Both inside and outwith Scotland, tartan is surely one of the main symbols that would be seen as distinctively Scottish and it’s no surprise then that it features strongly when we look at the souvenirs on offer in certain shops. I’m fond of it myself though I wish more folk wore it on casual occasions and there was a bit less of the daft formality of wedding outfits for example. Just what are those laced-up-the-ankle shoes and silver-buttoned kilt jackets that bridegrooms wear about? And I don’t care for that shawl-type thing over one shoulder that Mel Gibson was wearing at the “Braveheart” premiere, which is now becoming all too common. I suppose it’s meant to be a remnant of the feileadh mor that the modern kilt originated from but to me it’s of a piece with the jacket and the shoes. (Don’t get me started on the spelling of the Slanj Kilts business! I know that’s phonetic but it should be written as Slainte, with an accent above the “a”.) I think the kilt on a man looks best with hiking boots and a hairy jersey, or with a tweed jacket for a formal occasion, though I prefer if folk steer clear of Royal Stewart or Black Watch. Wearing it Tartan Army-style with a t-shirt or Scotland top is also acceptable in my sight. Karen Gillan wore her tartan well when she was leading off the recent parade in New York, teaming her kilt with a t-shirt and an aviator-type jacket; she didn’t look as if she was auditioning for a remake of Brigadoon.
Though it’s been put about that the kilt was invented by Sir Walter Scott for the 1822 visit to Scotland of George IV, it has a much longer history. From about the early 16th century it was the feileadh mor or the belted plaid that was worn: a piece of woven cloth like a blanket which was wrapped round the body and belted at the waist with the upper section pinned at the shoulder to keep it secure. The feileadh beag which came a bit later was like the bottom half of the plaid and was more or less the modern kilt.
In 2020, John Purser had two very informative articles in The National about tartan. First of all, his “The chequered history of Scotland’s tartans” was published on 24 April and he followed that up with “Was it really an Englishman who invented the kilt?” on 2 May. In the first article, he went back as far as 500BC on Loch Tay, then on to 200AD in Falkirk so the twill weave was in place long before the Gaels came to Scotland. In the latter article, he refers to poems of Duncan Ban McIntyre and William Ross which celebrated the repeal in 1782 of the Act which had banned traditional Highland dress in 1746 – so much for it all starting in 1822! He also takes aim at Hugh Trevor-Roper and some of his followers for promulgating fictions about Highland Scotland for political reasons. Both articles can also be found on muckrack.com
Purser suggests that the word “tartan” may be from tarsainn, meaning across / over in Gaelic though a word of French origin tiretaine has also been suggested. Teartane and tertane were early 16th century spellings. Anyway, the earliest written record of the word is from the Accounts of the Treasurer of Scotland 1532 / 33: “Ane uthir tartane galcoit (coat) gevin to the king be the Maister Forbes” (from Scots word of the week in The Herald on 9 April).
The second word in my title is very useful if you’re a judgemental person like me and I was previously on about it near the end of Return to Turadh . When pronouncing trock, mind and roll the “r” and extend the “o” (aw) as much as you can to show maximum disapproval. My copy of The Concise Scots Dictionary has it with a variety of spellings and several different definitions but I know and love it as meaning “any worthless or rubbishy goods; insubstantial trash” and found from Shetland to Dumfries.
I was in Glasgow recently and walked up and down Sauchiehall Street. Oh dear me, what a state it’s in but other folk have written about what’s happened to it and what could or should be done. Several years ago I’d noticed some of these cheap souvenir shops starting to open up and wondered where the stuff was coming from and who was buying it. Edinburgh’s got far, far more of them but also far more tourists.
In The Pound Shop pictured above, there was no information at all on a lot of the labels (Is that legal?) but I found “Made in China” on some of them. If all the items in the picture above are on sale for £1, what must the workers have been paid and what on earth will their conditions be like? How long will it be before 90% of it ends up in landfill or in the ocean? How much carbon was put into the atmosphere in getting it all here? And why do I feel my toes curling just looking at it?
I Heart Glasgow just a few doors further up had some items labelled as designed and distributed in Scotland but made in PRC – People’s Republic of China. Mugs with a picture of the traffic cone on the Duke of Wellington’s napper were “Made in China” – I doubt if the workers there had any time to look at the image and wonder what it was about. There were tartan ties, woven in Scotland, and polyester kilts and waistcoats, glengarry bonnets, Harris Tweed bags, books about clans from Lang Syne publishers. Tartan House of Scotland, Tartan Threads and House of Tweed had their products in the shop but a lot of stuff was marked Awnhill Ltd which is a wholesaler based in Northolt, Middlesex calling itself online the “leading supplier of souvenir stock and bespoke souvenirs to the Tourism industry”.
