Tweeds are woven into the very warp and weft of the Scottish landscape, as Mary Miers discovered during a visit to a tweed house that’s been making this versatile fabric for 160 years. Photographs by Roddy Mackay.
In the old Jacket Room at Campbell’s of Beauly, I’m being treated to the Highland equivalent of a visit to a Moroccan carpet shop. Sipping tea, I watch entranced as bolt after bolt of tweed is unfurled before me, each more seductive than the last. The litany of placenames – Auchnafree, Fannich, Flichity, Kinlochewe – combines with a kaleidoscope of pattern and palette to transform the tumble of fragrant cloth into a sensuous map of the Highlands.
Each of these tweeds is not just the livery of a sporting estate, but an image of its landscape: camouflage for the hill. Fabric woven with mixes of yarns to echo the contrasting brilliance of plants, rocks and sands works on the eye in the same way as an Impressionist or Pointillist painting; the effect is to break up outlines so that the wearer merges into the background.
As early as 1845, the 15th Lord Lovat had yarns of light blue, bright yellow, chrome yellow, dark yellow-brown and white woven into a mixture that matched the springtime slopes of Loch Morar on his West Highland estate. Some years’ later, the laird of Strathconon sent his stalkers up the hill with different variations of tweed, so he could observe them from below with his spyglass and see which created the best camouflage.
For the stalkers and gillies at Balmoral, Prince Albert blended dark blue and white spangled with crimson to imitate the hue and texture of the Cairngorms. When delivering some newly made jackets to Balmoral recently, Tom Owen, Head Tailor at Campbell’s, noticed how, when they caught the light, the flecks in the cloth exactly matched those in the castle’s granite walls.
‘Only Campbell’s gets its own brown tourist sign on the approaching roads’
For all the proliferation of modern outdoor clothing, tweeds are still an integral part of the Highland countryman’s attire and many local families – as well as regular visitors to the Highlands – have been kitting themselves out at Campbell’s of Beauly for generations.
The village, sited beside the former ferry crossing at the head of the Beauly Firth, can boast the russet-stoned ruin of a 13th-century priory, not to mention the full complement of independent shops now rare in a rural settlement. However, only Campbell’s gets its own brown tourist sign on the approaching roads – but then, since 1858, when the famous tailor and purveyor of tweeds and woollens was established, Campbell & Co can be said to have put Beauly on the map.
Tourists love the Highland Tweed House, not only for its atmospheric Victorian shop interior, but because, sartorially, Campbell’s embodies their image of the Highlands. The tartan-clad staff still serve from behind a long wooden counter backed by shelves of caps, deerstalkers and brightly coloured shooting socks. Bolts of tweed, jerseys and knitted garters line the walls on ancient pine shelves; gloves, plaid scarves and rugs laid out on tables have recently been joined by tweed dog collars, gun slips and game bags.
A few years ago, when the Campbell siblings (fourth generation) announced their decision to retire, there were fears that the shop would close or be radically transformed. These have since been allayed by John and Nicola Sugden, an enterprising young couple who took it on in 2015 and moved into the house above the shop. They have preserved the character of this much-cherished family business while developing it in new ways to make it viable for the future.
Ever since Coco Chanel had fabric for her iconic suits woven by a Scottish mill, inspired by her holidays in the Highlands – her lover, Bendor, the 2nd Duke of Westminster, owned Reay Forest – tweed has been a prized fabric for dress designers. The bulk of Campbell’s business is still tailored outdoor clothing for the owners and employees of Scottish sporting estates, but, increasingly, it’s doing a good trade in ladies’ fashion wear and cashmeres. This year, the firm was awarded a Royal Warrant from The Queen.
Brushing past a rail of nine newly made stalkers’ outfits awaiting delivery to Balmoral, I clamber up a narrow wooden staircase to the toplit workrooms where the garments are made. The Trouser Room still has its original tailor’s bench – a raised area where the tailors used to sit cross-legged on the floor – as well as the narrow wooden planks they laid across their knees to press the seams. Campbell’s staff have since progressed to electric irons and flatbed sewing machines, but they still cut out and make up everything by hand.
