The Scottish Banner recently caught up with ScotlandShop’s founding director Anna White on being in the tartan business, opening a new North American branch and her love of the Scottish Borders.
SB: Anna thanks for speaking to the Scottish Banner. ScotlandShop was born out of your home in the Scottish Borders, can you tell us about the inspiration behind the business and its reach today?
AW: I started ScotlandShop in 2002 in the spare room of my wee cottage near Duns in the beautiful Scottish Borders, and we have steadily grown from there, driven by requests from customers and the fabulous resource that is the textiles industry in this area. I love colour and the tactile nature of the woollen fabrics we work with, and this was my original inspiration to set up the business. I wanted to bring the history and heritage of tartan to customers all over the world. I am also very passionate about this very rural area, I needed an interesting job myself without commuting into the city, so I created the business and have now been able to offer employment to lots of other local people, as well as supporting the rural economy by using local manufacturers. Today we offer over 500 tartans custom made into all sorts of clothing and interiors products, to customers across the globe.
SB: ScotlandShop has really embraced technology with sites in different languages, virtual Clan consultations and a robust presence on social media. How has using these tools helped ScotlandShop reach new international customers, and have they become even more important during the Covid pandemic?
AW: When I first started ScotlandShop, e-commerce was just beginning and there was a deep mistrust of the technology and of companies who operated purely online. Suppliers didn’t want to work with us as we were regarded as fly by night and not a proper bricks and mortar business. Thankfully over time this has completely changed and of course COVID has really cemented this shift. We have sold to customers in the US and overseas since day 1 and I suppose my personal interest and passion for international markets has also fuelled our growth in these areas. Both the internet and social media have meant that despite being located in a very rural area we are not limited by the local population in how we can grow our business, the opportunity to reach customers is almost unlimited. In the last 18 months our favourite move has been into video appointments and consultations with customers. Everyone is so used to Zoom now, and it is great fun teaching people how to measure and chatting about tartan with someone thousands of miles away, hearing their family stories and why they are choosing that specific tartan.
SB: ScotlandShop has attended Highland Games and Scottish events around the world. How important have these been for business growth and also how important do you think they are for the international Scottish community to have?
AW: So, despite all of the above saying how fabulous e-commerce and video calling is, nothing beats face to face and pre-Covid as we started researching where to have our base in the US, we ran pop-up shops and attended Highland Games all over the country. We started with Tartan Week in New York and had the best time, partying as well as working, marched with our giant Tartan Suited Mascot down 6th Avenue and met so many wonderful people. We then moved on to visit the Chicago Scots and join in their Highland Games, where the famous windy city nearly blew our tent away but again what an amazing welcome for our products. Emily, who will head up our US branch, then subjected herself to two weeks in an RV with myself and my two teenagers while we toured Canada, visiting Glengarry, Montreal and Fergus Highland Games. That gave us a real taste of the enormity of these events, it is very rare to get that many people to one event in Scotland! Just before Covid we also did a tour of Florida and we only just sneaked back home before the borders were closed. Of course we also attend Highland Games here in Scotland, with North Berwick one of our favourite more local ones, full of pipers as it always falls just before the Pipe Band Championships in Glasgow. So how important are these events? The most important of all! You meet people, you hear feedback you would never hear otherwise, you gain an understanding for who your customers are which is hard to do by phone or email, and they really appreciate us making the effort to be there. We loved learning more about the differences between the states and the cultural nuances we were missing.
SB: Tartan tells a story and is the core of your business, and when people think of Scotland many will think of tartan. What is it about tartan you love so much and what are some of the things you have learned about the tartan industry since starting the business?
