Go into any Scottish souvenir shop and the chances are that your eye will alight on a Celtic design. China, glassware, scarves, leatherwork, jewellery and many other items feature the intricate, interleaved patterns also found on the stone crosses and illuminated manuscripts from monasteries of many centuries ago. Few, perhaps know, however, that almost one hundred years ago, outstanding craftsmanship of this kind could be found in the Scottish Hebrides, in Iona Celtic Art, the shop set up by Alexander and Euphemia Ritchie.

"It is difficult to think of Iona, as it is, without the Ritchies." So began an article in the "Oban Times" in October 1943, on the death of captain George Ritchie, the last of this remarkable family to live on the Sacred Isle.

Indeed, so closely is the name Ritchie associated with Iona that it is hard to think of them anywhere else. Yet the family moved about in earlier generations, as so many did. Alexander Ritchie was a boy of twelve when his family moved from Tobermory on the Isle of Mull to Iona, to become the first tenants of the new St. Columba Hotel and adjoining farm. Iona at that time like Mull was steeped in the culture of the Gael. As a young man Alex Ritchie joined the Merchant Navy, but his career was cut short by a serious leg injury after a shipwreck in the West Indies. In many ways, this misfortune turned out to be Iona's gain. He came home to help run the hotel and in 1898, married Euphemia Thomson.

Euphemia had studied at Glasgow School of Art and together the couple developed a keen interest in design. Alex began by transferring this new interest into the woodcarving he had learned while at sea, but his skill soon expanded into raised metal work, known as repousse, in brass and copper and silver. Euphemia specialised in leather and cloth, creating a variety of beautiful embroidery designs. In winter they regularly attended classes in Glasgow to widen their knowledge of arts and crafts. Their sources included facsimiles of the Book of Kells and Lindisfarne, the complex patterns on the Pictish stones of north east Scotland and, at home, the rich harvest of decorated graveslabs and crosses from a bygone age.

For many years too, Alex acted as guide to the historic buildings and he was thus very aware of the value and significance of the many carved stones harboured there. Countless visitors were enthralled by his stories. A friend recalled, "an active man, a lively wit with a keen almost whimsical sense of the humorous and especially, I think, of his fellow Highlanders."

As demand increased, production was farmed out to Lawson's of Glasgow for the brass work, and both Darby's and Sanders & Shepherd in Birmingham for the silver. A hallmark was registered for "Alex Ritchie, Iona Celtic Art, Iona" on May 9, 1910, in Chester however he did use other hallmarks as well. Earlier marked pieces have been found, although pieces sold on the island itself were not hallmarked. Everything was made to the Ritchies' specifications and to a high standard. The initials "AR" or "AER" were usually stamped on the reverse - although less often on brass items- and "ICA" was also sometimes used.

In 1937, Alex Ritchie's work was included in a prestigious Scottish Industries Exhibition on London. The opportunity arose from a contact with the indefatigable Jean Bruce of the Highland Home Industries, who used to scour the Hebrides for examples of fine craftwork. She recognised, no doubt, that here was something stemming from an authentic native tradition.

Indeed, in articles and talks over the years, the Ritchies themselves argued strongly for the greater recognition of Celtic art in Scottish schools and colleges. In the magazine "An Deo Greine" of 1906, they wrote that teaching these ancient forms could be an ideal way to instil the first principles of good design: "At present, examples of Celtic art are as foreign to the Highland child as to the Cockney, even in places where the old monuments can be seen daily." Yet, they continued, this was "our inheritance, given to enrich our present, mellow from the hand of time, containing all the culture of a wonderful period." It is small wonder that a later tribute to the couple in the "Oban Times" spoke of their loyalty to "the noble and illustrious traditions of Iona and the Isles."

Alex and Euphemia died within two days of each other in January 1941 and were laid to rest together in the historic cemetery, burial place of Scottish kings and Highland chiefs. Their shop and its contents passed into the care of the Highland Home Industries which carried on the business for another 25 years or so.

The particular contribution of Alex and Euphemia lives on in tangible form - in the finely carved fireplace in Shuna cottage where they lived; in the collection plates and vase they designed for Iona Parish Church; in the brass memorial wall plaques for Lady Victoria Campbell in churches on Tiree and in Inverary; and in countless mementoes in households throughout the land and overseas, as many Ritchie items found their way abroad particularly to Canada and the United States.

On Iona itself in the local Heritage Centre, there is a section dedicated to the work of the Ritchies and their successor lain MacCormick, relative of Aosdàna's founder, Mhairi Killin. It is a fitting tribute to the couple who were among the first to value and to interpret, for a wider audience, those treasures of Celtic art which Iona has held in custody now for over a thousand years.

Thanks to E. Mairi MacArthur for the contribution of this story
May 01, 2024