The fourth island in this series is the Isle of Harris. It is a remote island off the North West British coast. It has gained a reputation from producing famous hand-woven tweed cloth that is exported across the world.
The Isle of Harris is located off the West Coast of Scotland in the UK. It is at the North West of the group of Islands known as the Outer Hebrides, or Western Isles. The Isle of Harris is actually joined to the Isle of Lewis and is in fact part of a larger island. It is the largest island in the Outer Hebrides. Harris has some of the most spectacular beaches of the UK. The colour found in nature on the island is meant to be the inspiration for the local artisans who produce the cloth or tweed products.
Harris Tweed is a hard wearing, and fashionable, cloth. It has been woven in the homes of the islanders of Lewis, Harris, Uist and Barra (other nearby islands) for hundreds of years. Originally called Clo Mhor in Gaelic, meaning ‘the big cloth’, its potential was realised by Lady Dunmore in 1846, when she had local weavers copy the Murray tartan in Tweed. After the huge success of this venture, she improved the process and marketed the product to her friends. The cloth is now famous and exported around the world. Tweed production is still very much a cottage industry and is the world’s only commercially produced hand-woven tweed. Harris Tweed is protected under the UK law, the Harris Tweed Act of Parliament 1993 and has a trademark Orb symbol. This statute ensures the quality and reputation of Harris Tweed is maintained and means that every metre of cloth conforms to the same exacting standards. An interconnected industry has developed around the cloth industry with weavers, wool dyers, yarn makers, blenders, cloth finishers, mill workers and other associated specialised roles. Finally there are the stampers who mark the product as authentic with the trademark orb symbol (see the link for further information).
Harris, like other parts of remote Scotland, retains crofting which is a unique form of small-holding that encompasses crop growing, fishing, shepherding and, in the case of this island, the weaving of cloth. Crofters created “lazy beds” which are strips of land between the rocks used for growing crops. They would fertilise what little soil there was with seaweed to provide nutrients for crops which would be eaten along with any fish they caught. Today crofters also continue to cut peat for fuel.
The Isle of Harris has risen to the challenge of marketing and producing a high quality product: the Harris Tweed. This has sustained the traditional community and continues to provide employment on a remote island. The tweed industry has to be re-inventing itself as fashions evolve and has managed to do this well which benefits the local producers on the island.
For a detailed background to the tweed industry see this Harris Tweed link.