By way of a diversion for you now and for me on the day, I then spotted a man standing on the steps of a boarded up shop holding up a sign reading “Homemade Pakora £1”, the pakorae were behind him on a chair; his plastic tub was covered with a cloth which he unwrapped reverentially to fulfil my order. I was admiring his gumption, breaking my new two-meals-a-day rule and satisfying my cravings for spice all in a oner. He put 4 / 5 small ones onto a paper soup plate so I had to eat them there and then, although there’s little finer than eating them with a hot cup of tea. I was lucky cause just a few minutes later as I was on my way back down, I saw there were two community wardens or similar talking to him. The conversation looked friendly enough but I guessed they were asking if he had a licence or if his kitchen had passed a Health & Safety Inspection. He got on his mobile phone and handed it to one of them, maybe showing them pictures, but it was obviously no go, so he picked up his chair and set off obediently up the street. I didn’t have time though to check whether he set up round the corner in Cambridge Street.
I was watching this from outside Candy Wars which looked new. It wasn’t in the tartan business, but there was trock galore on the shelves: sugary cereals, fudge-covered pretzels, slushees, rock candy, twinkies, cheetos, hersheys etc etc. We have more than enough sugary rubbish of our own so don’t need to import more from the USA, and nor do I want the usage of “candy” to become widespread here – it does my head in on Duolingo as a translation of suiteas. I was just thinking to myself “Good, it’s empty” when a group of seven teenagers went in.
My last stop in Sauchiehall was at the vast Gifts 4 U. My hackles were up at the spelling before I stepped inside and it was everything I had anticipated. I found red buses with “Scotland” painted on the side. These were made in China but where do we have red buses in Scotland? They’ll be making millions for the London tourist market and doing a few thousand of them in the same factory for offloading here to gullible tourists. I’d seen this bus before in Edinburgh and it’s the item that first put up my blood pressure and started me off on all this ranting. It was gratifyingly quiet in there too and the lassie from the till, either very bored or on watch for shoplifters, came to ask if she could help me. I began a conversation about red buses and Scottish souvenirs being made in China but she started picking up stuff at random to find me things that were not made in China which they did have. Luckily for me, two American women came in and she went to see to them while I went on round with my notebook and my critical attitude.
However there are a few points of light:
The Mackintosh at the Willow restaurant has a gift shop; it’s quite pricey and maybe not a kick in the pants away from Mockintosh with a few of its offerings but I wasn’t shaking my head with the shame of it all. Before lockdown, I ate a couple of times in the restaurant with first Rama and then My Favourite Niece and they both said they liked the interior. I didn’t manage to get them into the museum bit upstairs though. I went back on my own and enjoyed it, though the entry charges would be very expensive for a family. I nodded approvingly at Kate Cranston’s preference for giving jobs to orphan girls or those from single-parent families. At the end of their training, all the poor lassies had to successfully serve her and her husband in the tearoom before their employment was confirmed. I can imagine the shaking hands and the rattling of crockery on the tray before their ordeal was over.
I headed south to the clydeside collective in St Enoch Centre where I found out they were no longer doing free coats for the needy; I should have asked why. They’ve got a range of the usual stuff: prints, cards, notebooks, jewellery, vegan soaps, handknitted scarves etc which appeared to be Scotland-made though I didn’t check every single one of them. I liked their framed tapestry pictures: “Please don’t do coke in the bathroom”, and one about what women wanting being “fundamental human rights and dresses with pockets”. They had second-hand records, handmade candles in old teacups and saucers, and cakestands made from three mismatched plates and I loved their birds, animals and insects made from old cutlery by the husband of one of the workers. See photo below, though the wee birds are just barely seen inside the glass case.
By this time I was flagging a bit so I went back north, heading for a bus, and diverted into Visit Scotland in Buchanan Street. Here was your ‘better class’ of souvenir: cards, Scottish Fine Soaps, scarves, hats, Heathergems jewellery which is “crafted and designed in Scotland”, Gist Jewellery made in East Ayrshire, Leather Guild products from Helensburgh and others from Pewtermill Crafts which are made in Kilbirnie, Harris Tweed bags, Siabann soaps made in Alloa (who get a big tick from me for their Gaelic name properly-spelled) and other toiletries, Scotland-themed stuff from Julia Gash who’s described as a “British artist”. It was good to see them supporting and promoting smaller but almost entirely local businesses.
