Joe Gibbs: The sisters in tweed who ran the iconic Campbell’s of Beauly

Joe Gibbs pays tribute to the late Miriam and Catriona, the formidable sisters who made Campbell's of Beauly famous.

In this troubled and uncertain world, another soothing prospect has dropped into wistful remembrance. There was a time — it felt more like an age, so far back did it seem to stretch into the past — when every Sunday morning in the village of Beauly, near Inverness, just before 11am, two sisters could be seen making their way arm in arm across the square to the Roman Catholic church of St Mary’s. One tiny and bird-like, the other taller, they stepped out in all weathers for hebdomadal communion with their Maker, clad in their Sunday best.

Neither sister made much concession to fashion post-1950. They wore tightly pleated tweed skirts, tartan plaids or blanket scarfs, held in place by a ferocious grouse-claw brooch, and their coiffure and maquillage were always perfection. Nodding to friends, they were an elegant and much-loved institution. Then came a day when the unimaginable happened. After so many years, after lifetimes, two figures crossing the square became one. And now, at last, since the death of Catriona, none.

Together with their brother James, who is happily still with us, Miriam and Catriona ran the much-celebrated Campbell’s of Beauly tweed house. Now under new ownership that doffs a smart tweed cap to the past as it embraces the present, the business remains a popular destination for those seeking elegant Highland apparel. The Campbell siblings were reared in the trade by their father, Bobby, and such was their success that there can hardly be an estate in the North that has not had its stalkers and keepers encased in Campbell’s estate tweeds.

A stream of international customers still makes an annual pilgrimage to cross the threshold of its antiquated broad brown shopfront, passing into a dim interior that has an air of hushed reverence. Woollens in more hues than a Farrow & Ball colour chart and checked tweeds up the walls serve to soften sound. Time stands still as ladies in skirts teeter on ancient wooden ladders to fetch bales of cloth from the high tops.

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Many of these pilgrims came to see Catriona, among them the late A. A. Gill, that journalist and commentator with decided opinions on gentleman’s clothing, who once wrote that ‘nothing else that comes from this pathetically stunted island has had anything like the universal acceptance, reach or influence of the suit’.

Even when he was desperately ill with terminal cancer, Mr Gill made his annual visit to commission a new country suit from Catriona. Perhaps he sought an element of restraint in his sartorial adventuring. He was wont to encourage his tailors to run away with things, admitting: ‘I’m frightened of my innate vanity. I mean: suits lined with scarves? Even I know the warning signs. I could quite easily end up in a tiny Playboy mansion, all on my own.’ One imagines that the diminutive but firm Catriona would have kept him reined in and that the brown paper parcels tied up with string would have held nothing more outré than plus-twos rather than fours.

The wardrobes here are stuffed with my forebears’ patched and threadbare tweed suits with the curlicue script of a Campbells label. The linings of my own suits that Catriona has passed across to me since boyhood are reassuringly muted. May the wonderful Campbell sisters rest in peace and exchange their wooden steps for the golden ladder to paradise. Although, in the Highlands, no one would be surprised to hear tell of them walking through the square again one fine Sunday morning.