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25 Jun 2020

Meet the Makers: Anthony Wright from Barrhead Leather

A leather handbag shaped like a sporran, with a tweed middle panel. It has a long thin shoulder strap. It has a label declaring it is made from official Harris tweed.
Barrhead Leather’s ladies’ sporran with Harris Tweed
The Trust is proud to support talented makers and craftspeople from across Scotland, by selling their products in our physical and online shops. This time, we meet Anthony Wright of Barrhead Leather.

My name is Anthony Wright. I’m a seventh generation tanner from the village of Uplawmoor near Barrhead, where my grandfather set up the Barrhead Kid Co. Ltd in 1938 to tan goatskins from East Africa. My family have always been ‘small skin’ tanners – calf, sheep, goat and most recently, in my case, deer. I have always worked as a tanner, but I started producing finished articles with the leather when I began processing Scottish deer skins. I am now a handbag manufacturer as much as I am a tanner!

I started tanning Scottish deer skins 15 years ago when I learned that every year 120,000 skins, a bi-product of the Scottish venison industry, go to landfill. Having spent time working in developing countries on UNIDO-sponsored projects developing their indigenous raw materials, the irony was not lost on me when I now found myself spending time in my own country developing a supply chain with the various rural estates and game dealers, educating them on the best practice of skin removal and preservation. This previously had been a large part of my brief in Africa. We now process about 5,000 skins per year.

A man stands outside smiling, holding a large leather tanning tool. He wears a white stained shirt and a thick apron tied around his waist.
Anthony Wright

It was hard to find a market for the leather we were producing, as finished goods manufacturing had all but moved off-shore in a mass exodus. We wanted to find a small manufacturer making a Scottish product that would benefit from the incorporation of Scottish deerskin leather. This proved difficult, but we managed to find a semi-retired bag-maker who was winding down his business. He started making bags for us on a subcontracting basis, but over a short period of time we absorbed his business into ours and employed him up until his retirement aged 75. The business soon outgrew our available space in the tannery, forcing us to find a new home for our now fully fledged bag-making operation.

We moved into separate premises a mile along the road from the tannery, a disused filling station that, like many very old garages, had started life as a blacksmiths. Originally it shod horses on the old toll road from Glasgow to Irvine, hence our address the ‘Shilford Smiddy’. Initially we rented the premises, but after the first year the owner was keen to sell the property and, after what proved to be one of our smarter moves, we bought the site.

It is hard to overstate the importance of ‘Made in Scotland’ for our business. I was determined to develop a business that could not be moved off-shore and that would ultimately succeed through manufacturing something people could relate to and therefore be prepared to pay for.

A leather sporran handbag hangs from a handle. It has a red tweed middle with leather tassels.
The sporran handbag

The Harris Tweed handbag craze resulted in companies starting to import bags to compete in our market. We doubled down on the emphasis of our leather being special in its appearance, feel and, most importantly, provenance. We came up with a slogan: ‘The difference is in the leather’. Although it had the hallmark of a platitude you’d read on the side of an articulated lorry on the M74, in our case it was actually true! We commissioned a selection of Harris Tweeds that we knew would work well with our product range. We just had to make sure that people knew our bags were made by us in Scotland, using Scottish deerskins that we tan and Harris Tweed woven especially for us.

Some of our styles are still as popular as they were 10 years ago, although we now have a range of 38 different models and offer around 15 different Harris Tweed patterns. We have the capacity to make around 60 bags a week.

Operating at an ‘artisan/cottage industry’ level, business tends to naturally follow an eco-responsible path by being creatively and environmentally aware. The resulting efficiencies are more obvious to a small business than to a large one.

  • Our skins are not only sustainably sourced, but they’re also being saved from landfill.
  • The tanning is carried out using an environmentally responsible process, which has been handed down through seven generations of tanners. We minimise wastage and energy use as we’re acutely aware of the cost-saving benefit that results from this.
  • We dry our skins using ‘solar panels’, which are drying frames angled to be south-facing. This method works until late October when the sun’s declination is below the roof of the workshop, and then starts again at the end of February. We’re very much in tune with solstices!
  • All our packaging is sourced from a local recycling company. The material we use for fusing the tweed on the bags comes from recycled plastic bottles. We have a very low carbon footprint.

Our environmental approach is driven as much by a commercial logic as by idealist values. Our business is not profit-driven but by the pursuit of both economical and environmental sustainability. We feel we have achieved our corporate objective if we can produce a beautiful, environmentally friendly product which pays a living wage.

Wooden frames are lined up in a sunny yard, with deer skins stretched across them.
Deer skins drying on wooden frames

What’s your favourite thing about running your own business?

The idea of making handbags, in Scotland, using deerskin leather and Harris Tweed, put us in a unique position and it now seemed possible to have a future making something in Scotland. We would no longer be involved in global manufacturing supply chains. We could keep it simple, local and earn a living producing something about which we could be both proud and passionate.

How did you start working with the Trust?

Having tanned our first deer skins and made some finished products, we contacted the Trust and requested the opportunity to show our handiwork. Both the concept and the product were well received and within a very short time we found ourselves on the Trust’s list of suppliers. As our products and our expertise improved, it became apparent that the visitor demographic had the best customer fit for the sort of product we wished to make. We need a customer who wants to make a considered purchase, where craftsmanship and provenance are the main criteria. There is an immense sense of pride derived from one’s work being sold in the most spectacular locations in Scotland.

Explore the Trust’s Barrhead Leather range

What’s your favourite Trust place and why?

Glencoe and Glenfinnan seem to hold some of the most stunning scenery and dramatic history for me. Although Scotland’s late Georgian period gave the nation much to be proud of, it’s the romance and melancholic drama of the clans in the glens and the Jacobite risings that stir up the emotion. I normally spend my summers attending Highland games all over Scotland – Inveraray, Oban, Glenurquhart, Blair Castle and St Andrews to name but a few. These games are for the most part attended by overseas visitors from all around the world, and when talking to them you soon realise that it’s the romantic Scottish myths set in stunning dramatic landscapes, that attract them year after year.

What’s your favourite product?

The ladies’ sporran bag is my favourite product. It evolved from women asking if the men’s sporran we make could be used as a handbag. I’d seen a few clumsy attempts at men’s day sporrans being draped over shoulders, but they seemed to lack any finesse. We took our men’s sporran and put a wider gusset on it. We were then able to fix the shoulder strap neatly onto the gusset. We replaced the thick traditional men’s strap with a more delicate one and a more attractive half-roller buckle. We also added piping as a welt between the gusset and the tweed on the front. This gave us a much better finish to the product. After eight years, this bag still outsells all our other bags!

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