Monthly Archives: May 2014

10th Birthday of Heritage Of Scotland

As we celebrate our 10th anniversary since launching our online flagship, www.HeritageOfScotland.com, we want to share with you some of the behind-the-scenes facts and titbits that make this such a great company! In this very special blog you’ll learn all about Heritage of Scotland itself; from the products we supply, to our fantastic staff, and how we continue to grow and develop for our future!

Since our beginnings in the street markets of Edinburgh it has been our mission to bring high-quality Scottish goods to the masses. We soon had several shops in both Edinburgh and Fife, catering to a variety of markets from souvenir shops, to kilt outfitters, to specialised high-end stores selling luxury cashmere and Scottish jewellery. But it was the launch of our website in 2004 which really helped us to achieve our dream of reaching Scots globally, and the more our company has grown the more we have been able to offer. We believe everyone should be able to follow their heart and remain true to their heritage, no matter where life takes them, and so we are incredibly proud of the huge range we offer worldwide. As one of the biggest Scottish home-ware and clothing retailers we have something for everyone; from casual party kilts to handmade 8 yard masterpieces, from funny T-shirts to stunning wedding gowns, all aimed at everyone from preteens to pensioners!

Read About Tartan Colour Meanings

Our success of course is thanks to this huge range of products; we have offerings from every level of the market and are proud to say that we feel we have been instrumental in ensuring anyone can afford to honour their heritage, no matter what their income. But the jewel of our collection is of course the close relationship we have with amazing suppliers and craftsmen all over Scotland! We not only supply products from the biggest names in Highland wear such as Lochcarron, Thistle Shoes and Art Pewter, but also support many small companies and even individual artists to reach a worldwide client base with their authentic and passionate creations. Two of our favourite small suppliers, working in very different mediums, are Gwenda Watt of Needleworx, and Mark Turner of Mark Andrew Turner Photography. Gwenda lives and works in Stirlingshire creating beautiful tartan cushions with quirky Scottish silhouette designs such as Scottie dogs and Highland Cows, and Mark is a hugely talented young photographer now living in Bristol but retaining his passion for recording rugged Scottish landscapes with sensitivity and atmosphere.

Even since gaining our online presence, thingsJohn Morrison Edinburg have changed a great deal in the world of technology.  People are more connected than ever before and we are now active of a number of platforms, using eBay and Amazon to support our retail sales, but also getting to know our customers on a personal level through social media. We love to keep our followers up to date with the latest deals and products via Twitter and Pinterest (who can resist all those gorgeous photo boards!), but Facebook is our most well-loved forum for connecting with people and attaining our ultimate goal of promoting Scottish culture across the globe! We hear from our customers daily, and the customer service team love to see the photos people share with us – putting a face to the name of someone they may have been speaking with for a number of weeks is a great pleasure, as is seeing our products worn to some of the most important events of a person’s life; from tiny babes at their Christenings, to young men in their Prom kilts, blushing brides in tartan finery and much more!

Learn More About Tartan For Ladies

Through Facebook, and this very blog, we have been able to share information about all aspects of Scottish life; our wildlife and special places, myths and legends, real history, and our vibrant and proud present. In bringing people together we are also forging bonds within the Scottish diaspora itself; nothing is more heart-warming to us than seeing a comment from someone searching for their long lost family and clan and noticing that several other followers have replied to encourage and guide their fellow Scot. Likewise, we feel so lucky to be in a position of success which allows us to share our good fortune with others, offering prizes and experiences through our online competitions to promote and support Scottish creativity and cultural appreciation.

So what does the future hold for us? No one can ever know truly, but with our new venture into weaving at our very own mill in the heart of Edinburgh finally coming to fruition, and several other exciting projects in the works, we feel confident that we will continue to grow and serve the needs of our fantastic customers all over the world. Happy birthday to us, and here’s to the next ten years!

Bagpipes History

Love them or hate them, it can’t be denied that bagpipes are the quintessential sound of Scotland. In this blog post, prepare to learn more about these “instruments of war”, used to celebrate, commemorate and even intimidate, throughout much of Scottish history!
Bagpiper in EdinburghAlthough bagpipes are thought to be Middle Eastern in origin, possibly dating back as far as 4000 BC, the instrument spread throughout Europe during the early part of the second millennium AD. Unsubstantiated claims for their use in Scotland date from around 1300, but the first concrete evidence of “warpipes” being used in their traditional role on the battlefield comes from writings about the Battle of North Inch in 1396. This early association with the military has always stayed with the bagpipes; their penetrating notes were used to unsettle the enemy, and communicate with allies. The unique construction of bagpipes means that the high pitched and VERY high decibel shrills and skirls emanating from them can be heard for several miles, and with their aggressive tones they quickly supplanted the horns and trumpets which had been previously popular.

