Consider for a moment the rich culture of Scotland, and of the Highlands in particular, and several iconic images spring to mind. One might envisage an amber malt whisky, distilled in the silence of some remote northern glen, or picture a lone piper playing a lament on the battlements of a once great castle. Almost certainly, the kilt will be present in your thoughts and, with it, the sporran.
The origin of this essential item of Highland dress is lost in far antiquity, but history records that the sporan (the Gaelic word for purse) was certainly worn along with the breacan an fheilidh or belted plaid, in the mid to late 1500s. The sporran is, after all, a surviving medieval belt pouch, an article once commonly worn throughout Europe.
Though originally little more than a deerskin bag tied with a leather thong, its aesthetics assumed greater importance in the 1850s, when Queen Victoria and Prince Albert embraced all things Scottish and made Highland dress fashion able. Ornate sporrans fashioned from the fur, hides and masks of various creatures then became de rigueur for soldiers, explorers and aristocrats of the day.
Having met talented sporran maker Kate Macpherson at last year’s Moy Game Fair, I was keen to visit her Inverness-shire workshop, in order to gain a better understanding of this fascinating Highland craft.
At her home, high above the valley of the river Beauly, Kate explained that her career as a sporran maker had actually come about by accident. Taking a break from university, she spent a gap year in Zimbabwe, and there developed an interest in taxidermy. Returning to the UK in 1985, she enjoyed a successful stalking trip to North Uist in the Outer Hebrides, bringing home the skin of a red deer which she wished to have tanned.
After making numerous enquiries, Kate made her way to the taxidermy department at Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum in Glasgow. Her deerskin was cured and, while at Kelvingrove, Kate learned that a taxidermist in Oban, on Scotland’s west coast, wished to take on an apprentice. Grasping the opportunity, Kate contacted him.
Though she showed a natural aptitude for her chosen craft, Kate sadly had to cease her training after only nine months, for personal reasons. The skills she had learned during this time, however, were to prove invaluable in the future.
After having received several requests to make sporrans for friends, Kate set up her business in 1986, and has never looked back. Working from her current location at Breakachy Farm, Invernessshire, since 2002, she now handcrafts an average of 100 sporrans a year.
Kate explained to me that she is blessed by being situated amid so many sporting estates. Being aware of her talents, local gamekeepers are happy to keep Kate supplied with the skins of game and vermin alike.
With a broad smile, Kate added that she will quite often open her front door in the morning to discover a fox — shot the night before — lying stretched on the doorstep.
When the skins of red, fallow, roe and sika deer are required for sporran making, Kate prefers to use those culled in summer. Summer skins have softer hair, and are more pliable, thus easier to work with.
Skin, wash, tan and dry
Being aware that badger sporrans have long been popular in the Highlands, I raised the subject of using protected, non-game species. Kate told me that she produces a number of badger sporrans annually, all from road casualties. But to keep in step with current legislation, she must receive a letter from the person who finds a dead badger, explaining fully the circumstances of its demise.
The same also applies to both tawny and barn owls, though not to road-killed pine martens. To create a sporran from the skin and mask of this arboreal weasel, Kate first requires a licence from Scottish Natural Heritage, based in Inverness. No matter the circumstances of a wildcat or otter’s death, it is illegal to use their pelts for sporran making.
Kate pointed out that for best results to be achieved, all carcases brought to her must be fresh. Once the subject has been skinned, the pelt is washed thoroughly, before being immersed in an alum-based tanning solution for 48 hours. After the tanning process is complete, the skin is removed from the solution and washed in soapy water, before being pinned out on a sheet of plywood.
In the case of a fox, badger or marten mask, the skin must be stretched over a polyurethane skull form while still wet. This detail is of vital importance — as the skin dries out, it also shrinks.
The process of drying can take up to three weeks, with the time period being dictated by both temperature and the size of the skin. When fully cured, all skins are handstitched on to a leather backing and edged with calf skin. Cantles of silver, pewter or plated chrome (with clasp closings) are then screwed or bolted into place. These sporrans are not to be confused with greatly inferior Asian imports.
Viewing a selection of Kate’s finished work, it was easy to see why she has an international client base, with bespoke sporrans being exported as far afield as Hong Kong, Australia, the US, Singapore, and even the Falkland Islands. And sporrans crafted at Breakachy have also followed Scotland’s football team around the globe, as they are regularly worn by those wonderful ambassadors of the beautiful game, the Tartan Army.
With prices ranging from £85 for a child’s sporran to £570 for a man’s sporran with silver cantles, there is something to suit every purse at Breakachy.
For further information, visit www.katemacphersonsporrans.co.uk or tel 01463 782116.