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Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Scotsman paper attacks STA for defending Scottish tradition

The Scottish Tartans Authority (STA) published a very good article in their January 2007 issue of the Tartan Herald decrying the plague of cheap Asian-made acrylic "kilts" being sold to tourists along Edinburgh's Royal Mile.

Kilt wearers, and others who are involved in the Scottish heritage community, have long decried these cheap imitations that can best be described as "costumes" rather than clothing. However, to much surprise, the STA has come under fire for their attempt to defend the tradition of real Scottish kilt making.

Those of you who are members of the STA most likely have already read the article on question, but if not, it is available here:

The basic jist of the article has to do not with the comparitive merits of expensive, hand tailored, woolen kilts v. inexpensive, machine made, non-woolen kilts. The article actually had to do with "truth in advertising" and whether the merchants in question are guilty of misleading their customers.

The article included photos of the labels attached to these acrylic kilts (one is reproduced here). I, myself, have seen these same labels on cheap kilts being offered at Highland Games here in America. They claim that the kilt has been "designed in Scotland" and is made from "authentic woven material." The problem is that, while these claims are 100% true, they mean absolutely nothing. The fact that the kilt was designed in Scotland says nothing about where it was actually made (most likely Pakistan, in this instance), and while the kilt is made from "woven material" the material in question is poor-quality acrylic and not Scottish wool.
None of this would be of issue, of course, if the label correctly said, "made in Pakistan; 100% acrylic cloth." And that's the main point of the STA article. Edinburgh's Royal Mile is a big tourist attraction, and visitors to Scotland are being misled into spending their money on foreign imports rather than true products of Scotland.
Let's face it, when people buy a kilt like this, very often it is as a momento of their vacation to Scotland, and the value of the item is that it represents a unique Scottish tradition. While I, and other kilt wearers, may be able to look at a kilt like this and instantly know it is not an actual Scottish-made woolen kilt, the truth is that most people have no direct experience with kilts. I frequently talk to people who don't know if the pleats are to be worn in the back or front of the kilt, don't know what a tartan is, and don't know the different between wool, cotton, or polyester. They are not to be faulted for this, Highland Dress is just outside of their experience. And these people, on holidy in Scotland, are frequently fooled into believing that this cheap imported skirt is representative of true Scottish tradition and craftsmanship.
After the STA article came out, some of the shop owners on the Royal Mile predictably complained. No surprise there. My reaction was that if they took offense at the article, it was most likely because it struck a bit close to home.
However, the Scotsman newspaper recently ran an editorial criticizing the STA for being the "kilt police." You can read it here, but here are the pertinant parts.

The STA's biggest beef, however, seems to be with the ever-growing
popularity of lightweight kilts, which led them to claim in Monday's paper that
shopkeepers were misleading tourists by selling cut price acrylic kilts, for as
little as £19.99.
You'll not get a "real" kilt for less than £240
apparently, and therein lies the rub. How many locals, let alone tourists on a
budget, have a spare £240 to blow on a "real" kilt?
However, don't be misled into believing that the kilt police are driven by an
altruistic desire to save our heritage. The organisation might sound like some
historic body formed by the clan chiefs generations ago, but is actually a
fairly new collective formed in 1996 by Scotland's leading weavers and tartan
retailers ... no vested interests there then. Really, who cares what your kilt
is made of, as long as you wear it with pride.

Ok, first of all, whether the STA was formed in 1996 or in 1796 really has no bearing on the point of their article. The Scotsman author is just setting up a straw man. And yes, the STA membership is made up of some of the top tartan manufacturers and kiltmakers in the country. It is also made up of tartan scholars and academics, as well as a large body of interested individuals. And the STA watches out for the interests of its membership. Why shouldn't it? But the point to be made is that STA membership consists of many competing tartan producers. The STA here is not advocation for one company or another, but rather for the Scottish-based Highland Dress industry as a whole. And really, what Scotsman wants to see the tartan trade leave their country for the shores of some third-world nation? Recall not that long ago when the MOD was contemplating having the tartan for their regimental kilts made overseas? People were up in arms!

