From the Vikings to the 21st C: Scotland’s #Linen Industry

Experiments in the growing of flax as a crop in Scotland and a possible re-emergence of a linen industry has prompted interest in the historical aspects of the subject.

Flax can be used to produce the textile linen and linseed oil. Flax was once both grown and imported into Scotland. Dating back to Norse times evidence has been found in Orkney of flax in archaeological digs.

In 1978, an excavation of the remains of a Horizontal Mill at The Earl’s Bu, Orphir, uncovered flax which it was suggested had been locally grown. This mill would be similar in build to the Click Mill, just outside of Dounby.

the inside of the horizontal workings of the Click Mill
Click Mill

The mill at Orphir was covered over in the late Norse period with midden material from the occupation of The Earl’s Bu. Within the midden were found large amounts of mammal bones: cattle, sheep, pig, dog, cat, and seal. There was also a lot of fishbone. – cod, saithe, pollack and haddock. Most of the midden remains were vegetative:

” with large amounts of heather wood, leaves, shoots and flowers (some of which may indicate bedding or roofing material. Of identifiable seed material, the majority is from cereals, with some weeds. Oats are dominant… Barley when present, is probably a pure 6-row hulled variety, but there is little chaff present. Another notable presence is that of flax which is seen in several contexts, and could possibly be locally grown; in this respect Orphir is similar to both Saevar Howe, Birsay and Pool, Sanday.” A Norse Horizontal Mill in Orkney , Colleen E .Batey

ROSC Review of Scottish Culture Number 8, 1993
the remains of the Earls Bu drinking hall at Orphir
Earls Bu Drinking Hall Orphir Image credit: Bell

Until the massive sweep of change brought into the country by both the Industrial and Agricultural revolutions, weaving and textile production was mostly done in the home. By the early 18th century the Scottish Linen industry was very successful. In 1707 Scotland joined with England with the Treaty of Union. In 1711 the new ‘united’ Parliament sought to impose an export duty on Scotland’s linen but leaving English wool untaxed. This was vehemently opposed by all Scottish MPs and the scheme was dropped.

‘By 1726 one foreign visitor reported that the poor people all span, some of them very well, and that Scots flax was better than Dutch; and Edward Burt from England said that he found good linen everywhere, but chiefly in the Lowlands.’ A History of Scotland J.D. Mackie

The Act of Union included a provision that the surplus of Equivalents would be paid at the rate of £2,000 a year for 7 years to ‘encourage coarse wool manufacture and, thereafter, the fisheries and other industries. Nothing had yet been done; but now, in response to an application from the Convention of Royal Burghs, the government established a Board of Trustees which was to provide annually for 6 years the sum of £6,000 – £2,650 for the linen trade, £2,650 for the fisheries, and £700 for the wool trade.‘ Mackie

From this point on there was a surge in production in the linen trade. Paisley and Glasgow became famous worldwide.

By 1781, there were 6,800 looms in Paisley, with 2,000 weaving linen and 4,800 weaving silk. In 1783 and 1784, records show nearly two million yards of linen was produced locally. – Paisley made textiles and textiles made Paisley

This was a time of brutally successful and exploitative British colonial expansion, a topic explored by the V&A Dundee in this article: A “tasteless” history of the Paisley pattern

In 1746 the British Linen Company (which became the British Linen Bank in 1763) advanced cash credits stimulating the industry even more to reach all parts of Scotland – including Orkney. It was believed keeping the poor thus occupied in the making of linen would stop their minds straying to any stirrings of rebellion or a resurgence of Jacobitism.

In 1751 an Act of Parliament excluded linen weaving from craft restrictions.

The British Linen Company employed local agents all over Scotland particularly along the east coast from Inverness and northwards.

James, 14th Earl of Morton, had been quick to persuade the Company to invest in Orkney, and manufacture was well established in Kirkwall by 1749 when the Company was already sending 150 tons of raw flax into the north of Scotland. The Company’s Orkney agents were Thomas and William Lindsay, nephews of Andrew Ross who was Morton’s Steward-depute. Thomas was rapidly provided with what might be described as a correspondence course from the Company’s head office, and William went south to serve an apprenticeship in Leith. – The New History of Orkney William P.L. Thomson

‘Manufacturers’ throughout Scotland organised the production of linen by supplying the imported flax to the spinners, and then to the weavers. The finished cloth was then sold. Spinning flax carried on in this way for much longer than other yarns because of the nature of the fibre. However, Lancashire born James Kay developed a successful wet spinning process for flax in 1824, helping industrialise linen spinning in the British Isles. Thus allowing it to be a great commercial success and gain a forefront position in the world. His process is still used to spin fine linen yarns, although mainly in Russia and China. James Kay of Turton Tower: Inventor and Flax Spinner (1774-1857)

In Orkney the Graemeshall estate, Holm, became the main centre for the islands linen industry all managed by ‘Lady Graemeshall’ who kept a tight grip on the whole process.

‘Flax was rippled to remove the seed heads. It was then retted which involved soaking the fibre in tanks and water courses; scutching and heckling separated the fibres, then the linen was spun on to reels by women and woven into cloth by male weavers. The cloth was then bleached, before being stamped and exported to Newcastle or London. The best price was obtained in London, and often it was possible to export the cloth aboard the smacks which regularly carried live lobsters to the London market. Orkney linen was also traded with Shetland.’ Thomson

William Watt received a grant of £30 in 1801 for the erection of a water powered lint mill at Skaill, Sandwick. Hardly anything now remains of the mill which has fallen victim to the crumbling coastline and a lack of interest in Orkney’s industrial heritage, compared to its stone age past.

bits of the old mill
The last remnants of Watt’s Mill now gone Image credit Bell

By the time Watt’s mill was constructed the linen industry boom was over.’ Between 1801 and 1806 the manufacture of linen cloth dropped by one third and the export of spindle of yarn was down by more than a half.’ Thomson

As the 19th century progressed other textiles and manufactures were to come to the fore in Scotland. ‘Some linen was still being made in Orkney in 1823, but by 1830 it was “stone dead”. – Thomson

Flax shortages during the Crimean War, [1853 – 1856] and unprecedented demand for coarse textiles during that war and during the American Civil War, [1861 – 1865] accelerated the transition from linen to jute production in east-central Scotland. By 1868, Dundee imported fifty times as much jute as she had done thirty years before – Mackie

Scotland’s last linen factory in Kirkcaldy closed in 2021

Fiona Grahame

gray textile closeup photo
Photo by Engin Akyurt on

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2 replies »

  1. This is utterly fascinating.
    I was recently able to obtain a certain amount of linen of various types from that last factory.
    It was all due to go to landfill or incineration but now I am turning it into a variety of hand made items.
    Currently I’m concentrating on aprons but I have other ideas and am looking forward to trying them all out.
    It is beautiful fabric to sew, even the coarsest and becomes softer the more you work with it.
    I really hope this experiment is successful and we see a renewal of the Scottish linen industry, from farm to wardrobe.

    • this sounds wonderful. Imagine them dumping all that fabric. Thank you for saving some and turning it into beautiful and useful objects

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