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The Industries of Scotland
Manufacture of Leather

THE conversion of the skins of animals into leather, and of the latter into articles of clothing and convenience, has from the earliest times formed an important branch of industry. The equipment of the early Briton consisted almost solely of prepared skins; and notwithstanding the wonderful progress that has been made in the arts since his day, the material which was indispensable to him is not much less so to us. Leather answers innumerable useful purposes; and though substitutes for it have long been sought, none has yet been found. True, it has been relieved from doing duty in some ways by india-rubber, gutta-percha, and the like; but none of those substances can compete with it in lightness, durability, or beauty, as a covering for the feet, or as a material for making harness, which are the chief purposes to which it is applied.

Seventy years ago it was estimated that the value of the articles manufactured from leather in Great Britain amounted to L.12,000,000. Mr M'Culloch, in his "Statistical Account of the British Empire," thus calculates the extent of the trade about thirty-five years ago:— "At an average of the years 1833 and 1834, no fewer than 304,279 cwts. of foreign cow, ox, and buffalo hides were entered for home consumption, exclusive of vast quantities of lamb-skins, goat-skins, &c. The total quantity of all sorts of leather tawed, tanned, dressed, and curried in Great Britain may at present (1837) be estimated at about 65,000,000 lb., which, at ls. 6d. per lb., gives L.4,875,000 as the value of leather only. Now, supposing, as is sometimes done, the value of leather to amount to one-third the value of the finished articles produced from it, that would show the value of the manufacture to be L.14,625,000 or L.14,600,000. We incline, however, to think that the value of the manufactured leather articles does not amount at an average to three times the value of the raw material; and, therefore, we may perhaps estimate the entire value of the manufacture at L.13,000,000 or L.13,500,000." Supposing the estimate made seventy years ago and that of Mr M`Culloch to be correct, it would appear that in thirty-five years the leather manufacture had increased in annual value only by L.1,000,000 or L.1,500,000. It would be difficult to state with certainty the present extent of the trade; but a few figures from the Board of Trade Returns will show the quantity and value of the exports and imports of hides and leather. In 1866 there were imported 1,133,130 cwt. of hides, valued at L.3,360,876; and 9,285,928 sheep, goat, kid, and seal skins, the value of which is not stated separately, but it may be taken at something like L.700,000. Manufactured leather was imported to the following amount :-Boots, shoes, and boot fronts, L.90,707; gloves, L.1,194,665; unenumerated goods, L.67,641—total, L.1,353,013. - The exports in the same year were 38,900 cwt. of leather, 3,546,618 pairs of boots and shoes, 14,754 cwt. of leather worked up in various ways, and L252,484 worth of saddlery—the aggregate value being L.2,030,464. To the hides and skins imported have to be added those produced at home, which must nearly equal in number and value those brought from abroad. There are three hide markets in Scotland— at Edinburgh, Glasgow, and Aberdeen—and the number of hides sold at these in 1867 was as follows:—Edinburgh, 30,512; Glasgow, 54,836; and Aberdeen, 41,600. Though so many hides are brought into the Aberdeen market, there is no important tan-yard in that city, but a large number of cattle are killed in the district for supplying the London markets.

Leather has been manufactured in Scotland from an early date. The Edinburgh corporation of "cordiners" or shoemakers, was founded about the year 1449, and it is probable that the leather they used was home-made. The " skinners," as the makers of leather were designated, were incorporated in 1586; and regulations for their good government and the proper conducting of their manufactures were subsequently made from time to time by the Town Council. Several acts were passed by the Scottish Parliament for the protection of the trade of the skinners. The first of these is dated 1592, and it prohibits "all transporting and carrying foorth of this realme of calve-skinnes, huddrounes, and kid-skinnes, packing and peilling thereof, in time cum:ling, under the paine of confiscation of the same to His Majestie's use." The act was confirmed next year, and the following addition made to it:—"That His Majestie and Estaites of this Parliament, understanding how necessary and profitable the schurling skinnes ar for lyning cuscheones, making of poikes, lyning, puitches, glooves, and claithing of the puir, and utherwise serving to diverse uther uses to all His Majestie's lieges; quhilkis be the transporting and carrying of the same foorth of this realme, ar become to ane exorbitant dearth, that therethrow, not onlie the skinners are greattumlie hurt and prejudged, be the in¬laik of the leather thereof, quhairwith to worke; as alswa His Majestie importis na profite thereof be custome, nor utherwis; bot alswa all uthers His Hienesse lieges ar greattumlie hurt and prejUdged thereof, therefore it is statute and ordained, that na merchand, craftesman, or uther person or persones, cane, or trans¬port, onie of the saidis schurling skinnes, nor uther skinnes above mentioned, foorth of this realme, under the paine of confiscation of sa monie as sall happen to be apprehended, and furder punishment of the persones, transporters and contraveenirs of the present acte in their person and guddes, according to His Majestie's pleasure." This act would appear to have become in course of time a dead letter; but in 1661 it was revived by the Parliament of Charles II., who, considering how necessary it was that all former laws for improving native commodities should be re-enacted, and understanding that the skinners had at their own cost brought from abroad perfumers, and makers, and preparers of leather, by whose labour and skill the people might be furnished with gloves at an easier rate, and be able to supply other countries with leather work, ratified the act above quoted, and ordered it to be put into execution. For the further encouragement of the skinner trade, a manufacturing license was given at the same time to export gloves made within the kingdom free of all custom and excise.