But the main complaint of the editorial seems to be that the STA is guilty of elitism, claiming that the only "real" kilt must be a heavyweight, hand tailored, eight yard masterpeice costing hundreds of dollars. However, this is not true! In the original STA aritcle itself, they state:
Most weavers and kiltmakers have no objection to cheap 'fun kilts' appearing on
the market, regardless of their country of origin or what they're made of.
After all, youngsters introduced to the 'kilt' through them will no doubt
graduate to the real thing one day. No... the objection is that people are
being misled into buying these cheap kilts under the impression that they're
Scottish and that the design, fabric, and workmanship are the output of
Scotland's traditional weavers and kiltmakers. That is regarded
as a travesty!
Notice how the Scotsman peice never even once mentioned this -- the main point of the STA article. Rather it attackes the STA for a position that they themselves plainly state not to hold.

Apparantly the author of the peice cannot even be bothered to read (or understand) the very article that he is commenting on. And the sad fact is that most people, not being members of the STA, will only hear about their opinion through reading garbage like this, without ever having the opportunity to find out what the STA actually said.

This author's expertise in the kilt stems from the fact that he rented one for a wedding once. And he is critcizing the STA for a position that they do not even hold. So, tell me... is it really the position of the Scotsman that cheap foreign-made acrylic kilts should be more widely available on the Scottish market? That is a position that I find very hard to defend!


Anonymous said...

WELL SAID!!!!!!!

That is an issue needing to be addressed. If people have never seen the "real thing" they are taken when a cheap quality version masquarades as the "real thing."
The RUB is that many won't know the difference and think all kilts are that bad.
The issue is not the quality really, but the masquarade is a REAL problem.

-John Wages

Kilted said...

I think the same, some people wear kilts just for fun...

fortunately there are some who keep their tradition and wear kilts (or do kilt hire) for every formal occasion. Most of them have quality kilt outfits.

Mountaineer said...

Part of the problem may be due to the fact that a lot of the tourist stores along the Mile are no longer owned by Scots, but by foreigners from Pakistan, India and China.

Kind of like buying a "Rolex" on the street or a foreign-owned shop in NYC...

MacSimoin said...

I quite agree with your stand on this matter, Matt. I'm a bit concerned that the Scotsman would allow this article to see the light of day.

Liam Rudden (who I'll assume is Scottish) also made the following telling statement in his article trashing the STA:

"Having attended a friend's wedding in far flung Stornaway, at which donning the full kit and caboodle was more or less obligatory, I discovered that looking smart does not compensate for the scratchy, sweaty, sticky, experience of wearing Highland dress. Give me a lightweight kilt any day."

To me it seems the crux of Rudden's article, and why he bemoans the STA's defense of his country's national dress, is material and cost (maybe the Scotsman should pay it's writers?). I wonder if Rudden's newly married friend will read this petty rant...maybe he won't feel so inclined to invite Rudden to his affairs. He obviously felt wearing authentic Highland dress was the right thing to do.

If Rudden detests wool, that's fine. Not everyone is comfortable wearing such heavy material, and some are even allergic to it. But that's no excuse to publicly degrade the efforts of those who choose to protect the validity and purity of your heritage.

Anonymous said...

It saddens me greatly that anyone would be taken in by such a load of crap.
A fine kilt is like an expensive cigar or an aged whiskey, the more you invest the better the quality. Not all well crafted kilts have to be wool though, I myself have an allergy to wool and have found many excellent crafters of non-wool kilts.
The sellers of these cheap kilts are not fully to blame either, they are merely profiting off of the uneducated masses. It really is up to the inexperienced to educate themselves on what a kilt truly is and what a true kilt is made of.
But I truly do agree with the fact that the tags should be truthful about the product and not sucker people in with false claims.

Anonymous said...

It is wrong understanding that quality kilts are not made in Pakistan. Try Tahir Shield & Musical Company kilts they are the best in Pakistan. I know them, they are very co-operative and experienced weavers and tailors.

Anonymous said...

