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Tartan Masterpieces

It takes a year or more to learn the intricacies of making a proper kilt, and the Keith Kilt School is the only place in the world where these time-honored skills are still taught.


"Terry, you don't know how to make a kilt!" I had just assured Beverley Scarlett that if she gave me one of the coveted labels from the Traditional Kiltmakers' Guild, I would simply photograph it and never sew it on to anything I might produce with my own fair hands. Our conversation collapsed into laughter. I met this straight-talking, warm-hearted woman in a former weaving mill beside the River Isla, where the Keith Kilt School flourishes under the banner of the Moray Textile Project. Beverley is the school's sole tutor, traveling more than 40 miles from her Aberdeenshire home in Ellon in order to initiate her students in the art of kiltmaking.

Keith is a lively market town, tucked into the foothills of the Grampian mountains and surrounded by fertile, rolling farmland. The main street is a browser's delight of small shops run by friendly local people. The sturdy greystone buildings -- typical of this northeast corner of Scotland -- reflect centuries of prosperity based on weaving, whisky and agriculture. The agriculture and whisky have endured. The weaving mills closed in the 1990s -- a serious blow for the townsfolk who had been employed in the industry.

The Keith Kilt School opened in 1994, thanks to the vision of master kiltmaker Robert McBain. It offered redundant mill workers a chance to retrain and put their considerable textile skills to new and profitable use. Robert himself had learned to make kilts in the army for the Highland regiments, where standards were extremely high. He had a wealth of experience at his fingertips and he saw a growing gap in the kiltmaking industry. As worldwide interest in Scottish Highland dress grew, the demand for kilts threatened to outstrip the number of trained kiltmakers. With major funding from Moray Council and the European Social Fund, Robert established the world's only independent and verified school for kiltmakers in a former darning shed of the Isla Bank Mills, and developed the Scottish Vocational Qualification (SVQ) in kiltmaking. As a customized award, it belongs to the Keith Kilt School and cannot be presented by any other body.

The full text of this article is available in the current issue of Scottish Life.

Click here to preview our feature article on Calum's Road by Richenda Miers.

Photos above: © Terry Williams.