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Skilled Scots keeping fire burning for under-threat crafts

Meet the experts working hard to prevent vital skills from extinction.

From blacksmithing to bagpipe making, from weaving to wood-turning, Scotland has a wide range of heritage crafts and skills.

But many of these are under threat and a list of the skills at risk has been released. The Radcliffe Red List of Endangered Crafts details those almost extinct, with 160 crafts facing a challenging future.

Amongst those are scientific glassblowers. Robert McLeod has 42 years' experience in this field and is one of just a handful left.

"If you reflect back on all the greatest scientific achievements glass has been in there somewhere," he says.

"We'll get a drawing, basically a sketch on the back of a cigarette packet and develop that into a bit of glassware.

"There's nothing better than the feeling of taking a raw material and producing something that is functional and used in a breakthrough in the scientific world."

His work has been used by scientists who carbon-dated the bones of King Richard III from a car park in Leicester.

He has also developed bespoke glassware to test fake alcohol and motor fuel along with identifying whether material from a meteor had come from Mars.

'We'll get a drawing, basically a sketch on the back of a cigarette packet and develop that into a bit of glassware'
Robert McLeod

His focus is now widening out access to training for those who want to make a career from scientific glassblowing and he hopes to develop formal qualifications.

His desire to pass on skills to the next generation is shared by stonecutter Gillian Forbes. She trained at Glasgow School of Art but had to move to England to receive the training she needed to become a professional letter cutter. She is one of only seven professional stonecutters in Scotland.

"Now I'm doing a lot of headstones whereas before I did a lot of public art. The Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh, I did all the carvings on the Canongate wall. 

"I worked with another couple of guys and we had to travel round Scotland collecting all the different kinds of stones and then they were all lettered and then they were built into the wall," she says.

Gillian uses quarried British slate or sandstone and her headstones can take weeks to complete and cost thousands of pounds. She is keen other women consider taking up this skilled profession.

"When I started I found it very difficult to train because as a woman in your early 20s it is a man's world in a way.

"One of big stone firms I contacted just said they would not teach me because they didn't have a ladies toilet. So times have changed but we need to help people who are younger in order to pass on the skills."

Both Gillian and Robert are keen young people consider a career in these areas and put pressure on colleges and employers to widen courses to include these expertise.

Only then, they say, Scotland's crafts will face a brighter future.

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