I'd like to relay a story about being scammed by a bad vendor. I had visited a Scottish vendor at the 2001 Christmas market in Nuremburg, Germany. I was sold what turned out to be a woman's dress, not a kilt, by the Scottsman behind the counter. Luck would have it that I was able to give the thing to a female friend of mine. I have since then educated myself as to what a proper kilt is and where and how it should be made. I was able to turn a bad experience into a learning one. Luckily it was not an expensive schooling. What these cheap knock off kilts and dishonest retailers do well is tarnish the image of Scotland. Never buy a pair of running shoes from someone who is not a runner. Same goes for a kilt.

Josh said...

I think that the price for a properly made kilt is worth the investment. At the same time, I love wearing kilts and want as many as I can sport. Thus, Paki kilts and "CASUAL" kilts fit the bill. This should be a market driver. Scottish weavers should counter this non-wool kilts with something suitable of their own that would keep customers at their doorsteps (Those who want something alternative to a 400-800$ kilt) . Just a thought.

Tom said...

Hi, i just wanted to add that i live in Edinburgh and i wear the kilt. Shall i also add that i am not Scottish. I have bought a real 8 yard woolen kilt for 160 pounds. but recently i have bought myself a cheap kilt 30 pounds (was 60) for casual use to not damage my first one. i don't see anything bad in my wish to wear a cheap one (even if it is made in Pakistan) if it suites my needs. i certainly do not look ridiculous with it.

rinfrance said...

Hi, I wear a kilt all the time here in western France and to wear a woollen kilt in warm weather is not on nor to work in an expensive kilt.
I have several of the "cheap imitations" and they range from new to 3 year old. They can be bunged in the washing machine and worn an hour later, weather permiting.
They are not "bad", or "rubbish", yes there is a variation in material quality, the Hamilton grey nicer to wear than the Welsh tartan and so on. Womens clothing is by the same yardstick then all rubbish as my under kilt is of better quality (home made) cotten than many items of some modern clothing.
I wear a kilt for comfort, not for some tosser to tell me I need to wear a thicker, harder to maintain, and oh yes did I mention, a LOT dearer

Matthew Newsome, FSA Scot, GTS said...

I think it is interesting that this posting is nearly two and a half years old and still generating comments.

I also think it is interesting that a lot of the comments being posted are about the merits of inexpensive, non-woolen kilts, and why people choose to wear them over more expensive woolen kilts.

This post, and the original controversy that inspired it, was not at all about wool kilts vs. non-wool kilts, or expensive kilts vs. inexpensive kilts, or even Scottish-made kilts vs. Pakistani-made kilts. Those who react this way are missing the point entirely.

The issue has to do with poor quality kilts, being made in Pakistan or China, being sold to tourists in Scotland as genuine Scottish products. IT IS A TRUTH IN ADVERTISING ISSUE.

All the STA and others are suggesting is that kilts (and other products) imported from outside Scotland be labelled with their country of origin so that the visitor to Scotland knows what it is they are purchasing. That is all.

I, for one, think this request is only fair considering that Scotland is the home of the Highland Dress industry and many people come to Scotland to purchase their kilt and accessories expecting to find made-in-Scotland items.

Raj said...

Mountaineer says the problem is with Asians owning businesses.

These Asians come from countries that were part of the British Empire for hundreds of years.

Tartan, bagpiping and other parts Scottish heritage have been exported all over the world.

You can see this in the Royal Tatoo in Edinburgh with bagpipers from the same countries you are criticising.

If you are against a certain item because of poor quality or misleading labelling thats fair comment but when you bring ethnicity into it thats unacceptable.

Especially you suggest a kilt made in a foreign country is automatically bad or that Asians selling kilts is somehow wrong.

Being Scottish ethnically does not automatically make you an expert on kilts and not being Scottish ethnically doesn't mean you can't know about kilts.

I am of Indian origin born and raised in Scotland.

J.P.Sartain, Jr. said...

Re: MacSimoin's quote-

"the scratchy, sweaty, sticky experience of wearing Highland dress" At Stornoway? On the west coast of Scotland? Must be an extremely hot natured person. I wear a heavyweight wool kilt, regularly, in a climate far hotter (SE Tennessee) than anything in Scotland. It's cooler than pants any day. Can't figure out what got him overheated. J.P. Sartain, Jr.