In a local shop the other day – the Edinburgh Woollen Mill – I saw sturdy knitted jerseys and cardigans with the label ‘Highland Home Industries’ and wanted to know more. Finding out about the work of those long gone, then discovering that the tradition continues – proved to be an effective antidote to gloom.
A web search revealed some contradictory accounts but it is agreed that the original Highland Home Industries was set up in 1931 by Hannah MacCormick, selling products in a small crafts shop on the island of Iona, but most of the information found relates to the silverware produced there.
Working backwards the search showed that Hannah was the mother of Iain MacCormick, a silversmith who learnt his trade from Alexander Ritchie as a boy.
Alexander was born in 1856 in Tobermory, Mull. When he was twelve, the family moved to Iona to take over the St Columba Hotel and farm. After training as a marine engineer, he joined the British India Steam Shipping Company, following the career of his father, a ship’s captain. A shipwreck in the West Indies left him with a serious leg injury and 1890s he returned home and worked as a tourist guide.
He met Euphemia Thompson at Glasgow School of Art. They married ‘on very little except hope’ and settled on the island of Iona. In his letters he recorded: ” … my wife being an expert with the pencil, we began to adapt Iona designs to silver, and have had as much success as I can expect”. Euphemia specialised in leather and cloth, creating a variety of beautiful embroidery designs.
In 1900 The Iona Cathedral Trust gave Alec the job of official custodian, and allowed the building of Ritchie’s crafts hut inside the grounds of Iona Nunnery ruins, where their beautiful craftwork was sold.
Alexander became one of the most respected Scottish silver jewellers of the 20th century. He also produced superb and unique Celtic craftwork in wood, brass, and copper, among other materials, all with foliate or knotwork designs adapted from the ancient local stone carvings.
Alexander Ritchie’s Tigh-na-Beargh
In 1937, Alex Ritchie’s work was included in a Scottish Industries Exhibition in London, due to a contact with Jean Bruce of the Highland Home Industries, who used to scour the Hebrides for examples of fine craftwork.
Birmingham hallmarks of the Ritchies’ work began in 1931 in conjunction with the ICA mark, and continued through until 1941. Ritchie had some of his pieces made through the Birmingham silver company Darby and Sons. A few ‘hybrid’ pieces exist with his AR IONA mark, and the additional marks D&S (for W.H.Darby and Sons).
In 1938, a Pathe newsreel of the Glasgow Exhibition shows Queen Mary, accompanied by Lord Elgin, shaking hands with officials, walking up some steps, cheered by onlookers. One still shows the sign at Clachan saying ‘Highland Home Industries.’ The newsreel can be seen here.
Alex and Euphemia died within two days of each other in January 1941 having passed many of his original designs and moulds on to the MacCormicks. They were laid to rest together in the historic cemetery, burial place of Scottish kings and Highland chiefs. Their shop and its contents passed into the care of the Highland Home Industries which carried on the business for another 25 years or so.
In 1945 ‘Highland Home Industries’, founded – or revived – by Hamish Dawson-Bowman, started producing Ritchie’s designs. It distributed items made by people (mostly rural folk) in their homes, aiming to cultivate old Scottish crafts and fostering new ones.
Another project was Celtic Art Industries which aimed to introduce a sense of purpose and pride of achievement into the lives of disabled ex-servicemen, by reviving the ancient art of the Scottish silversmith, using some of the original Iona designs. Photographs can be seen here.
Iain MacCormick died a year later, having left Mhairi the masters for a range of Ritchie silver pieces. This gave her new island business, now Aosdana Gallery, a good foundation.
In 2003 she started to restore Tigh-na-Beargh (House of the Loom), which looks out over the Sound of Iona, to its original use as a weaving room.
As well as selling her own work, Mhairi retails selected work by other jewellers and has continued the tradition of Iona silverwork, living and working as a textile maker and silversmith. She has a studio in the converted steadings and also runs a small commercial gallery.
On the Stroud International textiles website we read that Mhairi’s long term aim is to renovate the barn building beside her studio and create a residency programme on Iona for visual artists, makers, musicians and writers. A tourist guide adds that the gallery is housed in an old farm steading which has been lovingly restored with interior features by Scottish artisans.
You can ‘meet’ the artist in this video, made in September 2011.
The latest news:
At the 2011 Royal Highland Show the Jean Bruce Cash Prize, an annual prize ‘representing the free income of the fund’, was presented by Highland Home Industries Ltd. It is awarded for the best exhibit in handweaving, knitting or spinning from the Scottish crofting counties.