There are many tales about white heather, the beloved world-famous symbol of Scotland. Some say it grows only on ground where blood has not been shed in battle. Others say it grows on the final resting spot of faeries. No matter what the tale, they all say white heather is a symbol of good luck and good fortune. Jim Osborne, the long-time owner of The Scottish Shoppe, which opened 50 years ago under the name White Heather Imports, sees good luck ahead in 2021.
“We need some old-fashioned Scottish white heather good luck and some luck of the Irish too,” says Jim. “It’s time to put 2020 behind us and look ahead to 2021 when we celebrate our 50th anniversary. And maybe a lucky black cat will cross our path to celebrate the occasion too.”
Jim Osborne purchased the Scottish Shoppe in 1996 when the previous owners retired. Jim had a distinguished 30-year career as a cabinetmaker in Scotland and Canada, having immigrated to Calgary from Aberdeen in 1976. Local examples of his fine skills can be found in many locations including The Ranchmen’s Club and The Petroleum Club.
“I had been living here for 20 years and I saw this tremendous opportunity to use my connections and contacts in the Scottish community to grow the business and find new opportunities,” says Jim. “Things have worked out well but no one could have planned for a pandemic and the impact it would have on the community.”
Vital in Kensington
Like countless other retailers, the pandemic has hit the Scottish Shoppe hard, but Jim, who operates the family business with wife Janet and son Jamie, has adapted to meet the challenges so far, and they look forward to the holiday season and 2021.
The store is located right on 10th Street and Kensington Road NW, usually a busy street for foot traffic commuting to and from downtown. “Walk-in business has been slower since March,” says Janet, but it has always been important for us that people have a great customer experience.”
We maintain all the AHS protocols including masks, social distancing, hand washing and sanitizing and our customers have been terrific about that,” says Janet. “We want to make sure everyone stays safe.”
For many loyal customers, a trip to the Scottish Shoppe is a must appointment and Janet says, “When expats, their children or sometimes their grandchildren come to the store, you see the look of delightful familiarity come over their faces. Watching them shop for so many of the products they miss from home is just great.”
To keep the expats and all their customers well supplied with the delicacies and favorites from Ireland and Great Britain the Osbornes have stocked their shelves with all the mainstays and dozens of new products.
The shop carries an incredible number of products from dozens of suppliers in the UK, Ireland, Canada and the USA. From tartan neckties to traditional women’s fashions and from well known brands like James Pringle and Isle.
They also sell handmade cufflinks and fine jewelry including many one-of-a-kind items featuring unique Celtic designs.
The shop also has an impressive variety of food products from Great Britain including jams and marmalades, teas and of course, everyone’s favorite holiday sweet treats from Great Britain.
“This season we’re selling a new line of soaps and grooming products for women and men from Scottish Fine Soaps,” says Janet. “They’re made with fragrances like heather, thistle and black pepper and whisky.
In addition, there’s a lot more than a ‘little bit’ of Ireland available. The shop carries many Irish products including fine merino wool sweaters made by Aran Crafts of County Kildare and a full collection of Irish tartans. You’ll find everything from shamrocks to shillelaghs.
What’s Up with Kilts?
If you want to know about kilts, Jim Osborne is the man to see. For decades, The Scottish Shoppe has been one of Western Canada’s leading suppliers of Scottish and Irish kilts and kits, due in part to his long-established relationships with the world’s top weavers and manufacturers.
“For many Scots and Irish, the kilt is very personal because it symbolizes so much of who they are and where they come from,” says Jim. “Just look at the late Sir Sean Connery, on the day he was knighted, one of the proudest days of his life, wearing full highland dress.”
According to The Scottish Register of Tartans, there are almost 13,000 registered tartans but only a fraction of those are regularly woven. Among the most popular are MacDonald and Campbell. The late Sir Sean Connery wore full highland dress for his royal appointment. Every province and territory in Canada has a tartan and many cities also have tartans. Calgary has two.
The Scottish shop sells many kilts every year. With so many different tartans, the cloth is imported from the leading mills in Scotland and the kilts are hand sewn by a custom kilt maker in British Columbia, using the traditional eight yards of fabric for each.
As well as serving clients throughout Canada, The Scottish Shoppe also makes custom kilts and ships them to customers all over the world including Australia, New Zealand, the U.S., Europe, and has even supplied to South East Asia, where tartan is very popular. They have even made kilts for customers in Scotland.
The famed Scottish poet Robbie Burns, of Auld Lang Syne fame, was known to wear the black and white Border tartan and every January hundreds of Calgarians don their tartan and kits and come together to celebrate his birthday. The Calgary Burns Club hosts one of the biggest celebrations. Jim is a past-president and life member and is famous for his own storied “Address to the Haggis.”
Plans for Robbie Burns day celebrations in 2021 are still up in the air. Pandemic restrictions have already forced the cancellation of most formal functions like weddings and regimental balls. That has put a dent in kilt rentals but the Osborne family are still producing kilts and will be ready when things open up again.
“We’re confident about the year ahead and we’re well stocked. People, Scottish or not, love to wear kilts and you never know who might come through the door. One year we rented kilts to attendees of the Robbie Burnstein fundraiser for Calgary’s Jewish Community,” says Jim.
As well as his strong connection with the Calgary Burns Club, Jim is also a life member of the St. Andrew-Caledonian Society, and currently serving as Lieutenant Colonel and area commander for central Canada and the United States with the 78th Fraser Highlanders. The 78th Fraser Highlanders is a North-America wide historical society dedicated to the preservation of the memory of the original Regiment and celebrates the contributions of the early Scots to Canadian culture. Their focus is on a youth program that teaches pipes, drums, drill and instills in young people a sense of decency and good manners.
Adjusting to the Online World
One of biggest financial impacts from the pandemic has been the cancellation of almost two dozen Highland Games and festivals throughout Western Canada. “The Scottish Shoppe is a major sponsor of many games and we set up our booths at every festival,” says Jamie Osborne. “That’s a significant loss of revenue but just as importantly, we’re missing some great friends. Many event organizers and volunteers are like family.”
With the cancellation of all the events, “we’ve concentrated a lot of effort catering to the online shopper,” says Jamie. “We’ve made significant improvements to our website and now all our products are available for online shopping. We’ve also set up a delivery schedule making stops and deliveries to customers from Lethbridge to Edmonton. Using the technology has become an important part of our business.”
For more information about The Scottish Shoppe & A Little Bit of Ireland visit thescottishshoppe.com or kiltman.ca, or follow them on Facebook.