Scottish Borders Art Glass



A NightStar Paperweight aWhen young Andrew Holmes handed me a large beautiful paperweight reminiscent of the solar system, explaining he had made it himself, I knew that I was looking at something rather special, and resolved to find out more. Andrew was on the Scottish Borders Art Glass stand at the NEC Spring Fair, along with his father, Peter, and they invited me to come and see just how their glass was made if ever I visited Scotland. Six months later, I finally made that visit, spending a day alongside them as they created stunning vases, dishes and paperweights, dexterously wielding rods bearing shifting shapes of red-hot molten glass.


DCF 1.0Traditional crafts using techniques based deep in our history, passed down from century to century, have a fascination all their own. Pottery, weaving, candle-making, spinning and carpentry are all enthralling to watch - but surely nothing is more magical and spectacular than the miracle of a dry opaque powder being plunged into a furnace, to emerge as a glowing, semi-liquid sphere.


Peter Holmes was born in a small village in North Scotland, and when he was fifteen helped out at the local blacksmith. The blacksmith used to repair and sharpen the tools of a well-known glassmaker called Paul Ysart. One day Paul overheard Peter discussing what he intended to do with his life, and offered him an apprenticeship with Caithness Glass, at Wick. Peter jumped at the chance, keen to learn. In fact he was so enthusiastic that he would work all the hours he could, and soon began experimenting. Amongst the Caithness lines were paperweights containing objects such as glass beads, but as Peter didn't have access to these adornments, he tried anything he could find, even breadcrumbs and airgun pellets. He found he was creating paperweights which were different from the traditional style - he was producing abstract designs in the glass, and had developed a new style. Colin Terrace, manager of Caithness at the time, persuaded the company to produce Peter's innovative designs and they proved a great success. In 1977 Peter left Caithness Glass to form Selkirk Glass, then, in 2002, started Scottish Borders Art Glass. Eventually, Edinburgh Crystal took over Caithness and Selkirk, but they all recently closed, and as Peter said ‘now there are very few glassmakers in Scotland.’


C Selection aPeter gets inspiration for his designs from many sources, but one particular favourite is the sea. 'I come from the north', he explains, 'so the sea is all around, and is a great influence.' One day he saw a television programme featuring diver Jacques Cousteau exploring the watery world beneath the artic ice floes, and the images made such an impact that Peter began incorporating blue seas and ice caverns into his glass. He has dived to see for himself the world beneath the ocean, finding the swirling colours and shapes exciting, while another influence is the beauty of space; the stars and planets. A few years ago Halley's comet provided great inspiration. He seems to have passed both these interests onto his son.


Peter’s glass is Scottish - although the colours he uses are German, the silica, lime and other components are Scottish sourced. He uses North Sea Gas to fire the furnace; the cost is phenomenal as it needs to be left on the year round. The furnace is used to melt the clear glass. There are several 'glory holes' which are used to mould and mix the coloured glass, and three electric kilns. A 'gather' of clear glass is extracted from the furnace on a rod, and then the glassmaker skilfully rolls, blows, adds colours, smooths and shapes until eventually a beautiful object evolves. The object is placed overnight in a kiln which slowly reduces the temperature. Next morning, still warm from residual heat, it is removed from the kiln and left to cool still further until eventually it is cold. Then it will be ground, cut or polished if necessary.


DCF 1.0Andrew, Peter's son, spent a year working on an arts foundation course at college, but was unsure what he wanted to do, He tried selling some of his paintings, initially intending to work as a painter/illustrator. When Peter offered Andrew the chance of an apprenticeship with his new enterprise, Scottish Borders Art Glass, Andrew jumped at the chance and has been working there alongside his father for three and a half years. As a youngster, Andrew watched him making beautiful glass objects and was encouraged to make things for himself - he learnt how to manipulate oddments of glass by heating and bending them, and must have absorbed many of the skills just by observation. At the age of thirteen he made his first sphere, and now, at double that age, though he admits he still has a way to go before he could rival his father, he is already producing innovative and dynamic designs.


