I’ve been wanting to illustrate and write about these 11 Inspiring and Iconic Scottish Brands for some time. In Scotland, we have a wealth of fantastic brands that any country in the world would be proud to claim as their own; yet another example of Scotland punching well above its weight.
As an artist, I relish the opportunity to take the deep dive and try to question why certain things have the impact and resonance they do. So, for this blog I set out to better understand the enduring appeal and popularity of this hand-picked selection of iconic Scottish brands; to explore what makes Scotland so wonderfully, well, Scottish!
But first, I’ll set out the rules I used to determine why some brands make the cut as ‘Inspiring and Iconic Scottish Brands ‘ and many don’t.
What makes a Scottish brand iconic?
1. Firstly, these brands all call Scotland home. For example, many years ago MacVities would have made this list but the controlling strings of management are now mainly south of the border.
2. Next, it’s got to be about much more than just the product itself. An iconic brand is an old and trusted friend – there for you through the good and bad – and I feel like I’m on first name terms with all of the brands in my list. These types of brands tend to be better insulated from the typical economic boom and bust cycles and as such, stand the test of time. The average age of my Iconic Brands selection is a mighty 144 years!
3. Finally (and perhaps most importantly), whilst you can take all of these brands out of Scotland – and indeed most have a larger following abroad than at home – you simply cannot take Scotland out of these brands. Ask yourself – could IRN-BRU or Baxters possibly have come from anywhere other than Scotland?
Baxters are big across many product segments – canned meat, jams, condiments and more – but as you know it’s their soups for which they are best known.
It’s not just about balance sheets and acquisitions. Today’s executive chairman Audrey Baxter has had a hand in the creation of many of Baxters’ premium soup recipes which bear her signature and seal of approval on the packaging.
There’s nothing better than warming the cockles on a dreich day with Baxters Scotch Broth or Cock-a-Leekie soup!
* Established: 1909
* Location: Outer Hebrides
Harris Tweed, while more accurately a Trade Mark, in my humble non-corporate opinion, is one of the most unique and significant brands in this group. Please let me explain why…
Where the others are all manifestations of a product or company and typically have big impressive foyers, Harris Tweed is an amalgamation of independent fabric weavers who have grouped together for mutual support, market power and financial benefit. Harris Tweed is a trade mark; a symbol of unity and regional identity; a badge of quality and tradition worn by farmers and fashionistas alike.
The history of the Harris Tweed marque is a fascinating wee success story.
In 1909 the Harris Tweed Orb Trade Mark was granted. The original definition stated that: Harris Tweed means a tweed, hand-spun, hand-woven and dyed by the crofters and cottars in the Outer Hebrides. It took a lot of negotiation to appease the voices of the Harris weavers, who felt that the name should be applied exclusively to the produce of Harris weavers.
In 1993, a new statutory body to guard the Orb Trade Mark, the Harris Tweed Authority, replaced the original Harris Tweed Association. Also in 1993, an Act of Parliament, the Harris Tweed Act 1993, established the Harris Tweed Authority as the successor to the Harris Tweed Association, its purpose being “to promote and maintain the authenticity, standard and reputation of Harris Tweed; for preventing the sale as Harris Tweed of material which does not fall within the definition…”
There is no shortage of rich and varied stories colouring this brand’s history!
At the turn of the 20th century, A.G. Barr set out in business to provide a safe and energy-boosting soft drink to help overcome the poor water quality problems of a rapidly urbanising Scotland. It was a crowded market but with the company’s combination of production, distribution and marketing abilities Iron Brew – as it was called in 1901 – quickly grew to be one of Scotland’s most popular soft drinks.
Due to government food naming regulations introduced in 1946, the brand was renamed IRN-BRU and so a brand legend was born. With what has to be one of the best ad taglines of all time – Scotland’s other national drink – AG Barr transformed a nation’s strong affinity for its product into an unquenchable love affair for its brand. Branding really doesn’t get any better than this. Phenomenal
It is also only one of four fizzy drinks brands in the world which is bigger than either the Coke Cola or Pepsi behemoths in its own home market.
As an artist who draws inspiration (literally) from what’s around me, how could I not be attracted to IRN-BRU? So, while I’ve been sketching and doodling around this powerhouse brand for many years, it was in 2018 that Gillian Kyle was awarded Official Merchandising status and we launched our officially endorsed POP! IRN-BRU product range.
The Johnnie Walker iconic square bottle was introduced in 1860 and the equally iconic Striding Man logo in 1909. Then there’s the iconic collection of Red, Black, Green, Gold and Blue labels – all conspiring to create what must, surely, be the most iconic brand of blended Scotch whisky, sold in almost every country in the world.
