Inspiration that is woven through a family

The traditions of Harris Tweed are woven through generations and families; none more so than the Campbells of Plocropol in the Bays of Harris.

Friday, 18th June 2021, 9:02 am
Catherine Campbell OBE with sons Shaun and David and daughter Breagha
Catherine Campbell OBE with sons Shaun and David and daughter Breagha

In the past, they safeguarded the old ways and bequeathed some of the most treasured images of the industry in its most basic form. Today, the connection is maintained through a successful business which creates Harris Tweed products and markets them around the world.

The architect of that business, Catherine Campbell, has been recognised in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List with an OBE for services to Harris Tweed and the Harris economy, amidst an avalanche of congratulations and plaudits from within her own community as well as customers around the world.

She said: “I went into hiding on Saturday and sat in the weaving shed with my bobbins”. While it would have been difficult to shelter from the local ‘meal do naidheachd’, Catherine is not on Facebook so she might have missed the tributes that poured in through that barometer of public approval. – more than 2000 on Harris-related sites alone.

Alasdair Campbell -- a weaving mistake led to him starting his own business

For example, Kim McDermid Campbell messaged from Nova Scotia: “I’ve been to the Harris Tweed Shop in Tarbert on every visit. Amazing shop and amazing people. Thank you Catherine Campbell for your service to the Harris Tweed industry”

Linda Wood declared: “To Catherine – I shall wear my Harris Tweed slippers and carry my tweed handbags with even more pride!”. Betty Tinney wrote simply: “Congratulations. Your mum and dad would be so proud”. And many, many more in the same vein – a genuine outpouring of goodwill linked to the word “deserved”.

Reflecting the views of the local community, John Murdo Morrison said: “Catherine has done so much good work for Harris in the time she has been operating. She started with an empty shell and has built it into a centre-piece for Tarbert that everyone coming into the place wants to go to, and she has created so much local employment. It’s in her blood, of course! Everyone is very proud of her”.

The industry added its own tributes. Ian Angus MacKenzie, chief executive of Harris Tweed Hebrides which has worked closely with Catherine since its inception, said: “We have watched her build a hugely successful business from scratch, creating employment for young people and greatly enhancing the profile of our industry.

Marion Campbell who was awarded the British Empire Medal

“She is one of our biggest customers and we created an exclusive collection for her over the years. Her success has been down to constantly extending the range of Harris Tweed products, creating her own supply chain and marketing very effectively from Harris. It is a great business model which has created and contributed to a lot of employment within the island”.

Catherine’s business acumen – like her place in the Honours List - has a distinguished family pedigree behind it. The Campbells of Plocropol have long been synonymous with Harris Tweed and Catherine owes her fascination with the industry to that upbringing. Perhaps most critically, she saw from an early age the potential for more value to be retained within the island, rather being exported along with the fabric.

EARLY INFLUENCE

Her earliest influence was her aunt, the legendary Marion Campbell, whose image working at the old-style wooden handloom was frequently used in all sorts of publications over many years, and did much to shape perceptions of the home-based craft industry.

One of 12 children, Marion Campbell was born in 1909 – the same year the Orb trade mark was first registered - and passed away in 1996. She lived her entire life in Plocropol and grew up in a community where the men fished for herring and the women became weavers, among many other skills and chores.

For more than 60 years, Marion made Harris Tweed in the same way she learned from her mother and sister while still a young girl. It was entirely a home industry, every stage of the process carried out around her own house and loomshed.

Over the decades, Marion’s fame spread far and wide. A gifted designer as well as producer of the fabric, she became the subject of regular media interest through the 1960s and ‘70s as appreciation grew of the painstaking work and ancient skills that created her fine Harris Tweed.

Catherine was raised on the croft next door to her aunt Marion’s in Plocropol. “We were always around the dye-pot, spinning wheel, her loom and everything she did,” Catherine recalls. “As children, we were intrigued by the colours that were created from the flowers and the lichen. Even for the adults, it was pretty incredible”.

