Reflections on Scotland

Reflections on Scotland


Highland cattle. Photo: Robert Kramer

Bladesmith Robert Kramer is the recipient of the 2015 American Craft Council Rare Craft Fellowship in association with The Balvenie. As part of his Fellowship, The Balvenie recently hosted Kramer on a visit to the Scotch whisky producer’s distillery, as well as a brief trip around the country. Here Kramer reflects on the experience.

It’s not often that someone says to you: “Hey, we like what you do. We’d like to send you to Scotland.” In the day-to-day scramble of what comes next, I got that call. I’ve been sharpening, repairing, and making knives for almost 30 years, and believe me, being a sole proprietor/craftsperson requires that you hustle every day, and time off is somewhat of a rarity. Twelve days away from the shop generally means a planned vacation, so the last thing I want to do is to go somewhere where it’s raining, but when Scotland is your destination, there is a good chance (no matter the time of year) that it will be raining. September looked to be the best shot at good weather, so we booked it. 

Given that this American Craft Council Rare Craft Fellowship was sponsored by The Balvenie, we headed straight for their distillery in Dufftown. Scotland, for the most part, seems to have ignored the memo that we all need to move quickly and do as much as possible at all times, and if you’re not scooting around like chipmunk on crack, you best get on your electronic device and look something up. Or maybe they got the memo, read it, and promptly tore it up. The pace reminds me of something from 100 years ago, when folks were more interested in doing a good job, taking pride in their work, and getting to know you more than the latest, greatest whatever. We landed in Aberdeen right around 5:30 p.m., and then had an hour and a half ride to Dufftown. The bucolic countryside reminded me of northern California in the fall. Gentle rolling hills garnished with perfect maki of golden hay waiting for someone to take a photo or paint a picture. By the time we got to our new digs it was dark (country dark), beautiful, and very quiet. We landed in a cozy country cottage somewhat rummy from 20 hours of travel. Thankfully our hosts had arranged a taxi, so that we did not need to think about how we would get to town for some chow. Thirty minutes later we were in a small pub having our first nip of the seductive, smoky-smooth scotch that Dufftown is known for. From the very first encounter all through our time in Scotland, I have to say the people were kind, generous, and thoughtful. In the states, when you go into a bar, generally you’re there to talk with the people you go with. In Scotland, if you’re in the pub, you are part of the party regardless if this is your very first time in the place.

Day two we awoke to hairy cows right outside the kitchen window. Magical, horned, hairy cows. These beautiful beasts are one of the oldest registered cattle in the world, and there they were right outside - basically in the backyard. After a cup of coffee, we headed to the distillery to get a VIP tour. I confess that before this trip, I knew nothing about Scotch, and here we are heading into one of the top distilleries in the world, and I’m loving it. There is a sense of quality from the moment you see the property. This place resonates tradition, old school, and pride. I won’t go into all the details, but I will say if you are at all interested in Scotland, go. Just book it and go. This trip was about craftsmanship. As a craftsman being recognized and having the opportunity to meet other craftspeople doing what they do best, this place had it in spades.

Ian McDonald is the head cooper for The Balvenie distillery. Ian has been a cooper since he was 15 years old, which was 47 years ago. Yeah, 47 years. This man was the distillation of what it means to be a craftsman, and we got to spend the day with him. He knew his craft inside and out. He could work with speed, competency, and efficiency. He took pride in his work. This guy puts together the barrels that hold single malt for as long as 50 years! Without leaks! Who else has that kind of long-term confidence in their work? It’s not just Ian, it’s all the coopers - same level, same quality. I got the feeling that this was the spirt of the distillery and, more over, this was Scottish pride.

