Spinning Mill, Portree

In 1850, a small spinning mill was established in Portree to support local hosiery production. Its success provides a rare example of charitable aid being transformed into a successful, independent commercial enterprise that contributed to the island’s economy after the famine that spread through the region during the mid-nineteenth century.

Map showing Portree harbour and Loch Portree on the east coast of Skye
Admiralty map of Portree, Skye (HMSO)

Business Transfer

During the famine charitable organisations dispensed aid in return for knitting stockings and laying roads. The Central Board of Management (CBM), formed by several charities in Glasgow and Edinburgh, employed Relief and Hosiery Officers to distribute yarn and needles and collect knitted stockings. Having set up this network of hand knitters on the island, CBM thought that it would be worthwhile transferring it to someone familiar with the hosiery trade who could transform it into a successful business which could generate income for communities after the famine.

Improving Quality

Samuel Hogg – who was familiar with the hosiery business and had worked for A. Hadden and Sons, a spinning and hosiery manufacturing firm in Aberdeen – was tasked with improving the quality of knitted products produced on Skye and finding hosiery merchants willing to purchase them. Despite the language difficulties – Hogg did not speak Gaelic – he helped local women improve the quality of their work. The earnings from knitting, which was a part-time occupation for the wives and daughters of crofters and farmers, augmented the family income.

Pen illustration of a young woman knitting whilst tending cattle outdoors
Illustration from Scottish Home Industries, 1895

Samuel Hogg appears to have purposefully improved the quality and design of knitted products on Skye to distinguish it from the plain knitting produced by East coast hosiery manufacturers. In 1851, he stated:

There is no article in fancy worsted work known in the trade that they don’t mean to try, with certainty of success.

Setting up the Mill

However, bringing yarn from the mainland was a challenge, so Hogg persuaded the Central Board to establish a spinning mill to supply the network of knitters with yarn. Samuel Hogg successfully established spinning, hosiery and woven textile production before disappearing from the record in the early 1850s. By 1855, Lawrence Skene had taken over the mill and production.

In 1861, Slater’s Directory commented on the success of the mill and the hosiery production it supported. It stated –

In the mill, which was erected in 1850, are manufactured tweeds, plaids, yarns, and hosiery. About forty persons are generally employed within the building; but these form a very inconsiderable proportion to those who are engaged in the village and neighbourhood, as ‘out-door knitters;’ and the establishment proves of great benefit to the place.

In 1867, Lawrence Skene opened a registered office and warehouse in Inverness from which to distribute goods produced on Skye. The mill remained within the Skene family until 1944, when it was bought by James Pringle, a spinning company in Inverness.

It is unclear how long hosiery production continued, but the spinning mill encouraged textile production and provided employment on the island for more than a century.