Manufacture of linen yarn and cloth

There would seem to be no accounts of the manufacture of linen in Breadalbane prior to the early 18th century but the local inhabitants almost certainly produced yarn from flax and nettle with which to weave, for their own use, linen and Scotch cloth respectively .

'An act for the better regulation of the linen and hempen manufactures of that part of Great Britain called Scotland' was passed in 1727. In consequence of that statute, a Board of Trustees was established in Edinburgh for 'overseeing, directing, and better improving the said linen and hemp and manufactures'. This board regulated the trade from the sowing of the flax seed to the measuring and finishing of the bleached cloth. Eager to improve his estate, and probably in response to the 1727 act, the 2nd Earl began to encourage the raising and processing of flax about 1728. Selling of yarn made from it began about 1734.

For an overview of the history of linen production in Scotland see Electric Scotland and Sir David Brewster's Edinburgh Encyclopedia.

flaxProcessing of flax

First the flax crop would be pulled by hand (cutting would result in shorter fibres), retted (softened and partially rotted by immersion in still water) and dried.  Then the flax would be taken to the scutching mill and passed through cogged rollers to break up the outer layer and the woody core. The first scutcher would guide the bundle of flax stems into the path of the spinning scutching blades to remove  unwanted material. The next scutcher would repeat the process with the blades at a finer setting until all the unwanted material was removed and a bundle of flax fibres was left to be combed straight by heckling. See Flax...from seed to fibre, and YouTube video.

The flax, after being dressed, was given out to the females who would spin it at a certain rate per spindle.

In 1758 John Campbell of Achallader, who was the Breadalbane factor at the time, wrote to the Trustees for Encouraging Manufactures (NRS: Gd112/39/308/1). It gives a interesting snapshot of of the various stages of linen manufacture in the area at that time;

Achmore in Breadalbane
22 December 1758

The people of this country are become as tractable as any in the Highlands and are ready to be led into any kind of industry that may be thought for their advantage. For instance it is surprising to see the increase of sowing and raising of flax and of the spinning of linen yarn for some years past. The lint miln set up some years ago at Killin at the West End of Loch Tay has contributed in a good measure to the raising of flax. People at 12 miles distance come to it and think they save considerably by having their lint dressed at it rather than at home notwithstanding the distance. But it must be acknowledged they are by no measure so expert either in the culture of flax or in spinning as could be wished. This it is thought might be owing to them not having access to see the improvements in these branches of manufacture.

The Earl of Breadalbane has been at considerable charges in building neat houses of stone and lime and slate at Kenmore a borough of bearing in a populous country at the east end of Loch Tay for such artificers as are useful to the country. These houses and a garden to each are let out at a very low rent. There is this year a house of four rooms built for a weaver, and another house adjoining that will easily hold six weavers looms and a gallery above. This and a garden his Lordship proposes to let for five years, rent free, to a good weaver who shall weave household linen and take country boys for apprentices for the space of three or four years to teach them to weave coarse linen. It is not proposed that these apprentices shall follow this as a trade, but only to employ the time they are spared from their small farms (when they come to get them). The good effects of this are too obvious to require further explanation.

It is proposed that the weaver settled here shall be a man regularly bred. That he shall be versed in the method of raising flax and spinning, and that he make tours through the country in proper seasons to give directions in these matters and to correspond with the honourable trustees about the state of the manufactures in that part of the country. As the country is very populous and extensive and this change too great for one person another of the same employment would be required at Killin. It is wished some public encouragement would be likewise given to hecklers of flax to set up in this country.

It is reported that the scheme is intimated by the honourable trustees for the encouragement of flax growing by giving a premium of a shilling per pound of flax raised by every farmer from 20 stone being the lowest to 100 stone. The scheme seems well calculated for the low country where farmers have large possessions of arable ground, but to adapt it to the Highlands where each tenant has but a small portion of arable ground, it will be necessary to make the lowest quantity for which a premium will be given five stone of flax, and the premium to be equal to what is paid for dressing it at the lint miln.

I am sir your most humble servant.

Signed J Campbell

In 1769 Thomas Pennant, on his tour of Scotland, visited Taymouth staying with the Earl of Breadalbane. He described the industry in linen yarn;

The North side of Loch Tay is very populous; for in 16 square miles are seventeen hundred and eighty six souls: on the other side, about twelve hundred. The country, within these 30 years, manufactures a great deal of thread. They spin with rocks* which they do while they attend their cattle on the hills; and, at the four fairs in the year, held at Kenmore, above 1600 pounds worth of yarn is sold out of Breadalbane only: which shows the great increase in industry in these parts, for less than 40 years ago there was not the least trade in this article. The yarn is bought by persons who attend the fairs for that purpose, and sell it again at Perth, Glasgow, and other places where it is manufactured into cloth.
( *Their Lord give them annually a great number of spinning wheels which will soon cause the disuse of rock. 'Rock' was another name for 'distaff' -see picture).

An excellent article by Stuart Nisbet, although focusing mainly on cotton, explains the mechanisation of linen production.

