By Dr Jean Barclay

The material for this item comes from an article entitled `Dunfermline and the damask trade` from The Weekly News of Saturday, November 4th, 1865, which was included in the Folio of Oddities, Volume 3, pp. 87-8 (see notes below). The article was written at a time when power-loom weaving was growing apace and, although some hand-looms were employed in the new factories, many weavers were experiencing great hardship and leaving the trade in large numbers. When times briefly looked more prosperous, there were no longer enough weavers to fulfil quotas and the future for the time-honoured damask industry looked dire.

Dunfermline and the Damask Trade

“The present rise in the wages of the weavers is, in no small degree, raising the hopes of that particular class, and almost alluring them to believe that, in a short time, their weekly earnings will be up to the average of the rest of the labouring community.  If there is anything more certain than another, it is that if the wages, after a short feverish period of prosperity, sink down again to the low point around which they have been fluctuating for many years back, the damask weaving trade will very soon shake hands and bid farewell to Dunfermline. The present briskness has lifted up the veil of the future, and disclosed that inevitable issue as plainly as any coming event can be foreseen.  There are not enough weavers to meet the present petty demands. A great many, indeed all who were able to leave the trade have left it. No apprentices are being made.  No man, who is able to get on in any other employment, even that of a street scavenger, will stay at a trade where nine or ten shillings a week form the highest prize of remuneration when in full work, and where there are so many chances of having no work at all.  We have been assured by men, who have a full knowledge of the subject that, for the last twenty years, the working time of the Dunfermline weavers has not averaged nine months in the year! Such long spells of forced idleness, and no wages coming in, would reduce a high wage to a low wage; but pulling upon one of nine or ten shillings, they have the effect of bringing it down below the point at which any man of flesh and blood can be supposed to exist.  The natural conclusion is that such a trade cannot long continue to grow up in a soil that will not afford it the necessary nourishment.  The trade will not die out for all that, but it will not live here in Dunfermline. It will flit; remove itself to some other locality where it will be treated more tenderly, and with more common sense; treated as a good-laying goose is treated in common life, and not treated like the goose in the fable. 

The damask weaving has proved itself an excellent goose for Dunfermline these last 150 years, as many of the wealthy families now flourishing in the town and neighbourhood could tell if they had a mind.  And what would Dunfermline have been if it had not been for damask weaving? And what will Dunfermline be in a century or so, if it (weaving) gets starved out and forced to set up its tent in some other valley in our Land of Canaan?

The damask trade began here in about 1717, and first started in some of the apartments of the Old Palace.  From that point it spread out into the outskirts of the town, and has given birth to the immense suburbs with which it is begirt. Chalmers Street, Pittencrieff Street, Woodhead Street, Golfdrum, Baldridgeburn, Beveridgewell, Pilmuir, Reform Street, the two Inglis Streets, Campbell Street, and last, not least, Knabbie Street, have all been brought into existence by the damask looms.  To these add Appin Crescent, the Towngreen, and Gardener`s Land; and here on the north side alone we have an area of territory stretching from Miles Mark to Gardener`s Land; and from the back of Beveridgewell to the foot of Chalmers Street all covered with houses and gardens, all of them the lineal and legitimate offspring of the damask loom. The same may be said of the south side of the town.  All the network of streets lying between the foot of Guildhall Street and, strictly speaking, Guildhall Street itself, and the Spittal Burn owe their existence to the same prolific but humble parentage.  There would have been no New Row, no Netherton, no Moodie Street, nor Elgin Street, nor Abbey Park Place, no Comely Park Place, and even no Canmore Street, though it looks like a natural continuation of the Old Maygate.

Now take up a map of Dunfermline and, with a pair of scissors, clip away all we have made mention of; that is clip away all that lies on the west side of the Tower Burn or the Baldridge, and all that lie on its north and east sides, after you reach the Glen Factory. Then, inserting the scissors in at the north side of the Dam, run them away south till you come to the north end of North Chapel Street, and away south-east till you arrive near the Towngreen Toll-bar. Turning your clippers in an opposite direction, you then, after taking away three-fourths of the south side of East Port Street, run them down the east side of the New Row till you come to Canmore Street, then cross and cut off all the south side, every morsel of it, between that point and a little below the Mill.

The little dirty bit of paper that remains in your hand is the map of Dunfermline – the Dunfermline that would have now been, had it never been visited by damask weaving, had it not been for the enterprising genius of those two or three individuals who set up the first loom and threw the first shuttle in one of the apartments of the Old Palace.

