The Paisley Sisters
The beginning chapters of the Harris Tweed® Story date back to 1844, around the time that the Murray clan tartan was commissioned to be woven. The story goes that the tweed, which was handwoven by islanders on the Isle of Harris, was created to be worn by the keepers and ghillies on the Harris Estate, owned and run by Lady Dunmore at that time. With that, uou could in fact credit Lady Dunmore with buying the first ever full length of Harris Tweed® fabric.
Read more about the history of Harris Tweed® here.
That credit can be carried further, too. It’s thanks to Lady Dunmore’s keen interest in the woven tweed, and her devotion to bettering the production and selling of the cloth that ignited the start of the Harris Tweed® industry in its entirety. Credit, indeed, for bringing what was a small cottage industry to the big, wider world.
So, what part did the Paisley Sisters play in these beginning chapters?
The two sisters, Marion (1821 – 1880) and Christina (1826 – 1893) Macleod, were said to be from Strond on the Isle of Harris. Though, as is the nature of oral tradition, some do claim that they actually came from Pabbay, just across the water. In Janet Hunter’s examination, in her book ‘The Islanders and the Orb’, we read that sisters lived in Lingerbay on the Isle of Harris with their mother and father at the time of the 1841 census. Then, by the 1851 census, the two sisters lived in Strond with their mother. Interestingly, the census lists a number of ‘shoemakers’ and ‘weaveresses’ among the population of Strond at that time. With that, the question lies; why were the two named the ‘Paisley’ sisters and not the ‘Strond’, ‘Lingerbay’ or even the ‘Pabbay’ sisters?
Well, it was in the town of Paisley that the two sisters trained and further developed their weaving skills, which they took back home with them to Harris. Paisley (on mainland Scotland, near Glasgow) was, at that time, very much a weaving and textiles town, with the sounds of shuttles and looms continually heard on the streets. Marion and Christina would have been around the early ages of 23 and 18 at the time of the Murray Tartan cloth commission, and when their training in Paisley was organised by Lady Dunmore.
It is worth remembering that Island girls travelling to the mainland, at that time, was more common than one would expect. They were well used to moving around fishing ports as gutters (or ‘herring girls’, as they were commonly known). For Christina and Marion, a bigger obstacle may actually have been their fluency in English – with Gaelic likely being their first language, of course.
It’s documented that the first ever commercially produced piece of Harris Tweed® cloth was sold in Harris around 1864 by, you guessed it, the Paisley Sisters. Thereafter, sales of Harris Tweed® cloth were soon established and sales were made across the country, becoming increasingly sought after in the highest social circles.
Use our Harris Tweed Trail Map to locate the Paisley Sisters monument, situated in Strond on the Isle of Harris (pictured below)