Artisans and the craft economy in Scotland c.1780-1914

Today there is a significant interest in artisans and craft production, articulated through evolving theory on workmanship and the meaning of ‘things’; debates on the role of craft traditions within changing national and global identities; and exploration of craft’s moral value in an age of fair trade. Craft for the masses is ubiquitous on the British highstreet and museum exhibitions of art-craft attract wide public interest. This historical project will build on contemporary questions and approaches to explore artisans and their impact in the past and create linkages with modern craft workers. It seeks to challenge a conventional historiography in which modern industry destroyed the craft economy, replacing it with machine-made goods for the 19th century masses and ‘arts and crafts’ handmade luxuries for the moneyed few. The project will demonstrate that the craft economy was not destroyed, though it changed and evolved new types of product, such as the quintessentially Scottish highland pebble and enamel jewellery or kilt ornaments, or horn wares, or knit wares, which were widely consumed and which sustained vibrant craft communities.
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Interior of Danny Thompson's cabinet makers workshop in Upper King Street, Tain in Ross-shire c.1890. A number of partly finished objects can be seen here, including picture frames, a lady's davenport writing desk, a carved chair back and hall-stand back. Prints and designs are pasted onto the walls and ceiling. Copyright. Tain & District Museum. Licensor

The research is comparative, drawing on English and European studies for parallel insights and also exploring the impact of colonial imports, such as craftwork from India, to cast new light on developments in Britain. It takes a range of methodologies including biography, artefactual biography, prosopography and statistical survey, and also involves a survey of exhibitions of craftwork in Scotland, including prizes granted as part of the design education movement and through the great exhibitions. The outputs, including a database and online exhibition of craft artefacts, tools and contemporary photographs derived from museum and archive collections, with catalogue and associated web essays, will become a public resource, available to other academic researchers and craft practitioners and also available more widely for educational use.

This project seeks to overturn a dominant narrative in Scottish history, based on the ‘muck and brass’ of heavy industry and its dire social consequences, and replaces it with a narrative that emphasises colour, design and individual creativity in the past and as a living tradition that informs and enhances Scotland’s economy and culture today.

Dr Stana Nenadic
University of Edinburgh

Stana was awarded a Research Project Grant in December 2012.