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I'm an arts journalist & PR consultant living and working in Scotland. I've been a journalist for more than 25 years. I write a regular column for Scottish quality newspaper, The Herald. I deliver a PR service with an arty bent and work on a consultancy basis with arts organisations, including Scotland's leading creative industries festival, XpoNorth & broadcast support body, ScreenHI. I am currently co-writing a book about the celebrated Scots artist, George Wyllie, with his daughter Louise. Instrumental in making a celebration of his life's work happen in 2012. For more information, see www.georgewyllie.com When I'm not being a mum/working, I talk to my dog. He laps it up. Contact me on janpatience@me.com (All work © Jan Patience)

Monday, 14 December 2009

Comfort Zone - Tunnocks style

In one of these curious twists in McArt Land, in the past week, all roads have led me to the Scottish comfort food of my youth

I posted a pic of Fiona Wilson's fab digital print of a Tunnock's Teacake (currently on sale at Mansfield Park Gallery in Partick, Glasgow) on my facebook page a couple of weeks back and the response was instantaneous.

For most Scots, born, bred or living in exile, the prospect of a wee sweet something from Tunnocks is an enticing one. Be it tea cake or caramel log which floats your boat, there is something about the gloriously sparkly packaging which gives you a wee endorphin boost before chocolate has been guided to mouth.

That train of thought takes you on to other childhood treats... fried plain bread (Mother's Pride, of course) and a Scotch Pie, complete with the haute cuisine topping of Heinz baked beans.

This is comfort food, with a Scottish twist. It's as reassuring as getting a copy of The Broons in your Christmas stocking, or watching the Rev I.M Jolly on Hogmanay. It's about going back to a day when life seemed to much more simpler. And, well, Scottish...

When people started commenting on Fiona Watson's tea cake, I remembered that in the current issue of Homes & Interiors Scotland mag (on sale now in all good news emporiums) I had written in a round-up of Scotland's best gallery shops about some quirky retro t-shirts, aprons and tea towels by a young Glasgow-based designer called Gillian Kyle.

As well as the tea cake, Gillian has immortalised a Glasgow Breakfast on her products, which consists of such hangover-busting fare as Irn Bru, a (healthy choice) Scotch Pie and a Wham Bar. I have to confess that the Wham Bar had passed me by, but I do believe it was a staple of the 1980s Scottish childhood.

As a student in Aberdeen in the 1980s, I had moved onto more sophisticated fare by then. White pudding and butteries, fresh from the all-night bakery anyone?

Back to Gillian Kyle. In a panic about Christmas presents for the American branch of the family, I remembered her well-priced peculiarly Scottish foodie goodies, so tracked her down to a craft fair in Glasgow's Royal Concert hall last weekend.

I then surprised her cousin, who was manning the stall, by buying up a hefty portion of tea cake t-shirt stock plus some other irristibile items, such as a wee tea cake t-shirt for my one-year-old niece.

Imaging my surprise then, when a couple of days later, I received a call from the Sunday Times asking me if I could do a profile of Gillian and her meteoric success. You see, there is synergy in art and journalism.

The resulting feature published in yesterday's Ecosse section of The Sunday Times, was chopped down a little owing to pressure of space, but here is my original text:

