The Harris Tweed Authority is safeguarding not just an iconic artisan cloth, but heritage, culture and a way of life.

The stolid Stornoway Town Hall, overlooking the seagull-swarmed harbour on the island of Lewis, is an unlikely place to find a team of Scottish world-beaters. Here, in the wood-panelled offices and working museum with its hand-weaving looms, a small but determined force of seven, plus an unpaid local board and a digital detective agency in Edinburgh, are fighting every day to protect one of Scotland’s iconic industries.

Lorna Macaulay is the feisty chief executive officer of the Harris Tweed Authority, a unique business model created by UK statute to guard a distinct industry and a way of Outer Hebridean life. Macaulay’s position is also unique in the annals of British business history in that her job description is written into the statute.

Harris Tweed, that wonderful hand-woven cloth, is one of Scotland’s iconic global brands, up there with shortbread, Scotch whisky, Irn-Bru and Tunnock’s Caramel Wafers. But Harris Tweed is a notch above all these items because a unique piece of legislation, known as the Harris Tweed Act 1993, has done much to protect the name of this artisan cloth, and the goodwill surrounding it, over the last 30 years.

Macaulay says: “Thirty years ago, the Harris Tweed Act 1993 created the Harris Tweed Authority which ensures that every item and stitch that goes out from our mills and from our handloom weavers has a seal of approval and is only then granted the Harris Tweed Orb trademark.” A new Orb label has recently been created with the same anti-counterfeit security features, such as a hologram, that you might expect on modern plastic banknotes. These are the lengths that the authority must go to in protecting the heritage and to maximise sales for the island’s Harris Tweed mills.

Harris Tweed, once the staple of a million herring-bone sports jackets, including those agents in the CIA, in more recent times has graced supermodels on the catwalks of Paris, London and New York. It has become the preferred upholstery fabric for settees and bed throws in classy six-star global hotel groups, and even become a part of leisure footwear, including appearances on a Nike sports shoe and FootJoy golf shoes.

The cloth and the clothing was popularised during Victorian times. It was warm, hard wearing, flexible and more or less impervious to rain. It was popular with outdoor sports associated with the Highlands, including hunting, shooting and fishing. It was even worn on several early attempts to conquer Mount Everest. The gentry, somewhat patronisingly, wore Tweed because they also felt it was benefiting “the very poor people of the outlying islands of Scotland”.

 “A strange juxtaposition of romanticised benevolence and hard-headed, some might say hard-hearted, indifference to much that was happening in the Highlands seems to have characterised many of those whose leisure activities made them familiar with the area,” says Janet Hunter in her book, The Islanders and the Orb: The History of the Harris Tweed Industry 1835 to 1995.

Harris Tweed is not a mass-produced product but an artisan hand-woven cloth where the signature of individual weavers can be detected in the weft and weave of each individual piece. The Harris Tweed Authority is re-establishing this immense global cachet.

 “We are in a global world where counterfeiters are trying to pass off inferior cloth as Harris Tweed. Our constant battle is to remain vigilant and to try and educate consumers and let those who try to replicate Harris Tweed know that they will be challenged,” says Macaulay, who was born in Glasgow but returned to the island of her parents’ birth.

Why is Harris Tweed so special? Firstly, the cloth is sourced from virgin British wool, washed, dyed and spun in mills in the Outer Hebrides, and then woven by more than 140 individual handloom weavers working in their own premises throughout Lewis and Harris. It can be made only on the islands, and this is what the authority was set up to protect.

As the industry looks to 2024, one of the island’s largest mills says it has an order book until February 2024 and is about to announce a deal with a leading luxury fashion brand. There are three working Harris Tweed mills in operation today: Kenneth Mackenzie, opened in 1906 and owned by an islander in Stornoway; the Carloway Mill, the oldest on the islands and founded in 1892; and Harris Tweed Hebrides, the largest mill, based at Shawbost,  six miles from Carloway, out on the ruggedly beautiful west coast of the island.

Margaret Ann Macleod, chief executive of Harris Tweed Hebrides, which now produces around 60 per cent of the island’s woven material, was brought up in Carloway, where there was a handloom in the house. Her father was a weaver on the double-width loom which came in in 1995. European Union funding helped the industry transition to larger looms.

She studied textiles at the Scottish College of Textiles in Galashiels, now part of Heriot-Watt University, and worked in retail for major companies including Johnston’s of Elgin. She moved back to the island in 2005, working with Highland & Island Enterprise.

“There were no opportunities in the Harris Tweed industry when I graduated. The industry lost two generations coming into the industry. A lot of the new initiatives have come through the Harris Tweed Authority, which has helped with training, development and the re-emergence of the industry. It is hugely, hugely important. We are a very small industry but the power of the brand, owned by the Harris Tweed Authority, not owned by one mill or private entity, had undoubtedly saved the industry from utter collapse.”