Next we flew to Grand Malvern, home of the Morgan car manufacturing company. OK, again, I’m a bit of a dolt when it comes to cars. I’ve seen Morgans and always thought they were a gentleman's sports car meant for Sunday driving. Man was I wrong. First off, these puppies are hand-built. Not a robot in sight, just people with hand tools. Secondly, they are cool. You don’t need to know anything about them, just get close and you’ll see they are cool. This factory was a great example of how to set up production and show the public what you’re doing at the same time. Very interesting. I have lots of people who want to come see my shop and how it’s done, but really my production grinds pretty much to a halt while they are there because I need to focus on them. Not at Morgan. They make cars, and they give tours - all at the same time, every day. It’s a beautiful model as long as you’re not trying to take over Toyota. You go in interested in seeing how a hand-built car is made, and you come out wanting to buy one. Once again, the people working in this plant were first-class craftspeople dedicated to their discipline and collaborating to make a beautiful product. As in the distillery, we met people who had had the same job for 40-plus years, and they were content. Over lunch of fish and chips, which were hands down the best I’ve ever had, there was a conversation around how once you were hired by these companies, they would take care of you. You were now part of the family. Sure I got the feeling that they probably would never make as much as someone in the states; but, there was a feeling of team work there, of belonging to something bigger than you. You could say: “I helped build that.” It was palpable. Oh yeah, and we got to drive both the three-wheeler and the Plus 8; oh lordy, if you weren’t going to buy one after the tour, believe me: The test drive will close the deal.

On to Edinburgh... Edinburgh is old. Edinburgh is young. Edinburgh is happening. Castles, cobblestones, and college students. This place has deep roots, but at the same time is alive, vibrant, and thriving with young people and new ideas.

When we were planning this trip, my wife had made a request that she wanted to work in a pub for a shift. “Why?” I asked. “I don’t know,” she said, “I just want to.” Yes of course, why not? So our gracious host set her up at a proper Scottish pub, “The Thistle.” On the way to her shift she was nervous. Me too. Why? The unknown. But it’s just a pub. Yeah, but we’re in Scotland. Well, as I said before, once inside you’re a part of the party and no longer an outsider. She was brought up to speed in no time and the locals treated her as if she had been their favorite bartender for 10 years. In the meantime, I got to talk to the guy next to me at the bar - who happened to be a local chef. He was generous to buy me a few rounds as we watched Scotland knock the stuffing out of USA during the world rugby match. Cheers.

Next stop was Hamilton and Inches, a jeweler and silversmith business for more than 150 years. Established in 1866, Hamilton and Inches provides old-school craftsmanship to create virtually anything you could dream up. Oh, and they make stuff for the Queen. My my my. Jon Hunt, technical manager and silversmith, showed me around the workshops and introduced me to the other craftsman working there. Again this is old-school handwork. Aside from a very few processes everything is fabricated by hand from sheet and plate on up. They have a full-time polisher, four full-time silversmith fabricators, one full-time chasing smith, two full-time jewelers, and a full-time engraver. There is a drawing bench upstairs which is probably 150 years old and just gorgeous. And the selection of forming stakes was mind blowing. That’s what 150 years of building and collecting tools will do for you. The bottom line is: They make beautiful things here, by hand, old school. That’s the thing that doesn't change regardless of where you are in the world or what’s being made. It takes time, attention to detail, knowledge of technique, and (most importantly) an eye for good design.

One last stop, McDonald Armories. Paul McDonald is a walking, talking, history book of Scotland’s past battles and weaponry. In fact, I would be happy to make the bet that you cannot find anyone more passionate about it. Paul showed us around his work shop and began to lay down just a small bit of the history he knows so well. Afterwards we hit the Scottish National Museum to take in some of the best examples in the world of Scottish swords, daggers, lances, and targes, all of which Paul was able to bring to life by infusing them with tales from the past. Saturated, that’s what I was. Right to the limit of what my gray matter could hang on to. Time for a pint and some Haggis. It’s good. I know doesn't sound good, but it especially is with a nice cold, local microbrew.

The overwhelming feeling for me at this point was gratitude to all the folks that made this trip happen and took the time to allow my wife and me into their lives and workshops for the day. The next thought was how quickly could we get home, because I can’t wait to get back into my shop. My head is buzzing with new ideas.

Thanks to the American Craft Council and The Balvenie for making this possible. I am deeply grateful.