AW: There is much I love about tartan. First up I love colour….I am wearing yellow trainers today which match the yellow in my Doddie’5 Tartan Scarf! I am also very tactile, and the feel of the different wool and cashmere products is one of the reasons I like working in our dispatch department, you get to handle all the products before they are packed and sent off. I worked with a few of the Scottish mills before I started the business and fell in love with the production process, the quality of what we produce locally and the story behind it all. The old files with the colour and dying information, the links to clans and landscapes and the changes from the original plant-based dyes to the chemical ones we use today. Everything has a story, and not just a brief story, hundreds of years of history and my favourite thing is that every day I learn something new and my passion to promote that particular tartan or product is re-fuelled. I wanted to create a business that didn’t just sell product, it sold products with meaning, emotion and story behind them. Also, because I really love this area of Scotland, I wanted to make sure it could survive economically and by selling products produced here I could contribute to that.
SB: Some may think of tartan and thinks kilts, but there is much more to it than just that. Can you tell us about some of the outside the box tartan items that have proved popular?
AW: We do make some quite unusual products as well as the traditional kilts and jackets. Tartan sneakers has to be one of them! I am currently trying to decide whether to have a pair made for myself in my husband’s MacGregor tartan or to simply choose my favourite colour combination. We also make ladies dress shoes and men’s brogues in tartan which are a nice way of adding just a touch of tartan to an outfit. We have made a cloak for a member of the clergy, in Clergy Ancient tartan of course, a suit using four different tartans for a British & Irish Lions rugby commentator, and the doggie bow ties and bandannas came about from a customer requesting them for a wedding. We have had some interesting embroidery to do as well but we love a challenge and as long as it’s in tartan we can usually do it!
SB: ScotlandShop champions quality products and Scottish made. How important is it for you to sell genuine Scottish products? Also how does it make you feel promoting Scottish products internationally?
AW: This is why I started the business, I wanted to sell products made in my local area to promote the economy of the Scottish Borders. We have had to source suppliers from further afield due to customer demand where specific manufacturing skills or capacity aren’t available locally but as far as possible we will always use what is on our doorstep. And of course, you can’t beat the quality of Scotland, and quality is another of those things I just won’t bend on.
SB: At a time of great uncertainty around the world ScotlandShop has announced they are opening a US operation in Spring 2022. Can you tell us more?
AW: It does seem a little crazy to open up a new location on the other side of the Atlantic when we can’t even fly into the US right now, however we just feel like we want to be really close to our market and customers and provide even better levels of service than we currently do. So Albany, the capital of New York state is our destination, and we will open a showroom and customer service centre there. Customers can come and see our products and be measured for garments, talk about tartan and peruse swatch books, and we will also be able to handle returns and customer service at hours that suit the US rather than us being asleep when they need answers! Most importantly Albany will act as a base for more pop-up events, attending Highland Games and supporting Scottish Societies and groups with their activities. We can’t wait to get more involved! We will be in New York once a month for pop up measuring and clan consultations from November and booking for that is now open.
SB: Finally Anna, as passionate as you are about your business, you are also incredibly passionate about your home region of the Scottish Borders. What is it about the Scottish Borders you love so much, and do you have any Border recommendations for a visitor to Scotland?
AW: People fly over the Borders into Edinburgh or Glasgow, or they zoom up the coast on a train and they miss what is one of the most beautiful areas in Scotland. I am a little biased of course but this area has so much to offer, particularly if you love the great outdoors, with walking and biking opportunities galore. The roads are really quiet so if you aren’t energetic enough for a bike, hire a car and you can cruise around and stop at all the many historical sites – my favourite are the smaller, lesser known ones such as Greenknowe Tower in my home village (home of the Gordon clan thousands of years ago) or Smailholm Tower which you might have seen lit up in celebration of Sir Walter Scott, or you can do the Border Abbeys route and take in these 4 better known ruins. If you are here in summertime, you must watch the Common Ridings which remember the traditional riding of the bounds of the local towns and are a sight to behold with hundreds of horse riders and everyone out lining the streets. But best of all is when I stand at my back door, looking out across to the Cheviot Hills, and it is just so quiet, with the only sound the birds cheeping, the tranquillity is very hard to beat. Then I head off into the mayhem of the ScotlandShop office!
For more information on ScotlandShop see: www.ScotlandShop.com