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McIan's Highlanders At Home


BEFORE the application of machinery for carding and spinning wool, these operations were most efficiently performed by manual labour: they are among those primitive domestic occupations of the Highland females which have not yet been superseded. If, in the march of improvement, carding could be accomplished with greater expedition, it could not certainly be done in greater perfection by artificial process. The superiority of home-wrought materials is well known, and the people very industriously prosecute carding, spinning, weaving, and wauking or fulling linen, tartan, and other cloth, in preference to sending it to the mill or the manufacturer, where, as old women will say, "the heart is taken out of it."

The sheep’s fleece is divided into short, or clothing, and long, or combing, wool. The first varies in length from one to four inches, and it is carded with the implements represented in the print, which are furnished with fine short wire teeth, thickly set on leather on a wooden frame, by which the material is mixed or matted, one being held firmly on the knee. This is generally spun soft, and is chiefly used for ‘cath-da’ hose and coarse thick cloth.

Long wool, which is from three to eight inches in length, is prepared by a different process. The carding is so called from the ‘Cŕrd,’ with which it is performed: for long fleece, the Cir na-Olain, or wool-comb, is used, of which there are, in most families, two or three sets. These, having been moderately heated, the one in which the teeth, about four inches in length, are widest apart, is filled with the wool, and, when sufficiently combed, it is in a similar manner put through the second, and being thus nicely smoothed in one direction, it is transferred to the finest, and drawn strongly through it by the hand, operations requiring considerable patience and strength. When completed the wool is carefully rolled up for spinning, and the residue sticking in the teeth is placed among the short wool.

Before the wool is submitted to the card or the comb, for the poor can seldom afford to separate the fine, it is thoroughly washed, dried, and greased, or saturated with oil, of which a quantity equal to a fifth, sixth, or more, of its weight is required. As fish-oil will not do, tallow, lard, and the butter from ewe’s milk is generally used in the West Isles and remote parts. Long wool may be spun in soft or hand yarn, but the latter requires greater length of staple. It is of course a matter of pride to have fine thread, and this is usually cafted ‘fingering,’ from the careful process of spinning. The whole furnishes very ingenious and useful employment for the female inmates of a Highland farm-house during the winter nights, producing scenes of joyous industry and content.

Cloth among primitive nations must have been first formed of the undyed wool, or a mixture of the natural white and black, still common. The manufacture of wool is supposed to have been introduced by the Belgae, who are said to have arrived in Britain about three hundred years A.C., and it is evident that woollen garments were used in the time of Julius Ceasar. If the robe interwoven with various colours which distinguished the renowned Bonduica, otherwise Boadicea, was not a tartan plaid, it is difficult to imagine of what other material it could be formed. Of the same nature were the dresses worn by the Gauls, described by Diodorus, as "saga virgata, crebrisque tesselis forum instar distincta—seu floribus conspersas"; and the inference is, that their descendants, so tenacious of ancient usages, retained the manufacture of their progenitors.

Be that as it may, tartan, as known in later times, may be indisputably held to be an original Scottish production, and these beautiful stuffs, now so popular, were until recent years peculiar to the northern portion of the kingdom. The fabrics of these manufactures are often exceedingly good in material and design, and the old webs are far from inferior to those of the present day. A plaid of elegant pattern has been obligingly submitted to us by Mrs. Mackintosh, of Stephen’s Green, Dublin, a lady of the family of Mac Pherson of Crubin in Badenach. The colours and texture are very fine, and there is a considerable intermixture of silk. She states, that when placed on the shoulders of her grand-daughter, it is the seventh generation by whom it has been worn; and, although thus more than two hundred years old, it is still in good condition, but rather threadbare. It is of the hard manufacture, and believed to have been the veritable tartan worn by her ancestors, the clan Mhuirich; having been submitted, with other specimens, to George IV. and the Emperor Alexander, who wished to possess Highland costumes, it was the pattern which they selected. Several remains of garments worn by Prince Charles and others, in 1745, and before that period, have likewise come under our observation, which display very fine thread, and colours which are still vivid.

The subject is given from an aged woman called Kirsty Mac Call, the wife of an old Islesman, who adheres to the fashion of a century back, and the figure is seen in almost the same dress which the old dame wore when she became a guidwife.

The square piece of tartan, worn over the shoulders in manner of a shawl, is the Tonnag; the covering of the head, assumed on marriage, is called Breid, and consists of a square of fine linen, neatly fastened round the head, and hanging down behind. She is busily occupied in carding, as depicted, and, at the time the sketch was taken, she was relating to her attentive great—grandchild, with characteristic earnestness, Gaelic traditions of other years: of raids and reivers of bygone days, and rencontres of the red—coats and the Gaël; thus handing down, with oral precision, those stirring details of her country’s history, too frequently overlooked by the general writer. The abode of this almost centenarian is at Balme, Bunawe, the property of Campbell of Monzič, situated on the borders of Loch Etive, near the old castle of Dunstaffnage, long the residence of royalty, but now in unarrested ruin, although its brightly polished keys are often proudly displayed at the girdle of its hereditary keeper. Nearer to the humble cottage of Mac Call stand the noble ruins of Ardchattan Priory, also suffered to fall into utter decay, with its monuments and tombstones, so highly interesting as relics of remote antiquity, and curious specimens of sculptural art. Loch Etive is scarcely inferior in romantic beauty to any salt-water lake throughout the Highlands.

To no department of national industry has more sedulous attention been devoted than to the wooi trade and its manufacture. The Acts of Parliament on the subject are exceedingly numerous, and no small anxiety was at times manifested for the proper formation of Cards, which, it was complained, were often made of old leather. It is a curious evidence of the estimation in which this ‘staple of England’ was held by the British legislature, that in the House of Peers, the most distinguished seat retains its ancient name and impressive form of a Wool Sack.

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