Nunavut eyes Scotland’s historic sporran industry
“We found that seal skin is one of the most robust furs"
When Scottish whaler William Penny and his Inuit guide Eenooloapik first sailed into Cumberland Sound in the late 1830s, this arrival marked the beginning of a long-established marriage between Inuit and Scottish culture in what’s now known as Nunavut.
The Government of Nunavut and the Nunavut Arts and Crafts Association hope to tap into that shared heritage next week when the arts organization hosts its first sporran making workshop in Pangnirtung.
A sporran is the small pouch worn on the front of men’s Scottish Highland kilts, serving the same function as a pocket.
While there may not be a large number of kilted Nunavummiut, the territory’s link to the sporran is a natural one: the very first pouches made in Scotland were fashioned — and some still are — from seal skin.
Next week, NACA is flying in two Halifax-based instructors to show a local group how to make the pouches with locally-harvested seal skin.
“With its strong Scottish ancestry… we felt that Pangnirtung would be the ideal location to host such a workshop,” said Debbie Purvis, NACA’s marketing coordinator.
“It’s kind of making that connection, and maybe even making that new market in Pang.”
Purvis said the organization hopes to connect Inuit designers with the industry in the UK, where the European Union’s Indigenous Communities Exemption now allows Nunavut harvesters to sell seal skin products to Europe again.
“The goal is to make a traditional sporran and incorporate traditional items from Nunavut,” she said.
NACA is bringing in the expertise of Grant Withers, owner of L & M Highland in Halifax, the only sporran manufacturer in North America.
Withers and one of his sporran makers will travel to Pangnirtung over the weekend to teach the two-day course at the local Uqqurmiut arts centre March 21 and March 22.
They’ll teach participants how to make two different sporran designs: a semi-dress version and full dress sporran, which would be worn on special occasions.
“Sporrans go back hundreds and hundreds of years.” Withers explained. “It was really a storage item that you always kept the most important items you had to protect.”
But today, the sporran can simply be decorative, worn as a badge to indicate membership with certain clans or groups.
A look through L & M Highlands’ different offerings reveals hundreds of different designs and material, from horsehair to raccoon and faux fur.
“We found that seal skin is one of the most robust, so really the longest wear,” Withers said. “Seal fur seems to stand up over any other kind of fur we deal with.”
L & M Highland used to source its sealskin from Newfoundland, but Withers said the industry has dwindled there so he now buys through an Ontario-based distributor. Withers hopes his trip to Nunavut will help connect his business with Inuit harvesters.