Harris Weavers in the 19th Century

I interrogated the Census data in order to see what it might be able to inform us regarding weaving in Harris:

1841 1 Female 4 Males Total 5

1851 103 Females 16 Males Total 119

1861 84 Females 15 Males Total 96?

1871 61 Females 3 Males Total 64

1881 121 Females 1 Males Total 122

1891 247 Females 2 Males Total 248?

1901 204 Females 14 Males Total 216?

Firstly, the 1841 Census often only recorded the occupation of the ‘Head’ of each household so it is neither a true reflection of the numbers working as weavers nor particularly helpful in distinguishing people sharing the same name and range of birth dates.

The later censuses are much improved in these regards but are not without their own problems. It is entirely conceivable that a man employed in some other capacity, whether it be tenant, fisher, shepherd or whatever would also weave as an additional occupation.

Nevertheless, the figures are useful and, so long as not taken as painting the full picture, these snapshots across time do tell a story.

It is clear that weaving on Harris was overwhelmingly undertaken by women throughout the 19th Century.

Taking 1851 as a first reasonably accurate starting point, we perceive a dip by 1861, a dramatic decline by 1871, recovery by 1881 and then a meteoric rise of 150% to the all-time high of 1891.

There are at least two competing stories regarding the timing and other aspects of Lady Dunmore’s involvement in the early days of the marketing of Harris Tweed.

Unfortunately, written records, if they ever existed, have not survived and in her excellent book ‘Islanders and the Orb”, Janet Hunter writes eloquently on what is known or can be deduced from other extant sources but does not explore the census data which, I believe, holds important clues.

It is clear that the third-quarter of the 19th Century, a period that one might have expected to see the number of weavers remaining reasonably constant (notwithstanding other factors such as famine, destitution, clearances and emigration) in fact saw a serious decline.

Equally, it was the final quarter of that Century that shows the clearest evidence of significant growth in weaving, and Catherine Murray, Countess of Dunmore died in the middle of this period on the 12th February 1886.

Thus, although she played a vital role in spotting the potential of the islanders’ Clo Mor, and no doubt encouraging others to export the product to a wider Mainland market, it was those who came upon the scene nearly half a century later who saw the potential of marketing this unique product.

It is perhaps no accident, therefore, that the famous ‘Orb Mark’ bears no relationship to the heraldry of the Countess’s family and the origins of that mark remain a mystery yet to be solved.

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