10.5.6 Textiles

Textile production has a long history in the Highlands, from homeworking to small scale producers to large mills. Cottage industries of hand spinning and weaving have a long tradition, and they continued alongside industrial-scale operations. Producing textiles over and above what was needed locally was often an initiative of the local laird, and increasingly in the 18th century by government (for example on annexed estates) or companies such as the British Linen Company (Hume 1977, 39; Durie 1979; 1996). Buildings at Lochcarron (MHG16172) and Inverlael on Loch Broom (MHG7839) are testament to the three unsuccessful linen stations established in the 1750s. An example of an enterprise linking small scale workers with outlets is Highland Home Industries, founded 1907 and active into the 20th century. While for the most part they concentrated on knitted and woven products, other Home Industries also included basketry and even marble carving from Skye (Jones 2020).

Estates annexed by the government after the 1745 Jacobite rising promoted flax, primarily for its textile rather than food potential. Documentary evidence including the Old Statistical Accounts makes clear that the linen industry was huge in the Highlands, employing thousands of spinners in the 18th century. These threadsnthen required weavers and often mills and bleachfields (Durie 1979; 1996). There is scope to explore the evidence of linen production in locations where documentary evidence shows initiatives and buildings; this could then be combined with pollen analysis to indicate increased flax production, and the identification of retting ponds.

In the second half of the 18th century, proto-factories with large numbers of looms were established in Inverness, Cromarty (MHG8783; Case Study Russian Cloth Trade to Cromarty) and Invergordon, taking advantage of cheap labour. These sites operated at a large scale and had to import flax and hemp, with the products including bags destined for overseas (Alston 2006, 161ff). The sailing ships of the time required huge quantities of rope, and ropeworks in the Highlands helped to supply some of this need. Landlords and entrepreneurs in Easter Ross in particular promoted largescale textile working (Mowat 1981, 162).

Former hemp work manufactory, Cromarty. ©Cromarty Courthouse Museum

Limited early attempts to mechanise textile production were established in the Highlands, all dating before 1810, with wool carding and spinning in Inverness and at Braelangwell on the Black Isle (MHG8765) and cotton spinning at Spinningdale, Sutherland (MHG10195; Alston 2006, 167). All were short-lived. Remains survive of the Braelangwell mills, now adapted to housing, and the dangerous ruinous shell of Spinningdale. The Spinningdale operation was a short-lived (1792–1806) an unsuccessful experiment, designed to alleviate poverty and provide employment (Case Study Spinningdale Mill; Cooke 1995).

Spinningdale Mill. Andrew Puls ©Highland Council

Holm Mills Inverness was established in 1798, and is reputedly the oldest woollen factory in the north of Scotland, worked by water power and steam, producing tweeds, plaiding and blanketing in the 1880s. In the last years of the 19th century further textile factories were founded to cater to the increasing demand for tweed (Groome 1901, 867–68). Other woollen mills were founded in other locations during the 20th century, but none still operate.

Some smaller scale carding mills are noted on the 1st edition OS maps, many of which also appear to have been used for other purposes such as sawing wood or grinding grain. Most appear to be water powered. Each is likely to have a local story which could be explored.

Bobbin mills were also located in the Highlands, primarily supplying the cotton mills of Paisley and Glasgow in the 19th century and the jute industry in the 20th century. Birchwood was traditionally preferred. Most were in rural locations, but a mill is also known from Inverness. The information for the Highlands has been brought together by Gilliatt (2018).


Case Study: Russian Cloth Trade to Cromarty


Case Study: Spinningdale Mill


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