The Tarasaigh (Dis)Connection

Taransay, lying just a mile off the West coast of Harris, must have been a beautiful place to live for the 140 people who called it home in the late 18thC. It had acres of fertile land, beautiful Atlantic beaches and safe anchorage for boats. The three townships of Uidh, Paibeil and Raah must have been some of the happiest in Harris.

Raah, which had been Crofted in 1826, was Cleared in 1840 for the Tacksman, John Macdonald.
The 1841 census shows the 60 year-old Farmer living on ‘Tarrinsay’ with his wife, six children, a Tutor and several servants. In all there were 72 people recorded there including an 80 year-old Hand Loom Weaver, Chirsty Kerr.

In ‘Rha’ there remained just sixteen people, including the family of 41 year-old Roderick Kerr who is classed as ‘Independent. His wife, Margaret, was 30 and their daughters Ann and Mary were 12 and 3 respectively. Chirsty, the weaver, might well have been his mother.

The other three households in Raah were those of Kenneth Campbell, a 60 year-old Farmer with his wife and five children; Mary Macleod, a 41 year-old Hand-Loom-Weaver with three children, and sixty-one year old Marion Morrison who was a fellow weaver. They had been allowed to stay after their neighbours were forced from their homes, presumably because they were still of utility to the tacksman.

A decade later, the population of Taransay was reduced from these 88 people to a mere 55, a decrease of nearly 40%. Over on Harris itself, Borve (which overlooks Taransay) had been Cleared in 1839 and was subject to an experiment in re-settlement in 1847. At least one on the families from Taransay moved there.

So it was that the 1851 census for Borve records Roderick Kerr, 48, Labourer, Margaret, 47, Mary, 16, Flora 14, Donald, 9, Cathi, 4 and Janet, 1. Despite the apparent discrepancies in ages and names, my researches indicate that this is the family from Raah.

Back on Taransay, ‘John Macdonald, 70, Farmer of 150 acres employing 7 labourers’ is one of the 55 people in 11 different households that remain.

In 1852 the Highlands & Islands Emigration Society was formed and 742 people left Harris for Australia. The next year saw the plug-pulled on the experiment in Borve and it was Cleared for a second time.

Significantly, there is no further record of Roderick, Margaret and their family and it is to be assumed that they emigrated, but may not have survived the journey…

(Note: It is possible that one, or both, of the elder daughters married, but if so it was before 1855 for there is no record of such a marriage.)

Tweed -Specific Weaving

I’ve been looking at the use of the term ‘Tweed’ to describe the product of weaving.

There are no census references specifically to ‘Tweed’ weaving on Harris or Lewis prior to 1891.
The earliest that I’ve found elsewhere on the mainland is in 1861. The fact that the term originated (possibly due to a mis-transcription) in Scotland is well known.

What interests me is that it only appears on Harris and Lewis some three decades later. In 1889 the Scottish home Industries Association was formed to promote hand-crafted products, rather in the manner of John Ruskin’s Arts and Crafts Movement. Perhaps this goes some way to explain the widespread usage of the term ‘Tweed’ in the census returns for Harris just a couple of years later?

In 1891 & 1901 there were a total of 464 weavers of Tweed on Harris. They were overwhelmingly female. There were 15 weavers of Tweed on Lewis, only 3 of whom were female. This polarisation of Harris weaveresses and Lewis weavers continued through much of the 20th Century but I have yet to discover precisely why.

Weaver’s Cottage at Liceasto, Harris

This ruined cottage stands overlooking Loch Stockinish.

The large height of the windows, running from floor to eaves,
suggests that it was designed built for weaving.
Liceasto was home to 6 families in 1861 and 8 in 1891.
In each of these years there were two household with Weavers:
1861 2 of the 6 households (15 of 30 people)
Margaret Martin, 34, Wool Handloom Weaver, Wife
John Martin, 32, Crofter
Marion, 3
Angus, 1
Alexander Morrison, 10, Cow Herd, Visitor
Ann Macleod, 21, Wool Handloom Weaveress, Daughter
John Macleod, 46, Crofter
Mary, 37, Wife (plus 7 more children aged 2 to 17)
1891 2 of the 8 households (15 of 30 people)
Ann Mackinnon, 57, Tweed Weaver, Wife
Norman, 61, Crofter
Angus Macdonald, 26, Fisherman, Nephew
Rachel Macdonald, 20, Wool Spinner, Niece
Ann Macdonald, 69, Wool Spinner, Cousin
Euphemia Macdonald, 40, Tweed Weaver, Wife
William Macdonald, 43, Crofter
Margaret, 16, Wool Spinner, Daughter
(6 more children aged 1 to 14)
John Macdonald, 22, Fisherman, Visitor

It is possible that this ruin was once the home of one, or possibly two, of these four families.

Hand Loom Weavers of Harris

1841 is the only year that sees the occupation ‘H L W’ (Hand Loom Weaver) in the Parish of Harris:

Chersty Kerr, 80
William Macleod, 35
Effy Maclennan, 19
Marion Morrison, 61, Rha
Mary Macleod, 41, Rha

Catherine Morrison, 50
Mary Campbell, 30

Mary Macaskill, 50, Rushgarry
Ann Macintyre, 45, Rushgarry
Effy Mackinnon, 35, Rushgarry

At this point it might appear that the term ‘HLW’ was used uniquely by the people on these three islands off the West and South of Harris or ,perhaps, by the aquatic Enumerator dispatched to collect their data.

