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09.20  Hunting for Lost Crafts: The Value of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Scotland

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9:00, Sunday 5 Jun 2016 (30 minutes)

In 2014, Inverness Museum and Art Gallery curated an exhibition of crafts and objects called “Hunting for Lost Crafts.” The exhibition was built around heritage items from the collections of Inverness Museum and Art Gallery and the Highland Folk Museum and focused on crafts prevalent at one time or another in the Scottish Highlands associated with pursuits such as hunting, shooting, and fishing, which were once essential life skills but are now recreational sports. The exhibition also highlighted contemporary responses to these traditions through the inclusion of work relating to these activities by makers living in Scotland today. 

Craft in this context should be seen as an expression of intangible cultural heritage (ICH) whereby it is not only the material artifact that speaks of cultural significance, it is also the activities and expectations of communities that are driven by traditions arising from the geography of a place and the historical socio-economic networks associated with the location. In this sense, Scotland’s ICH is evidenced in the weaving of tweed for hunting clothes in the Glens, fly-tying for salmon fishing in the river Tweed in the Scottish Borders, the dying of wool and knitting of sweaters in Fair Isle in the Shetland islands to keep the fishermen warm. 

At a UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, 2003, the following edict was agreed:  “Any efforts to safeguard traditional craftsmanship must focus not on preserving craft objects—no matter how beautiful, precious, rare, or important they might be—but on creating conditions that will encourage artisans to continue to produce crafts of all kinds, and to transmit their skills and knowledge to others.” This was a brave, perhaps even contentious decision, but important since it sets out to ensure that regional and local craft knowledge is not lost but continues to find expression even when the social and economic motivators have gone or have changed, as is the case in much of Scotland. 

The Heritage Crafts Association paper “Crafts in the English Countryside” (2014), however, paints a bleak picture of the future of rural craft in the UK due in part to loss of skills, raw materials, and affordable places to live and work. The HCA’s belief is that the decline is also due to the value of intangible heritage and its association with craft practice not being sufficiently recognized or rewarded. “Crafts are under-recognized and under-resourced as a part of the heritage of the UK: research and advocacy is needed to help funders and policy makers understand and respond to the significance and value of crafts as intangible, living, heritage and the risks faced by particular crafts.” 

Using the Hunting for Lost Crafts exhibition as its starting points, this paper will critique the dialogue between place, history, and identity in the creative process, especially for makers who engage with heritage and traditional rural crafts in Scotland. Through such interrogation, we intend to question whether a better appreciation of intangible cultural heritage can benefit contemporary communities and makers or whether in the future we will all be hunting for lost craft skills.

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