Modern pipes are made of four main sections; the blowpipe, chanter, bag and drones. Traditionally, the bag would have been made from a full animal pelt, in the distant past goats, sheep, even cows and dogs were used to make this part of the bagpipes! In modern times, thankfully it is more common for synthetic materials to be used for the bag – with a fabric covering often made from tartan – either the official band tartan, or the regional sett, or for soloist pipers their own clan design. The bag is a reservoir for air blown by the piper; as the bag is continually squeezed under the piper’s arm while playing the air is forced out through the drones to create sound. Five sticks emerge from the bag, three drones, a chanter and a blowpipe, and we will look at the role each of these plays now.

Read about Orkney

The blowpipe is used to inflate the bag; the pipe will prefill the bag before he starts to play then continue to keep filling the bag while playing. The blowpipe is usually made from hardwood though the exact wood type varies, and new techniques in the manufacture of this essential part of the instrument mean that pipers can fill bags more easily – leading to a smoother sound and more ease of playing. Unusually for a wind instrument, no reeds are played by the mouth directly, the blowpipe is just a filling device, and the reeds are contained within other areas of the pipes.

Also made from hardwood, the Great Highland Bagpipes has three drones – two tenors and one bass. Essentially, the drones create the music when the pipes are played; each one has a reed contained within and they can be tuned to different keys. As the air escapes the bag a constant low “droning” noise is heard, the distinctive noise of the bagpipes and the reason for this part’s name! When the bag is squeezed harder, more air escapes, increasing the volume and pitch of the drone, with the tone differing depending on the piper’s finger position.

The chanter is the most well-known part of the bagpipes, and is essential for player input. Held by the piper in both hands, the Angel playing bagpipeschanter is a long stem drilled with holes acts as the finger-board. As the player moves his fingers to cover or uncover the holes, the airflow within the instrument changes and the notes differ, just like with instruments such as the clarinet or flute! It was traditionally made from Scottish woods such as holly or laburnum, then later from exotic hardwoods such as cocuswood or ebony, though nowadays synthetic materials which are easier to maintain are also popular. Chanters can also be purchased with a mouthpiece attached, separate from the bagpipes themselves, as practice instruments.

Learn About Tartan Colour Meanings

Using a practice chanter can be essential for new players. Playing the pipes properly is a whole body effort – you must blow air into the pipe constantly, squeeze the bag under one arm at a controlled level to ensure the air is escaping at the desired pressure, and keep up with precise patterns of covering and uncovering the holes of the chanter to create notes – all while keeping the drones balanced on your shoulder and making sure no part of the unwieldy and large pipes slips or is dropped by accident! Understandably, this is very difficult to master all at once, so practicing just on the chanter allows the piper to thoroughly learn the finger movements required without the pressure of managing everything else all at the same time. As they gain more experience they can move onto using the full pipes, though many pipers will return to the practice chanter when learning a new piece of music until they are confident of their performance.

Bagpipes are often played in Scotland as part of an ensemble of pipers and drummers. All the pipers play the Great Highland bagpipes and provide the melody and complexity of the music, with the mixed drum corps providing the rhythm from a selection of snare drummers, tenor drummers and one (or occasionally two) bass drummers. Musically, the band follows the direction of the pipe major, though when on parade the drum major may be responsible for leading the band on their route and keeping time with a mace. The pipers almost always play traditional arrangements, but the drum scores are often composed by the drum major himself – and the drummers are judged not only on performance, but also on how well their drumming complements and suits the traditional sections played by the pipers during competitions.
Pipe band in the CanongateIt is in pipe bands that the bagpipes military roots can be seen most clearly; with drums and pipes being truly historic in their use on the battlefields, to provide direction or convey commands, to boost morale or to strike terror into the hearts of enemies. All battalions of the Highland Regiment still have pipers, and the practice has also been adopted by many other Regiments, not to mention civilian entities such as police forces, fire brigades or universities.

Read about Kilt Accessories 

As a solo instrument the Great Highland Bagpipes are also popular, from christenings to weddings, ceilidhs or funerals, even in modern times no Scottish life event is complete without a piper. Soloist pipers play an especially important part in traditional weddings, where they will often compere the event to keep things running smoothly (especially during the speeches!) as well as playing the bride down the aisle, providing accompaniment as the happy couple leave the church or registrars, and again when they enter the reception to be welcomed by their friends and family.

As Scotland continues to develop and grow into a strong 21st Century nation, the bagpipes continue to be a vital and vibrant part of its citizens lives; traditional soloists are everywhere, in our personal lives, working in partnership with Highland dancers, or even busking on the streets of our beautiful cities. Pipe bands bridge the traditional and the modern with innovative drumming and amazing displays of virtuoso technique. Even more encouraging, the pipes have been adopted by modern musicians in rock bands – or rather rock music has been adopted by pipers! With groups such as the Canadian Real MacKenzies, or Scotland’s own Red Hot Chilli Pipers blending electric guitars and punk vocals with the traditional sound of the bagpipes, it can truly be seen that this instrument goes from strength to strength and is one of Scotland’s best-loved and most defining features!