Let us look a little further afield in the Parish of Harris:

In this same year, there were thirty-one HLWs on South Uist, one on North Uist but none on Harris.

Again in 1841, there were twenty-three Weavers on North Uist and only one on South Uist.

There were only five weavers recorded on Harris:

Marion Kerr, 55, Scarista
Norman Macleod, 50, Scarista

Malcolm Macleod, 40, Kentulavig

Donald Maclennan, 70, Strond
Donald Macleod, 45, Strond

It appears that North Uist and Harris were the islands of Weavers whilst South Uist, Berneray, Pabbay and Taransay were those of the Hand Loom Weavers.

In Ross and Cromarty, the Isle of Lewis in 1841 had eighty-one HLWs but only five Weavers, all the later in Uig which Parish contributed four of the eighty-one HLWs.

I am tending towards the differentiation between these two groups as being no more than an artefact of the way this census was compiled, not least because I appear to have had a relative in each of the two camps!

What Was A Web Maker?

I cannot recall the precise circumstances that led me to happen upon the term ‘Web Maker’ in the 19th Century census returns but here are the five occurrences of the term in Harris:

Marion Macdonald, 52, North Harris, Web Maker Wool, Wife
Kate, 22, Web Maker Wool, Daughter
Bella, 18, Web Maker Wool, Daughter

Flora Macdonald, 36, No 3 Derisgil, Web Maker, Wife
Angus, 9
Donald, 7
Margaret, 4
Murdo, 3
Mary, 4 months
John Macdonald, 88, Retired Fisherman, Boarder
Mary Macdonald, 40, General Servant Domestic
John Macdonald, 15, Farm Labourer

Marion Mackay, 60, No 37 North Harris, Web Maker
Malcolm, 55(?), Shopkeeper Draper Grocer, Son
Annie, 29, Housekeeper, Daughter
Catherine, 23, Cook, Daughter
Malcolm Macleod, 9, Nephew
Jane Macleod, 21, General Domestic Servant
James Wilson, 37, Commercial Agent, Boarder

I have searched elsewhere in the UK censuses for other appearances of the occupation but it appears to have sprung-up in Harris by 1891 and is limited to these three particular households.

Searching the internet for the term ‘Web Maker’ in the context of weaving is exceedingly difficult as the phrase has a completely different widespread usage in the 21st Century!

Why it suddenly appears in Harris at this time and whether it refers to preparing the Warp for weaving, or the actual production of a ‘Web’ of woven cloth, is unknown.

In 1891 Flora Macdonald had a neighbour at No 2 who is described as a ‘Weaveress’ which suggests that a ‘Web Maker’ played a different role?

The presence in 1901 of the Web Maker Marion with her Draper son might indicate that she was involved in some post-weaving process?

The mystery remains but the release of the 1911 census next year will show whether the term ‘caught-on’ once Harris Tweed had become a specific, protected product or whether these three households will remain an unexplained anomaly.

Update: Scotland’s People have a very handy list of Occupations and the term ‘Webster’ equates to that of Weaver. There is no specific reference to ‘Web-Maker’ so it appears reasonable to equate Web-Maker, Webster & Weaver – for the moment!


Harris Weavers in the 19th Century

I interrogated the Census data in order to see what it might be able to inform us regarding weaving in Harris:

1841 1 Female 4 Males Total 5

1851 103 Females 16 Males Total 119

1861 84 Females 15 Males Total 96?

1871 61 Females 3 Males Total 64

1881 121 Females 1 Males Total 122

1891 247 Females 2 Males Total 248?

1901 204 Females 14 Males Total 216?

Firstly, the 1841 Census often only recorded the occupation of the ‘Head’ of each household so it is neither a true reflection of the numbers working as weavers nor particularly helpful in distinguishing people sharing the same name and range of birth dates.

The later censuses are much improved in these regards but are not without their own problems. It is entirely conceivable that a man employed in some other capacity, whether it be tenant, fisher, shepherd or whatever would also weave as an additional occupation.

Nevertheless, the figures are useful and, so long as not taken as painting the full picture, these snapshots across time do tell a story.

It is clear that weaving on Harris was overwhelmingly undertaken by women throughout the 19th Century.

Taking 1851 as a first reasonably accurate starting point, we perceive a dip by 1861, a dramatic decline by 1871, recovery by 1881 and then a meteoric rise of 150% to the all-time high of 1891.

There are at least two competing stories regarding the timing and other aspects of Lady Dunmore’s involvement in the early days of the marketing of Harris Tweed.

Unfortunately, written records, if they ever existed, have not survived and in her excellent book ‘Islanders and the Orb”, Janet Hunter writes eloquently on what is known or can be deduced from other extant sources but does not explore the census data which, I believe, holds important clues.

It is clear that the third-quarter of the 19th Century, a period that one might have expected to see the number of weavers remaining reasonably constant (notwithstanding other factors such as famine, destitution, clearances and emigration) in fact saw a serious decline.

Equally, it was the final quarter of that Century that shows the clearest evidence of significant growth in weaving, and Catherine Murray, Countess of Dunmore died in the middle of this period on the 12th February 1886.

Thus, although she played a vital role in spotting the potential of the islanders’ Clo Mor, and no doubt encouraging others to export the product to a wider Mainland market, it was those who came upon the scene nearly half a century later who saw the potential of marketing this unique product.

It is perhaps no accident, therefore, that the famous ‘Orb Mark’ bears no relationship to the heraldry of the Countess’s family and the origins of that mark remain a mystery yet to be solved.