Firing the Imagination

Despite the somewhat incredible fact that I’ve now been working at Highland Stoneware for around 7 years (albeit on a self-employed basis), I’m still a relative newcomer. Many of the extremely talented staff have been involved for decades and I feel very privileged as well as grateful to be a part of this successful enterprise, still bringing pleasure to so many people even during lockdown, when online sales kept us in production.

A week or two ago we celebrated our 4000th kiln: That is, the 4000th firing of the 1300 degrees ‘oven’, jam-packed full of tough, shiny, individually hand-painted pots which have evolved and matured over their 47 year history, yet still retain the unique character so popular with customers all over the world.

We painted ‘4000’ on the back of each pot destined for firing in this particular kiln, mostly for fun, although some of them may well become collectors’ items in years to come!
In the photo you can see the kiln on its way out just after the heavy doors were opened, bringing a welcome blast of warm air into the pottery on a chilly February morning. The pots stay too hot to touch for an hour or so although there is usually an excited gaggle surrounding the trolleys, checking their work and admiring all the others, seeing what’s new, gingerly sliding items off the shelves with thick gloves, unable to wait until it’s properly cool.
Of course, there’s always an element of heart-in-mouth (informally known as ‘kiln anxiety’) each the time the doors are opened, because as we paint in glazes which melt and change colour quite dramatically during the firing, one can never be completely certain of the results. Different thicknesses of glaze produce subtley varying results and (very occasionally) you can pick up the wrong brush and not notice you’ve painted a bright red sheep. Unlike a regular painting, which takes shape before your eyes and can be adjusted along the way, it’s much too late once the kiln is out, and if a mistake has been made, all we can do is learn from it and try to do better next time!

For this special kiln, everyone in the Lochinver pottery also painted a random tile, providing the first experience of ceramic decorating for some of the staff working in different departments. This was a lot of fun as we all had free rein with our designs, although the idea came about rather suddenly and most people just painted the first thing that came into their heads! I’d tried this octopus on a mug a year or so ago but never had the chance to develop it properly, so I was happy to put him onto my tile. As you can see, I somehow managed to get a splodge of red in the middle of his forehead, like a Hindu bride, proving what a minefield the decorating process is. The red glaze appears white before firing so I would not have noticed the accidental splodge amongst the other colours.

These pieces will eventually make their way onto an outside wall of the building alongside previous special anniversary tiles, hence this newbie’s place in Highland Stoneware history will be set in stone (or tile!)