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Jul 21, 2024

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Book review


The Crafts in Scotland 1950-1990 A Golden Age by Alan Keegan

An ArtWork Special from Famedram


SO GOOD that Famedram have published this swansong from Alan Keegan, a long-standing friend of ArtWork and its predecessor, Craftwork. It's a very personal take on the story of the crafts in Scotland over half a century from 1950, and how they helped its image as a part of the United Kingdom, but also a place apart.

This was a time when the world rediscovered the glories of a country of Highlands and Islands, empty roads, azure seas, Munros, stags, whisky galore, great performances at the Edinburgh Festival, and that shipbuilding behemoth Glasgow reinventing itself as not just City of Culture, but the birthplace of Craftwork, and its famous successor, of course!

No doubt that global tourism has been a boon to Scotland, be it Japanese heading for Doune Castle in search of Monty Python's Hand Grenade of Antioch, or well-heeled golfers desperate to sink a putt at St Andrews famous XIXth!

Wherever they went, canny entrepreneurs like Alan were there already, spotting opportunities to promote Scottish crafts and create new markets. It's an impressive list, and you never know where Alan's going to take you next in this book.

Alan interweaves his personal story with chapters describing a wide range of crafts, makers, promoters and supporters.

Much of the book is devoted to reminiscing about particular craftforms like pottery, textiles, glass, metal and wood, or to individual practitioners. Together they produced interesting, high quality work in their time, several decades ago now, so that, inevitably, the book has a dated feel. Great for the cultural historian though, including listings under chapter headings at the end with useful links to other articles and publications, and Appendices covering Art Colleges, Craft Workshops, Craft Communities and Cooperatives, plus no fewer than 18 acronyms embracing Government Agencies, and Advisory Bodies. An index would have been useful, given the range of makers and other subjects.

First attracted to traditional crafts when working as an accountant in India, Alan took early retirement to run an antiquarian bookshop in Newtonmore, just west of Kingussie in the heart of the Highlands, in 1962, quickly adding Caithness Glass, Castlewynd Pottery and Lotte Glob's unique stoneware to his wares, before changing its name to The Book and Craft Shop.

Hooked now, he gave up on books to invest in Castlewynd Studios in 1964. Fast forward to 1975, and he's at Aviemore Craft Village, in the Cairngorms, home of "Santa Claus Land", no less and, soon "The Monster Shop", featuring ceramic sculptural replicas of Nessie's famous humps. But be warned! One blink to down a wee dram and they've disappeared off the Ercol sideboard – clever or what?

Great money-spinners, local, handmade, using natural materials, and with an unquestionably Scottish raison d'etre. Albeit raising awkward questions like, what are crafts, and what are they for, in these days of mass, factory-made manufacturing?

Bernard Leach, writing in 1972, in the introduction to Soetsu Yanagi's classic, The Unknown Craftsman, A Japanese Insight into Beauty, acknowledges that "the facts have to be faced concerning the future of craftsmanship anywhere within an industrial civilisation. Before the age of science and modern industry, crafts used to spring out of the hearts and hands of man. If, however, handcraftsmanship ceases to serve a functional need, it runs the risk of becoming art for art's sake, and untrue to its nature."

The problem, I suggest, is that our way of life has changed and been changed by industrialisation and technology, resulting in more than 80% of people living in cities, disconnected not just from nature but from natural materials and handmade artefacts.

Understandable that we long to re-connect with an imagined past when life was not nasty, brutish and short, but rather simple, idyllic, beautiful, and long. A time when things were made with care, by hand, in small quantities, with skill, using simple tools and local materials, for a purpose; to keep warm, or look beautiful, or carry things in, or eat from.

They were anonymous. Making wasn't just necessary, it was fulfilling, creative, and had what some would call a spiritual element. Leach writes of "The function of true beauty in life", of "Our disbelief for lack of wholeness", and that "work done with heart and hand is ultimately worship of Life Itself, not an expression of the maker alone, but of a degree of enlightenment wherein infinity, however briefly, obliterates the minor self."

It reminds me of an Irish potter making sanitary ware, drainpipes, who put on his jacket and tie and went to work in a real "manufactory" (ie handmade), put on his apron, and used his considerable skill to make the same huge turned shapes, again and again, on the wheel, each individually hand- thrown. Artist? No. Craftsman? Certainly.

So, what is craft? Time to go back to the dictionary. It's revealing: "an activity involving skill making things by hand", or "skill used in deceiving others". What if both, or either, or, worse, neither?

I take a detour to stroll down Edinburgh's Royal Mile. It's sunny, but frosty. I need to watch my step. I check out Tam o'Shanter wigs, shortbread (artisan baked), whisky, bagpipes, haggis, and tartan. But what if the tartan is "bespoke to your pattern" with a provenance like Clan McJones, unregistered, and manufactured in a Chinese factory? I blame Sir Walter Scott. For what? Faux- Scotchness, that's what. A slippery slope indeed!

Meanwhile, back in 1976, Alan opened The Hamart Shop in Aviemore, referencing "winter-made" things, all exclusively Scottish, and extending its range to whisky, shortbread, and Baxter's soups. He shut up shop in 1984 as rival all-in-one stopovers on the A9, that great tourism artery from Edinburgh to John o'Groats, undercut his trade, returning to Newtonmore to take on The Tweed Shop and, yes, Whisky Galore, a mail-order business specialising in miniature whiskies. Indefatigable, Alan then became a partner in a new enterprise, the Old School Shop in Inverdruie, on the Rothiemurchus Estate, specialising in designer knitwear, until 1992 when he "retired" to spend more time climbing Munros, studying for Open University courses, and backpacking round Europe. It's never too late to release the inner adventurer! Anything else? Of course, I nearly forgot to mention his setting up of a screen-printing workshop in his garden shed, as you do.

Clearly a remarkable man, it's good to have this record of Alan Keegan's contribution to the development of the crafts in Scotland over half a century, and to be reminded of all those who made that "Golden Age" possible.



NORTHERN BOOKS FROM FAMEDRAM It's a half price offer with quote AW231 (usually £35/£25)

The Crafts in Scotland 1950-1990
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