Scottish heritage alive in Franklin
Scotland’s roots run deep in Western North Carolina. Since before this country’s inception, Scottish immigrants have been migrating to these hills that remind them of home.
So, it makes sense that the only museum outside of Scotland that’s dedicated to the Scottish tartan — the various criss-cross patterns most associated with kilts — is nestled in an unassuming storefront on Franklin’s Main Street.
“We had a volunteer that took the Macon County phone book,” said Jim Aikens, president of the museum’s board of directors, “and there’s over 1,500 names in Macon County alone.”
The tartan museum and gift shop is a celebration of not only the tartan, but also Scottish history, and more specifically the country’s history as it intertwines with America’s and Western North Carolina’s own story.
Most days, Aiken can be found tending shop at the museum. He started volunteering when he moved to the area in 2004 and now takes a lead role in operating the museum.
“Most of the time,” Aiken said, “me and my wife are here five days a week.”
Aiken enjoys educating folks on Scottish history. He likes helping them research and locate their individual family, or clan’s, tartan.
“Some clans have one, others they’ll have a dress tartan, they’ll have a hunting tartan,” explained Aiken. “A lot of those came about through weavers trying to sell more tartans.”
In the museum are collections of various tartan patterns from varying clans. They’re displayed together along a wall, making for a sort of Scottish rainbow.
Some people, Aiken explained, can quickly differentiate between the patterns. Even between similar patterns hailing from the same clan.
“They tell me you have to focus on the pattern, not the color,” he said. “The past director, you could take the name plates off of these and he could go ‘this, this, this.’”
In addition to clan tartans, some tartans also represent organizations and groups. Some locales have their own tartan. Each branch of the U.S. military has been assigned a tartan. American astronaut Alan Bean carried the MacBean tartan to the moon, and a Canadian mountain climber planted one atop Mount Everest.
“A little over 30 states have their own tartans,” Aiken added.
Even the town of Franklin has its own tartan. That pattern — designed by Jenny McSween — is displayed on a loom in the museum.
“We started joking around and said, ‘this ought to be the Franklin tartan,’” Aiken said, explaining that the town actually adopted its official tartan in July of 2005.
In addition to tartans, the museum also focuses on Scottish history. There are displays dealing with ancient Scottish weaponry, looming techniques and the relationship between immigrants from Scotland and this area’s native Cherokee people (a lot of Scotts took Cherokee brides).
“We share the evolution of the kilt,” said Aiken, motioning toward a wall of the museum dedicated to telling the kilt’s story, from a tunic to a hooded blanket to the more modern pleated kilt.
Upstairs from the museum is the tartan gift shop. This is where visitors can search for their own family’s tartan. Once found, the pattern can be purchased on a variety of surfaces: coffee mugs, glasses, coasters, stuffed animals.
“Scarves and ties are the number one sellers,” Aiken said. “People that really get into their heritage, they want a kilt or shirt.”
With the exception of a marketing grant from the local tourism authority, the Tartan museum subsists off of money made at the gift shop and from museum tickets. But in recent years, that subsistence has paled.
“Because of the economy we have seen a decrease since 2009 in internet sales as well as walk-ins,” Aiken said.
Due to the lean times, the museum has had to tighten its belt.
“Because of our situation, I’ve asked my wife to volunteer, not get paid,” Aiken said. “She agreed, she knows this is my passion.”
Along with Aiken and his wife, another employee also agreed to adopt a volunteer status. Employee insurance was also dropped.
Even so, the museum is in debt.
“Sales have been very low,” Aiken said. “But with no one receiving a salary right now, we are making some progress.”
Want to go?
The Scottish Tartans Museum is located at 86 E. Main St., in Franklin. The museum is open Monday through Saturday, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. 828.524.7472 or www.scottishtartans.org.
Want to help?
In addition to money made at the gift shop and on museum tours, the Scottish Tartans Museum, a 501c3 nonprofit, also accepts monetary gifts. As the museum has plans for renovations, individuals and businesses can make donations to benefit individual displays; donors will be credited as sponsor with a plaque located on the displays.
The museum also offers memberships. The memberships range from $25 for an annual individual pass or $35 for a family, to $600 for a lifetime membership.
828.524.7472 or www.scottishtartans.org.
Burns Night Supper
The annual Burns Night Supper in Franklin is scheduled for Jan. 24 at Tartans Hall in the First Presbyterian Church, 26 Church St. The evening mirrors events held around the world — they’re most popular in Scotland and Ireland — celebrating the life and work of Robert Burns, a Scottish poet. The first suppers were held at the end of the 18th century.
Franklin’s event cost $40 per person. The evening includes a serving of haggis, as well as toasts to both the lads and ladies.
Tickets may be purchased at the Scottish Tartans Museum. 828.524.7472 or www.scottishtartans.org.