The Outer Hebrides, a chain of islands off the north-west coast of mainland Scotland, is a remote and barren stretch of land. It’s devoid of many of the fripperies of modern civilisation, and the result is a charmingly simple place of escapism. Life has existed there since the Stone Age, as evidenced by the Callanish Stones, Scotland’s answer to Stonehenge. The population of the Outer Hebrides is minuscule, too. The 2011 census put it at 27,684, and that figure has been falling for decades. However, the speed of its decline is slowing, thanks largely to the work of Harris Tweed Hebrides.
Harris Tweed Hebrides (HTH) was formed in 2007 in a bid to protect and promote Harris Tweed, which is the only textile in the world that has an act of parliament protecting it, the Harris Tweed Act of 1993. It’s governed by the Harris Tweed Authority, which is based in Stornoway, the capital of the Outer Hebrides. “The world knew about Harris Tweed, but it needed to be reminded,” Brian Wilson, the Chairman of HTH and an ex-trade minister, tells The Rake. Following his retirement from politics in 2005, Wilson moved to the Outer Hebrides and has since been heavily involved in its revival. Many inhabitants had expressed concern to him about the need for investment in Harris Tweed, and as a result Wilson contacted Ian Taylor, the Chief Executive of the global energy company Vitol, whom he had met over dinner in Cuba in the 1990s. Also sat at the table that evening was Fidel Castro. “In quite a direct way, the origins of HTH went back as far as that dinner with Fidel,” Wilson says. Taylor subsequently invested in the business, attracted by the cloth’s sense of romance and a heritage that dates back hundreds of years.
Wool has been woven on the islands of the Outer Hebrides for centuries. It was originally a cottage industry driven by crofters that pumped money into the local economy, but was in a constant state of flux. It can consider the materialistic love and philanthropic work carried out by Lady Dunmore (1814-1886) as its catalyst. “She was the conduit but also the ambassador,” Mark Hogarth, the Creative Director of HTH, says. Dunmore, a widowed landowner, showcased the cloth to her aristocratic friends in London in 1846 and it soon became one of the fashions of the time.
During the first half of the 20th century, the tweed industry boomed and then rapidly declined during the second half, partly due to the rise of synthetic fibres. The Harris Tweed Act of 1993 was introduced to safeguard the industry, upon which a large proportion of the inhabitants of the Outer Hebrides depend. The Act installed strict requirements and steps of production, which results in the cloth being granted the ‘Orb’ seal of approval and quality. Created in 1911, it is the oldest British trademark in continuous use.