It’s May and there is still snow in the Highlands. These pictures were taken in the Abernethy Forest Nature Reserve, near Aviemore. (Click on them for a larger image).
This is an ancient forest showing the beauty of nature’s colours. We (that is to say, ‘Mr C’, myself and our son ‘C minor’) walked and cycled for miles.
As you can imagine, having researched the history of weaving linen in Fife, I am now enthusiastic about designing and weaving my own linen fabrics. It’s been a while since I have woven with this fibre having spent the last couple of years concentrating on using British wools and alpaca. Which I absolutely love working with. However, there is something about flax and linen that’s calling my attention. Perhaps it’s knowing that the fields around East Fife were once swathed in blue when the flax plant was in flower. Something I wish I could of seen. But I think it’s also intriguing to know that someone sat at a floor loom and wove linen cloth in this very cottage, over 230 years ago. Who was he (I say he, because I understand that it was mostly the men who wove the cloth at that time while the women spun the flax), but maybe it was a she after all. I wonder if the house is whispering to me!
I am currently searching high and low for British grown flax linen yarn. An organization called the The Flax Growers and Processors in the UK, have told me that flax is now only grown on a small scale and there are no longer any manufactures of commercially spun flax in Britain. Which is such a great shame. If I had the land it would be fascinating to grow some flax myself, but I am not a spinner. If there are any hand spinners out there in the UK that work with British grown flax, I’d be very interested to hear from you. I’m still looking though, maybe I’ll find you first! I may however, have to look eastward and import linen yarn just as the merchant manufactures did from the late 18th century.
I came across an interesting tale of a merchant called John Lockhart who lived in Fife around this time. He did business with the hand loom weavers by giving them imported linen yarn that they wove up into cloth. He then paid them for the finished fabric. Before the railway came to Fife it was said that John would leave Kirkcaldy by road and on foot on a Monday and walk to Leuchars (a distance of about 25 miles). The next day he walked to the ferry and did business in Dundee, (7 miles) perhaps stayed a day and on his way back he would walk far into the night in an endeavour to get home to Kirkcaldy, (30 miles approx). I wonder if any of my walks have crossed his paths.
This morning as I walked out the door, the birds were singing so loudly, it felt like they knew something that I didn’t. Black birds, chaffinches, great tits and starlings . Even swallows. I followed them for a while and they lead me to a burst of colour in the woodland. I felt like singing too! I love the new spring greens and natures colours that blend with them. Have a look for yourself.
Heritage Crafts Association, a UK wide organization that promotes craft makers and their work, has chosen one of my school weaving activities to include in their new Teachers Resource Pack. This is a new idea to help school children between the ages of 7 – 12 years learn more about countryside crafts and have a go for themselves. There are to be 6 different case studies on different crafts and a set of instructions with photographs to show teachers how to carry out each activity in their schools.
I am very excited that they have chosen my weaving ideas. A professional photographer is coming up to take pictures in June.
I took these photographs on my walk this morning. I couldn’t take my eyes off the stripes everywhere. The soil and the fresh spring greens made me think of linen. The ‘brown linen’ from the Cupar area of Fife and the green ‘lint’ referring to the scottish word for linen.
In 1815, French prisoners from the Napoleonic War were used to drain the bogs of central Fife and more profitable crops were introduced. Supplies of flax now had to be imported, initially from Russia and then later from the Netherlands. In 1838 it was estimated that there were 85,000 hand looms operating in Scotland, of which 26,000 were from linen production, mainly in Fife and Angus. The late 18th century saw the mechanisation of spinning and it’s transformation from a cottage industry to be based in factories in Dundee, Glasgow and Kirkcaldy. Initially change was slow. The Industrial Revolution started in 1780 and continued until about 1880. This period brought the development of the power loom mills. The Fife county town of Cupar had 3 power loom factories by 1870 and wove locally termed ‘brown linen’.
Gateside Mills 2013
Gateside Mills in Fife, originally manufactured linen, but by the 20th century the mill was producing bobbins and shuttles and only proved work for about 80 people. It was built on the River Eden like so many mills in Fife and a water wheel provided the power for the machinery. The mill is now a centre for small creative businesses. (My son has very good guitar lessons there!)
The textile heritage of Scotland continues to fascinate me, drawing me closer to the people who used to live here in Fife and elsewhere across the country. The factory based textile industries were concentrated into different areas and I am gradually visiting more and more of them, (watch this blog space for further developments!). The cotton industry was based in Lanarkshire, Renfrewshire and Glasgow. The Woollen industry developed mainly in Roxburghshire and Selkirkshire, but also in Perthshire, Stirlingshire and the Scottish Borders. The linen production, based mainly here in Fife and Angus had it’s centre in Dundee. By the 1861 census the city and it’s surrounding areas employed nearly 50,000 people in mills and at hand looms. The silk industry, although small, was based around paisley in the middle of the 19th century. There is so much to explore!
I discovered recently the story of Chris Reekie, a hand loom weaver in the late 18th Century who lived all his life in Falkland, Fife. The ‘Scotsman’ (newspaper) and the Bible were his daily companions.
One day Chris was going home with his ‘cut’ and on the way he went into a public house for a dram. The parish minister was Mr Barrack and he was a rigid teetotaller. One day Mr Barrack met Chris after he had had a dram and he said to him:- ‘Chris, drunk again. Why do you take such strong drink?’ Chris answered:- ‘Because I like it Mr Barrack’.
Falkland market was always held on the third Friday of June. On the Saturday, Chris and some companions went over to Kinnesswood to Mungo Craig’s public house. Much drink was consumed and in the end they found they had not got a copper with which to pay for it. The publican sent for the police and locked the men in a room. Chris threw up the window and saw that a crowd had collected. He addressed the gathering thus:- ‘Friends and fellow citizens of Kinnesswood, draw nigh and hear the wail of a poor Falkland weaver’. The crowd had a collection taken and the prisoners were released at once.
Old weavers’ cottages in Falkland, Fife.
I live in a weaver’s cottage. Not long after I and my family moved in, we began to notice a strange smell in one particular room, whenever we returned from a few days away. The smell was very intense and only lasted for a short while, but it happened repeatedly. When I bought and installed my new loom in that very room, the smell disappeared and never returned. It was as if the cottage was more content now a loom had returned.
Whenever I am weaving, I can feel the history of this cottage and often wonder who it was who wove here before me. Perhaps one day I will find out.