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Made in Scotland

Our new luggage range is handmade by the team at Montrose Rope & Sail, a 230-year-old firm located just a few solid iron shots away from the town’s even more historic golf course. Here, Managing Director Neil Paton explains how his family-run business and the links course he grew up on have both had to move with the times. Interview by Dan Davies
Made in Scotland

I was born and bred on the links at Montrose. Golf has been played here since 1562, making it the world’s fifth oldest golf course.

My dad, Graeme, was a county golfer who played off one. He lived for his golf and would play six days a week. He was a member at the Victoria Club at Montrose. There were five different clubs that played over the links, but they have merged over the years so now there are two – the Montrose Caledonia Golf Club and the Royal Montrose Mercantile Golf Club.

I had a season ticket to play the the little course at Montrose, the Broomfield, from the age of about five. My father wouldn’t get me a season ticket for the 1562, the big course, until I could go round in 95 or better. I was about 12 when I first did it. I was like, ‘I’m going to do this’. I got down to two when I was younger and was Angus County boys champion in 1979. Now my handicap is 10.

What my dad taught me was to never give up. Even if you’re five down with five to go, never give up, just keep plugging on. He was one of these guys who would never be beaten. He was ‘thrawn’ and I’m ‘thrawn’. It’s a Scottish word that means determined. If you’re going to do something and someone tells you there’s a better way to do it, you plough on and do it your own way. It might be difficult but you’ll be ‘thrawn’ to get it finished.

I followed my dad into Montrose Rope & Sail. The business has been in our family since the 1920s. Before my father, it was run by my grandfather and my great grandfather before that. The history of the company goes all the way back to 1789. The sail making and rope making went back to the days when Montrose was a big merchant port and lots of the big sail ships used to come in.

I started with the business full-time as a 17-year-old in the late 1970s. I’d been working in the school holidays since I was about 14, making money for golf clubs and different bits and bobs. My mum and dad were looking for someone to train up.

Back then, there were only five of us in the business. We were based in the old rope walk in the centre of Montrose. The long shed stretched 220 metres, the length of a coil of rope. In the winter, it was freezing cold. There was no heating so you’d be wearing two boiler suits and a hat. You’d stoke the fire in the morning and it would be 10 o’clock before the place had even started heating up. But when it had it would be absolutely roasting. It was like a sweat house in there.

We used to do a lot of stuff with the fishing industry, hand-splicing wire ropes for firms up and down the country. There weren’t a lot of people who could hand splice wire ropes in those days. It was the way it had always been done and for a long time fishermen trusted the old methods more.

It was, however, a dying trade. The fishing industry was slowly going down the tubes so we had to go and look for new ideas. A few of my mates were working off-shore for oil companies so we started making kit bags for them, like old fashioned duffel bags with a rope strap.

The bag side of our business grew through word of mouth. Twenty years later, we were making about 650 bags a week. Now we make bags for clients all around the world and the bags represent about 50 per cent of our business.

I might be ‘thrawn’ on the golf course but not when it comes to business where I’m always looking for new ideas to make things easier, quicker and more profitable. My father, who I ran the business alongside for the best part of 20 years, would let me crack on with these ideas.

Now, we make 40 to 50 different types of bag as well as covers for everything from garden furniture to waltzers. We’re even making covers for the Hawkeye units at Wimbledon and the US Open.

These days, there are more than 20 of us working in the business. I like to see young people getting trained up and employed by the company. We’ve got guys who have been with us for more than 20 years, ever since they left school. We had a kilt maker who came in to train with us on the big, heavy sewing machines and she’s been with us for 25 years now.

Our business has changed so much over the years, and so has the golf course I grew up on. The first, second, third and sixth holes have all changed dramatically. You used to see a big rise of dunes behind the first green and down the right of second fairway were dunes that were 20 to 30 feet high. You’d struggle to hit the ball on the beach with a really bad slice.

Now, those dunes have gone; the sea has taken them. From the second tee you have to hit your drive across the beach. The third tee has gone, it’s been wiped out completely. The 6th tee used to be high up, too.

There are big wooden poles on the beach to the right of the second and third holes that mark where the dunes once were. We’ve lost 20 feet in the last few years alone. The shoreline used to go in and out but now it’s just a straight line where it’s eroded all the way back. It’s only going to keep going further.

The crown owns the beach. They’re going to have to pump in some money to stop Montrose from going underwater because the council doesn’t have the cash to do anything. If the sea breaches the area behind the third green, there’s nothing to stop it going right into the middle of town. It’ll all be flooded.

The golf course at Montrose has evolved through its long history, and will have to keep evolving. The same can be said for Montrose Rope & Sail. ‘Made in Scotland’ and ‘built to last’ are the two phrases I’m really proud of. We can still compete and that’s important.

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