Made in Scotland
Tradition with twist
Forget the twee images of heather, bagpipes and tartan. A new generation of innovators are putting a contemporary spin on our traditional products and artforms. Karin Goodwin meets them
Think of Scotland’s most famous traditional exports and what comes to mind? While in reality they may now be as diverse as the people living within its boundaries, Scotland still sometimes struggles to escape the clichés – tartan, whisky, misty landscapes, knitted woolies, and of course, the bagpipes.
But a whole generation of innovators are working hard to keep our best kent exports and skills alive and kicking. From stylish knitwear to camouflage kilts, rejuvenated traditional recipes, modern approaches to farming or tourism and whisky blends that refuse to be limited by the old school rule book, The List catches up with the people bringing our heritage bang up to date.
Job Founder and director of knitwear company Tait & Style, Orkney
Twist Combines island craft techniques with needle punch industry.
A visit to a Huddersfield textile factory seems unlikely to be life changing. But it was indeed there, while taking the yarn-spinning course that was part of her BA course at Middlesex Polytechnic, that Orkney-born Ingrid Tait had her eureka moment.
The needle punch machine – used to make a felt-like fabric from unspun wool – caught her eye from across the room and, though the material it made was crude, she was intrigued. ‘At lunchtime I bought some scarves at the market that I wanted to put through the machine. Nobody had ever done anything like that and the technician was quite sceptical but the results were amazing.’
Within months Liberty had put in an order for 60 scarves and Tait was designing for Paul Smith and Whistles while still studying at the Royal College of Art in London. Soon after, her company Tait & Style was born.
A combination of tradition and innovation has always been implicit in her work. After a long stint in the capital she came home more than a decade ago, and was inspired by bright Fair Isle patterns, Shetland techniques and yarns, using island-based knitters for her handcrafted work. She now sells her work online and will soon open a new shop in Kirkwall. She explains: ‘I don’t like anything to be too traditional – to be staid or pasty – I avoid that at all costs. I’m looking for modern clean lines but not at the expense of technique and I love to mix it up. That’s how things develop.’
Job Director of NVA, Glasgow
Twist Re-envisaging the Scottish landscape
‘The problem with the traditional romantic presentation of the landscape,’ says Angus Farquhar (pictured above and onsite, right), ‘is that it is seen as a kind of fake wilderness. It locks people out.’ In his work as an environmental artist he aims to let them back in. When he formed his site-specific events company NVA in the late 80s, its focus was on the urban. But in 1998, everything changed with Secret Signs – a night gorge walk using light, sound and special effects, set in the dramatic ‘Devil’s pulpit’ in Finnich Glen, near Drymen, a mystical place with druidic origins, which covenanters once used as a secret meeting place.
‘The emotional reaction was so strong that it seemed obvious that we were opening a rich seam,’ says Farquhar. ‘People really wanted this.’
More landscape-based work followed including the Path in Glen Lyon and the Storr in Skye. He is currently working on ambitious Argyll-based project Half Life with the National Theatre of Scotland. His work is an attempt to connect with the real landscape – warts and all – rather than the idealised misty mountains and glens projected by tourist agencies. He says, ‘It’s important to represent a different Scotland to the world.’
Job Founder and director of Super Jam, Edinburgh
Twist Created a healthy ‘super food’ alternative from his gran’s jam recipe
Fraser Doherty’s gran got him started on his great passion for jam, serving up her homemade recipes on scones and home-baked bread, before teaching him how to make his own when he was 14. Immediately, he was hooked.
‘It might seem like a strange thing to be passionate about but I find the whole process – the fact that you can just take fruit and sugar and boil it up together – just amazing,’ he says.
Within a couple of years he was producing up to 1000 jars a week in his parents’ kitchen, selling them everywhere, from markets to church fetes, before realising he needed to expand.
‘The idea for Super Jam came to me because I’d been thinking about what an old-fashioned image jam had,’ he explains. ‘Sales were falling and people saw it as sugary and industrialised. I wanted to create something more modern – I wanted to save jam.’
He set out to create a more health conscious product using grape juice as a sweetener and fruits known for their antioxidant properties like cranberries and blueberries. In February this year he won an initial 120,000 jar contract with Waitrose and his Super Jam, with its fresh, modern labels now sells up and down the country.
Ultimately, Doherty, who is also studying business at Strathclyde University, would love to see Super Jam become a household name. ‘It would be great to take our jam to an international market too,’ he admits, ‘and show that Scotland is taking an innovative approach to the most traditional of products.’
Job Founder of 21st Century Kilts, Edinburgh
Twist Creates kilts from PVC, leather, snake-skin and camouflage fabric
In many ways it was the everyday act of a rebellious teenager. When Howie Nicholsby was 18, he refused to wear the traditional kilt that his family – owners of Geoffrey Tailor Kilts – had been wearing for generations to his older sister’s wedding. What he did next was less typical. He ran himself up a silver snakeskin number for the big day. It was exciting, fun, and went down so well that he began to wonder – could this be more than a one-off?
So, in 1999 he launched 21st Century Kilts, a company offering alternatives to the traditional tartan outfits for the modern man. His designs were a hit and were snapped up by the likes of Robbie Williams, Sean Connery and Vin Diesel. ‘I think the most far out thing I’ve ever designed is a see-through pink PCV kilt, which is worn with a sporran,’ says 29-year-old Nicholsby. ‘It was pretty crazy.’
