By the DUCHESS OF SUTHERLAND
The Land Magazine January 1899
Although the quote regarding Lady Dunmore is often seen, the context in which it occurs is less-often provided. I have extracted those parts of the article that are of particular relevance to the Western Isles and attempted to present them in a slightly more digestable form:
To take the case of Scotland in particular, leaving sea-fishing out of account, the crofters and cottars of the Western Islands have no alternative employment.
In Harris and Lewis there is no land for them to cultivate.
Their crofts, hardly worthy of the name, scattered about the rocks and stones of the wildest hills, afford them but the most meagre sustenance.
The people are simple and uncomplaining; the women, who work day after day at the tweed, are most industrious.
They are, of course, ignorant of economic conditions, and they can hardly understand the dread power of machinery competition in the South. “If the sale of the tweed fails,” they say, “we shall starve”, and they speak the truth.
The Scottish Home Industries Association is not ignorant of economic conditions ; it knows full well the mastery of them, and it occupies the paradoxical position of discouraging an industry even while supporting it.
Its advice to the girls and boys of the younger generation is, Do not think that if you spin and weave you can always earn your daily bread. Go South and learn trades, neglect no chance of education that will bring you new hope, and more money to your native island.
We will do all we can to save your old industry for this generation, perhaps for the next, but the days of its prosperity have gone by, and this is no time for sentiment.
You cannot rely on this occupation as a means of livelihood, even from year to year.
It may seem strange that I should start on so pessimistic a note.
I do so because there has been confusion or ignorance in the minds of some on the subject of Highland industries. Few have realised what the sale or non-sale of tweed means to the workers; some have even thought that the whole thing was confined to the aesthetic fancies of a few philanthropic ladies.
I would, indeed, it were! How easy our task, if it were merely an interesting addition to more remunerative employment, if the industry could be directed and guided solely in the leisure hours of My Lady Bountiful!
But what in reality is this industry ? It is an industry seeking a fair place in the commercial world. It is an industry on which thousands of lives are dependent.
With the warning whirr of the factory sounding in our ears, we give good advice for the future; but for our own time, we protect the industry with all the force that in us lies, and we arm ourselves, for the sake of the people for whom we fight, with the methods of trade – that is, we know we must establish our reputation by our commercial soundness.
The Association is not ashamed of being a trading concern. It works for a poverty-stricken people, and is forced to accept the conditions of the trading world, or submit to failure. It has been said for instance, ” Why do you not encourage ” your old spinners to spin blankets?” but there is no market for homespun-blankets. Give the old woman, if you will, other employment for the day-time, to earn her food, and she will spin blankets in the evening for sentiment.
Others again have remarked on the barbarity of using chemical dyes to supersede the vegetable concoctions gathered on the hillside. This is indeed rarely done, but when an order comes from a lady of fashion for a roll of bright blue or scarlet tweed (she will have none of the dingy brown), surely we take the order,, for it brings the spinner bread to eat, and we risk the condemnation of all the romanticists.
And yet I too can be romantic! Who is not, who lives long enough among the lights and shadows of our Highland hills ?
There must be many Highland hearts that beat faster it they remember the peaty atmosphere of the old ” black house”‘ where the cailleach sits spinning and crooning, her Gaelic legends from the hills of dream.
In 1858 the late Lady Dunmore was a mother to her people in Harris. The tweed was then a novelty in the South, and she would sell a good deal for them, getting four shillings and even four shillings and sixpence per yard wholesale.
It has been brought against our Association in blame that we no longer pay the people these prices. Unfortunately the output of tweed is so enormously increased and machinery competition is so formidable that the market does not permit us to pay philanthropic prices.
The Association has to pay market prices or it would soon be bankrupt.
The interesting part in the matter is to note that the people do not suffer loss as much as would be believed. There has been a great fall in prices all round, and though the people get less for their production they benefit from the fact that the commodities which they purchase are so infinitely cheaper in 1898 than they were in 1858.
On the other hand complaints have been made at the depots that the prices charged for the tweed are too high. It need scarcely be said there is no overcharge of any kind.
The gist of the matter is this – that we run a commercial undertaking on a benevolent basis.
We do not say that the success of the Highland Tweed Industry means the solving of all the vexed questions in connection with the welfare of a deserving and grateful people.
Our Association can only do its share of the work of progress.
The lately appointed Congested Districts Board may do something – the new education will do more -the common sense of the Highlanders themselves will do most of all.
All change is of necessity slow, but I believe the coming decade will show as remarkable an improvement in the condition of the country as the last few years have shown an advance on all the preceding decades of the 19th century.
Reading her words some 111 years after the Duchess originally penned them there is more than a sense of ‘plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose’. However, what strikes me the most is the unusual combination of humanity with ‘hard-headed’ business sense. She was ahead of her time and, in some regards, we still have yet to catch up with her!