Scotland's glass cave in focus as industry turns 400

THE birthplace of Scottish glass making has lain forgotten and filled with rubble for more than a century, with no trace of the artistry and entrepreneurial zeal that once thrived there.

But the story of a little-known sea cave on the Fife coast will come to the fore as part of a series of nationwide celebrations and exhibitions throughout 2010 to mark the industry's 400th anniversary.

Nobleman Sir George Hay began making drinking glasses and windows at East Wemyss in 1610 and the works became so renowned they soon attracted artists from as far afield as Venice.

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The origins of the industry in Scotland are just one strand of the celebrations, which organisers hope will raise Scots' awareness of the nation's proud heritage.

Glass experts Frank Andrews, and Shiona Airlie will include in the exhibitions items that have been in storage in museums for decades. Andrews said: "Scotland has a significant place in the history of glassmaking.

"At the beginning it was just bottles and windows, but by the 19th century, we were seeing designs for important stained glass, and by the 20th century, we had John Moncrieff in Perth becoming a world leader at making gauge glasses for steam engines.

"In decorative terms, we have people like Denis Mann, who designs the BBC's Mastermind trophies, and Colin Terris, who invented the abstract paperweight. There are a great many riches that can be picked from."

Andrews said he hoped the celebrations will encourage interest in the craft and do away with some dismissive attitudes towards it in the arts world.

"There's always an element of snobbery," he said. "You get people who don't like certain fields, and there's never any funding available for glass exhibitions. It's all nonsense politics."

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He added: "We've woken a sleeping giant by organising these events. We're amazed at how many people are involved."

The National Museum of Scotland will display some of the finest glass made in the capital since the 18th century. Some exhibits going on show have been in storage for two decades, including a wine glass made for Bonnie Prince Charlie in 1745. There will also be a special exhibition of glass from Lauriston Castle on view.

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In Glasgow, the city's museums will select some of its premier pieces from storage to mount an exhibition in Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum. Other shows throughout the country are planned, including displays of decorative glass in Aberdeen and Perth.

Edinburgh College of Art will host an international conference on the subject in October, with lectures on Scotland's glassmaking history and demonstrations for specialists and the public.

Andrews said: "It's going to be one of the largest glass conferences in the world."

Mann, a Wick-based designer and engraver, said glass was an excellent medium for producing art and that increasing numbers of artists were making intricate works.

Mann said: "Strange as it may seem, glass is probably the most versatile medium an artist can use.

"It's difficult to work with maybe, but can be used to make huge pieces or tiny ones, can be crystal clear or totally opaque, offers a huge colour range, and a luminosity nothing else can approach."

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The glass-making industry in Scotland has suffered in recent years. Dartington Crystal, the Devon-based owners of Caithness Glass, closed its factory and visitor centre at Perth last year and established a smaller site in Crieff. Caithness was bought by Dartington after it went into administration along with Edinburgh Crystal three years ago.

Mann said glass artists were thriving at places such as NorthLands Creative Glass based in Lybster, Caithness.

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"There are probably more skilled glass makers around in Scotland than ever," he said. "I don't see much evidence of glassmaking skills being lost or forgotten."

He added that harsh economic reality also meant people were reviving the "ancient skill" of using kilns.

"Many of today's Scottish glass artists work with kilns not furnaces as the cost of running a furnace is now prohibitive and hedged about with regulations that are difficult to comply with.

"Kiln work requires a very different set of skills. Of course, using kilns was the earliest way of forming glass, so in essence, it is a case of reviving ancient skills and adapting them."

Fortunately for modern glass artists a sizeable cave like Hay's is not essential to enable them to practise their craft.

Contemporary records suggest Hay's cave measured 200 by 100 feet.

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Andrews said: "George Hay's is quite an amazing story. It's mind-boggling to think how he devised the idea, and incredible how he did what he did."

However, Hay's glassworks were run at a considerable loss, as demand was not high.

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A report on the trade to James VI in 1619 by the Privy Council stated that the proprietor said the income for a year did not even cover the expenses for a month.

Nonetheless, the Fife coast glassworks remained active, and in 1698, the third Earl of Wemyss obtained an act of parliament giving him and his associates a monopoly for making different kinds of glass.