For a vegetarian ‘bordering on vegan’, who admits to being ‘pretty obsessed’ about maintaining a healthy diet, Glasgow-based designer Gillian Kyle has become something of an expert in the field of retro Scottish comfort food and drink. In the 11 months since she set up her printed textiles company, Gillian Kyle, complete strangers have approached her to share innermost secrets about their relationship with iconic Scots foodstuffs, such as Tunnock’s Tea Cakes or Mother’s Pride Plain Bread. ‘I know exactly where they’re coming from,’ says the 31-year-old textile designer.‘When I’m selling at fairs, I can see people coming towards my stand pointing a finger. They’ll home in on my tea cake t-shirt and start telling me all about their memories of eating tea cakes at their grannies on a Sunday afternoon. ‘My gran used to make us Spam toasties and I also remember when I was wee, I loved plain bread with honey! Then there was a Saturday lunchtime,when my dad would come back from work and have a pie with beans on the top.’ ‘My Glasgow Breakfast design is a big talking point. It‘s made up of Irn Bru, Tennent’s Super Lager, a Mother’s Pride plain loaf, a ‘healthy choice’ Scotch pie, Scott’s Porage Oats and a Wham Bar. There seems to be a generation gap with the Wham Bar, which was very much a staple of an 80s Scottish childhood, the era I grew up in.’ For retro, read the unhealthy, but comfortingly nostalgic fare of our collective Scottish youth, for which there is clearly an insatiable appetite, if sales of Kyle’s rapidly expanding range of printed bags, t-shirts, aprons, tea towels, baby wear and cushions are a gauge. Kyle, a softly-spoken former management consultant, who operates from her flat in Glasgow’s south side, has barely had time to catch her breath in the last two months, such is the demand for her products. ‘Things reached a peak at the end of November,’ she confides over a peppermint tea in the dining kitchen of the flat she shares with her fiancĂ©, Tom Elliot. ‘People have been buying up the products to send to relatives overseas as Christmas presents and I can’t keep up. The Tea Cake and Glasgow Breakfast t-shirts are my bestsellers but I’ve just had 250 Tea Cake foil bags printed and they’ve all gone. ‘In November, I had five times as many sales through my website as I had in October. It’s crazy. The ex-pat market is one of the many things which has taken me by surprise about this business. I had no idea that so many Scottish people had relatives in Canada and America or beyond. I don’t, which is interesting…’ The inspiration for Kyle’s quirky collection of Scottish icons on cotton came last Christmas, six months after she graduated with a degree in printed textiles from Glasgow School of Art. ‘I was sitting at the kitchen table with Tom when we came up with the idea. I’d just turned 30 and knew I had to do something because I’d already decided that being a bit older than my friends from art college, I wasn’t going to go down to London and live in a bed-sit. ‘I’d had a brush with the world of high end fashion when I did a work placement for a major name in the fashion world, and I realised it wasn’t for me. You can’t have a normal life and work in high-end fashion. ‘I’d always loved drawing, so I thought I’d do some drawings of Scottish foodstuffs which were nostalgic, but fun and print them onto bags and t-shirts. Unlike most new graduates from art school, Kyle quickly focused on how she could go about transforming this idea into a viable business. She explains: ‘My parents both run their own businesses and my first degree was in language and business. After that, I worked in management consultancy, so the thought of setting up a company didn’t worry me.’ At the start of 2009, Kyle decided to push the idea forward by booking a place at Scotland’s annual Trade Fair at the end of January in the SEEC, Glasgow. This key event offers a showcase of over 500 established and brand new companies and for Kyle, it offered an early indication that she had tapped into a market eager to snap up her quirky, well priced retro designs. After a year of ‘pretty hard-core‘ graft (including two days at the much criticised Gathering in Edinburgh, during which she made a ‘nice wee profit’), Kyle’s business has now grown to the point at which she is about to take on staff to help cope with demand. In between planning her wedding to Elliot in the summer, she’s also working on a new range of designs and products. So far, high heid yins at Uddingston-based baker, Tunnocks and Barrs, makers of Irn Bru, have been happy to let Kyle use their iconic imagery free of charge, but she has been negotiating with Barrs recently and there is no talk of money changing hands. ‘I’d like to break away from purely Scottish foodstuffs,’ she admits as we discuss the relative merits of McGowan’s Toffee, Love Hearts and Creamola Foam, for which she has a series of tantalising designs on the drawing board. ‘There’s scope to do a lot more. I thought that it would be a purely Scottish thing, but a lot of the teacake products have gone down well in England. ‘When I started to draw the Scottish foodstuffs, it was from a place of affection, not satire. There was a slight element of sending it all up - but in an affectionate way. Could I reach the same level of affectionate nostalgia to tap into that market…? I don’t know.’ www.gilliankyle.com

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