Other creations are available in denim, leather and some are more subtle. ‘We created the suit kilt, which comes in plain black, pinstripes or checks,’ he says. ‘My favourite kilt material just now is hemp, which I wore for my own wedding recently. It’s so sustainable – it could change the world.’
But at the heart of all this innovation, he claims he has a deep and genuine respect for tradition.
‘I still love measuring a man for a traditional Prince Charlie outfit,’ he admits. ‘It’s all about the quality. I wouldn’t have been able to make PVC kilts if I hadn’t understood how the traditional one was made first.’
Job Piper and founder of the Finlay MacDonald band, Glasgow
Twist Brings jazz, funk and dance grooves to Scottish jigs and reels
Finlay MacDonald, 28, has been surrounded by Scottish traditional music for as long as he can remember. ‘My family were always at festivals or with people playing music,’ he says. ‘We just lived and breathed it.’
He was ten when he asked his dad, the leader of Glasgow’s Neilson division pipe band to teach him, and has never looked back. As a student at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama he really started to mix things up. He explains: ‘I played with lots of different people, experimenting with some of the jazz players or classical, creating different tracks and backings.’
From those early experiments emerged the Finlay MacDonald band – a blend of pipes, fiddle, guitar, drums and bass combining funk and jazz grooves with traditional and contemporary folk tunes. MacDonald hopes it’s helping to broaden people’s horizons. ‘Scottish folk music seems to be coming into its own,’ he says. ‘There is a realisation that the pipes are not just a gimmick or the preserve of a guy in a kilt outside Edinburgh castle.’
‘There is a general pro-Scotland feeling just now and the music is a huge part of that – it’s our heritage. But that doesn’t mean it can stand still. It’s taking in new influences and that drives it forward.’
Job Artist and basket weaver, Edinburgh
Twist Creates decorative art works using traditional weaving techniques
When Anna King was growing up her father would tell her the gruesome story of the Well of Seven Heads, off the shores of Loch Oich, every time they passed the spot renowned for its history of clan violence. Decades later she took those childhood fears as a starting point and wove a freeform basket work called the Seven Heads, inspired by the legends and landscape. ‘That’s the thing about traditions you pick up as a child,’ she says. ‘They stay with you.’
Training at Aberdeen and then Edinburgh art schools, King started weaving tapestries before discovering basketwork just over a decade ago. Its rich heritage immediately appealed. ‘There is a fantastic tradition of basket making in Scotland. Every region had a different way of making baskets according to what was available, from willow to heather or scrubby bush. There are still some good traditional basket makers in the country. And some of us are using those traditional techniques in new, different ways.’
King’s Baskets, which can be seen in her retrospective at the National Museum of Scotland, are about beauty rather than function. She aims to escape the perception of weaving as a ‘couthy craft’. ‘It can be chic too,’ she laughs. ‘It doesn’t need to be hairy tweed and lumpy jerseys. I’m trying to make work that is relevant to today. That’s important because once you lose the tradition, the skills are gone forever.’
Job Founder of Compass Box Whisky, London
Twist Combines quality malts to create blends in the style of new world wines
In 1994, Glaser, whose background was in wine making and marketing, found himself falling in love. ‘It was a cold, damp February morning and I was standing in the Taliskar warehouse on Skye drinking from a litre beaker which had been pulled straight from the cask when I realised this was the stuff for me,’ remembers American-born Glaser. Right away he understood the passion that whisky inspired in people. But he couldn’t get his head round why blended whiskies had for decades been seen as second rate.
He set out to change that, starting to blend his own concoctions in his kitchen. In 2001 he launched Compass Box and his whiskies – full bodied blends with names like Hedonism, Peat Monster and Flaming Hear – have won award after award.
‘Coming from the US and the wine industry I guess I felt a certain freedom to do things in a more personal way and in one more akin to our entrepreneurial nature,’ he says. ‘Whisky can be more than people think,’ he explains. ‘It’s not just about single malts made in Highland glens for hundreds of years – that’s part of it – but it can be even more. And if the way that we present whisky to the world attracts more people, then we’ve achieved our aim.’
Job Owns and runs Cream O’ Galloway and Rainton Farm, Dumfries and Galloway
Twist Combines traditional farming methods with a modern approach
Rainton Farm had been in the Findlay family for generations when it was handed down to Wilma’s husband David in 1994. Like many Scottish farms at that time, it was struggling to survive. Now, thanks to the modern approach of the Finlays, it is one of the country’s most successful, the base of the famous Cream O’ Galloway ice-cream and an acknowledged tourist attraction in its own right.
Key to their success was the decision to concentrate on producing ice-cream, rather than settling for milk production, and the approach was innovative. From the outset Wilma used fair trade ingredients such as coffee and sugar, and in September she will launch a fully fair traded range. Meanwhile her husband converted to organic farming methods, and was amazed at how age-old techniques such as crop rotation and herbal remedies for the live stock instead of modern drugs, increased yields and improved animal welfare.
‘It’s a huge improvement, made possible by going back to the old management techniques that our forbearers would have used, but with the advantage of better scientific knowledge,’ says Wilma.
As well as a visitors centre, shop and café, the couple run nature trails. Wilma says, ‘When we set up one of our main objectives was to show people what farming could be. I think many people are just so disconnected from the land that they have no idea how their food reaches their plate. ’ The couple are doing their part to address that.