Whether its your favourite dram or not, there’s no disputing Johnnie Walker’s place in the pantheon of great global brands.
And on a personal note, a Johnnie Walker ad ranks as one of my favourite commercials of all time. Published in 2009 and starring Robert Carlyle, The Man Who Walked Around The World is a one-shot cinematic masterpiece of storytelling. If you have never seen this wee piece of advert-art I encourage you to sit back and enjoy. Or, if like me you’ve seen it many times before, go on, treat yourself and marvel at it all over again!
Johnnie Walker, keep walking.
It feels like Mother’s Pride (the brand) and a Scottish Plain loaf (the product) are perfectly interchangeable. Personally I always prefer calling it Mother’s Pride. Classic branding at its best.
This brand is a little different from most of the others here who have firm roots and clear provenance. While this brand is certainly no less of an Iconic Brand of Scotland, its ownership has changed hands a number of times over the years. Perhaps that is why there is so little written online about this Scottish icon?
So, let’s patch together the story of a brand that featured in millions of Scottish kids upbringings…
As best as I can tell, the brand started life around 1935 in a Manchester bakery. In the early 1960’s, this humble plain loaf crossed the chasm into popular folklore through the words of Adam McNaughton’s Jeely Piece Song. A favourite of mine from primary school!
Mother’s Pride popularity continued to grow and for a time in the 1970’s and 80’s this slice of family life was the UK’s best selling white bread. Today the loaf is baked at the Premier Foods factory in Duke Street, Glasgow, just along the road from the Tennent’s Brewery.
Mother’s Pride Scottish Plain is instantly recognisable with its traditional and wonderfully tactile wax paper tartan packaging. Please don’t go changing, we love you just the way you are!
I’m a big haggis fan and I just love Macsween’s products. I also truly admire their brand story, the newbie to this esteemed club.
What they bring to the table shares a close similarity with the Johnnie Walker story of 150 years before: both brands striving to bring consistency, access and variety to their ‘industry’ whilst appealing to all palettes and persuasions. As Robert Burns aptly put it, “auld Scotland wants nae skinking ware that jaups in luggies”. And who can really disagree with that!
In 1975 Macsween’s took the bull by the horns and sold up their family butcher’s shop to open the world’s first haggis factory. They thereby single-handedly relaunched this neglected product and set the gold standard for the Great Chieftan o’ the Pudding Race.
As proof of their success, Macsween now exports to Europe, Canada, South Africa, Dubai and Singapore. Their biggest market, however, and accounting for more than half of their lovingly reared haggis, is over the border to England.
To learn more about this fascinating story I encourage you to read The Scotsman’s Food and Drink article: 10 things you (probably) didn’t know about Macsweens haggis
Oats have been grown in the Scottish Borders for centuries. There is even evidence the Romans knew how to combine oatmeal and water to make oatcakes.
Back in 1896, the Nairn family opened their first wee bakery to refine and perfect this traditional recipe.
Still using oats supplied by Borders farmers, Nairns have astutely been ahead of the dietary curve and are UK’s largest producer of oatcakes today as well as offering an extensive range of snacks and cereals all based on humble but rudely healthy oats. As Nairns self proclaim, they know their oats. We totally agree.
One of my favourite ‘only-in-Scotland’ stories is that the sporran was fashioned back in 12th century for soldiers and others to carry their oatcake rations. Of course, what else could it have been used for in the days before mobile phones and car keys.
*Hong Kong Knitwear conglomerate
Pringle of Scotland hails from the Scottish Borders and grew it’s cosmopolitan fan base and loyalty on a reputation of innovation, design, quality, fashion and sport.
When Robert Pringle started out in business and opened his first woollen mill in Hawick in 1815, wool was used mainly for underwear. His initial products being hosiery – socks to you and me.
By turning his focus to cashmere and fashion, Pringle opened up a whole new market for knitted outerwear and was also credited for the coining of the term knitwear. At the turn of the 20th century Pringle won a following with Royalty and the Hollywood Stars who were snapping up the company’s new Argyle designs, twinsets and cardigans. Latterly Argyle would come to be synonymous with golf and in particular Nick Faldo and Colin Montgomerie. New ownership is now repositioning the brand to a younger, fashion-first customer profile.
The Pringle Lion Rampant logo was first introduced 1934 and continues today as both logo and featured within the designs of the women’s and men’s collections.
While still manufacturing in Hawick, the Home of Cashmere, a full 200 years since Robert Pringle started out, the Pringle story is still evolving and very much part of the fabric of Scotland.
Most of my selection of Iconic Brands of Scotland have long and illustrious histories but Tennent’s is definitely the daddy of the list. It has been around for longer than the USA!
As with so many of the other brands in this list, the story of this brand is as much a story of the town from which it hails.