But this is not all.  The small shabby patch of space to which the burgh would have been limited – in what condition would it have been?  The houses would have been old, shabby and ruinous, with countless outside stairs, and windows like doocot holes, and doors requiring a stoop in all mortals above five feet tall. There would have been no pavement, except here and there, as it struck the fancy of the proprietors, and the streets uncauswayed, and full of ruts and jawholes. There would have been no County Buildings, no Bridge Street which, though constructed by the self-imprudent forethought of Colonel Chalmers, really originated in the yearly-increasing prosperity of the damask trade; and more wonderful still, there would have been no Town-house!  The Town-house with its date of 1769 – just fifty years after the introduction of the trade – clearly carries the imprimatur of the loom shop upon its title page.  Every stone in its structure, if philosophically examined, would turn out to be a tablecloth, transformed into its present shape by the indurating influence of time and necessity. 

And where! oh where! would have been its fourteen churches?  There would have been only the old Abbey Church, with its Sailors` Loft, and Tailors` Loft and Scholars` Loft, and with the bats and owlets winging through it during sermons.  Dissent in Dunfermline is one of the daughters of the loom and, without it, there would not have been one dissenting church in it – no not even what is now called the Queen Anne Street Church, the oldest within its boundaries. 

In short, without the damask loom, Dunfermline would have been by this time, 1865, the exact image of some one of the old dilapidated Royal Burghs, scattered here and there throughout Scotland.  The houses are old and time-worn –no merry children playing on the street – not a soul to be seen except perhaps an old man leaning on a staff – very often the sexton with a spoke over his shoulder.  There are scarcely any shops and the few that face the street are small-windowed, with perhaps a customer coming out of one of them – a little old wifie with half an ounce of tea in the one hand, and a herring hanging by the tail from the other.  The only sign of stir or amusement is a bill stuck on an old garden door, announcing an exhibition of slight-of-hand and necromancy in the school-house for the evening.

Such, or something very like it, would have been Dunfermline, if the vivifying breath of life, health and prosperity had not been breathed into it by the Damask Trade!`

Dunfermline (as it might have been)

Notes and comments:

1) I am grateful to Dunfermline Carnegie Library and Galleries for permission to reproduce this article.  The Folio of Oddities was presented in two bulky packages to the Dunfermline Public Library in October1944 by Councillor William Dick, OBE, whose grandfather had collaborated in their compilation with Mr. David Birrell (1795-1874), lawyer, manufacturer and bailie of Dunfermline Town Council.  Later rebound into four manageable volumes, they include newspaper cuttings, photographs and engravings of Dunfermline and elsewhere, portraits, biographies, obituaries, poems, letters and `odds and ends`, mainly collected during the reign of Queen Victoria.  The Folios have been indexed (but not yet catalogued) and each volume offers an interesting and attractive source for historians, lovers of art and literature, and people who just like browsing.

2)  In their heyday, handloom weavers were regarded as the aristocracy of labour.  The weaver was usually his own master, intelligent, industrious and endowed with the manual dexterity, strength and patience necessary to manage the complicated looms that produced the high quality linen for which Dunfermline became famous.  Weavers greatly outnumbered other workers.  In 1801 in a population of about 5,500, there were some 800 hand-loom weavers with no other group even numbering 90.  In 1836, there were 3517 weavers (men and boys) and 1527 workers directly associated with the weaving trade, including 1100 female pirn-winders. There were nearly 3000 looms in Dunfermline and its vicinity and the capital involved in the industry was £826, 261, nearly £9 million today (from E.Henderson, Annals of Dunfermline, 1879, pp. 547, 639). Apart from run-of-the-mill weaving, exquisite work could be produced on hand-looms.  The prize-winning items shown at the Great Exhibition of 1851 by Dunfermline manufacturers had been produced in their factories on hand-looms, which were so soon to be replaced by power.  

3) The author of this article is unknown at present and his views are his own (I am assuming a `he).  He is not entirely correct on one or two points but, above all, he has underestimated the amount of work the power-loom industry would provide. It had been underway for some 15 years when he wrote this article, and by 1880 there were 11 power-loom factories in action all over the town employing many thousands of people in the manufacture of high-quality damask linen. The power-loom industry provided work for women as well as men, gave families extra money to spend and turned Dunfermline into a prosperous town, as evidenced by an apparently solvent Town Council, the grand new City Chambers of 1879, a better water supply and sewage system, good roads and other advances in travel and many other improvements. Dunfermline had not finished benefiting from its `excellent goose`.”