Tartan triumph

12th January 2007 at 00:00
No self-respecting Highland year of culture could face the world without an official tartan. The Golden Broom first flowered in a small, rural school to the north of Inverness. It will soon be on sale in Harrods.

"Mulbuie means 'place of the golden broom' in Gaelic," explains Shona Mackinnon, headteacher of Mulbuie Primary. "It's an appropriate name. The plant grows widely in these parts."

Like the broom itself, the tartan has grown strong and spread far, from humble origins. At first it was just part of a project on the Jacobites in Ms Mackinnon's Primary 67 class.

"We were studying tartans and the different designs for each clan. Then we turned it into an enterprise project - a wonderful way to learn. It takes in so many areas of the curriculum, it's about real life, and it really motivates the kids."

Each pupil was asked to design a tartan with local significance: "That is complicated, and it gets highly mathematical when you're looking at thread counts, symmetry and so on," she says. "The kids did really well."

Internet research and online design programmes were backed up by sessions with a local weaver, who shared his expertise with the pupils and helped them understand what made a tartan authentic.

"It has to be symmetrical and it has to be unique," Ms Mackinnon explains.

"You don't have to look through all the existing tartans yourself, though.

When you go to register your tartan, they will check it out for you."

Even the selection of one tartan from the pupils' designs had an enterprising aspect, as parents were asked in to choose the one they liked best by putting money in a jar beside it.

"Golden Broom got the most money, and the parents told us they wanted it as part of the school uniform."

The next stage was to get the cloth produced. Aiming for authentic, pre-industrial colours, Ms Mackinnon organised a whole-school investigation into natural materials as dyestuffs: "We had a book of recipes for how to dye wool naturally, and the kids had a wonderful time trying out heather, peat, wild flowers and even soot. They were digging up iris roots and scraping crotal off rocks. They made some beautiful colours."

With the backing of a bank loan, the pupils phoned around to find a firm that would turn their design into woven cloth: "Eventually they decided to use a mill in the north of England, because they couldn't find one in Scotland to match their price for a bolt of our tartan.

"It was a pity we couldn't find one in Scotland at the right price. But it was a lesson in business and real life for the kids."

When the tartan finally arrived, there was great excitement at the school - among children, parents and teachers.

"In a couple of weeks the kids had sold all 65 metres. So they ordered another two bolts. People were making school uniforms with the tartan - which look really smart. But they were also taking it home and making blinds and curtains, bedspreads and cushions."

Contact with Highland 2007 came when the pupils prepared marketing materials and sent one to director of education Bruce Robertson.

"He was very supportive," says Ms Mackinnon, "and asked us to showcase the Golden Broom at an enterprise in education event. Highland 2007 were there, saw what we'd done, and asked if they could adopt the tartan and use it on their products.

"Since then we have had a call from Harrods, which will be putting our tartan on sale in the spring, and we've been talking to a railway company which is thinking of using it to re-upholster their carriages."

As a registered tartan, copyrighted by Highland Council, the Golden Broom generates royalties. Almost pound;1,000 has already come to the school.

"The pupils have decided to use that to improve the playground and upgrade IT equipment," says Ms Mackinnon. "It will generate more funds once Highland 2007 really gets going. But my job isn't making tartan or money, so we've now got two parents to run it as a business. It has been fascinating, for the kids and me. But at the end of the day I have a school to run."

* www.mulbuie.highland.sch.uk

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