There were no fancy implements involved in making the tweed with the exception of the wooden handloom which Marion used all her working life. A soup spoon was used to scrape the lichen or crotal off the rocks. The beart dheilbh – the wooden frame for warping thread – was built by her brother and an old door was used for waulking the cloth.

Catherine recalls: “Because the work was always around the home, we grew up with Harris Tweed. It was such a hard process in those days, it took so long to prepare the wool before she could begin the weaving. As we were playing around the croft we would hear the melodious beat of the tweed on the waulking board echoing in the bay. It filled the air with a sense of importance, like the beat of a drum knowing the tweed was finally being finished.

“Always smiling, always happy, diligently and faithfully working … with very little in those days”, as Catherine remembers her, Marion was awarded the British Empire Medal in 1985 for services to Harris Tweed. She continued to weave into her early 80s and imparted to countless visitors from around the world the extraordinary secrets of her dye-pot.

By the 1970s, Catherine’s father had exchanged the fishing boat for the Hattersley loom, weaving at first for the Stornoway mills. This came to an end when he accidentally made a mistake in a design for a commission. In these days, weavers were either fined for the cost of the lost tweed or they could purchase it.

Rather than accept a fine, Alasdair bought the tweed and sent it off to mainland dealers – who liked it and wanted to order so much he was faced with the decision to become an independent weaver designing his own tweeds. Thereafter, he opened a small shop, as used to be very common among the enterprising Hearachs, and ran it with his wife Katie. The tourist buses would follow the rocky road to Plocropol, first to visit Marion on her handloom – who was completely swamped by demand – and then follow-on next door to see Alasdair on his Hattersley loom.

AMBITIOUS MOVES

As a young woman, Catherine became intrigued by the gap between making the tweed and its end use in the fashion houses of the world. “It was like two different languages and they seemed so far apart.” She remembers buyers from mainland companies coming to Plocropol dressed for the expedition with beautiful Harris Tweed clothes and accessories. It set her wondering why more of that value could not be retained in the islands.

It became Catherine’s ambition to bring the two languages closer together and in 2005, this started to become a reality. She went into business as a retailer of Harris Tweed fabric and products, initially in Plocropol alongside her mother Katie and later by taking over the old Co-op shop in Tarbert. Thereafter, the business grew spectacularly, driven by Catherine’s creativity and acumen.

She transformed the old school building in Drinishader into a centre which tells the story of her family’s involvement in Harris Tweed. This was the school where generations of Campbell children studied and visitors now enjoy seeing Marion’s loom and artefacts while the Harris Tweed Exhibition is housed in a smart new building next door.

For the past couple of years, there has also been a shop in Inverness run by Catherine’s niece, Annabel Campbell, while the Tarbert business expanded with a much larger shop selling a vast array of Harris Tweed products. Many of the smaller items, like scarves and cushions, are made locally. The catalogue runs to 2300 items including hundreds of beautiful Harris Tweed designs.

At present, the old Co-op is being adapted to selling lengths of tweed only. With the restrictions on numbers who can be in the main shop at any one time – “ten instead of 40!” – Catherine needs extra space where fabric customers can browse the tweeds at leisure without queues forming outside.

The Tarbert shop – next door to the more recent Isle of Harris Distillery (which thoughtfully provided a car park!) - caters for shoals of visitors who pour off the ferry from Skye. As visitor attractions go, it has become quite a double act – whisky and Harris Tweed creating an outstanding focal point for the village. In normal times, there are weaving demonstrations but these have had to be suspended because of the restrictions.

Many of Catherine’s visitors become regular customers and particularly during last year’s pandemic, the huge world-wide mailing list became a source of strength for her on-line business. At one point, there were eleven local people dealing with on-line orders.

In all, she is currently employing 14 staff though she regrets not being able to offer jobs this summer to students, because of the restrictions on business.

The Harris tradition of entrepreneurship is being well maintained and the Campbells of Plocropol – with Catherine’s two sons and daughter working in the business - are guaranteed to carry a Harris Tweed dynasty into yet another generation. “Sales are important,” she says, “but the main interest …. it’s the love of working in an Industry which holds such fond memories and inspiration”.