Editor: In 2011, I saw sturdy knitted jerseys and cardigans with the label ‘Highland Home Industries’ in the Edinburgh Woollen Mill shop – 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. The story I pieced together from a range of contradictory accounts online, with some links now inactive, has been read by over three thousand visitors to the site. It was top post this week on the statistics page. One of those visitors, E. Mairi MacArthur, has first-hand knowledge of the true story of Iona’s heritage and has kindly sent an absolutely accurate ’insider’ account.
Mairi MacArthur is from an Iona family and, from many childhood holidays spent at her grandmother’s house in the 1950s and ‘60s, remembers the Highland Home Industries shop in the Nunnery gardens – run at that time by Mrs MacCormick and Mrs Maclean, who presided over counters full of colourful tweeds, knitwear and Celtic jewellery.
In the 1980s Mairi was a postgraduate at the School of Scottish Studies in Edinburgh where she undertook a study into the crofting and parish history of Iona; this led to several books on the island’s story, followed by the setting up of the Iona Heritage Centre to house much of this material and, later, by the publication of Iona Celtic Art, Mairi’s book about the life and work of Alexander and Euphemia Ritchie (left). She continues to research and write about aspects of Iona’s story and the lives of its people.
Mairi takes up the tale …
The Highland Home Arts and Industries Association – to become known by the shorter title of Highland Home Industries – was an exhibition network formed in 1889, after a successful Industrial Exhibition was held in Sutherland two years earlier. The aim was to revitalise the skills of home-based textile and other craft workers in rural areas and promote the display and sales of their goods (below right, a galley pendant). I am indebted for these details to a book ‘Hand Heart and Soul. The Arts and Crafts Movement in Scotland’ (Birlinn, 2006) by Elizabeth Cumming. This is a fascinating read and I recommend it to anyone wishing to know more about the broader historical context of handiwork at local level. There is a chapter entitled ‘Craft and Community’, for example, plus a comprehensive bibliography.
Information on the Highland Home Industries itself does seem harder to find and I don’t know of a book devoted specifically to its story. But old sales catalogues occasionally come up for sale online and Companies House would have information on the administration of the business – which, in its earlier form, had wound up by the early 1990s as far as I can gather, although the name has continued.
There were certainly commercial HHI outlets in Edinburgh and Inverness, with depots farther afield to collect and distribute home-produced work – eg the Am Baile site has an attractive illustrated postcard of the depot in Ullapool, a wooden building on Shore Street, later a house.
By the 1930s a Miss Jean Bruce was an HHI organiser who at some point visited Iona and found there the workshop of Alexander and Euphemia Ritchie (below right: note the silver belt, buckle and shoulder clips worn by Euphemia). Since 1899, Miss Bruce had been selling their work crafted in metal, wood, leather and textile from a hut entitled Iona Celtic Art. She ensured that a selection of the Ritchies’ jewellery was included in a Scottish Industries Exhibition in London in June 1937.
The annual Jean Bruce Prize for Best Exhibit in Handweaving, Knitting, Spinning or Crooks from Scottish Crofting counties was presented by The Highland Home Industries Ltd again this year – a cash prize representing the free income of the fund.
Managing the newly renamed shop was Mrs Hannah MacCormick, married to an Iona-born joiner who had learned his trade on the mainland but then returned to the island with his wife and young family. Their son, Iain, became a teacher of technical subjects in Paisley but also ran a spare-time business as a successful silversmith, creating his own fine range of Celtic designs in the tradition of Alexander Ritchie.
Hannah herself was an adept needlewoman and tutored younger island women in embroidery, as Euphemia Ritchie had done for an earlier generation.
Another enterprise inspired by the Ritchies was Celtic Art Industries, founded by Hamish Dawson-Bowman in Glasgow in 1945 to train disabled or unemployed ex-servicemen in metalworking; Iain MacCormick was employed by CAI in their first few years and the HHI shop on Iona provided some Ritchie designs plus an outlet for finished items.
A further connection – in both the family and artistic sense – came in 1997 when Mhairi Killin (right), a graduate of the Glasgow School of Art, first set up a small studio on Iona. She was greatly encouraged by Iain MacCormick, a close relative of her mother, and he also passed on to her some of the Iona Celtic Art patterns he himself had inherited.
Now in larger premises, Mhairi and her staff create and sell fine replicas of Ritchie and MacCormick items along with contemporary jewellery and larger work that draw on Iona’s culture and landscape. The business is called Aosdana Ltd – a reference to an old Gaelic word for those who continue artistic and family traditions – and is therefore a living link with the Ritchies’ wooden hut at the gate of Iona Nunnery, later known affectionately to many as ‘the Highland Home’. In turn, long before that, it recalls the island’s fame in Early Christian and mediaeval times, as a place that nurtured stone-carvers, metalworkers and the creators of brilliantly illuminated manuscripts.
Notes: See Mhairi Killin’s informative website (www.aosdanaiona.com) for more on the inspiration behind her work. There is also a small permanent display about the Ritchies in the Iona Heritage Centre, open Easter until October each year and the museum in Tobermory also owns a selection of Ritchie handiwork. Or track down a copy of Mairi’s book: Iona Celtic Art. The Work of Alexander and Euphemia Ritchie – a new edition is in preparation but the 2003 edition should be in some public libraries and a reference copy is available in the Heritage Centre.
E. Mairi MacArthur (email@example.com).