I’ve been swithering about including Tartan House of Scotland, also in Buchanan Street. I just had a quick wheech round noting the usual stuff: fudge, rock, Campbells shortbread (new one on me), books about clans and coasters with clan crests, scarves, gloves, tartan rugs etc etc. While there were Awnhill products galore, they also had jewellery “handmade with real flowers” but it was inside a locked cabinet and I didn’t want to raise their hopes of a sale by asking to see it, by way of finding out where it was from.
I’d been in the Skye Candles shop before and it’s already on my ‘Nice List’ so I gave it a by this time. Their base is in Broadford and as well as natural soya wax candles, they sell diffusers, soap, glasses and some toiletries. What I can afford are their car air fresheners and I go for the Juniper one which is a wee bit more authentically Skye than Oriental Lily or Mango or Sandalwood and Patchouli; they should go in for Whin or Dogrose or Seashore or something like that.
Finally I tottered into the Buchanan Galleries, trying to avert my gaze from the shiny pink horror that is the Victoria’s Secret shop (hope it’s first for the bulldozer). Born in Scotland is relatively new upstairs in the Galleries and is bright and airy. This is more like it, I thought. They’ve got Gillian Kyle products – can’t say I care for Tunnock’s teacakes but they feature largely in her work; there’s bags, mugs, coasters in the shop and she has a wider range online where she says that her business is “inspired by all things Scottish – from our native wildlife to Scotland’s favourite brands Tunnock’s and IRN- BRU”. She’s currently got a “Scotland Stands With Ukraine” range online with profits going to the DEC Ukraine Humanitarian Appeal.
This shop also has traditional stuff such as Highland Soaps and the aforementioned Skye Candles which you could take back to your grannie; other products are themed round popular culture such as The Broons and Still Game and there’s Bawbags underwear for men – coorsely but cleverly named. There’s a range of children’s books too. I’m always interested in the food section and wasn’t disappointed: Sarah Gray’s handmade jams from Arbroath, Brodies chocolates and teas, Island Bakery biscuits and Chrystal’s shortbread (which you could easily pass off as homemade if you were that way inclined). I liked the look of but didn’t buy any of their seriously expensive but fabulously flavoured Quirky Chocolate’s Scottish Collection chocolate bars: Cranachan with raspberry oats and whisky, Almond, raisin and orange Dundee cake and Butter tablet. (There’s a lot more flavours on their Edinburgh-based website where they have “sustainability, inclusivity and kindness at our heart” – they’d need to at that price.) What I did buy was a packet of Aberfeldy oatcakes as I thought they looked sufficiently rustic but when I checked later they’ve got wheat flour, palm oil and sugar in them; however, clarted with butter they turned out to be the very dab for a wee snack at 1 am during a night when sleep was evading me. I’m still mourning the loss of Patersons triangle oatcakes as nothing else I’ve found comes close.
The Scottish Design Exchange is just across from Born in Scotland and has been there for a few years now. There are prints, cards, clothing items but also other designer goods at the opposite end of the scale from trock: Christos – NTina, originally from Greece now living in Edinburgh, make delicate flowers and jewellery from brass and copper; Ageloss Glass create “glass with a twist inspired by the Scottish nature and culture” and they incorporate recycled glass, including old Buckfast bottles. I like how there is information on display about the different designers – see example below of a glass maker.
Their warning notice to shoplifters admonishes us : “When you steal from us, you are stealing from Scottish artists and designers……………Do not steal from these talented individuals.” I was tempted to write on a list of alternative sites where shoplifters should fill their boots.
Although thinking I was now heading home, I spotted a new place next door called Stag Gallery & Framers and couldn’t resist going in, not least because it looked restful to the eye. They have pictures by Georgina McMaster, Gerard Burns and Ron Lawson and on the back wall there were long, thin Scottish landscapes which I peered at very closely trying to determine if they were paintings or photographs. I thought maybe it was some new ultra-realistic painting technique, but on asking I was told they were photos and I felt a bit of an eejit.
After all this, I could only hope that visitors on a budget find something that’s at least made in Scotland as the cheap imported stuff comes at a cost to the environment, to our reputation and also surely to our sense of self.