Edinburgh has always been the chief seat of the leather manufacture in Scotland. Arnot states that in 1778 a considerable trade was done in leather, that there were several tanneries in the outskirts of the city, and that the skinners were well employed. Shoes were made in great quantities, for not only was the home demand met, but a large export trade in those articles was done with the West Indies. Several British regiments raised after the American war were supplied with shoes from Edinburgh. A special feature of the trade in the city is mentioned. That was the making of leather snuff-boxes, pen-cases, drinking-mugs, and a variety of other articles. By a patented process the leather was brought to assume the appearance and consistency of tortoise-shell, being transparent and susceptible of receiving a high polish The patent was in the hands of Messrs Thomas Clark & Son, whose productions became famous both at home and abroad. The duty on the leather manufactured in Edinburgh in 1778 amounted to L.1100, 5s., which, at 12d. a-pound, would represent about 1572 cwt., the value of which at present rates would be nearly L.13,000. From an early period leather had been subject to a duty, and the manufacture was accordingly carried on under the surveillance of the Excise. Up till 1812 the duty was at the rate of lid. a-pound; but in that year it was raised to 3d., and was continued at that figure until 1822, when it was reduced to the old rate. The reduced duty amounted to L.360,000 a-year. In 1830 the duty was finally repealed.

There are in Scotland about 120 tanneries, in which nearly 3000 persons are employed. A number of the tanneries are of small extent, and limited to tanning a few hides procured in the locality in which they are situated. Of workers in leather, boot and shoe makers number 27,000, and saddlers and harness-makers 2000, so that in Scotland 32,000 persons are employed in making and working in leather. Since the application of machinery to making boots and shoes, several large manufactories of those articles have been started in Scotland. In one establishment in Glasgow no fewer than 2000 persons are employed.

The leather manufactory of Mr Allan Boak, West Port, Edinburgh, is the largest establishment of the kind in Scotland, having a floor space of 5682 superficial yards. A portion of the buildings has been used as a tannery from time immemorial, and about a century ago was acquired by the great-grandfather of the present representative of the firm; and in his hands, and those of his successors, the place grew under the pressure of an expanding trade, until it became the largest tannery in the city. Two or three years ago the premises were almost totally destroyed by fire, a misfortune attended by one good result only—the opportunity it gave for reconstructing the tannery in a more modern and substantial style, which was done at a cost of L.10,000. The kinds of leather made by Mr Boak form an extensive list, but his specialty is the preparation of pig-skins, in which department he is one of the most extensive manufacturers in Britain. The two principal branches of leather-making were conducted separately until recent years, as, previous to the repeal of the duty on leather, persons were prohibited from carrying on taning and currying at the same time. The occupation of the tanner and currier are so different that they might well remain apart; and in many cases they are carried on as distinct trades. In Mr Beak's establishment, however, they are united, and joined with them are departments for enamelling and japanning leather.

The tanning department occupies the largest amount of space, and the operations conducted in it have to be carefully managed, as the quality of the leather depends more upon the tanning than upon any or all of the subsequent processes. The object of the tanner is to destroy in the hides and skins the liability to putrefaction common to animal matter, and to render them impervious to the action of agents which would decompose them under ordinary circumstances. This is done by steeping the skins in an astringent liquid prepared from bark. The active principle eliminated from the bark is called tannin, or tannic acid, which forms a chemical combination with the skins. The bark of the oak is the most valuable to the tanner, and is most extensively used; and for a long time no other substance was employed in tanning The demand for oak bark having come to exceed the supply, various substitutes were tried, among these being heath, myrtle leaves, wild laurel leaves, birch bark, and oak sawdust. Varied results attended the experiments, but oak bark has never lost its supremacy. What the tanner has got to do, then, is to treat the hides, &c., with an infusion of bark, so as to produce the desired effect. This is a slow process, and attempts have been made to hasten it. Some years ago an Italian tanner (Signor Cesare Osmani), in the employment of Messrs Moore, Morelitt, & Co., Ancona, discovered that Italian mustard-seed could be successfully employed for tanning purposes, and after many experiments, the following important results are said to have been established:—That the duration of the tanning process is reduced to from one-third to one-fourth of the time hitherto required for the different tannages, whether of oak- bark, valonia, gambier, or other tanning materials. This result is obtained without any additional expenditure, because, although the mustard-seed is an item to be added to the cost of tanning, yet the mere saving of liquors and labour fully compensates this. The quality of the leather produced is unexceptionable, and the weight obtained is fully equal, and often much exceeds, that obtained by the old process. The colour of the leather is clearer, and hence better; and the reason for this is that the mustard-bath, to which the hides are subjected in this process, has the effect of expelling the lime which in certain proportions remains in hides subjected to the lime-pit, despite the most scrupulous purging. The fibre of the hide is not injured by the bath in mustard-seed. Signor Osmani came to Scotland in 1868, and commenced operations in Glasgow, and subsequently in London. In both places he is said to have fully demonstrated the practicability of his discovery. But we revert to the establishment more immediately under notice.

