A couple of years ago, Holyrood’s presiding officer Ken Mackintosh met Bertel Haarder at the COP26 conference.  Haarder was President of the Nordic Council, which consists of elected members from the five Nordic countries: Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden, plus the Faroes, Greenland and Åland. 
Shortly afterwards, the biggest Finnish newspaper, Helsingin Sanomat, published a long piece entitled “The Sixth Nordic country”, and a Finnish MP called Mikko Karna said he would launch an initiative to achieve observer status for Scotland on the Nordic Council.  So they postulated that the sixth Nordic could, possibly, potentially, be Scotland.

This is a theme which Lesley Riddoch has conscientiously pursued for over a decade, and her recent book McSmörgåsbord, subtitled, “What post-Brexit Scotland can learn from the Nordics”, tried to kindle a political debate about the parallels and differences on either side of the North Sea.

At the time, there were a few headlines in the popular press about Scotland becoming Scandinavian, then the story was swiftly buried under other things – Covid, Brexit, Trump. Yet we still gaze across the North Sea occasionally, wondering whether the Nordic countries are a good model for what Scotland could become. 

Scandinavia is seen as having egalitarian values and wise government.  The Norwegians have been canny, investing their oil wealth for the future.   The Finns have been steadfast in holding off their neighbour, the increasingly grumpy Russian bear.  The Swedes have always been clever engineers – developing cars, aircraft, ships and heavy engineering. And the Danes have achieved excellence in architecture and design. 

Danish design companies have become global brands. A few names spring to mind in furniture, lighting, jewellery and audio: Skovby, Louis Poulsen, Georg Jensen, Bang & Olufsen – plus of course the architect’s favourite brickmaker, Petersen Tegl. Many of their products were created by designers with an architectural training, such as Arne Jacobsen, Jorgen Moller and William Wohlert.
Denmark is a small country on the North Sea coast, not so different in size and population to Scotland. The two countries have traded with each other for centuries, so they share a common heritage. But there is the paradox. Scotland had (and in some cases, still has) comparable designers and companies working in similar areas of the economy to the Danes, but despite the efforts of The Lighthouse, A&DS, sporadic visits to the Venice Biennale and so on, Scotland’s reputation for design-led manufacturing is patchy.

Linn Products make audiophile stereo systems in an impressive factory designed by Richard Rogers. Linn’s products are high end and uncompromising: the company’s founder Ivor Tiefenbrun even developed his own microprocessors, when commercially available computers wouldn’t do what he wanted them to. Critics occasionally snipe at Bang & Olufsen, claiming that they make steam-powered spaceships which look futuristic but use old technology; the same criticism can’t be levelled at Linn, which remains at the cutting edge of audio technology.

McIntosh of Kirkcaldy are best known for their mid-century modern furniture, particularly teak cabinetry and sideboards. From 1948 until 1983, Tom Robertson worked as head designer and while his most notable design, the Dunvegan sideboard, could be mistaken for a piece of Danish Modern, the company was proudly Scottish. McIntosh employed skilled cabinetmakers who used traditional techniques, and their emblem was the Scottish thistle and crown. I can vouch for the quality, as my folks bought a Macintosh dining table when they married in 1969 and it’s still as good as new. The firm is still in business as ESA McIntosh, although no longer making the design-led timber furniture which made it famous.

Coughtrie have occupied the same factory in Glasgow since their inception eight decades ago, and they still make their SW wellglass external light and SP bulkhead which were designed during the Second World War and have gradually become design classics. The wellglass fitting in particular, with its cast aluminium top, and teardrop-shaped glass is a characteristic "retro" form. Coughtrie were established in 1941 on Montrose Avenue in Hillington Industrial Estate and their lights are beloved of salvage hunters and those in search of industrial chic - think of TV celebrity antique dealers with flat caps.

Caradale was the last traditional brickmaker in Scotland and could easily have developed along similar lines to Petersen. Their brickworks at Carluke and Armadale used ancient Mitchell of Cambuslang brick presses, and their Hoffman kilns were fired with coal and oil: they were the last of the so-called colliery brickworks, and the last maker of Scotch Commons. They had a proud heritage and made a unique product, yet theirs is a sad story.  After the firm closed down, I visited its brickworks at Carluke and Armadale. While I was standing in a clay mill building at dusk, having just shot some photos, a former worker appeared though a hole in the wall where a door used to be. He’d come for a final look, before the brickworks was pulled down, and his parting words were, “I’ll better away up the road afore I start to greet.”  
The truth is that for all the talk of Scottish Design (common usage always places those words in capital letters), we may have fostered the careers of some architects and designers, but we haven’t championed the companies we need to make the things they design. If we want to join the Nordics, that’s something which needs to change.

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