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Highland Dyes
An article from the Celtic Annual of 1916


This kind of information is quite hard to find so was delighted to find this article in the Celtic Annual from which I've extracted this article.

THE failure this year of the supply of imported dyes has revived interest in the ancient dyeing and dye-making industries of the Highlands, and it is matter of astonishment to many persons to learn how well in former days our fathers were supplied with the means of colouring the fabrics they wore. It is true the natural dyes were incomparably less numerous than those, numbering thousands, that are now extracted by the chemist from coal tar. But they were numerous and varied enough to satisfy a very exacting taste, and far more numerous than the colours that any artist ever placed upon his palette. To find them the Celts must have experimented with every plant that grows on their native hills and in their valleys, and their quest extended to every part of every plant thus examined for its properties. In the accompanying list are given particulars of over eighty native Highland dyes and their sources, and not improbably it could be further extended. It will be noted as significant of the appreciativeness of the Highland colour taste that every procurable shade of the dominant colours was used and valued. Thus there were in use no fewer than fourteen different yellows, ten reds, seven purples, nine browns and as many greens, and of every colour there is a certain range of choice. A glance over the list will show how very little obviousness there was about most of the colour sources, how much, therefore, their discovery must have been a matter of deliberate research. Nothing, for example, will be more surprising to one wholly unacquainted with the subject than the extent to which the lichens are brought into use, plants which certainly do not, as a rule, proclaim their possession of colouring properties, and which in fact yield colours rarely suggested by their natural aspect. Thus the common yellow wall lichen (Parmelia parietina) produces a brown, Lecanora tartarea and Lecanora palleseeus each a crimson, the cup lichen, Cenomyce pyxidata, a purple, and Bamalina scopuloram a red. The weak point in the Highland colour production is in respect to blues of which there were but two sources, the blae and elder berries both requiring the addition of alum as a mordant. Doubtless to this relative poverty is to be attributed the fact that even in comparatively remote times, when the country supplied almost all its own dyeing requisites, indigo was an appreciated import.

The question has been raised whether the present is not a favouiable time for the revival of the native dye industry, but it is questionable if the revival could be attempted with any prospects of commercial success. To no little extent the old industry was the attendant of tartan production then itself a home industry. The people supplied the spun and dyed wool yams to the weavers along with the most precise particulars of the setts or patterns to be produced by them. To-day tartan is wholly produced under commercial and industrial conditions, and though it would doubtless add to its value in the estimation of all wearers to know that kilt and plaid derived their colours from dyes extracted by Highland people from Highland vegetation, it is questionable if place could be made for them in the commercial system. For even the commercial makers of tartan are dependent for their dyed yarns upon the commercial dyers. But if all home-spuns could be guaranteed as dyed with native vegetable dyes of home production it would undoubtedly add to the attractiveness of the cloth, and there is no reason why, to that extent at any rate, the native industry of dye-making should not be revived.


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