Hugh Cameron and his scutching mills

In 1770 the amount of flax dressed at the Lawers lint mill was 460 stones and at Killin mill 954 stones. These scutching mills were the first of their kind to be erected in the Highlands and were constructed by Hugh (Ewen) Cameron. His machine not only saved labour but produced better material than the old hand process. He also built lint mills in Aberfeldy and Innervar in Glenlyon.

Hugh Cameron died on 15 April 1817 and his obituary was published in July 1817 in the Scots Magazine;

Hugh Cameron, at Lawers, in Breadalbane, commonly called Cobhan na Pillie, mill-wright and miller there, died at the extraordinary age of one hundred and twelve years. This singular character was bred a mill-wright, along with the venerable and ingenious Deacon Reid, wright at Comrie. After acquiring a knowledge of his business, he settled at Shian* of Lawers, where he built the first lint-mill that ever was erected in the Highlands of Scotland.

Before his time, only the distaff and spindle were used for spinning lint and wool in that part of the country; and he was not only the first to construct spinning-wheels and jack-reels in Breadalbane, but likewise the first to teach to the people there how to use them. The number of lint-mills afterwards erected by him throughout the Highlands, cannot be reckoned at less than 100, in short almost all the lint-mills in the Highlands of Perthshire, and many in the counties of Inverness, Caithness and Sutherland, were of his erecting; he also constructed the first barley mill that was built upon the north side of the Forth, for which he was highly complimented by Masa Glasariah the bard, in a very popular song calle ' Molodh di Cobham Camushran Mulleir lin'. Though he could only be called a country wright, he was a man of uncommon genius, particularly in every sort of machinery and engineering; and, as a proof of this, there is to be seen of this construction, at Shian of Lawers, one water wheel driving a lint mill, a barley mill and spinning and carding mill, at one and the same time, and the whole of that machinery under one roof.

This prodigy of genius was a stout healthy man, who took his glass freely, but never was known to exceed the bounds of decorum, or neglect his business: he was a man of great integrity, and of a very shrewd and independent mind, yet always cheerful and remarkably witty; and, to the last, his house was the resort of all the young people in the place, whom we used to amuse with his witty repartees and funny stories. He was always celebrated for reciting Ossian's poems, of which he had a great store, which he said he had learned before he was a dozen years of age. He was rather singular in his address, which he would change for no man, he never had a glove on his hand, nor a hat on his head, but always wore a large round bonnet made of grey mixed wool, just as it came off the sheep, with an uncommonly large wig, of his own making, of black horse hair. It is rather to be regretted that notwithstanding his wonderful merit, and the great advantages which the Highlands of Perthshire, Breadalbane in particular, derived from the fruit of his extraordinary genius, and though he had no family, he died in great poverty and indigence.

*The lint mill at Lawers is shown on Farquharson's 1769 survey on the land of Cultirannich, south of the road and on the west side of the Lawers burn. Gillies noted that his mill was beside the Sithean (the fairy hill) which can be seen on the 1862 OS map.

Linen yarn production in Aberfeldy

McArthur's survey of Aberfeldy shows that there was a lintmill in Nether Milton in 1773.

In 1775, miserable thatched cottages were built along Kenmore Street to house numerous flax spinners that had moved in from surrounding areas in response to the market in the south being opened up. The houses were on short leases and the adjacent land was parcelled out into crofts for the lease-holders. The bleaching was done in a field above what is now Bank Street. The old houses in Kenmore Street were replaced in the middle of the 19th century.

Dr MacKay noted that in 1796 Hugh Cameron was also the meal miller in Aberfeldy. At that time the meal and lint mills were close together in Nether Milton near the site of the present mill on Mill Street which was built in 1826. Both mills were driven by the same water supply, fed from a dam which lay to the south of the eight or ten houses constituting (Over) Milton.

There are several interesting documents in the Breadalbane Muniments relating to Hugh Cameron when he was in Aberfeldy;

  1. 27 March 1780: Bond by Hugh Cameron, lintmiller in Aberfaldy, to have said lintmiln, which was accidentally burnt, sufficiently repaired and finished by 1 June next (GD112/48/1/12).
  2. 27 March 1780: Bond by Hugh Cameron, lintmiller of Aberfaldy, not to take any candles into lintmiln there, nor to scutch or bruise any lint therein with candle light, under penalty of £5 each time (GD112/48/1/10).
  3. 8 Aug 1797: Hugh Cameron at Aberfeldy and five others, all lintmillers, petitioned the Earl of Breadalbane to be permitted to raise price of scutching lint 'on account of present high prices of iron, timber, candle, grease and other necessaries as well as the wages of tradesmen and servants (which is double what they have lately been)', and that tenants should be restricted to the lintmill in their district. (NRS: GD112/11/6/2/16).
  4. In 1813, Breadalbane asked Hugh Cameron to report on a petition from Alexander McNaughtan.

See also: Nettles and Hemp

Page last updated - 27/5/17