My Ancestor was a … Weaver in Scotland

Weaving tools belonging to Scottish weavers

If you have been researching your ancestors, you may have come across Scottish weavers in your family tree.  This old occupation was prolific in many areas of Scotland as there were many different types of weavers depending on locality. For example, there were cotton, wool, jute, or silk weavers.  It was originally a cottage industry, with families producing cloth on hand looms to sell.

Do you have Scottish weavers in your family tree?

So, was one of your ancestors a Scottish weaver?  It is fairly likely as a lot of the Scottish population was engaged in spinning and weaving during the 18th and 20th centuries.

Spinners and weavers are two distinct roles in the textile production process.  Spinners were responsible for the initial stage of textile production, which involved converting raw fibres (such as wool or cotton) into yarn or thread.  Weavers were responsible for the second stage of textile production where the spun yarn or thread was weaved to create fabric or cloth.

Also, women usually did the spinning, hence the word ‘spinster’. Men would normally do the weaving because it required physical work.

A Scottish spinner and a Scottish weaver

Weavers were traditionally recognised as skilled and better paid, while spinners were often considered unskilled and received lower wages.

If a weaver made a mistake in the final stages of the product, it would mean starting over again and wasting materials.

In contrast, if a spinner made a mistake, it was typically a simpler matter of reassembling the yarns and starting over.

History of weaving in Scotland

The Industrial Revolution brought about new innovations in the technology of textiles.  For example, the power loom and the spinning jenny revolutionised textile production. The wool and cotton industries in various Scottish regions began to flourish bringing new opportunities to Scottish weavers.  For example,

  • the Scottish Borders was known for crafting high-quality tweeds,
  • Paisley was famous for its patterned shawls,
  • Dundee stood out for its production of jute textiles, the “fabric of a thousand uses”.  This versatile material even served as the fabric for pioneers’ wagons in the American West.  Check out the Verdant Works in Dundee for more history about jute weaving.  They even have a section on family history!
  • Dunfermline was known for the production of damask fabric,
  • New Lanark was known for cotton weaving and for having the largest cotton mill in Scotland,
  • Hawick was the centre of the wool industry.  It was well supplied with water to drive mills, surrounded with lush grass to feed the sheep, and the soft Scottish rain helped to give the knitwear an extra-special soft feel to the touch.

Over time, the textile industry faced challenges, including competition from abroad.  Many Scottish mills and factories closed during the 20th century.

However, there are still specialist weavers using traditional weaving techniques and producing high-quality craft textiles, such as the Newburgh Handloom Weavers in Fife and the more well known weavers of Harris Tweed.

In Kinross, on a more industrial scale, Todd & Duncan has been weaving for over 150 years and today it produces high-quality cashmere clothing.  Read my blog about Kinross and weaving.

Where to find Scottish weavers in old documents?

Scottish weavers appear in many different types of documents:

  • Census returns – you may come across ‘HLW’ beside an ancestor’s name.  This acronym was for ‘Hand Loom Weaver’ who operated small, foot-powered looms within their own homes. (image below from an 1841 census return)

Scottish weavers in an 1841 census

  • Electoral or Valuation Rolls – this example below comes from the Kinross Electoral Roll of 1832 (credit: Kinross Museum)

Scottish weavers in the 1832 Kinross Electoral Roll

  • Newspapers are an amazing resource to identify ancestors particularly if their occupation is mentioned.  See below where a weaver called Stenhouse Grieve was convicted for assaulting his mother (Kinross-shire Advertiser 4 January 1879)

Scottish weaver appearing in a newspaper

  • Militia Rolls – during the Napoleonic wars, conscription was determined by a ballot system and only some men were eligible to serve.  Militia rolls will normally include occupations (excerpt below from the Scottish Borders Archive & Local History Centre, reference R/LR/1/1)

Scottish weavers in the Hawick militia roll

  • the birth, marriage, and death registers will certainly include the father’s occupation and sometimes the bride’s occupation.

In addition, you can find Scottish weavers in family and estate papers, sasines (land documents), deeds, Wills & Testaments, and many other amazing documents at local archives.

History of weaving tartan 

Tartan is a distinctive woven check pattern associated with Scottish clans.  A symbol of Scottish identity, its history stretches back to the 17th century when weavers used natural dyes, from plants and berries, to create simple check patterns.  After the Jacobite rebellion of 1745, the Tartan Act of 1746 tried to regulate the wearing of tartan as a way to control the Highland clans.  The Act was repealed in 1782, leading to a resurgence in wearing tartan.

Actually, wearing tartan was also made popular by Sir Walter Scott.  It even received royal endorsement when King George IV visited Edinburgh in 1822.  He wore a specially designed tartan kilt during his visit, leading to increased interest and popularity.

More importantly, Scottish weavers have been instrumental in preserving the traditional art of weaving tartan patterns.  The Tartan Register helps to preserve the traditional patterns by registering each tartan.

