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The Fourth Statistical Account of East Lothian

Crafts & craftspeople

Sally Smith

Fine examples of Scottish craftsmanship are found not only in museums but also the stately homes, churches and other stone built structures that enrich East Lothian's landscape. Some say that the status of the crafts anywhere is governed by soil, climate, religion and economics. In East Lothian, you would have to add the sea.

A long coastal strip forms the region’s western and northern boundaries and harbours were established centuries ago at Musselburgh, Port Seton, North Berwick and Dunbar. To service them, wooden boat builders set up workshops at Dunbar and at Cockenzie where Wm. Weatherhead & Son was a major designer and employer until 1952. His successors made their last big wooden fishing boat in 1981.

The land also gives craftsmen a living. Farmers who till the rich, productive soil often need the skills of blacksmiths and drystane dykers. In 2000, there were still eight traditional blacksmiths who not only repaired agricultural machinery but also made gates, railings, staircases, and furniture. A diminished horse population, however, means that saddlers had all but disappeared and there was just one farrier. A more positive development is the continued demand for metalworkers, stonemasons and carvers to work on architectural restoration projects.

The term ‘crafts’ is far too all embracing. Some describe a piece of craftwork as just a useful product, a means to an end. For marketing advantage the term may also include giftware and industrially-produced knitwear, cloth and ceramics even though the end product has little in common with that produced by the small businesses of hand knitters, weavers and potters.

Adrian Gardiner, a director of Ystrad Ltd with items made by members of the co-operative

The most interesting work is that where art, design and craftsmanship are inextricably linked. Since 1945, the four Scottish art colleges have produced nationally acclaimed graduates in jewellery and silversmithing, textiles, ceramics and glass. Woven or structured textiles have become the special province of the Scottish College of Textiles and a variety of crafts are taught to City & Guilds levels at the colleges of further education.

For professional makers who establish workshops in East Lothian, there are several attractions. The landscape is inspirational, there is easy access to Edinburgh galleries and scope for commissions from local residents. Another factor (to the mid 1990s) was the availability of modestly priced housing and workshops. In 1971, East Lothian's local authority was keen to attract small crafts businesses because they could be accommodated easily within existing communities and otherwise redundant buildings. Former schools at Gifford, Crossroads (near Ormiston), West Barns, Pencaitland, Kingston, Oldhamstocks and Whittinghame were converted for use as workshops and offered at low rentals. While this initiative generated only a modest return, the buildings were saved and the influx of crafts tenants contributed in a variety of ways to their older communities. Most of the incomers practised self sufficiency and some took on local apprentices.

Central government-funded support offered further incentives. From the late 1960s and for the next 20 years, both traditional makers and those with art college training were given financial and practical help through bodies such as the Small Industries Council for Rural Areas of Scotland (SICRAS) and the Scottish Development Agency (SDA). This special support ceased with the demise of the SDA in 1991 but was partially restored in 1993 when the Scottish Arts Council (SAC) created a crafts department. While the SAC concentrates on work judged critically against standards of craftsmanship and design, business advice is provided through East Lothian Council.

Sales of craftwork continue to be essential to their survival. From 1954, the Scottish Craft Centre in Edinburgh’s Royal Mile was a quality outlet for work produced by its selected members. Its closure in 1990 was followed by that of many of the tourist-orientated craft shops which had flourished in the 1970s and 80s. Craftwork produced in multiple units, however, continues to be marketed through the Scottish craft trade fairs (established first in 1971) but now encompass a broad range of giftwear.

‘One offs’ are sold in a different way - either commissioned through personal recommendations or purchased at gallery exhibitions. Since it opened in 1976, Peter Potter’s at Haddington has been an important showcase for the crafts. Galleries at Stenton, Gullane, Dirleton, East Linton and North Berwick have also included craftwork and in the 1980s, ‘Ystrad’ had a few years’ life as an ambitious artists’ and craftsmen’s co-operative with a gallery at Gifford.

The most notable commissioners of fine craftwork in East Lothian were the churches. Silverware, woodcarving, tapestries and embroidered pulpit falls are all represented, but stained glass predominates. Fine examples are the two windows at Prestonpans (St. Andrew’s Episcopal), three at East Linton (Traprain and Prestonkirk, 1959) and another at North Berwick (St. Andrew Blackadder, 1962) all made by William Wilson (1905-1972) one of Scotland's foremost stained glass artists. His contemporary, Sax Shaw (1916-2000), made the stained glass windows at Haddington (St. Mary’s Collegiate, 1973), Prestonpans (St Andrew’s, 1975) and Tranent (Parish Church) as well as a suspended glass feature for the Abbey Church, North Berwick. When the Loretto chapel in Musselburgh was extended in 1964-5, John Lawrie was commissioned to create a windowed gable by setting blocks of coloured glass in concrete. Dunbar Parish Church was seriously damaged by fire in 1987 and a major restoration project included two large (2m x 6m) stained glass windows by Shona McInnes, and three apse windows made by Douglas Hogg. Other examples of glass as well as ceramic sculptures and silverware can be found in the new Roman Catholic churches built in the 1960s and 1970s at Prestonpans and Tranent.

By 2000, Scottish design strengths were in jewellery and metalworking, glass and printed textiles - a dramatic change from the 1970s and 1980s when ceramics, knitted and woven textiles and wood reigned supreme. National trends are not reflected, however, in the crafts businesses now located in East Lothian; work made from wood continues to predominate, possibly because of a specialist supplier of native hardwoods at Ormiston.

While a few of the traditional crafts are still practised i.e. stickdressing, yarn spinning and dyeing, hand knitting and weaving, the growing trend is for courses in ‘leisure crafts’ created with extraordinary energy and skill, but not necessarily for commercial gain. Classes organised at the Poldrate Granary, Haddington and elsewhere as part of a council-supported training programme are part of the story, but there are also several groups of women who meet less formally on a weekly basis to develop skills in embroidery, patchwork and quilting.

In 1990, the SDA listed 64 full-time crafts businesses based in East Lothian, half of which were located in Haddington and North Berwick. These included makers of furniture (6), toys (2), wood products (6), musical instruments (3), pottery (10) and knitwear (11).

Craftwork reflects our time and our culture. Sometimes this is evidenced through the design and workmanship of things in everyday use. Sometimes the work is purely decorative or may have been commissioned for a public building. Less justifiably, it is added to the landscape. In the end, however, it will be the economics of a crafts business that governs what is made and therefore, what remains to remind future generations of our age.

By 2000, some of the main workshops included:

See the County Directories for information on earlier years

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