Object of the Month: August 2017

Flax and Linen

The mill below the corn mill at Balnagowan, traditionally referred to as a “lint” mill for flax scutching

The mill below the corn mill at Balnagowan, traditionally referred to as a “lint” mill for flax scutching

With the intention of enhancing the income from his Lismore estate, and generating additional employment, Duncan Campbell of Glenure (1716-84) secured funds from the Trustees for Fisheries, Manufactures and Improvement in Scotland to provide flax seed for Lismore farmers, and training in processing the crops; to support the setting up of a spinning school on the island; and to supply the necessary spinning “wheels and reels”. The townships of Achnacroish, Baleveolan, Balimakillichan, Baligrundle, Balnagoun, Creganich, Fiart, Killean, Kilcheran and Portcharron were soon supplying good quality flax for processing. An itinerant “flaxdresser” was brought in to show how the fibres should be recovered by retting (soaking the crop in water), bruising or scutching with a wooden swingle, and heckling (combing) in preparation for spinning. In the first season he earned over £4 for 56 stone of heckled flax.

On 11 March 1761, the Board distributed a printed advertisement for the establishment of the Lismore spinning school at Killean and the employment of a spinning mistress. Attracted by the promise of 8 weeks of training, maintenance (1/6 per week), prizes for good work, and a spinning wheel to continue the work when they returned home, 31 scholars attended between November 1761 and January 1762, under the guidance of Janet MacArthur. The school reached its target of 40 pupils for the second eight week session in the late summer of 1762, with 14 girls from Lismore, the remainder from neighbouring Lorn, from Ardchattan to Glenure, Ardsheal and Shuna. A wheelwright, Patrick MacMartin, was established at Achnacroish, with Board funding, to supply the spinning wheels and reels needed for the school and other users.
In his 1769 petition to the Board for further support, Glenure reported that the linen industry was well established on the island, with surplus yarn and finished linen being woven on the island and sold at local markets. His opinion was that the main obstacle to further expansion was the lack of a mill to mechanise the processing of the crop. Because the freeing of the fibres from the retted flax (scutching) by hand was both arduous and inefficient, he had invested in a “Dutch Break” and one of the “new foot scutchers”, but his experience with these convinced him that a mill, where the retted flax could be fed between rolling drums, was necessary.

A letter to Duncan from his son Alexander in 1770, shows that Duncan was not the only landowner on Lismore who was interested in building mills for processing flax:

“[Campbell of] Dunstaffnage and [Campbell of] Combie are both soliciting for funds to build a lint mill on Lismore. I told them they need not as you had a premise since last year. Dunstaffnage [owner at that time of Kilcheran] says you have no water without his consent and you must halve the profits with him”. This indicates that the proposed mill would have been on Glenure’s land on Baligrundle, powered by the outflow of Kilcheran Loch. Whether or not additional funds were provided by the Board, there is a strong island tradition that the lower mill at Balnagoun [on the estate of Campbell of Airds] was a scutching mill, powered by the burn running out of the loch. (On the other hand, the late Donald Black believed that processing of flax took place on Portcharron.)
However, any stimulus to the local economy was to be short lived, and it was effectively over by 1791 when, in the First Statistical Account, Rev. Donald McNicol stated that “a little flax” was grown on Lismore. The manufacture of linen on Lismore did not prosper, but imported fancy linen household articles, woven on complex Jacquard looms, such as towels, table runners and cloths, even antimacassars, were very valued. Several linen items from the 19thC, in the museum collection, have now been evaluated by Valerie Reilly of Paisley Museum.

Details of LISDD:2006.53 Handloom woven c1800

Details of LISDD:2006.53 Handloom woven c1800

LISDD:2008.1496 Probably handloom, basket weave, early 19thC

LISDD:2008.1496 Probably handloom, basket weave, early 19thC

Detail of LISDD:2008.145&151 Probably handwoven, Damascene weave, mid 19thC

Detail of LISDD:2008.145&151 Probably handwoven, Damascene weave, mid 19thC

Details of LISDD.2006.51&52. Handloom Damascene weave. Coarse cloth for kitchen use. N Ireland or E Scotland

Details of LISDD.2006.51&52. Handloom Damascene weave. Coarse cloth for kitchen use. N Ireland or E Scotland

Details of LISDD.2006.51&52. Handloom Damascene weave. Coarse cloth for kitchen use. N Ireland or E Scotland

Details of LISDD.2006.51&52. Handloom Damascene weave. Coarse cloth for kitchen use. N Ireland or E Scotland

Detail of LISDD.2006.50 Powerloom Damascene weave, late 19thC

Detail of LISDD.2006.50 Powerloom Damascene weave, late 19thC

Basket Weave: Plain woven cloth using two or more Warp and weft yarns

Damascene or Damask Weave: cloth woven on a Jacquard loom using single warp and weft yarns, with the patterns developed using yarn of different colours or optical properties.

Sources:

NRS GD170/395

  • Accott of the Dres’d Flax Produced in the Island of Lismore Crop 1761 and Qualities thereof.
  • The Register of Janet MacArthur mistress of the spinning school at Killean
  • List of the scholars taught in summer and harvest 1762 in the spinning school
  • Response to the petition to the Trustees for Promoting Manufactures, 4 April 1761
  • Discharge Patrick McMartin for his sellary & price of his wheels
  • Petition Duncan Campbell of Glenure unto the Honourable Trustees for Fisheries Manufactures and Improvements in Scotland, 1769

NRS GD170/1062/38

  • Alexander Campbell to his father Duncan Campbell of Glenure

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