Does it come as any surprise that the oldest continuous commercial concern in Glasgow dating back to 1556 is the brewing of beer? The first Tennent’s brewery opened in 1740 near to Glasgow Cathedral and wanting to expand in 1790, brothers John and Robert moved all of half a mile to their ‘new’ and current Wellpark Brewery location on Duke Street in 1790.
By 1860 Tennent’s had grown to be the largest exporter of beer in the world. A brand of this stature needs an iconic logo – and few logos are more instantly recognisable than Tennent’s Red T logo. Introduced in 1876, it remains largely unchanged 150 years later.
The largest and most significant change to Tennent’s fortunes was introduced in 1885: the “German Beer” (now known as lager). Due to the contrast with the darker ales of the day, it was received as “a madman’s dream”. Little did those dissenters know that Tennent’s lager would single handedly change the taste of a nation! Today it still accounts for 60% of the Scottish lager market.
As with many of these Iconic Brands, I have a personal connection with Tennent’s. In 2014 I did my own illustrative interpretation of the retro Tennent’s Lager Lovelies. These designs can still be bought at the new and very impressive Tennent’s Visitors Centre. It’s well worth a visit!
As with Nairns and Walkers Shortbread, Tunnock’s started life as a small shop and bakery.
The difference with these 2 other brands, being that the wee Thomas Tunnock tea shop is still in operation on Uddingston Main Street today! Conveniently located across the road from their sprawling purpose-built bakery.
The years after the Second World War opened up new opportunities for the third generation of Tunnock brothers. To satisfy a nation craving chocolate after many years of war-imposed austerity and to produce products with a longer shelf life than their pre-war pies, bread and cakes, Archie and Boyd set out to invent a range of biscuits the likes of which had never seen before.
The first invention was the Caramel Wafer, soon to be followed by the Caramel Log, Snowball and in 1959 the iconic Tunnock’s Tea Cake. It was one thing inventing these chocolate covered wonders but quite another making them.
It fell to Boyd and his mechanical mind to develop, adapt and install the necessary machinery and production lines to both make and wrap these new products. Today, laser controlled robots form a significant part of the workforce to keep pace with the demand of both their home and 40 export markets.
While I feel a personal connection with all the other brands in this blog, Tunnock’s holds a special affection for me. When I launched my Gillian Kyle business 10 years ago, one of my first sources of design inspiration was the Tunnock’s Tea Cake wrapper. When I wrote seeking their approval to turn my designs into a wee commercial enterprise, not only were my initial Gillian Kyle Tunnock’s products immediately approved but I was also invited for a personal factory tour by Boyd Tunnock himself!
Boyd Tunnock: Tunnock’s chairman and longest serving employee (71 years and counting); champion for small Scottish businesses; a Scottish icon in his own right.
*Location: Aberlour, Moray
Like many of the brands profiled here, a quality I really admire about Walkers is that they have not outgrown their local roots, heritage or family ownership structure.
Their global business is still run out of the genteel town of Aberlour on the banks of the River Spey. And when growing demand could only be met through expansion, the Walker family threw caution to the wind and opened a new production facility a massive 15 miles away in the Cathedral City of Elgin.
Walkers are the branding embodiment of the chicken and egg situation; which came first? They are both the brand and the product. Priceless.
Another great quality concerns the cliched shortbread tin image of Scotland. As their tins are of such good quality, who in their right minds would want to throw one out once the final piece of shortbread has mysteriously disappeared? So the brand lives on in the repurposed tin serving as a constant reminder to repurchase.
Walkers Shortbread continues to be Scotland’s biggest food exporter. An achievement recognised in being awarded the Queen’s Award for Export three times over!
I hope you enjoyed this uniquely Scottish story about our iconic brands? In the process of writing and illustrating this blog and thinking about all of these wonderful Scottish companies, I’ve come to understand that one common quality holds true for all…
These brands are all wonderfully down-to-earth and Scottish to the core; all could be comfortably found in and around most Scottish homes. They are real, unique, accessible and uplifting brands that enhance life, where ever in the world that life is lived.
Well done to these Iconic Brands of Scotland and here’s to your continuing successes! As Johnnie Walker would say, Keep Walking…
For a collection of generally younger and lesser-known Scottish brands, please check out my Scottish Brands We Love blog from 2018,
If you would like to receive more Scottish Stories from Gillian Kyle in the future and are not already subscribed to our mailing list, please be sure to sign-up.
Till next time,
Have I missed any of your fave Scottish companies from these lists? I always love to hear your feedback so please let me know any brands that you feel I should include in future updates. And while I’ve tried my hardest to fact-check everything in this article, it’s possible there may be some factual inaccuracies in the histories of some brands. I apologise in advance if that’s the case.