In conclusion…

Scottish weavers have deep historical roots.  If you are lucky to have a weaver in your family then you should be proud of them.  They played an important role in providing fabric and iconic Scottish patterns like tartan and tweeds.  Their skills contributed to the cultural and economic history of Scotland.

Let me know in the comments below if your ancestor was a weaver in Scotland (or if you want me to write a blog about one of your other ancestor’s old occupations).

Good luck with your research.

Until my next post, haste ye back.

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15 thoughts on “My Ancestor was a … Weaver in Scotland”

  1. Such an interesting post. I actually went to New Lanark with my family a few years ago and we had a fab time discovering how people used to live in the mill village.

  2. Audrey M Gristwood

    What a really interesting read! I teach Fashion and Textile technology at a Secondary School and I’ll recommend that my student read this piece. Very informative.
    My great Gran was a spinner in a cotton mill in Musselburgh! Awful to know that she and many others women were not recognised as skilled workers and paid less.

    1. Thank you Audrey and also for sharing your personal connection to the topic. I hope your pupils enjoy reading the post on Scottish Weavers as much as I have enjoyed writing about them. If you or your pupils have any questions about this topic, please feel free to reach out.
      Thanks again for your comment!

  3. I’m working on a family history photobook using old photos dating in some cases back to the 1860s that have survived on excellent condition in a Victorian-era leatherbound thick album my cousin in N. Ireland inherited from his mother, whose own mother (our late granny born 1884) hailed from the Dundee area originally. It turns out that the latter’s own great-grandfather David Moncrieff was a Dundee weaver by trade. His son James, my GG-grandfather, who lives from 1837-1901, was a dyer by trade who retired in 1889 as manager of the Pullar’s dye works in Dundee. Another cousin had the silver-plated bowl with inscription presented to James Moncrieff by his co-workers upon his retirement. The weaver’s son James ended his days living comfortably in a spacious house with large garden on Highfield Rd in Scone, called ‘Highfield’, which still stands to this day. We have photos of James the master dyer & his wife in Dundee going back to around the time of their marriage in the early 1860s, but – alas! – none of his father, David the weaver, who died in 1871 in his mid-fifties.

  4. Pps – I’m finding the street directories published in the mod-later 1800s & early 1900s for Dundee & Perth very useful for tracking the above ancestors by name & occupations are also listed. Where I said Dundee for the residence town of weaver David Moncrief (d. 1871) I really should have typed “Perth”. Sorry for any confusion!

  5. You are so lucky to have a photo album from the 19th century. I only have a few photographs of my great grandparents and 2x great.
    You may have already thought of this….have you considered looking at the Perth maps from that time on https://maps.nls.uk/? it will give you a good idea of locations. There are also the local newspapers – I found an obituary of James Moncrieff who died in 1901 in the Perthshire Advertiser dated 14 October 1901. Maps and newspapers make a great addition to family history books.

  6. Thank you for those tips! I’ve done done online newspaper archival digging but mostly for the family of Browns in Dundee whom the Perth resident James Moncrieff’s only child, daughter Annie, married into in 1881. Her husband George Drake Brown, one of my great-grandparents, later moved with Annie & their only child (my granny) to a substantial home – since demolished – on Abbey Road, New Scone after taking early retirement in his early 50s from a teaching career at the Dundee High School. I think a substantial bequest to them from James Moncrief when he died in 1901 facilitated all that! George B layer became Lord Dean of Guild in Perth 1913-19 and received the MBE from King George V in 1919 for wartime contributions to Red Cross flag days and the like. He was an inveterate civic volunteer! I’ll take out another one-month subscription online so I can look at that 1901 obituary that I missed last time, thanks again! Also I’m finding NLS downloadable street directories for both Dundee & Perth/Scone quite useful!

    1. The Valuation Rolls on ScotlandsPeople will also give you an idea of property values. Have you also checked the wills on the ScotlandsPeople website? I just noticed that James Moncrieff who died in 1901 left a will or an inventory, as well as George Drake Brown. There are plenty of newspaper articles about George D Brown. The local history department at Perth AK Bell Library may have additional information.
      Enjoy your family history research – it is so much fun

  7. My ancestor John Sawers was a weaver in Stirling from 1814. About 16 years later he took up a job as a weaver in the South East of Glasgow for six years before bring appointed the Keeper of the Glasgow City and Bazaar.
    What would he have been weaving at these two areas of Scotland?

    1. Hello John
      According to the Statistical Account of Scotland for Stirling in 1845, woollen weaving was popular. In Glasgow it would have been cotton weaving helped by imports of cotton into the Clyde at Glasgow, from America and the West Indies.
      Hope this helps
      Sarah

  8. My ancestor, Thomas Halbert of Lanark, migrated to South Australia in the late 1850s, with his wife Mary. His occupation was listed as weaver. I hope to visit Scotland and explore the weaving history there in person someday. I am, coincidentally, a hand weaver, now in Western Australia.

  9. Scotland has a wonderful history of weaving. There are many places that still showcase their weaving history. I hope you have a wonderful time when you visit Scotland.

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