A large bright red door in a former Victorian schoolhouse separates the blistering hot furnace from outside’s heady mix of salty sea air and peaty Caithness bogland.
Sometimes, the red door slides open and the alchemy that creates shining, fragile and colourful glass spills onto the village street; offering the glass artists inside a breath of fresh air and the people of the small harbour community of Lybster a glimpse at the rare skill of the glassblower.
For viewers of surprise hit Netflix series Blown Away, which follows sweat-lashed glass artists grappling with blowpipes and frantically twisting liquid glass into incredible shapes for a $60,000 prize and a residency at an acclaimed glass museum, North Lands Creative studios – just 30 miles south of John O’Groats – may seem an unlikely hub of glass creativity.
Yet this year marks a quarter of a century since the national centre for teaching glassmaking was founded by a group of friends who believed making and having access to the beauty of glass is a vital life element.
Between the Netflix reality show that has propelled glassblowing to gripping viewing, next year’s UN International Year of Glass, and the Lybster studio’s bold plans to rewind time to when glass was made using traditional Scottish methods, new life looks set to be breathed into the once dying art of the glassblower, lampworker and stained-glass artist.
Along with newly forged links with the global heart of glassmaking, Murano, that will see Caithness youngsters offered a chance to become the new generation of glassblowers, studio bosses are hopeful that the time will soon come when kelp gathered from the northeast coast – a practice which once provided 18th century glass factories with mountains of raw materials – will once again be used to create Scottish glass.
According to Karen Phillips, director of North Lands Creative, there are clear signs of rising interest in the craft of creating beautiful objects from glass, both from makers and buyers.
“There has been a huge craft revival in general, and there is a revival of glass blowing in Scotland,” she says.
“I think it’s in the public psyche now that craft is important on many levels. There is now a fascination with how the things we have in our homes are made. Perhaps we are coming out of this age of mass consumption and the ‘Ikea’ approach to buying, and people are now appreciating the small producers and the skills they have.
“There’s also an appreciation of the wellbeing benefits – when you make something with your hands, it’s very therapeutic.”
The Netflix reality show returns to screens next month for a Christmas-themed edition of the competition, which sets expert glass artists against each other in the searing heat of the ‘hot shop’ – the name given to the workshop where the ancient art of making glass takes place.
Part of the programme’s appeal is the combination of fierce heat and constant risk of everything going wrong, with shattering consequences. Karen, whose background is visual arts, had never stood in a hot shop until she arrived at the Caithness studio. The impact, she recalls, was immediate.
“We talk about playing with fire, and there’s this idea you are just on that brink of limitations of skill and what you can do with it. That’s so exciting, it’s so fast and very immediate.
“It’s like having big, open oven in the room. Irons are put into the molten glass and then twisted so the glass doesn’t fall off. Eventually you get to know about the temperatures and the fluidity of the glass – there are so many different things make it react differently.”
Glass as a material has unique qualities that make it particularly attractive, she adds. “You can carve into it when its soft, can almost cut it, steam it, flame torch it.
“Just to make a handblown drinking glass takes a considerable amount of skill and effort.”
While the studio works hand in hand with international contemporary glass artists, carefully nurtured links with one of the most famous and secretive centres of glasswork – Murano on the Venetian Riveria – is set to inspire a new generation closer to home.
Usually highly cautious of sharing its glassmaking mysteries outside its own island community, experts from Abate Zanetti School of Glass – home to masters of Murano glass blowing for 150 years – have held virtual ‘lessons’ with primary and secondary schoolchildren in Caithness.
The next step will see a new North Lands Creative project offering local young people – particularly those who have drifted from the regular education system – the chance to learn glass production and additional skills.
While North Lands’ links with Strathclyde University researchers could lead to a return to traditional glassmaking techniques, and a potentially ‘game changing’ new method of removing impurities from recycled household glass to create high quality glass for art projects.
The revival of interest in glassmaking ignited by the Netflix programme follows years of decline. Once a major industry in Scotland rooted in the 16th century and which boomed to see glassmaking factories dotted around the country, the skill eventually faded.
The high precision art of scientific glassblowing and sheet glass blowing have been included in the Heritage Crafts Association red list of endangered crafts.
In response, Glasgow-based freeform glassblower Siobhan Healy, whose stunning botanical inspired glass sculptures have attracted international interest, has launched Healy Arts, aimed at nurturing artists interested in working with specialist materials and endangered crafts such as scientific glassware.
She says many elements combine to make glass a fascinating material to work with.
“It’s the most interesting material to work with, it has the capacity to be almost anything, solid, liquid, hot, malleable, opaque, hard.
“It’s the richness of colour, the way that light passes through it , the way it changes and the optical illusions it creates. I love it.”
But its fragile nature poses occasional problems: “You can be working on something for age and it hits the ground. You just have to say ‘ok’ and go again.”
Stained glass artist Pinkie Maclure, whose striking contemporary scenes are inspired by traditional church windows, can spend up to three months creating one dazzling work.
“A lot of people think I’m crazy for spending so long on something like this, but I enjoy it,” she says. “You can’t go fast, or you’ll cut off your finger and it’ll look terrible.”
Her method is barely changed from those of 12th century artists. “Stained glass is incredibly beautiful and mesmerising. That’s why they used it in the first place; people couldn’t read, 90% of the population was illiterate, but they could see the stories in the images.”
The calm, slow pace of working with stained glass can easily be shattered in the blink of an eye. Yet that fragility of the material doesn’t faze her.
“Sometimes it cracks in the kiln, sometimes it’s dropped. If it’s smashed to smithereens, you just have to go back to day one. If it’s cracked in the kiln which can happen occasionally, it doesn’t really matter.
“That’s what I like about medieval windows, millions of repairs gives them their own individuality.”