native, and even now is truly on a Craft Basis.


Now this brings us to a very important point that can hardly be overstressed, for on it is based our claim to far more fame and attention than we are entitled to from our size. We claim no less than that our products are absolutely essential to the traders in the finest clothing throughout the world. Our Scottish designers are to be found throughout England and North America, New Zealand, Australia, and we submit that there is an inherent reason for this, just as seed potatoes of the best also come from Scotland by virtue of the soil and climate. All design of form or colour, and especially of colour, is based on Nature. By its soil, its climate, its very bones as one might call its geological structure, our land is the most brilliantly and variously coloured land in Europe - possibly in the world. When Leonardo da Vinci went to France he was struck with the intensity of the blue of the sky, and no observing traveller from the South can in like manner fail to be struck with the transparent brilliance of the sky in the North of Scotland. Spring, Summer, Autumn, and Winter show a wonderful and greatly changing procession of delicate and endless harmonies of colour from which the colourist can always refresh his mind and replenish his store. Moreover, the love of Nature is deeply embedded in our Scottish character, as witness our folk songs. Finally, our mills are not segregated in great industrialised areas where Nature is but a pale ghost of her vigorous self, but are sprinkled up and down the land in little villages or small towns, so that in many places the designer has but to lift his eyes from his desk to be refreshed and stimulated by the sight of hill and moor and stream.


Nor does this superlative excellence depend solely on the aristocracy of the trade, as one might call the masters and the designers. They are rather leaders than aristocrats, and are the product of the country too, for both masters and men have come of one of the most conservative stocks in the world, skilled for generations in the working of wool, and there are few masters in the Scottish trade today who have not been brought up in their mills, and few workers who are not the sons and daughters of craftsmen and craftswomen. There is thus, as a foundation for the trade, a great mass of inherited and traditional skill. One very happy result has been a close understanding between the masters and the men - for when men have been brought up to work side by side, learning their jobs together, reverencing the same traditions, it is not surprising that amongst them there has never arisen any labour trouble.


The Scottish mills are small. Mass production is not the habit of the Scottish trade. The Scottish manufacturers do not compete in cloths the sale of which depends purely on price. This is because of the large sums spent every year on designing and other experimental work, and because of the expenses involved in any high-class and varied type of manufacture. It does not mean that for value given or for the services rendered to mankind a high price is exacted. Nor in honesty does it mean that the Scottish manufacturers have a soul above large orders and vast business, and never cast envious eyes on the simple types of work that were required for the clothing of all the Allied Armies during the Great War.


The fundamental sources of efficiency vary greatly in different trades. These are determined by the incidence of the cost of raw materials, capital, labour, and all the varying items that in combination make up the selling cost of the product. In some trades small units have no chance against large concerns. In woollen manufacturing the effective production unit is surprisingly small, so that even a little country mill with one set of carding machines can put up a good fight against the largest plant. The Scottish Woollen Trade has shown complete resistance to large scale amalgamations and trusts, such as have formed in nearly all the great industries of the modem world. This could only be due to some such fundamental economic reason, coupled with another almost as important that enables even the small price handicap to be overcome. The process of manufacture must be capable of infinite variation of the product in the manipulation and combination of raw materials so as to give full scope to individual ingenuity and skill, without imposing too serious an addition to the costs of production. History shows to what a wonderful extent this is true of the Scottish Woollen Trade. And so with soil and climate combining to give us incomparable natural colouring, with a national character saturated with love of beauty, with a national energy always ready to seek new outlets for its power, above all, with such a splendid and ancient craft founded solidly on the soundest economics, how could our Scottish Woollen Trade fail to be in the very forefront, not of Scottish or even of British Industries, but of the Industries of the World

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

E.S. Harrison

 

 

One of a series of fascinating articles written over the decades  by Edward Harrison who ran Johnstons of Elgin for 46 years from 1920 - 1966.

Commencing with the first in November 1931, the essays were published anonymously by the National Association of Scottish Woollen Manufacturers.

All these essays - and a host of other articles - are freely available in our Archives to Members of the Scottish Tartans Authority.

Interested in joining? Just click here to see all the benefits.

 

 


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