The hides arrive at the tannery in one of three states—they are either fresh from the slaughter-house, salted, or dried. Dutch hides are salted, and those which come from America or the East are dried. In the first stage of treatment there is consequently a little variety. The fresh hides give least trouble, but the salted and dried ones require special manipulation to make them soft. The hair in all cases is removed by steeping the hides in a solution of lime and water. In the floor of the workshop in which this operation is performed is a range of pits, about six feet in depth, in which the lime liquor is contained. As the hides, after steeping a certain time, are withdrawn from the pits, they are laid on a sloping bench with a convex top, and subjected to scraping with a huge two-handled knife. The hair having been removed, the flesh side is turned up, and all the fleshy portions are scraped off. 'Rides or skins intended for boots, harness, coachwork, and other purposes requiring dressed leather, are cleansed from grease and other impurities by being soaked in a decoction of pigeon's dung. They are then softened by being beaten for from fifteen to twenty minutes by a set of beating stocks. That operation completed, the hides are conveyed to the tan-yards, in which are a large number of pits, of various sizes—in fact, the yards may be described as lakes divided by walls into a series of square tanks, about six feet in depth. Each tank is cut off from communication with its neighbours, and is fitted with a waste-pipe, by which it may be emptied. A couple of steam-pumps and a set of hose supply the tanks with liquor, and thus dispense with the services of a large number of pumpers and water-bearers, whom it was necessary to employ before the introduction of steam.

There is a bark mill on the premises, by which the oak bark is ground. The bark is infused with water in a range of large tanks, and from these the other tanks are supplied. The hides are first allowed to steep in a weak solution of bark for from four to six months, during which time they are "handled"—that is, they are taken out of the pits one by one, then put in again, and treated to fresh liquor of slightly increased strength. After being shifted about in that way, every day for the period stated, the hides are spread out, one over the other, with a layer of oak bark between, and the pit being filled with strong bark liquor, the whole is allowed to lie for four months if the hides are light, and for six months if they are heavy. Twelve months are required to tan heavy ox-hides to perfection, and none are sent out in less time by Mr Boak. In one old established tan-yard in Musselburgh—that of Messrs Miller—two years are devoted to tanning heavy hides. As already stated, many plans have been devised for hastening the process; but faith in the old mode is still strong in the trade. Among the inventors who have given attention to the subject are Messrs J. & G. Cox of Gorgie Mills, near Edinburgh, who adopted the plan of attaching the hides to a revolving drum, so that, as the drum went round, the hides should alternately hang suspended in the tan liquor and alternately press upon each other on the upper side of the drum. Messrs Cox also originated the process of sewing the hides in the form of bags, into which they injected the tan liquor. The great object aimed at by all the experimenters is to force the tan into the pores of the skins, and hasten the chemical change which is essential to the production of leather. Mr Boak employs a sort of dash-wheel, which keeps the hides moving about in a trough, and helps them to imbibe the liquor. The hides prepared for sole leather are washed and dried after being taken from the tan-pits, and are then ready for use.