Scottish Whisky

Scottish WhiskyAfter a great Bank Holiday, we’re back with more great Scottish lore and knowledge for you – today we take a closer look at the Scotch whisky industry! Last year, we examined some of Scotland’s finest whiskies and gave you our top picks for each of the regional malts – this time we aim to look a little deeper and give a small glimpse into the process by which Scotch whisky is made.

Firstly of course, the ingredients and water used are of paramount importance. With only three parts to the recipe; barley, water and yeast, each of these must be perfect to obtain the correct flavour and bouquet that the distillery will be aiming for. Most distilleries are built on or very near to a source of clean water, such as a spring or borehole. Scotland has some of the world’s purest fresh water and the region the water originates from may affect the final taste of the whisky, for example water in the Highlands will travel through peat earth, giving it a higher mineral content (also known as hard water) which can result in a richer character to the finished whisky. Local water is used at every stage of the distillery process, so it is important for brewers to ensure that the same source of water and type of water processing (uncommon, but may be used to remove unwanted mineral build-up in the Islay region where water can be very hard for example).

Learn more about Scottish “Water Of Life”

Barley is also very important to whisky makers, though nowadays there is less emphasis on it being sourced locally in comparison to local pure water which is still very much an important asset for any distillery. Barley used for whisky making is generally very hardy, and variants with a high sugar content are preferred. Some distilleries, like Bruichladdich on Islay, have returned to their local and organic roots and are experimenting with ancient strains of barley, like those used by the first humans to develop agriculture, but many others import barley from large scale farmers instead of growing their own. The final ingredient for making Scotch whisky is brewer’s yeast. This gives the whisky its alcohol content via fermentation so is undoubtedly essential!

The process of turning these simple ingredients into the fabled Scottish Water of Life begins with malting the Scottish Whiskybarley. In this stage, barley is steeped in water for 2-3 days then spread on a stone floor to germinate for a minimum of one week. It will be turned from time to time, to prevent a build up of heat from the developing grain using a traditional Shiel – a specially designed wooden shovel, or by a variety of more modern methods. Once the barley has germinated it is dried in a kiln using peat or coke as a fuel; peat is favoured by many as it gives the final product a smoky and earthy flavour. The final step of the malting is to dress the barley, where the stalks are removed. Malting used to all be done within the distillery, and still is in some cases, but most Scottish distilleries now outsource this part of the process to experienced maltsters who can ensure the barley is treated and developed perfectly.

After malting, the barley is ground up into a flour-like substance known as grist then mixed with hot water and poured into a mash tun where it is mixed to encourage the enzymes developed during the malting process to convert starch into sugars. The resulting sugary run-off is called wort and is captured for use in the next stage, while the leftover barley is called draff and is sold as feed for farm animals. The wort is allowed to cool then has yeast added to convert the sugars into ethanol and give the whisky its alcoholic content. This process takes around 2 days and the result is a malt beer with an alcohol content of around 10%.

Read about Isle Of Skye

The next part is the distillation proper, and is quite complicated! The malt beer is introduced to a copper still known as a wash where the temperature will be raised so the alcohol boils off, leaving the “pot ale” behind, which again is used as animal feed. The alcohol vapour is siphoned off and plunged into cold water to allow it to revert back to a liquid form, now called “low wines”. This process is repeated again, in a spirit still instead of wash still the second time. The resulting liquid is divided into three portions, the second of these is the only one used immediately; this is called the “new make” and has an alcohol content of around 60-75%. The first portion, “the foreshot”, and the last portion, “the feints” are undesirable and are returned to the wash still to begin the process again.

The “new make” spirit is now ready for casking. This is the method by which all Scotch whiskies are matured to go from the raw, colourless condition they are in at this stage, to the smooth, smoky golden drink beloved worldwide. The type of cask is very important and could be considered the fourth ingredient in making real Scottish malt whisky, as age of the wood and previous contents of the cask will affect the final flavour. All casks are oak, some will be new while the majority will have been previously used to mature American whiskey (as the producers of this must use new casks for each batch), or Spanish sherry. The spirit will be matured for a minimum of three years and up to an amazing 40 years! Each year a small amount of evaporation will occur, reducing the amount of whisky in the barrel, and lowering the alcohol content of what remains. This is known as the “angels share” and very tight casks are much sought after as they can help to reduce this issue. Finally, after the prescribed maturation time, the spirit is bottled, either straight from the cask at full-strength, or after dilution with de-mineralised water, and another in the line of millions of bottles of true Scotch whisky is born!

Scottish Whisky We hope you have enjoyed this look into the procedures behind the creation of Scotch whisky; as a process developed over hundreds of years, it is a product that Scotland distilleries are understandably proud and protective of. The methods used to make Scotch whisky are enshrined in Scots law, though of course there is room for innovation whether that be distilleries such as Bruichladdich who wish to return to their traditional roots, or others such as Balvenie who have experimented with the last few years of maturation being done in old rum barrels to impart an exotic flavour to their product. As always we’d love to hear from you in the comments – what was your best ever Scotch experience?!