Thus ended the evidence to the Napier Commission given by the Reverend Alexander Davidson of Manish Free Church, Harris.
The full exchange went like this:
13113. Mr Fraser-Mackintosh
—I forgot to follow out a question which I put about the lands. Taking South Harris as a whole, is there not enough land to support in comfort even more than the present population ?
—I should think it would give land to the present population, if the land were distributed among the people. I think it is quite capable of bearing all the people in comfort.
This, from a man who had lived, worked and raised a family amongst the people of South Harris for at least the past twenty-eight years (including officiating at the wedding of one of my female cousins in Strond in 1867) stands in stark contrast with the prevailing view of the Proprietor, the past Factors and the present Farmers of the day for whom Emigration was the only ‘answer’ to the ‘problem’.
I was inspired to take a closer look at Alexander Davidson having been contacted by one of his descendants, as can be seen at the end of this piece on Harris Free Churchmen .
The church is described in these pages from Canmore and British Listed Buildings and this is its location as seen on the OS 1:25000 Map .
The accompanying Manse, which was the Davidson family’s home for many years, is similarly described on these pages from Canmore and British Listed Buildings and its precise location can be seen here .
In previous pieces I mentioned that Captain FWL Thomas and his wife, Mrs ‘Captain Thomas’, had at times taken-in the children of islanders including one of Alexander Davidson’s daughters and also of the widowed Fanny Thomas’s later endowment of the Manish Victoria Cottage Hospital .
I would like to end with a longer extract from the Reverend’s evidence to the Napier Commission, to which I have added notes & observation within the text:
13081. Do many of the young women go south?
The context here is that of the ‘Herring Girls’ of the islands who followed the fishing fleet in their progress around the coast of Scotland and England during the season.
13082. Have they never been in the habit of going much from Harris?
—No, they never went.
This is telling us that as far as Davidson was aware, the women of Harris did not participate in this work.
13083. A good many of the women in this island get employment in knitting and in spinning cloth ?
—Yes, kilt making. That is their principal employment, and of late years it has been very useful to them.
Knitting, Spinning and Weaving were clearly well-established by 1883 but whether ‘kilt making’ referred to an actual Tailoring activity or was Davidson’s shorthand for weaving a web of cloth is not clear. As far as I know, such tailoring was not performed in creating a product for export and my researches into tailoring certainly don’t indicate that it was ever a large-scale female activity on Harris.
13084. Who set that agoing?
—Well, the Countess of Dunmore takes some interest in it, as well as other parties. I see they get very much into the way of dealing with the local merchants in order to get meal.
The internal arrangements pertaining at the time between the producers and the local merchants are beyond the scope of this piece, but I am interested in Davidson’s phrase ‘takes some interest in it’ for that is hardly a ringing endorsement for the Countess’s commitment to the cause. It is just a pity that none of the ‘other parties’ were named!
13085. Are most of the women in the parish employed in that way?
A reminder that, unlike on neighbouring Lewis, Weaving on Harris was traditionally dominated by the women.
13086. I mean every family?
—Perhaps not every family, but very generally they are.
The extent to which these textile industries pervaded the population and were pivotal to their survival is clear.
13087. They knit a great many stockings and hose?
The size and importance of the knitting industry must have been very significant at this time so quite why it slipped into relative obscurity, especially in comparison with the international fame of Harris Tweed, is an interesting question that I have discussed in previous pieces.
13088. What price do they get for socks?
—Not very much—perhaps about 1s., but I can hardly say whether that is the fixed price.
That is only £2-£3 in today’s money
13089. And they manufacture a peculiarly coloured native cloth?
—Almost every kind of cloth.
13090. Native dyes?
—Yes, they use native dyes.
Ignoring the slightly pejorative-sounding ‘peculiarly coloured’, we learn that the women were producing a variety of different cloths using ‘native dyes’. It is worth noting, however, that the word ‘Tweed’, let-alone the two words, ‘Harris Tweed’, are conspicuous by their absence. It wasn’t until the later marketing of the brand that they assumed common usage.
Ref: The full transcript of this evidence may be read here .
Anyone wishing to learn more about the Free Church Ministers at this time should consult the Annals of the Free Church of Scotland 1843-1900 (which may be available as in inter-library loan).