‘In this age of Gore-Tex and Lycra, the finest tweed is still as practical as it is fashionable’
Assembling a jacket is akin to sculpting, the tweed pieces being moulded over a haircloth canvas interlining that forms the bones of the structure. Only cotton thread is used – no pins – and every garment is fitted several times before it’s finished.
The team of nine seamstresses (some work part-time, depending on orders) is led by Mr Owen, who’s been with the company for 47 years. His father, who came to Campbell’s from Glasgow, was also a tailor and cutter. ‘It was a family within a family; the Campbells worked the front shop, we worked the tailoring side of things,’ says Mr Owen.
As well as being Head Tailor, he’s also the Cutter, responsible for measuring up clients in the fitting room and then cutting out the tweed in a studio lined with paper patterns dating back more than half a century.
The cloth is tightly woven with a high twist yarn to make it extremely hard-wearing, but, even so, a typical stalker’s suit – jacket, waistcoat and two pairs of plus fours – is put through its paces over a season and has to be replaced every few years, to the tune of about £1,000.
Plus fours are not, as many think, simply trousers chopped off halfway, but a different garment altogether. The seat is cut at an angle and there’s more fullness in the knee for ease of movement as the wearer crawls and crouches in the heather. Stalkers like them long, so that, when they’re walking through wet bracken, the water drips over, rather than into, their boots from the flap of fabric at mid calf.
With more than 100 estates on its books, Campbell’s also commissions mills such as Knockando Woolmill (established in 1784) and Glenlyon Tweed Mill to weave cloth on behalf of its clients. Most have their own dedicated tweed, an idea initiated in about 1840 by Janie Ellice, whose father, Gen Balfour of Balbirnie, rented Glenfeshie with his friend Edward Ellice MP. She had the notion of creating the equivalent of a regional tartan to identify the gillies and keepers on the estate.
‘For tartans, it’s the sett that’s crucial; tweed is all about colour’
The Glenfeshie Check, as it was known (estate tweeds were originally described in the same terms as traditional ‘district checks’), was modelled on the simple black-and-white ‘plaid’ worn by the borders shepherds who came north with their flocks, with the addition of a red overcheck (it was later adopted as the Aberchalder tweed when the Ellices bought their estates in Glen Garry). There have since been many variations on the Shepherd Check, forming a group of tweeds known as ‘gun clubs’.
Another group derives from the Glenurquhart Check, a design featuring areas of houndstooth alternating with a sawtooth pattern that the Countess of Seafield adopted for her estates in the 1840s. Then, there are the more tartan-style designs with ‘windowpane’ overchecks and a fourth group of tweeds with a speckled ground, sometimes with added overchecks.
‘Whereas, for tartans, it’s the sett that’s crucial, tweed is all about colour,’ explains Mr Sugden. ‘The yarns are usually mixture shades comprising up to seven component colours and this, combined with the natural variations in the wool, gives the yarns, and subsequently the cloth, its character. We’ve just been asked by a weaving designer which variation of Letterewe we want copied. The mill has been sent three batches and they’re all different. If you look at 20 years’ worth of orders for any tweed, you can see how it changes. The closer they are in date, the more subtle the “drift”, but it’s an inevitable result of re-weaving by different mills and changes in yarns and dyes.’
Some owners have deliberately modified their tweed to make it blend in better with the landscape. The present Achnacarry intensifies the grass-green mix of the original 1906 palette. There have been several variants of Cawdor over the past century.
‘When I took the 1980s version to Hunters of Brora, the designer told me that it was a “lounge tweed” and that something with crisper, less blurry colours would perform the function of camouflage better,’ says Lord Cawdor, ‘so we recalibrated the pattern in slightly different colours, keeping the red overstripe. The colours also have slightly more contrasting tones, creating a more monochromatic effect.’
When an estate changes hands, the incoming owner sometimes likes to put his own stamp on it by having the tweed completely redesigned – Strathconon, for example, bears no similarity to the original diamond pattern of eight by eight threads in shades of brown, introduced in about 1909. Others prefer to rebrand the existing – perhaps changing the overcheck or introducing a few new colours – and some tweeds, such as Allangrange and Flichity, are newly created.
What is clear is that wearing outdoor clothing cut from the finest tweeds is still as practical, in this age of Gore-Tex and Lycra, as it is fashionable.
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