Harris Tweed Hebrides was started in 2007 when Brian Wilson, the journalist and Labour politician, was able to persuade an international investor to put money into the mothballed mill. It is a famous local story in Lewis, of cigar-smoke meetings in Cuba where the then trade and industry minister encouraged inward investment.

The new company went from a zero start in 2007 when it bought the Shawbost mill, which despite valiant efforts had been derelict for two years. It has been a tortuous journey rebuilding the mill, the wider industry, bringing in new people with skills, and re-establishing the business. The Act’s protection has allowed Harris Tweed Hebrides to become a successful modern business. Today, the mill has a palette of 217 yarn colours which can be woven into a multitude of designs.

Norman Macdonald, the unpaid Harris Tweed Authority chairman and former convener of Western Isles Council’s economic development committee, believes the Act is one of the most significant pieces of legislation passed in Westminster. It has had a long-term impact on the islands’ economy.

“It was an extraordinary feat which cannot be over-estimated. The creation of the Harris Tweed Authority has allowed the industry and a way of life in the islands to be protected. We see ourselves as the custodians of a Hebridean way, which is weaving, crofting and fishing.”

It has ensured a future for mill workers, weavers and for those employed in the industry, making it the most significant private employer in the Western Isles.

Visiting Aneas MacLean, the 70-year-old former chairman of the Harris Tweed Weavers’ Association, in his weaving shed attached to his island home, he says the industry was on its knees when several politicians, including Wilson, and others pressed for protected status for Harris Tweed.

“We were within one generation of losing the vital skills unless something radical was done to protect the provenance of Harris Tweed. All credit to those who pushed for the Act of Parliament. However, we must continue to encourage young people to consider an island career in hand-loom weaving or, I fear, it will face further hard times ahead.”

Harris Tweed swims in a global market where there are many sharks. Legal protection has been critical, says Colin Hulme, a partner with Burness Paull in Glasgow, and it remains at the heart of defending the livelihoods. “We have a constant battle to protect the integrity of Harris Tweed in all kinds of markets. But we have a very close-knit team, and I’m regularly in touch with Lorna and the Authority in Stornoway, to tackle the challenges,” he says.

It was Hulme’s predecessor, Jim Maclean, now retired but a long-standing legal adviser to the authority, who fought for the legal attribution for Harris Tweed. Maclean was instrumental in lobbying for the act, given Royal Assent in July 1993, with Brian Wilson, then the MP for Cunninghame North, playing a pivotal role in encouraging its passage through parliament.

“I don’t really know what would have happened to Harris Tweed without Jim’s work and the Act of Parliament. He was deeply immersed in the legislation. He remained passionate about protecting the islands’ statutory rights to produce Harris Tweed,” says Hulme.  

1966 was a peak for Harris Tweed production with 7.6 million square yards woven. By 1985, after metric measures were introduced, it was 5.5 million square metres. By 2009, the industry was in a state of shock and only 450,000 square metres were woven. Lorna Macaulay said the producers did not want the industry to go down without a fight but there needed to be an end to the cycle of boom and bust.

“Commentators said it would be an act of unforgivable vandalism if the industry was just allowed to disappear. I agree with them, but we also need to build for a sustainable future.

“There was not a button we could simply press but Harris Tweed, as a concentrated industry, had to become smaller and better.”

The authority is paid a fee for every square metre produced. This allows the authority to ensure its ‘stampers’ authenticate each measure that is woven, but also protects the Orb mark against misuse and counterfeiters. Edinburgh-based Snap Dragon, a trade-mark protection and detection company, is part of the team scouring the market for those trying to infringe the Orb mark.

In her Stornoway office, Macaulay pulls out examples of where the brand has been abused. A Japanese magazine offered a free tote bag as a give-away, calling it Harris Tweed with a fake slither and label. Another quilted jacket sewn with a square of dubious material on the front and called Harris Tweed, was sold at a premium.

“These are the kind of infringements we are tackling each day. Of course, we don’t have the resources to go to court to fight every battle, but we are raising awareness of the value of Harris Tweed in markets where it is very popular.”

Protection measures can be complicated and the cost of hiring patent attorneys in foreign jurisdictions is prohibitive. “We try to have a cease-and-desist approach where we politely ask those breaching our mark to stop … and we explain what we are about.”

Today, Harris Tweed is in robust hands. It is the biggest employer on the islands of Harris and Lewis, and the industry is working to ensure apprenticeship schemes are developed to encourage people to stay and work on the islands.

“There is a fabulous group of young people on Lewis and Harris who love the place that they call home. We’ve got a brilliant local band, Peat & Diesel, who are taking the island’s rock music to new audiences. People are hearing about what is so special about this place. And Harris Tweed is an integral part of that story,” she says.