The Hidden History of Scotland’s Pottery: “Nearly 250 years – why didn’t we know about it?”

By Kate Connor (she/her)

I had only just begun recording when the door to the hall echoed opened. An elderly couple bustled in and presented a perfectly intact pottery biscuit barrel on the table in front of me, enquiring about its history.

It was only but a millisecond of a glance my interviewee Ruth Impey, gave to this piece of pottery before telling the couple all about their biscuit barrel. She knew the name of the pottery (Britannia), who owned the pottery (Robert Cochran), and when the pottery would’ve roughly been made (before 1940). All this information from a small stamp at the bottom of a barrel!

Though the event has now ended, from July to October a pottery exhibition from the Scottish Pottery Society (SPS) was available for visiting in Maryhill. Ruth Impey and a member of the society herself, led me through her pottery journey, and what this exhibition means for her and the society.

Ruth travelled a great distance before arriving at the SPS. She had been working on a project in Abu Dhabi for some time before her return to Scotland. Upon returning, she used pottery as a way to keep herself grounded while adjusting back to Scottish surroundings.

She threw herself into research of the pottery history here, and what she found was staggering: “I was astonished to understand how many potteries there were, and how little is known about it,” she said.

It was this research that led her to join the society. Her aim was to bring awareness of the history to the public to “broaden their appeal”. This is where the idea for the exhibition came in.

The focus of having the exhibit, Ruth says, was to underline that the potteries did exist, they were here. She walked me through the timeline of the potteries’ history, landmarked by pieces from the correlating decade. There was such a variety of pieces in the exhibit; it was a great visualisation of the changes in styles over time.

One piece in particular had a design technique known as ‘Spongeware’, which potentially originated here in Scotland: “I’m happy to go with that until somebody tells me different”, Ruth jokes.

Ruth also worked with a team of students from City of Glasgow college on a competition project. I spoke also to Kadriye “Kad” Zorlu about their involvement and creating the winning piece.

“The main inspiration…was to highlight the makers, particularly the women involved in the industry…I felt as though their skill and stories deserved to be represented.”

Kad echoed Ruth’s feelings on the unawareness of this part of history: “I grew up hearing stories of Glasgow’s famous shipbuilding, transport manufacturing and even textiles industry – but never once of ceramics.”

Pottery was an industry in Scotland that seemed to disappear almost overnight, there is very little left and it was wholly undocumented. Many of the pieces were unmarked, the potteries themselves were not photographed and the introduction of the M8 motorway has made it very difficult to even trace back where the potteries could have been.

However, Scotland’s impact on the pottery industry has been second to none. Ruth managed to find evidence of intercultural connections that were made through pottery. We managed to find a “niche” in Southeast Asian markets – how bizarre is that?

Ruth hopes to have a permanent Pottery Museum to showcase this hidden history of Scotland, and she is currently hoping to also host another pottery event for National Clean Air Day next year – so look out for that!