Forget mass-produced Jimmy hats, the next generation of Scottish keepsakes are stylish, quirky – and made here
SOUVENIRS have a poor reputation. Donkeys in sombreros. Painted beer steins. Flowery plaques with hooks for keys. Once transported home with great difficulty, they are destined to gather dust on a shelf before ending up in the charity shop or car boot sale.
Snow globes, pens with little ferries sailing up and down and the better class of fridge magnet have a kitschy cachet, but many holiday trinkets deliver the double whammy of uselessness and ugliness in one charmless object.
Scottish keepsakes are particularly egregious: the ‘See You Jimmy’ hat, the plush Loch Ness Monster (which often wears a miniature version of said bunnet), the costumed doll in nylon kilt and frilly jabot. There are some notable exceptions, such as Gillian Kyle’s confectionery-to-Highland-cow mugs and aprons, but most visitors to the land that has given the world Christopher Kane, Postcard Records and three Turner prize-winners in a row leave home with a piece of tartan tosh made in Taiwan.
In preparation for the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow in 2014, however, the fightback has begun. A range of stylish, quirky souvenirs, including a smartphone app and a jelly mould based on the decor of the Rogano, all designed and manufactured in Scotland, are in the pipeline. Prototypes will be unveiled at an exhibition at Glasgow’s People’s Palace museum next month, in an exhibition called Scotland Can Make It! (The title refers to Britain Can Make It, an exhibition of industrial design in London in 1946.) If all goes well, these mementos should be in the shops in time for the 2014 games.
“We wanted to step away from mass-branded merchandise and look towards more cultural objects, all designed and made in Scotland,” explains Lucy McEachan, of Glasgow-based Panel, the show’s curator.
“These are batch-produced products that we want to imaginatively distribute, which say something about Scotland, the quality of its creative practice and its manufacturing,” adds Catriona Duffy, the other half of Panel. “The way to do that isn’t to stamp it with a logo. It’s to reduce numbers, to let them exist as objects first and foremost. That’s what a true souvenir always was, rather than a pen with a logo on it.”
The process began early last year, when Panel invited potters, jewellers, writers, musicians – anyone who fancied dreaming up a souvenir – to submit their ideas. From there, a judging panel including Turner-winning artist Martin Boyce chose six items: ceramicist Katy West’s jelly mould; musical collective FOUND’s app which, depending on where the user is, will reveal a specially created piece of music and accompanying artwork; weaver Angharad McLaren and digital designer Emlyn Firth’s sportswear-inspired scarves; Claire Duffy’s Tunnock’s teacake medals; Atelier’s nature-inspired travel blankets, complete with leather travel cases; and jeweller Neil McGuire’s Golden Tenement, a range based on the Jaconelli family’s tenement home in Dalmarnock.
It is a wildly eclectic list. “We left the brief really open,” says McEachan. “We didn’t say, ‘This is what a souvenir is,’ then ask designers to make it. If we had, we maybe wouldn’t have come up with a jelly mould.”
Instead, when the nation’s creatives were asked to come up with their own kind of keepsake, they took it in unexpected directions. “Some thought about how visitors would experience the Commonwealth Games. The travel blankets are for people at outdoor events, having a picnic or wrapping up to keep warm. Scarves are traditionally used to show allegiance at football grounds. These ones make it a bit more wide: the people coming into the city for 2014 will be the away crowd. The home support is already here.”
The ethics of creating rinky-dink ornaments excised many entrants. “Lots of proposals specifically didn’t want to create waste or something that would just sit on a shelf. FOUND’s approach is anti-object, their souvenir – which they are calling an audio-visual postcard of Glasgow – exists as a piece of music and animation. It’s completely ephemeral, it changes constantly, it never exists in the same form.”
West had no such qualms. As a ceramics designer, she says, “You are never far from tealight-holders and novelty mugs”. There is, she adds, no shame in the souvenir. “Everyone has unofficial ones, a stone they picked up on a beach, a blouse they bought in a specific place. My work looks for layers, references and narratives. For me, a souvenir should retain something of a specific time and place. But rather than making something like a coronation mug, how do I stamp the message in a more subtle way?”
West’s jelly mould has more references than the National Library. Kitchenware, from the teaspoon with the city crest on the handle to the Elvis Presley Toby jug, is a traditional memento. The mould is based on the art deco interior of Glasgow’s Rogano restaurant, which is styled, in turn, after Cunard’s Queen Mary liner, built in John Brown shipyard in Clydebank. Rogano’s head chef, Andy Cummings, has provided West with three Scottish jelly recipes to make using the mould, and has given lots of practical help in the development of the prototype. (The earliest version was too deep to create a viable jelly. Even later, shallower ones have made it very difficult to release the jelly in one piece. Work is continuing on a more user-friendly model in the run up to the People’s Palace exhibition.)
The mould will be manufactured by Highland Stoneware, a Sutherland-based company more commonly associated with conventional tourist purchases. It is quite a change from its hand-painted puffin mugs and thistle teapots: the exterior will be unglazed, to show off the clear, pale grey of the Sutherland clay. “They make quaint, safe, comfy, cosy things with lots of Scottishness,” says West. “Mine is much more rigid and plain.” But that doesn’t mean it’s not beautiful. “It’s an ornament as well as something functional”.
What pulls together West’s mould, the tiny tenement block and the shiny Tunnocks medals are that they discard the Brigadoon template of so many souvenirs in favour of Scotland as it is today. These keepsakes celebrate our endearing love affair with foil-wrapped refined carbohydrates, our famously decadent drinking dens and our unique form of multi-level living. They acknowledge our mercurial weather and offer a stylish solution.
The fact that everything is manufactured in Scotland makes each artefact instantly Scottish in a way that a teddy in a full dress kilt, made in the Philippines, never will be. “None of them conforms to a traditional stereotype,” says McEachan. “All the artists and designers have worked closely with their manufacturing partners, interpreted what it means to them to be Scottish. That gives an added layer to them, which is the story of their making.”
West adds, “These souvenirs illustrate the breadth of manufacturing we have in Scotland and the breadth of creative practice. They are a celebration of what it means to be Scottish, in its myriad forms, today. They’re more Scottish than any fake sporran made in China.”
• Scotland Can Make It! is at the People’s Palace and Winter Gardens, Glasgow, 7 September to 13 January (www.scotlandcanmakeit.com)
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