Not yet fully awake, and struggling through the “where am I?” haze of just arriving in a new country, I stumbled downstairs to the breakfast table. As I gathered cereal, yogurt, and juice from the buffet, my eyes fell on a bottle of whisky. And with a jolt, I remembered: I’m in Scotland.
Scotland is a wee land, with just five and half million people. (That’s half the size of Hungary.) But its cultural impact on the world stage is massive. Everyone, it seems, understands what it means to be Scottish. But much of what they know are clichés: Whisky. Bagpipes. Kilts and tartans. Haggis. Golf. Like most clichés, these are rooted in reality. But in an attempt to attract tourist income, these cultural icons have been exaggerated, romanticized, and exploited. In Scotland, the traveler’s challenge is tuning into that fine line that separates the real deal from trumped-up tourism.
Take the tartan. Everyone knows that each of Scotland’s clans (families) has its own, specific plaid pattern. And on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, every other shop specializes in helping you find your family’s tartan…and selling you all manner of souvenirs stamped with it.
It’s a nice story…one that was concocted in the Victorian Age, to appeal to tourists very much like today’s. But, like any tall tale, it does have a kernel of truth. In Edinburgh, I visited Gladstone’s Land, a perfectly preserved 16th-century merchant’s home-turned-museum along the Royal Mile. Britain seems to specialize in chatty museum docents, who love to corner you as you enter a creaky old room and talk your ear off about all of the fascinating little details. And at Gladstone’s Land, the docent in the former cloth merchant’s shop on the ground floor was particularly engaging.
“Here’s the real story behind the tartan,” he said. “Going way back, local dyers throughout the Highlands only had access to natural dyes. And that meant plants that grew in their specific area. They only had so many options for combining those few colors. And, naturally, family members lived in the same area. So it’s true that members of a clan tended to dress in similar colors — very muted colors. But all of these rigidly designed, brightly colorful clan tartans you see at shops around here, they’re only about 150 years old.”
As for those stores: I love getting the local gossip in a city like Edinburgh. And during my time here, several people have told me, conspiratorially, that one very wealthy family owns dozens of shops along the Royal Mile. While the shops look different to create an illusion of variety, all of the profits go into the same big pot. The family has been very aggressive about gobbling up as much property as possible along the Mile, and in the process, they’ve made a lot of enemies out of mom-and-pop shop owners.
The term Edinburghers use for these tacky tourist shops is “tartan tat.” These are the shops displaying cheap, knockoff kilts in their windows. Wanting to find some better-quality shops to recommend in our new Rick Steves Scotland guidebook, several people pointed me in the direction of Gordon Nicolson.
Nicolson Kiltmakers‘ modest shop is tucked along the Royal Mile, just steps away from several “tartan tat” outlets. Gordon himself greeted me as I waked in the door, and shared his passion for kiltmaking. He explained that many kiltmakers have simply given up the old ways — these days, they find a bigger profit margin selling machine-made kilts. But Gordon is on a crusade to keep traditional kilt making alive. He takes particular pride in bringing along the next generation of kiltmakers. “I’ll be honest: The industry is top-heavy these days, age-wise,” he told me. “That’s why I want to show young people that making kilts properly is still a viable business.”
A top-quality kilt will run you about £400-500 — that’s around $620-775. Figure another £500 for the jacket and accessories, and you’re at about £1,000. Most of the expense is in the material of the kilt itself. A proper kilt is made of woven fabric. (The cheap “tartan tat” kilts are printed on.) But there’s a lot of labor required, as well. I watched one of Gordon’s kiltmakers painstakingly pin, then stitch, each precisely measured pleat.
Gordon took out a leather sporran — the pouch that’s worn around the waist. Opening it up to show me the seams, he explained that this one was hand-stitched by a country gentleman who’s well into his 80s. He then pulled out a couple of particularly fine, hand-carved daggers that are worn around the ankle, called sgian dubh — literally “black knife.”
Gordon also custom-designs tartan patterns. He’s very proud of the one he recently designed to honor the new John Muir Trail — a countryside walking route through Central Scotland that was just inaugurated to honor the Scottish-born American conservationist.
By the way, while they do carry some kilts in-store, they’re very unlikely to have your tartan in your size, available off the rack. To get a quality kilt, stop by for a measurement — they’ll ship it to you when it’s done.
Across town, in Edinburgh’s New Town, I met another Scot who’s trying to make kilts viable in the modern age. On funky and artistic Thistle Street, Howie Nicolsby runs a shop called 21st Century Kilts. He’s taking things in a very different direction from Gordon — updating the whole notion of the kilt to fit contemporary styles. Virtually everything he does is “bespoke” — fancy Brit-ese for custom-made. He explained that he’s encountered a lot of resistance (from traditionalists like Gordon, I’m guessing), but that he feels strongly that if the kilt is to survive, it needs to keep up with the times. He realizes that he’s filling a small niche, but that works fine for him. Since he does everything himself, he only needs about 400 customers a year to stay in business. Checking out the fun wedding pictures of dapperly kilted grooms, I found myself wishing I were Scottish, engaged, and rich enough to hire Howie to outfit my groomsmen. (My wife’s maiden name is “Scott.” Does that count?)
Gordon and Howie are taking things in different directions, but deep down their priorities are perfectly in synch: Kilts are a cliché, but they are also a very real and vivid part of Scottish culture. It’s a culture that has weathered many challenges across the centuries, but it has always persevered. And talking with people like Gordon and Howie, it’s clear to me that it always will.