Taking part in my first ever Scottish Trade Fair 5 years ago I was more than a little surprised by sheer volume of cheap gifts and souvenirs on display. As a very proud Scot and a lover of all things kitsch, I’ve always been fascinated by some of the Royal Mile gift shop staples; the Piper Dolls in their little plastic tubes and the Nessie figurines (Made in China) and the Wee Hairy Haggis and the See You Jimmy hats. They have an innocently garish, Brigadoonian sort of charm which, as a designer, I relish.
And don’t get me wrong, there are lots of talented, creative designers and makers working in Scotland and there was plenty of fantastic traditional craft, art and design at that show, amongst the mass of the mass-produced. But, having just graduated from the melting pot of one of Scotland’s world-class art schools, I wondered; where are all the young, independent designers and makers? And why are there so few products that showcase contemporary Scotland and the new creativity of its art and design graduates?
When it comes to creativity, as a nation we excell. From Robert Burns, Alexander Graham Bell and Charles Rennie Mackintosh to Turner prize winners by the bucketload, JK Rowling, Franz Ferdinand and Calvin Harris; we are an inventive and an authentic lot.
This rich heritage of invention is one of the main pulls of visitors to Scotland, along with our beautiful, unspoilt landscapes and fiercely colourful history, but the Scottish souvenirs and gifts that we offer those visitors paint their own, slightly less authentic, picture about our history, culture and values.
It seemed to me so tragic to be wasting that opportunity to shine by selling tourists kilts for a tenner (mass produced in sweatshops of the Far East) when we could be saying something positive and authentic about modern Scotland.
But things are changing. In the 5 years that I’ve been involved in the wonderful and slightly surreal world of Scottish gifts I’ve noticed a definite shift; an awakening perhaps. Graduates are coming out of college or uni or art-school and deciding to have a go at doing something for themselves; moving away from a traditional, tartan-heavy aesthetic and towards a fresh, modern interpretation of the wit and humour that we Scots are so well known for. Not the bawdy, bare-chested-muscleman-in-a-kilt type of humour, but an authentic, contemporary celebration of our innate ability to laugh at and with ourselves.
Each year at that same trade show new designers have taken their first, tentative steps into business and a new crop of brands are now really beginning to assert their presence in the Scottish gift market; amongst others Bonnie Bling, Urban Pirate, Fortune Favours the Brave, and (throwing all modesty aside) our wee team here at Gillian Kyle! Unique, quirky and unusual Scottish gifts, fashion, accessories and homeware, designed in Scotland with a big dash of authenticity, integrity and pride. I think that’s something we can all be proud of.