Celebrating Scotland’s Crafts

July 2000

Publication: The Times

Demonstrating its continuing commitment to exhibiting the highest quality work from contemporary makers, the Royal Museum is currently showing a major touring exhibition which celebrates traditional crafts in Scottish.  Weaving, knitting, spinning and basketry are all represented as are the crafts of boat-building, chair-making and the highly specialised and intricate art of making shepherds’ crooks.

The work comes from all areas of Scotland, but there is a stronger emphasis on the highlands and islands where, perhaps inevitably, these traditional skills have been retained longer than in other regions.  Many of these crafts are deeply rooted in the past and are important ways of gaining insights into the traditional societies from which they derived.  A guiding principle for the making of many objects — many of which combine the functional with the decorative — was, and still is, the use of locally available material.  The Orkney and Shetland high-backed chair is a case in point — the woven back is still derived from oat straw, and while the wood at one point was the fruit of the beach-comber, it is now largely imported.  These chairs are now exported world-wide and marketed via the internet.

The most arresting exhibit — because of it scale and immediate visual impact — is a traditional 7 metre Shetlandic “Ness Yoal”, which has been built in situ over the past few weeks by master boat-builder, Ian Best.  These beautiful, sinuous and elegant ‘clinker-built’ boats have a Norse lineage and bear a great resemblance to the Norwegian ‘Oselvar’, still traditionally built today in the Norwegian fjords.  Originally, when Shetland was under Norse rule, these boats were imported, but punitive taxation drove the Shetlanders to establish an indigenous industry.  Because the particular tradition had all but died out in Shetland, Best trained in the Norwegian Trebåtbyggjarskulen (boat building school) for three years and brought his newly acquired skills back to Fair Isle where he now has a workshop.

Another fascinating example of the use of locally available and indigenous material is the dying of wool.  Dyes  were and still are made from a variety of plant sources, such as myrtle, thistles, nettles and ‘crotal’ or lichen.  Crotal, for example,  is traditionally scraped from the rocks, nowadays with a specially modified metal spoon, where half the bowl has been cut away.  The individual colours, although highly distinctive, are nevertheless subtle and delicate, resulting in the ‘earthy’ tones used in much traditional tweed-making and in many woollen goods. 

Some of these makers represent the last in a long lineage in their respective traditions, and it now seems that much of this ancient knowledge will be lost, recorded only in books, photographs or orally. This exhibition is, therefore, a highly welcome initiative which demonstrates the important place these crafts have in the cultural life of Scotland.  Hopefully, it will inspire others to take up these practices and restore skills, before they are irretrievably lost.


Celebrating Scotland’s Crafts

Royal Museum

Chambers Street


Until July 30

Tel 0131 247 4219

Touring to


Fraserburgh, Museum of Scottish Lighthouses

August September 2000 tel. 01346 511022


Stirling, MacRobert Arts Centre

September-October 2000, tel 01786 467155


Portree, An Tuireann Arts Centre

Noveember-December 2000, tel 01478 613306


Highland Region (Inverness, Wick, Thurso, Kingussie)

March - June 2001 tel 01463 237114


St Andrews, Crawford Arts Centre

July - August 2001, tel 01334 474610


Scottish Borders (Hawick, Peebles)

September-October 2001, tel 01750 20096


Dumfries, Gracefield Arts Centre

November 2001, tel 01387 262084


Published in The Times, Around the Galleries,  26-07-00