I HAVE told you that there are several minor
occupations in the Hebrides to which women are particularly suited. But
most of these occupations, though they are necessary and, indeed,
indispensable if the island-community is to exist at all, are essentially
uneconomic in the wide sense in which we are nowadays accustomed to use
the term, and result in an extravagant consumption of what, under better
and more congenial circumstances, might be considered valuable time and
You will follow more readily what I am driving at when
I remind you that earlier I said the labour entailed, ere ‘the granary is
full and the harvest ‘s done,’ was a labour of love, because an
island-harvest is by no conceivable means a paying concern, and seldom, if
ever, shows on the islander’s bank account any appreciable balance on the
side of wealth and opulence.
But, then, all labour that is of any real value is a
labour of love and of sacrifice and of self-denial; and, conversely, the
less personal gain there is to be got out of an undertaking, the more
praise and commendation ought the labourer to receive.
There is, however, in the Islands one industry that in
normal years does actually show a profit, when the conditions of demand
and supply, which so intimately affect the commodity produced, are
favourable. In the Isle of Skye this industry is a prosperous one, for
about a mile and a half from Portree, in the direction of Loch Snizort and
Uig, there is a small woollen manufactory, which regularly employs more
than a score of women. This mill, which was originally opened about the
middle of last century, is driven by water-power, and has the reputation
for turning out some of the very finest rugs and blankets in the country.
The late King Edward boasted that on eight successive visits to Scotland
he wore a sporting suit that had been made of Portree tweed.
Visitors to Skye, who take the opportunity of
inspecting all the processes of tweed-making from start to finish, readily
become aware that, after all, the turning out of the finished article is a
long and intricate task, and demands more skill and technical knowledge
than most people would at a glance be prepared to believe. First of all,
there is the fleece-shed, into which is collected wool from all parts of
the Island. Here it is carefully plucked and separated into various lots
according to quality. It is then removed to the cleansing-house, where it
is thoroughly washed with soap and hot water, to which are sometimes added
one or two chemicals with cleansing properties. According to the colours
required, the wool is then placed in large dyeing vats containing boiling
water. Here it is allowed to remain for an hour or two, so that the dyes
may be permanently ‘fixed.’
This is followed by the drying of the wool on a series
of hot pipes, after which it is taken to a special machine, where it is
teased and mixed. At this stage the proportions of different colours are
added in order to produce a certain blend or mixture of tweed. This, I can
assure you, is a very important step in the production of tweed, and is
attended to only by those who have gained a fair amount of experience in
the mixing of colours.
The wool then goes through the carding and roving
processes, and eventually emerges as yarn. Then comes the warping, which
may be done mechanically, but is not infrequently done by hand; and,
finally, the shuttle of the weaver’s loom works the woof across the warp.
I believe that certain washing processes now follow,
and that the cloth is afterwards pressed and pounded by automatic means,
this being the fulling stage by which it is thickened.
And, lastly, the tweed is wound lightly round strips of
cardboard, and is placed in a warehouse, where orders are received for it
from practically every part of the Empire. I fancy that it is at this mill
that MacLeod of Dunvegan will have his tartan made.
Though nearly everything in the Portree mill is done by
machinery, the old-fashioned and very interesting method of ‘waulking’ the
cloth to the rhythm of the Oran Luadhadh, or ‘waulking song,’ still
survives in parts of the islands, where the women still manufacture tweeds
entirely by the labour of their hands, and without the assistance of
up-to-date mechanical power of any kind.