The hides which have to be dressed are removed from the tan-yards to the currying shops. The business of the curriers is to scour the leather, and, by a series of operations, bring it into condition for use. Except splitting the hide, all the work is done by hand, and is very laborious. The hides are first weighed and examined, and, according to weight and quality, are selected for various purposes. The divisions usually made are harness leather, saddle leather, shoe leather, and patent leather, each of which classes has a number of subdivisions. It would be tedious to go into the details of all the processes by which the various kinds of leather are curried and dressed, and a few general notes must suffice to indicate the nature of the work. A great difficulty with which tanners have to contend is the way in which skins are damaged by the carelessness of the butchers in removing the hides from the carcases. In consequence of cuts and flaws thus produced, only a small proportion of the hides can be made available for the highest class of harness work. Following the example of the trade in Glasgow, the tanners of Edinburgh a year or two since instituted a system of inspection and classification of well and ill flayed raw hides, which has caused some improvement in this respect. If great care be not exercised in the selection of the hides, it might turn out that much valuable labour would be lost by dressing a hide for a purpose for which it was not suitable. According to the purpose to which the hide is to be devoted, certain parts of it are cut off. This is called " rounding." Hides which are to be dressed for harness, for in-stance, have the belly portion cut off, and are then termed "backs." The parts removed are treated separately, and applied to various purposes. The currier begins operations by steeping the hides in clean water. If for harness, they are cut into two longitudinally. Hides intended for boots, and those which are to be enamelled or japanned, are dressed whole. The hides, on coming from the tannery, are found to be of unequal thickness, and the flesh sides are rough. In order to remove those inequalities the hides are "shaved," which is, perhaps, the most important part of the currier's work. Standing in front of a narrow upright board or "beam," which rises to his waist, the workman stretches a portion of the hide across the face of the board, and, by dexterously operating on it with a knife of peculiar construction, reduces it to an equal thickness throughout. As the work proceeds, he pinches the leather between his finger and thumb, and is thus enabled to judge of its thickness. This appears an exceedingly simple operation, but great skill is required to accomplish it properly. In ordinary cases the hides are " shaved" only on the flesh side, but when the surface is to be enamelled the grain side has its natural surface removed, in order that the enamel or varnish may adhere better. After being "shaved," the hides are again soaked in water, from which they are taken and rubbed out well, first on one side and then on the other, on a stone table with a tool called a "slicker." In that way all the wrinkles and superfluous matters are got rid of. This process is called "scouring," and when it is completed the hides are allowed to lie for a day or two in a hot solution of shumac and water, which tends to brighten the colour. They are then stuffed—that is, rubbed on the hair side with oil, and on the flesh side with a mixture of oil and tallow. The effect of this treatment is to make the leather pliable, and prevent it from getting hard. A machine for scouring has been recently introduced.

The leather is finished in a variety of ways. The superfluous "stuffing" is rubbed off, and the surface polished with a smooth stone or piece of glass, when the leather is to be sold plain; but when it is to be prepared for harness or shoemaking, it is usually blackened on one side. Sometimes the shoe leather is "grained" by doubling the hide and rubbing the fold with a small board. The leather so treated has a rich, crimped appearance, and is now much used by shoemakers. For some portions of carriages and harness, and a variety of other purposes, enamelled and japanned leathers are employed. For the production of those leathers Mr Boak has a special department. Enamelled leather is made from all kinds of hides and skins, which have been previously split into thin layers by the splitting-machine. In some cases one sealskin is split into three or four. The splitting-machine is the only piece of machinery employed in the currying department, and is a most useful contrivance. Formerly, when a hide had to be prepared for enamelling, the currier scraped down the substance of it from the flesh side, and thus half the weight of the hide was wasted, because scrapings of that kind are of no use. Now, one hide can be split with less labour, and with the additional advantage that each slice is for most purposes as valuable as a whole hide prepared in the old way. The splitting takes place both before and after the hides are tanned. The hide to be split is fed into the machine between rollers, and as it passes a certain point comes into contact with a knife, which moves backward and forward with great rapidity and splits the hide into two. When the currying is completed the hides are taken to the japanning shop, where they are stretched out and nailed upon large boards. The enamelling substance is then applied, the number of coats being determined by the purpose for which the leather is intended. Sometimes as many as eight coats are put on, one coat being thoroughly dried before another is applied. The enamel is dried by placing the bide, still attached to the boards, in large stoves.

The curriers', though not one of the most pleasant-looking, is one of the most healthy of occupations, though the work is very heavy. The men are usually paid by piecework, and when engaged on some classes of leather, can earn from L.2 to L.3 a-week. The average wages for Scotland may be stated at 26s. a-week. There is a union in connection with the trade, having for its object the support of members when out of work and the regulation of wages. It is upheld by a General and a Local Fund—the former for the support of members, the latter for management. There is an Emigration Scheme connected with it, by which members, on emigrating, are allowed a certain amount. During sickness members receive for six weeks the highest rate of benefit; and a few of the old and infirm members are granted pensions. The amount of contribution is regulated by a sliding scale, rising or falling according to the state of the funds, but not lower than one shilling a-week. The Edinburgh men have a Sick and Funeral Society, independent of the funds of the union, which has been found most beneficial. Apprentices may become members of the local society, but are not admitted into the union till they have served seven years' apprenticeship. The number of curriers in Great Britain is reckoned about 3000, half of whom belong to the union. There are about 250 union men in Scotland, and about an equal number of non-union. In Edinburgh tanners earn 20s. a-week, and tannery labourers 16s.

The master tanners and curriers and their workmen have had no difficulties about wages or modes of working; and this gratifying state of matters arises from an arrangement by which, when any question arises between the masters and men, a settlement is effected by mutual consultation.

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