The Workers are the only Losers

The Scottish Turkey Red Industry in the Late Nineteenth Century

Sally Tuckett (University of Edinburgh)


At its peak in the second half of the nineteenth century, the Turkey red industry in Scotland employed thousands of workers and produced millions of yards of dyed and printed cotton fabrics a year. The Turkey red process produced a red dye which, when used on cotton cloth, was bright and resistant to washing and sunlight. Manufacturers in the Vale of Leven in the west of Scotland were leaders of the industry, transporting plain dyed and printed fabrics and yarns across the globe. The development of large factories in the Vale of Leven had a huge impact on the local area, changing the landscape and dramatically increasing the population. Despite these changes, however, the exotic destinations and purposes of the Turkey red fabrics (including cowboys’ bandannas for North America, saris for India and sarongs for the South Pacific) have tended to overshadow the conditions in which they were made and the lives of the people who produced them.

Contemporary commentators often noted the paternalistic attitudes of the owners of the Turkey red firms, citing the improved infrastructure of the area, the willingness of the owners to let workers have holidays and the general harmonious relationships between employers and workers. There is certainly evidence of this but it does little to help us understand the day-to-day working conditions or lives of those who laboured in these once extensive manufactories. The Turkey red process was notoriously complex; it involved many repetitive steps which were often dangerous, and required constant attention from the workforce, so much so that Turkey red manufacturers were exempted from the early Factory Acts which limited working hours. As such, skilled workers with knowledge of the processes involved were in high demand, and there is evidence that intimidation was used to prevent workers from leaving their employer for rival firms.

Using newspaper reports, treatises, private and business correspondence, and workers’ testimonies, this paper will examine the people behind the Turkey red industry, looking at working conditions, relationships with employers (including wage disputes) and the social impact of this massive industry and global trade on a small part of Scotland measuring just three square miles.


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