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Heritage Craft

Heritage craft describes the practice of making things using specialist hand skills passed down through generations, employing tools and techniques which have often remained unchanged for hundreds or thousands of years. 

Shetland boat museumHeritage craft skills were developed to make the material things needed for every day, rural life in Scotland including tools, pots, baskets, clothing, furniture and boats. Many heritage crafts are specific to a particular place, region or island. The kinds of materials available locally, together with environmental, geographical and geological features are all inseparable from the work, activities and needs of the people who live in an area.

Heritage craft items usually serve a practical purpose. Where there is decoration, it commonly follows the form or structure of the item to provide an element of functionality, such as creating shape or giving extra strength. Both the item itself, and its decorative features, can reflect the identity, skills and creativity of the maker.

The things we use and the way we make them has changed significantly over time, particularly since the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Through industrialisation, lifestyles changed as people moved from agricultural work in the countryside to take up jobs in growing urban centres of manufacturing and commerce. Breakthroughs in science and technology, together with social change and rapid population growth, enabled the efficient, often mechanised, production of items which were previously hand made by individuals or small groups. In addition, growing links with the rest of the world saw increased imports from countries throughout the British Empire. 

Changing ways of life have resulted in the decline of many heritage craft skills, and some are in danger of being lost altogether. There are only one or two makers left working in some areas of heritage craft, and there are significant difficulties in transferring their skills. First, there is the time cost, as a self-employed maker who spends one day in five training an apprentice must sacrifice one fifth of the time spent fulfilling orders, and therefore a significant proportion of income. Then there is the danger of revealing family or trade secrets to create competition where there is only enough demand for one person to make a fair living. 

Recent work to celebrate, sustain and preserve heritage craft skills by organisations such as UNESCO and, in the UK, The Heritage Crafts Association, has led to increased awareness, and support for makers and apprentices. 

A rise in consumer concerns relating to sustainability, ecology and ethics, together with a renewed interest in hand skills and the past, has seen heritage crafts gain high-level media coverage through the BBC’s ‘Mastercrafts’ and ‘Victorian Farm’ TV shows, and The Guardian’s ‘Disappearing Acts’. Heritage craft skills are recognised and rewarded through schemes like the prestigious Balvenie Master of Crafts awards.

Scotland’s heritage crafts include the making of the Kishie basket, coopers, boat building, Harris tweed, the making of the quaich, and historic tartans. Makers in Scotland also work in heritage crafts such as green wood craft, traditional pottery, mosaics, and basketry.

Features on Heritage Craft in Scotland

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