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Growth in a Time of Crisis: The Seventeenth Century Scottish Linen Industry

The 1690s in Scotland are well-known for the Ill Years, a period of changing climatic and environmental conditions that saw several years of famine, dearth, and hardship for many in Scotland. Scotland was not alone as many places across the globe dealt with similar conditions during the height of the Global Little Ice Age. A significant part of this narrative of the Ill Years is the economic decline in Scotland that played a role in shaping discussions about union at the beginning of the eighteenth century. While this declensionist narrative of Scotland at the end of the seventeenth century has been particularly prevalent in the historiography, though with good reason, several industries still saw growth during the height of the Global Little Ice Age, especially those in linen, cattle, salt, and fishing. Scottish linen, for example, became one of Scotland’s most profitable export commodities during the 1690s, despite the poor climatic and environmental conditions of the Ill Years, which gave the linen industry a role in union discussions.


A colorful photograph shows up a close up of flax plants. There are several white clouds in the blue sky. Small purple flowers dot the tops of the flax's green stems.
A photograph of flax plants in June. Handwerker, 2010. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

For a number of reasons, including warfare, tariffs, distance, and environmental challenges, England was one of Scotland’s major trading partners by the 1690s. Unsurprisingly, Scottish merchants and traders saw their greatest growth in industries and commodities that England did not already control or possess in great numbers. Linen was one of those few commodities. Daniel Defoe posited that England greatly needed linen products, and claimed that it imported 1.2 million ells of linen products annually from Scotland by the beginning of the eighteenth century. Because of this market for Scottish produced linen goods, and with the encouragement of the Scottish Parliament, the linen industry and trade saw rapid growth during the 1690s. In 1693, for example, six new linen companies developed. The Scots Linen Company opened four new factories in 1695. Albeit a bit overzealous, another Scottish linen company claimed that with enough encouragement, Scottish linen could produce £1,000,000 sterling per year.


An old black and white drawing shows a formal portrait of a man wearing a large white wig and fancy clothes.
A wash drawing of William Paterson. J.H. Innes, 1920. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

William Paterson, founding member of the Bank of England and a central figure in the ill-fated Darien expedition, was a strong advocate for Scottish linen. He claimed that linen was one of a limited number of industries that could relieve Scotland of its financial troubles at the beginning of the eighteenth century. Scots had been growing flax on a small scale for some time before the end of the seventeenth century, but this was for personal use and had never grown to the level needed for an export trade of linen products. Paterson argued that Scots should plant their own lint seed to produce flax for linen products instead of importing it from the Netherlands. He noted that other cool places like Sweden and Denmark grew their own flax, suggesting that the Scottish climate might not have prevented its expansion.


Reconstructions of temperature and precipitation records allow us to test Paterson’s argument. Flax needs cooler and moist conditions to reach optimal growth. This includes more than 600mm of water during the growing season, and temperatures above 10 C (50 F). Flax also has a shorter growing season of roughly 100 days. While parts of the seventeenth century, including several years during the 1680s, would have supported large-scale flax growth, conditions during the Ill Years prevented this. Temperatures during the 1690s in Scotland averaged 1 to 2 C cooler than the 1961-1990 averages and likely limited flax growth to parts of the Scottish Lowlands. In addition, seasonal temperature and precipitation fluctuations played a much greater role in preventing flax growth during the 1690s. Seasonal temperature and precipitation indices from Cook et al. 2015, Luterbacher et al. 2004, and D’Arrigo et al. 2020 noted that Springs and Summers were abnormally dry and Autumns exceptionally moist. These conditions would have made flax growth a significant risk on an industrial scale. In sum, during the 1690s, when the Scottish linen industry began to take off, flax growing conditions prevented even more growth. However, by not relying upon Scottish grown flax, the linen industry had been able to significantly expand. Had it relied on Scottish grown flax, linen may also have suffered a similar fate as many other Scottish commodities.


By the beginning of the eighteenth century, linen exports became so profitable that contemporaries began discussing linen as a piece to use for union. Daniel Defoe and William Black, ardent opponents of each other, both agreed that a union would be advantageous to Scottish linen producers. George Ridpath, a journalist and another rival of Defoe, took this a step further and claimed that union would give Scotland access to the West Indies market and linen would be a part of that. William Seton, who would vote in favor of union, though for some complex reasons, called linen Scotland’s "great opportunity."


Although Union, specifically article VI, removed export duties on Scottish produced linen and provided Scots access to West Indies markets, linen did not become Scotland’s “great opportunity” until the 1730s. Even then, the flax for linen production was still imported. The growing conditions of the Global Little Ice Age continued playing a significant role in limiting the growth of this Scottish industry. Ultimately, the American Revolution and the rapid growth of the cotton industry signaled the end of linen’s dominance during this period.


 

Patrick J. Klinger is an environmental historian at Virginia Military Institute. His research focuses on weather, climate, and human-nature relationships within Scotland and the North Seas World during the early modern period. His manuscript project explores how climatic and environmental changes of the seventeenth century Global Little Ice Age shaped and influenced the Anglo-Scottish Union. His research has been funded by the Strathmartine Society, the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, and the Hall Center for the Humanities.

 

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