While staying in a small hotell outside Inverness I was made aware of a local company that might be of interest to me. I say “was made aware”, but it was more like “here, look at this, it’s right up your alley” as WDW dropped a brochure in my lap one afternoon. And indeed it was! Partly because I religiously watched 64 episodes of “Monarch of the Glen” over 7 seasons. I confess though I have little recollection of it and even the episode guide appears quite bewildering now. I do remember that is was very absorbing though.
Bear with me though, please. Driving around Scotland it’s hard to connect with the sort of life the lairds are said to lead. Hunting stags, fishing salmon, whooping it up on grand estates (and I almost added: “getting into complicated romantic intrigues”, but I didn’t). You see the odd sign to an estate, maybe a short-wheelbase Landrover sitting on an outcropping, but no sign of rutting stags, jumping salmon or gnarly ghillies in plus fours. Yet here I saw a connection, through Campbell’s of Beauly, just a short drive away. And only 18 hours as the ghillie would stalk, over the mountain from where the fictional Kilwillie castle is located.
Campbell’s of Beauly is a Highland Tweed house. This means it’s a serious supplier of tweed garments, a lot of it to people that wear tweed for both work and leisure. And they’ve been doing so for a jolly long time as well, having been owned by a single family since 1858. In 2015 though, when the Campbell family line had run it’s course, they handed over the reigns to a new family, John and Nicola Sugden. Both are originally quite local and John has spent many years in the marketing side of the garment industry, primarily with Mackintosh, makers of traditional raincoat.
And it was John I spent a fascinating afternoon with. As mentioned, I had struggled to connect the laird lifestyle with modern day Scotland, but here was an in. Campbell’s work on a daily basis with all the huge country estates in Scotland, suppling the workwear for the estate workers. And this is workwear in the traditional sense of the word, as each worker gets a fresh tweed getup every year. This consists of a tweed jacket and two pairs of plus-fours. Yes, we are talking properly traditional gear here!
And not only do the guys working the estate wear plus-fours, but each estate also has their own tweed. Now this strikes me as an absolutely marvellous tradition. Does it matter which pattern the tweed of your workwear has? In real terms not at all, but given the long standing traditions of these estates, it is as important as Land Rovers, side by sides and taking proper care of the land.
What really struck me about Campbell’s was how real their history was. Many companies today will claim a history going back a massive amount of years, but if you start looking you may find that at some point it closed down, just to be conveniently resurrected by a fresh company looking to buy some credibility. Or, in many cases, the story is entirely made up by a creative marketeer.
In Campbell’s case though the business has been run, generation by generation, by the same family, in the same village and in the same line of business. I’d almost like to add that it’s the same people that have worked there all the time, but even though people tend to work there a long time that would not be entirely true. Jobs have passed from father to son though, as in the case of Tom the cutter, a chap who has been with the company for 45 years, or the three seamstresses with over 25 years. This speaks of experience and knowledge, and most of all that it’s a good place to be. In previous, and no doubt headier times, Campbell’s had 2 Royal warrants, a rare honour indeed. These days they supply the Royal household with their required tweeds and hope to regain a warrant.
Looking at the stock of tweed is really quite marvellous. Rolls and rolls of various colours and patterns, ready to be cut and sewn into traditional jackets and trousers. Many are marked with the name of the estate they represent. I can just imagine old Kilwillie dropping by for a fresh pair of plus-fours in his own tweed. Heck, it must be catching as it’s even making me want to have my own tweed.
Campbell’s have an in house team to take care of the made to measure work. The upstairs rooms were all busy fulfilling fresh estate orders when I was there, seven seamstresses busily assembling the pieces Toms has cut. It’s quite intriguing to see the skill and experience that goes into it. And knowing that these garments are not for display purposes, but actual workwear for outdoors use, makes you realises how properly they must be made.
I did notice something fascinating in the ready to wear line of garments though, Tartan trousers. Like bagpipes, I think tartan trousers must be something only Scots understand. I fear I will never be man enough to wear a pair, though I also think that I am more than ok with that.
I’m not sure of what plans John has for the business, but the day the tourist coaches start lining up in the lovely village of Beauly will be a sad one. It would be very satisfying to see it continue much as it is now, doing what it’s always done, making enough money to be viable. To me this was a genuine connection to the Scotland of lore, so visiting Campbell’s was much as visiting the Morgan factory two years ago was fundamentally British.