‘At the inn here we met again with one of the commercial gentlemen whom we had encountered at the different markets coming north. He was a travelling agent of the Singer’s Sewing Machine Company; and in proof of how general is becoming the adoption of these useful instruments everywhere, he told me that since leaving Barra he had sold ten machines in the Long Island; and, after paying all his own travelling expenses, had remitted over £70 to headquarters, in payment or part payment of machines sold by him on his last journey in these parts. He added that now-a-days it is quite common, in what we should call little Highland tailors’ shops, to find two machines going in full swing. We had had no idea previous to this time of the amount of business generally done by southern firms with the people of the Outer Hebrides, and therefore might well be surprised by one fact, among others, told us by this same gentleman – namely, that a well-known tea merchant hailing from Edinburgh, who regularly makes exhaustive journeys through the Long Island on his own account, will take home with him as the “collection” of one such visit about £1000. True, he has the great advantage of being thoroughly au-fait in the language of the natives, and he supplies numerous private customers as well as the merchants; but still – the statement surprised us.’
Before examining this account, I should like to look a little at the inn’s location which was in ‘…Tigharry, a township not far from Griminish Point…’ on North Uist where the ‘…somewhat humble but snug hostelry…’ was kept by ‘Mr Roderick Macaulay and his most capable and willing help-meet…’.
In 1841, the innkeeper at Tigh a’ Gerraidh (Tigharry) was 40 year-old Donald Macaulay who remained there in 1851 & 1861 but with the inclusion of ‘Farmer of 16 acres’ & then ‘Farmer of 14 acres’ as additional occupations.
In fact some 33 households are shown with the address of ‘Tigheary Inn’ in 1861, the Enumerator presumably considering this it to be the appropriate means of identifying the settlement as a whole?
Unfortunately the censuses of 1871 & 1881 return no clear indication of those (if there were indeed any?) living at, or keeping, the inn but the location can easily be seen on the 1881 OS 6-inch map.
In 1891 a Roderick Macaulay aged 54 was a Farmer in the township but, once again, the inn is not mentioned so whether he is the same person who nine years earlier had been the inn-keeper I cannot say.
Returning to the article itself, it is the information to be gleaned from the agent of the Singer Sewing Machine Company that demands our attention.
Firstly, a sum of £70 in 1882 equates to at least £5200 today (and quite possibly a lot more), the figure representing a combination of full and part payments for machines and after all the agent’s own expenses had been deducted from the sales. Small wonder that he had returned for another tour! I cannot find a price for a Singer sewing machine in 1882 but a close rival was on the market for about £4, equating to around £300 today.
Secondly, the image of a couple of Singer sewing machines ‘going in full swing‘ in many ‘little Highland tailor’s shops‘ is, at one and the same time, both reassuringly ‘cosy’ and also a pleasing antidote to the more-usual portrayal of island folk as automatically rejecting all such innovations.
Finally, the “collection” of £1000 by the Edinburgh tea merchant perhaps comes as no particular surprise until you update it to about £75,000 in today’s money. That’s a lot of tea (although precisely how much I cannot say) and the wily mainland merchant maximised his return by selling directly to his thirsty ‘Long Island’ customers as well as to the local merchants.
There we shall have to leave these travellers for now, enjoying their refreshments in Roderick Macaulay’s inn, but perhaps we’ll meet them again soon for they have many more interesting insights to provide us with into late 19thC life on the Long Island…
Source: Glasgow Herald September 1882