In his piece on The Origins of Harris Tweed.pdf , Angus Macleod gives a list of ‘philanthropic persons and agencies’ that had been instrumental in the development of the Harris Tweed industry:
1. Lord and Lady Dunmore of Harris
2. Mrs Thomas, an Edinburgh woman who had a small depot for the sale of Harris and
knitted goods in Edinburgh, at least as early as 1888. She moved to London at the end
of the century and continued her activities there.
3. Lady Gordon Cathcart Proprietress of Uist.
4. Mrs Mary Stewart Mackenzie of Seaforth
5. Millicent – Duchess of Sutherland
6. Mrs Jessie Platt of Eishken
7. Scottish Home Industries Association
8. Highland Home Industries
9. The Crofters’ Agency
I have already gone into some detail regarding the parts played by 1,2, 5, 7 & 8 in this regard, but have not yet examined 3, 4, 6 & 9.
3 Lady Gordon Cathcart :
This page from Undiscovered Scotland does not paint a particularly philanthropic picture of the Lady and I can find no other references to her as having played any role regarding Harris Tweed. her inclusion in Macleod’s list remains something of a mystery.
4 Mary Stewart Mackenzie of Seaforth:
This is the lady of Brahan Castle, Conon Bridge, Ross-shire and she it was who established 9) The Crofter’s Agency, in what may, according to Janet Hunter in ‘The Islanders and the Orb’, have been a split between her and 5) Millicent -Duchess of Sutherland’s Scottish Home Industries Association. By the late 1920s, Mary was Chairman of the Harris Tweed Association and it wasn’t until 60 years after her death in 1933 that a single other woman would have a place in that Association! The Crofter’s Agency and the role played within it by Mary is fully described in ‘The Islanders and the Orb’.
6 Mrs Jessie Platt of Eishken:
Elsewhere in his archives Angus Macleod gives us this:
Jessie Platt of Eishken was among a number of people and philanthropic agencies that encourage the Harris Tweed Industry. Mrs Platt provided an outlet for a substantial quantity of the Crofter Tweed that was produced in Lochs and we have seen an old note book in Eishken Lodge giving details of purchased of local crofter cloth for which she paid 3/6 a yd (17½) in 1889. That was a very high price at that time. In the late 1920s crofter tweed was selling so low as 2/6 or 12½ p and on occasion for much less.
Evidence of the esteem in which the people of Lochs held the Platt’s of Eishken is to be found in the
illuminated address that was formulated by Mr Kerr the Head teacher of Planasker School Marvig on behalf of the people on the occasion of the Platt’s Silver Wedding Anniversary on 15/8/01, part of which reads:-
‘Nor can we allow this occasion to pass without acknowledging our deep indebtedness to you for the great interest you shave shown in our local tweed industry’.
The people of Park and district always referred to Jessie Platt as ‘Lady Platt’ or the ‘Lady’ thus paying her the compliment of conferring on her an unofficial title, which many thought was hers by right.
9 The Crofter’s Agency: See 4) above
Concentrating upon the seven individuals that are mentioned (rather than the three institutions that some of them were involved with) it strikes me that it was unquestionably ‘Mrs Thomas’ who links the first stirrings of the industry to its much later development into a global phenomenom. Which is why I believe that this Solicitor’s daughter from Deptford has a special place amongst those who, to quote from the extensive extract below from another of Angus Macleod’s writings on the subject, ‘deserve better than to be forgotten’…
The following are some of the people who left their mark on the Hebrides and who deserve better than to be forgotten. In fact every Hebridean should be well versed in the history of the Harris Tweed industry, as it is very clear that to a very great extent, the continued existence of these Islands depend on the prosperity of the Harris Tweed industry.
The Dunmore family who were the proprietors of Harris about the time of the 1846 famine (failure of the potato crop) were among the leading people who were largely instrumental in encouraging the establishment of a tweed industry in the Hebrides when they induced the crofters to produce a cloth suitable for a fashionable market. This cloth, of a rough home spun type, proved to be the foundation of our great Harris Tweed industry as we know it today, and we all owe a deep debt of gratitude to Lord and Lady Dunmore who took such an interest in the welfare of the crofters. It is also said that Lady Dunmore arranged for some girls from Harris to go to Alloa to learn to weave more intricate patterns, paying all their training expenses.
Mrs Thomas, wife of Captain Thomas of the Ordinance Survey Department, who appeared to be
resident in Harris for a time towards the end of the last century, was another lady who took a great
interest in popularising Harris Tweed in those early days.
We find the Duchess of Sutherland very active in Lewis and Harris during the last years of the 19th
century, and we are given to understand this lady had connections with ‘The Highland Home Industries’ who had a shop in Stornoway about that time.
The Platt’s of Eishken who came to Lewis about the year 1878 took a great interest in the affairs of the crofters of Park and surrounding district, and began to purchase the products of the crofters in order to help them at a time when it must have been very difficult for the crofters to earn a living. Chief among these crofter products was the local hand made tweed, and it is said much of it found its way to bazaars and institutions in the south. A notebook still in existence in Eishken lodge shows that the price paid for such tweed in 1889 was 3s/6d per yard, which must be considered a very high reward in those days, and one for which we may be sure the crofters were grateful for.
Evidence of the esteem the people of Park held the Platt’s in is to be found in the illuminated address presented by the people of Park to Mr and Mrs Platt on the occasion of their silver wedding anniversary on 15th August 1901. This address can still be seen at Eishken lodge, and part of it reads: – ‘Nor can we allow this occasion to pass without acknowledging our deep indebtedness to you for the great interest you have shown in our local tweed industry.’
Evidence of the warm affection the people of Park held Mrs Platt in is the fact that locally the people conferred on her the title ‘Lady Platt’ and for very many years we always assumed the title was hers by right.
It is generally acknowledged that so far as Lewis is concerned Park was the first district to take up the industry seriously, and from there it spread to Uig and so forth. The writer can trace the industry in Park back to the 1880s, and my own mother made Harris Tweed at Calbost on her own loom about 1890 with the small loom (beart bheag), which was the only loom then in existence. It was operated by means of throwing the shuttle (which was a sheep’s shin bone) with the one hand and catching it with the other, and firing it back through the ‘alt’.
Note: Angus Macleod’s archive is one of the treasure-troves of Hebridean history and all the better for its somewhat higgledy-piggledy organisation. There are at least three pieces that I can find in which he returns to the subject of the origins and history of Harris Tweed, clearly adding new information as it became available but never, sadly, producing the wonderful book that his notes would no doubt have led to.
It is with great trepidation that I offer any form of correction to his work, but I am certain that Mrs Thomas was the wife of Captain Thomas the maritime surveyor who was not employed by the Ordnance Survey although the two branches of surveying worked closely together, as alluded to in an earlier piece of mine on Captain Otter that includes his whereabouts in 1851.