There is, to put it mildly, a fair degree of disagreement regarding the role played by each of these women in the origins and development of Harris Tweed. The extant written sources are scanty, written at lease 30 years after some of the events they purport to describe, and subject to bias. I shall look at the facts first, and then see if we can unravel the tangled web of the origin of Harris Tweed.
In 1845, the Countess of Dunmore’s husband dies and she acts as ‘Tutor’ for his 4 year-old heir. As such, she takes responsibility for the ownership of Harris. Simultaneously, HMS Porcupine, with Lieutenant Thomas aboard, starts surveying the waters of the Western Isles. A year later the series of fatal failures of the Potato crop, due to Blight, begins.
The Countess establishes an Embroidery School at An-t-Ob in 1849 and builds a house for the Gardener in 1850. However, the 1851 census records only one Gardener and he is in Liceasto. There is no record of an Embroidery Teacher, although Isabella Mackinnon is a School Mistress in ‘Obe’.
That same census does record the ‘Paisley sisters’ living at Port Esgein, Farm of Strond, neighbours of the Master of the Harris Mailboat, John Robinson whilst, just over the hill at Rodel House is the Factor and JP, John Robson Macdonald. In Edinburgh, Mrs Captain Thomas and the Captain are lodging in Culross, Perthshire. 1851 also sees the last of the Potato Famines.
By 1854, the road from Tarbert to Stornoway is complete and three years later, in 1857, the Countess and The Captain’s wife start the Stocking Industry. The next year sees an account of the Tides in the Sound of Harris published as a result of Captain FWL Thomas’ survey and ”In 1858 Lady Dunmore was a mother to her people in Harris’, according to the Duchess of Sutherland who wrote these words three decades later.
The census of 1861 shows an Embroidery Teacher, Mary Galbraith in An-t-Ob together with her Gardener husband. It also affirms the continued residence of the Thomas’ in Leith.
Between 1863 and 1867 the Countess’s son, the 7th Earl of Dunmore, embarks on a building spree starting with his hunting lodge at Ardvourlie on the North Harris Estate closely followed by the Tarbert Hotel and then Abhainnsuidhe Castle. All three of these being in North Harris. The overspending on the Castle, no doubt abetted by the cost of the previous two projects, leads him to sell the North Harris Estate to Sir Edward Scott for £155,000 in the same year as the Castle was completed. (Some sources say the buyer was Sir Samuel Scott, Sir Edward’s father, but as far as I can ascertain Sir Edward’s son Sir Samuel was the second owner of the estate)
In 1871 there appears an abundance of Stocking Knitters on Harris with 11 of the 17 being in the Strond/Borrisdale/Rodel strip whilst the Thomas’ remain in Leith. A couple of years later the newly-restored St Clement’s Church at Rodel is reopened.
Captain FWL Thomas died in Midlothian 1882 (the previous year the couple were still in Leith) and the Countess passes-away in 1886.
The Scottish Home Industries Association re-forms in 1889 and the era of co-ordinated marketing and protection of Harris Tweed begins. It should be borne in mind that it was six years earlier that the ‘Napier Commission’ gathered its evidence including the rival accounts of the which of our two ‘protagonists’ was the originator of the Industry.
The ‘Golden Road’ linking Tarbert to Rodel through the Bays of Harris wasn’t finished until 1897 so until then those weaving on the East Coast were still reliant upon the sea as their only highway. Three years later, Sir Samuel Scott built a Carding Mill at Lon na Feille, the old Market Stance in Direcleit, the significance of which lies in the story of Harris Tweed as told in detail in Janet Hunter’s ‘The Islanders and the Orb’.
Some accounts of Mrs Thomas have her moving to London and remarrying, and she certainly had facilities in London but I have found a Frances S Thomas who died in Midlothian in 1902 in her early 80s. Either ‘my’ Mrs Captain Thomas is the wrong one, or the death of someone in the ‘right place’ and with the correct name and age is a coincidence, or the 62 year-old widow did not in fact marry for a second time. As it happens, a fourth option occured. Frances did indeed marry for a second time. Her husband was Retired Staff Commander James Flowers Beckett. However, she did die in Edinburgh on the 7th of September 1902 and her usual address at that time was St Leonard’s On Sea. This accords perfectly with the account in ‘Islanders and the Orb’, although Janet Hunter did not know which St Leonard’s was referred to.
Tradition has it that in 1844 the Countess of Dunmore started the Harris Tweed Industry.
A rough approximation of the number of people, overwhelmingly women, explicitly engaged in Weaving on Harris, including those using the later term ‘Web’ is given here:
1871 (70 Note: This census under-records occupations)
1891 390 (inc 130 Web)
1901 220 (inc 5 Web)
We have to proceed with caution for, just as there was a time-lag between the building of the Embroidery School and our first record of a teacher (and no records of the women doing the actual embroidering!) and between the establishing of the Stocking Knitter Industry and the appearance of Stocking Knitters, so with these figures.
It is best to ignore the 1841 figure (which is annoying as an accurate figure for that year would have been particularly valuable!) and look at those for the second-half of the Century. These clearly show a reasonable degree of stability before what can only be described as the explosion of 1891.
The 1891 figure appears as clear evidence of the impact of the Duchess of Sutherland and her colleagues in the Scottish Home Industries Association but the earlier stability is equally revealing.
If there were as many engaged in producing Harris Tweed in 1881 as there had been in 1851 then it tips the balance in favour of the mid 1840s being the birth of the industry.
It also suggests that neither the Countess with her contacts, nor Mrs Captain Thomas who hailed from London, nor the growth of the Mercantile class on Harris had chosen, or perhaps been able, to provide the means by which an expansion could occur. By 1867 the 7th Earl had spent his money on building property in North Harris whilst the last specific contribution by the Countess was her diversifying into Stocking Knitting a decade earlier. It is Mrs Thomas who the Minister at Tarbert describes as having a personal presence amongst the people in the 1880s.
So where does all this lead us? It is my belief that the answer to the origin and early development of Harris Tweed lies in the relationship between the Countess and The Captain’s Wife. The former, recently widowed just at the time that the latter’s husband is embarking on his surveying of the seas around Harris. It is entirely conceivable that Mrs Thomas was conveyed to the island on HMS Porcupine and, as the wife of an Officer in the Royal Navy who was engaged in work of vital value to the Dunmore Estate, she would have been welcomed at Rodel House. This Wool-Merchant’s daughter would have been interested in the local textiles and had the right contacts to aid in their development. The ‘Paisley Sisters’ in 1851 were a short walk, horse or boat-ride around the corner from Rodel so it is possible that Mrs Thomas made that journey to see their skills for herself. The two ladies are known to have collaborated in establishing the Stocking Knitting in 1857 so it is entirely feasible for them to have been liaising on the selling of cloth prior to this date.
It is also possible that Mrs Thomas may have visited Harris before the Countess ever set foot there, but the inverse is equally probable. Whatever the order of precedence, I am convinced that the Countess and The Captain’s Wife had a closer, longer-lived and more productive relationship than the partisan accounts of later years might suggest. Once the 7th Earl had taken control of the island, via his Factor, the Countess appears to have been side-lined somewhat but Mrs Thomas certainly remained actively involved with the islanders.
The Countess of Dunmore’s family ‘invented’ Harris Tweed but I think it was the fortuitous presence of her new friend Mrs Captain Thomas that helped ensure its survival.
Remove either lady (and the particular circumstances of each as Widowed Countess and Captain’s Wife, respectively) and the story of Harris Tweed would have been very different, if indeed it existed to be told at all…