DCF 1.0In Scotland I was thrilled when he offered to make a paperweight for me similar to the solar paperweight I saw at the NEC. Called ‘Nightstar’ it is a large glass sphere containing two smaller orbs surrounded by small bubble 'stars'. I watched as he shaped and coaxed the glass, pricking out the bubbles using a small spiked tool resembling a florist's pin holder. Another of Andrew’s exciting paperweight designs contains small glass fish, and resembles a rock pool or the world beneath the sea. The fish, as with the flowers, butterflies, candles, garlands and other tiny objects enclosed in paperweights, are all made at Scottish Borders Art Glass, mainly by Lorraine Clapperton. It can take twenty minutes to make a basic flower, and longer for the more intricate pieces. The tiny pieces of glass are formed into the required shapes in a process called lampwork, which utilises a small blow torch. Some producers of paperweights buy in the 'decorations' from abroad, finding them too time-consuming to make in the studio, so it is good to know that the everything about the glass made here is Scottish, right down to the tiniest flower petal. Probably the most evocative pieces are those containing the Scottish thistle, especially popular with tourists and those with Scottish connections.


DCF 1.0Glass is an exciting medium; no two pieces are exactly alike. ‘Sometimes’ says Peter, ‘you’re making something which turns out different to what you expect, so you develop it.’ Andrew agrees, ‘I used to make things and it was a surprise how they turned out. Now though, I’m a bit more skilled so things usually come almost as I hoped.’ Andrew is particularly keen on abstract design, ‘There are so many things to do with glass. I particularly like the creative side, it's much better than the repeat orders, as I can be more expressive. It's like painting in glass.’ He is particularly keen on splattering colour, recycling waste glass off-cuts to embellish new items, and he admires glass artists such as Dale Chihuly and Chris Buzzini.


He gets terrific job satisfaction, finding every day a buzz when he opens the kiln to see the results of the previous day's work. Downsides are few; there is a lot of physical labour involved, there can be stress as you are never quite sure if your work has been in vain, and the job is not particularly well-paid. I wondered about burns and accidents, and Peter remarked that he had a couple as an apprentice, but 'after that you learn to be careful'. Andrew added that you never make the same mistake twice, ‘you soon learn what’s hot!’


When I visited, a young lad was making himself useful around the studio. Peter explained that he was on work experience from a local school, and apparently had already tried his hand at making a simple glass object. Whether he will decide to enter the trade remains to be seen but it's good to know that small companies, such as Scottish Borders Art Glass, do encourage youngsters to learn the older trades.


Andrew explained the equipment to me. As glassmaking is a traditional craft some of the tools in use are a hundred years old, and the methods practised at Scottish Borders Art Glass have scarcely changed over the centuries. Glassmaking is energetic; the craftsman moves from furnace to glory hole to bench to marver; sometimes he is standing, blowing the glass through the rod (looking for all the world as though he is drinking a yard of ale), and at other times swinging and twisting the rod, loaded with heavy molten glass, rather like a juggler at a circus. A marver is a kind of table where the colours and moulds are set out, with a cupboard below to store tools (and, as Andrew said, all the other bits and pieces you don't want anyone else to 'borrow'!). Metal bars are placed alongside each side of the bench, and along these the rods are rolled to endure the glass on the end stays symmetrical.


Carbon paddles and blocks are used for smoothing, and wads of wet newspaper and tissue are used for shaping the hot glass. (At Scottish Borders Art Glass, they prefer to use 'The Sun' for shaping the glass, reckoning that, once it is soaked, it provides perfect protection for their hands against the searing heat; something to do with the paper quality, perhaps!). Molten glass is cut with shears, while Jacks, which look rather like callipers, are used for sizing the glass and enlarging apertures in the necks of vases and bottles. Andrew likes to keep his tools neatly to hand - with glassmaking, you can’t put down the softened, intensely hot glass while you go in search of an implement. The wooden moulds used for some of the glass items are made from pear, beech or apple & last for about a year. Interestingly, each mould suits a maker, because, rather like a fountain pen, everyone holds them differently. Andrew and his father have their own sets.


Andrew’s ultimate ambition is to make ultra large sculptures of people, incorporating glass into their construction. With his aptitude, plus the skills inherited from his father, the future is glassy bright for this talented young man.


Contact: Scottish Borders Art Glass Galalaw. Hawick, TD9 8PZ Roxburghshire Scotland Tel: 01450371425