The Weavers from Fife
Like many other places, Fife in the early 19th century was a place of great change. The Howe of Fife was a poorly drained boggy area of poor unproductive land on which only one crop, Flax, was able to thrive. So, since before the sixteenth century the production of linen cloth had been the main source of employment locally. But change was coming.
The late 18th century had seen the machanisation of spinning and and it's transformation from a cottage industry to be based in factories in Dundee, Glasgow and Kirkcaldy. 1807 saw steam power introduced to spinning, then in 1815, French prisoners from the Napoleonic War were used to drain the bogs of central Fife and more profitable crops could be introduced. Supplies of flax now had to be imported , initially from Russia then later from the Netherlands and the weaving side of the industy started to gravitate towards the coast at Kirkcaldy.
Initially, change was slow. In 1838 it was estimated that there were 85,000 hand looms operating in Scotland of which 26,00 were for linen production, mainly in Fife and Forfarshire (the county now known as Angus). Life for the weavers was hard as can be seen from the following extract from an account of Kettle parish written in 1836.
"MANUFACTURES.-There are 378 hand-looms in the parish, ninetenths of which are employed in weaving a kind of linen called Dowlas, and one-tenth in weaving window-blinds. The average value of linen per loom in the year is about £51 ; and the average wages in the week is about 4s. 6d. A moderately steady hand will make 5s. 8d. a week, and the value of his work will be £72 ; a few of the best hands will receive considerably more. Within these three or four years, a good deal of work has come into the parish from Newburgh, a port on the Frith of Tay; and from other places, a good deal of work also goes out from this to other parishes, but not so much as comes into it; and the increase of work within the last 120 years is reckoned about 30 per cent. Many young women as well as men employ themselves on the loom. Elder women and widows are generally employed in winding pirns; but for these there is a great want of employment since the lint-wheel failed them. We have smiths, carpenters, wrights, and masons, sufficient for the parish, and for helping our neighbours, and one medical gentleman.
PROVISIONS and MARKETS.-From the vicinity of the metropolis, and a great many coast towns, provisions are commonly kept at the Edinburgh prices. At present we have neither flesher, baker, brewer, writer, stipendiary constable, nor exciseman in the parish. With butcher-meat we are supplied from Cupar, six miles distant, or from Freuchie, in the parish of Falkland, a mile and a-half distant. Carts every day come from Cupar with excellent bread. Beer is brought from Freuchie or Letham, in the parish of Monimail.
POOR.-The poor on the roll for monthly supply are 30 in number at present, besides others who need occasional supplies. Our collections at the church are only about £20 or £21 a-year, and the heritors contribute about £100.
INNS ETC.-ln the parish we have 10 houses licensed to retail excisable spirits, etc. 5 along the thoroughfare road, 4 in the village of Kettle, and 1 in the Coalton of Burnturk. "
March 1836 (Rev. Peter Barclay D.D., Minister)
In that parish at that time was the family of David Wishart. David, a thirtysix year old hand loom weaver, had married Isabella Clement in neighbouring Auchtermuchty on 25th March 1827. By 1836 their family had grown to include 8 year old son Alexander, 6 year old son John and 3 year old daughter Elspet(h). The census of 1851 finds them together in the village of Kettlebridge with David and the three children (now aged between 22 and sixteen) all working as hand loom linen weavers.
There were other changes in Fife at this time. In 1847 the railway opened linking this area to Edinburgh and the south (via Ferry at Queensferry - the Forth Railway Bridge was not built until 1890). For a short while this helped sustain the ailing linen weaving by bringing in raw materials and carrying finished product to market. Eventually Alexander and John give up the struggle to earn a living wage and move to find work in the new shipyards of Newcastle on Tyne (both marrying there in 1856). Their sister Elspeth also travels south, marrying in Edinburgh in 1861. David and Isabella hang on to the only life they have ever known in Kettle, still there in the 1861 census but by 1871 they are gone, whether dead or moved is not known.