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Yearn for authenticity drives boom for north and north-east souvenir makers

VisitScotland iCentre in Ballater train station
VisitScotland iCentre in Ballater train station. Picture: VisitScotland/Kenny Lam.

Tourism body VisitScotland says its Shop Local retail initiative has brought dividends to Highlands and Islands as well as Aberdeenshire souvenir-making businesses looking to champion products made at home.

Traditional holiday mementoes have included staples such as keyrings, magnets, pencils, sticks of rock, ashtrays, badges or even plastic snow globes.

Engaging with Scottish crafters

However, today’s travellers are far more environmentally aware, meaning such knick-knacks – often made in bulk and imported from abroad – are no longer seen as desirable.

This has extended to VisitScotland’s information centres (iCentres) which encourage engagement with Scottish crafters and the promotion and sale of products sourced locally wherever possible.

Introduced as a pilot in February 2016, Shop Local was rolled out Scotland-wide and provides a platform for local businesses, craft makers, artists, designers and other artisans to promote and sell their products to visitors via the VisitScotland iCentre network. As many as 20 new suppliers joined the initiative last year alone.

Joan Fraser travel rug.
Joan Fraser products stress ‘Pure Shetland’ label.

Those working with the project create and sell a range of products including soy coconut wax candles, watercolour illustrations, handmade dog treats, loose-leaf teas, jewellery and brooches.

Other items include needle-felt gift sets, seaweed and sea salt, whisky barrel crafts, whisky accessories, prints, notecards and knotted-basket kits.

The initiative currently works with 326 suppliers across 26 sites, including 126 suppliers in the eight island centres – accounting for more than 38% of all Shop Local sales. Lerwick iCentre for example has 32 Shop Local suppliers and Kirkwall, 23.

Wraps have Pure Shetland label

Joan Fraser has been Shop Local’s most popular artist in the past few years. In the last year, VisitScotland iCentres have sold more than 130 of her Fair Isle scarves, wrist warmers, cowls and headbands and her company accounts for 5% of all retail sales in Lerwick iCentre.

Ms Fraser said: “I think it is particularly important to have these items made in Shetland – the wraps have a label on them that says Pure Shetland. It is a kind of a mark of respect to people who travel here to be able to go into a shop and find local products.

“The Shop Local initiative gives me a chance to offer my work to a wider group and offers visitors a window on to locally-made products.

Model poses with Joan Fraser shawl by sea.
Joan Fraser shawl.

“Around Christmas, I receive enquiries from people who have bought one of my products at the VisitScotland shop while on holiday and who then order another as a gift. I’ve had orders from all over the world through this connection.”

In common with other small businesses, Joan Fraser has its eye firmly on costs as energy prices soar and has seen material expenses rising on Shetland.

“The price of power has not had an effect yet, but of course, prices are coming through,” said Ms Fraser adding: “I am sure prices will be feeding through for power. I have not put up my prices for around five years so maybe next January I might have to look at putting them up a little bit.”

Shop Local is aimed not at established Scottish designers but at regional artisans without a retail platform.

It has been developed to provide a sales channel for small businesses producing ‘Made in Scotland’ products, offering visitors the chance to take an authentic, locally-produced piece of Scotland home with them.

Tourists wanting to buy local products

Visitors are now looking for a souvenir which supports local businesses such as Aberdeenshire-based company The Damside, which makes a range of locations-specific laser-cut wooden baubles and has recently started producing magnets.

Shop Local has already sold more than 1,660 wooden souvenirs from The Damside this year.

The Damside managing director Rachel Nowak said: “We are a family business working out of a workshop inside our barn, in rural Aberdeenshire.

Selection of The Damside products..
The Damside products.

“Our baubles are good sellers. Our recently introduced magnets with tartan ribbon are also proving popular. We strongly believe visitors should take home a gift made in Scotland. VisitScotland Shop Local does just that.”

Shortbread is another popular traditional holiday take-away and Shop Local works with suppliers such as Dean’s of Huntly from Aberdeenshire. The company has collaborated with Scottish artist Steven Brown to showcase his colourful cows and stags on the packets with the move a roaring success.

Packets of Deans Shortbread.
Dean’s of Huntly colourful Highland cows shortbread has been flying off the shelves.

Dean’s of Huntly key account manager Michael Louw said: “We went into the Aberdeen store as a local – the product sold really, really well.

“VisitScotland realised the product we were selling which was the Steven Brown art range, actually resonated with their full estate. The fact it was Highland cows, colourful and bright, it just was a marriage made in heaven. So we went back from a local supplier to a national supplier.

“We do try and source as locally as we possibly can.”

VisitScotland’s senior retail manager Yvonne Carr added: “Despite the challenges of the last two years we have built up a bank of diverse suppliers and Shop Local gives them a literal shop window.

“We have moved away from the old mass-produced plastic holiday souvenirs and are now selling a huge range of authentic, often bespoke gifts that have been sustainably and locally-made and are often delivered on foot by their maker.”