Johannesburg - It started with a booze ban at a university rag and spawned an international kilt-making business on the East Rand supplying more than 100 Scottish clan tartans - all specially woven in Nairobi, Kenya.
Egbert Harmse laughed as he told the story.
“It was 1988 at the old Pukke (Potchefstroom University, today North-West University). The rag committee had banned us from taking in booze, unless we carried it in our pockets - but they also specifically prohibited camera jackets and cargo pants.
“My friend who was studying law queried them on the fine print. It was clear they’d said nothing about kilts.”
Harmse and his friends stole a curtain from the auditorium and quickly ran up the six prototype cargo kilts, complete with pockets at the back and down each leg, to get eight beers each into the bash.
And that was it for about 20 years, until those friends needed their kilts fixed. Harmse, who had qualified as a mechanical engineer at Potchefstroom University and had worked in the mining industry and munitions world, set about it.
That was 2007, three years later the regimental association of the Transvaal Scottish in Johannesburg having heard of his prowess, commissioned him in 2010 to make 151 kilts in its special Murray of Athol tartan.
The problem was that were no stocks of that tartan. Harmse searched the registers in Scotland to find the exact specifications for the tartan and set about getting it woven, but there was no suitable loom in South Africa to create a double-width tartan to those exacting historical standards. He eventually found one, made in 1902, in bits in Nairobi.
“It was the best excuse yet for a moerse road trip, which was lots of fun,” he said.
Harmse put in an offer to buy the abandoned parts of the loom, only to be told by the government that Kenya’s heritage legislation regarded machinery and buildings as one and that there was no way he could buy the machine and expatriate it to South Africa.
What he could do, the officials said, was work with the local Maasai people to create a weaving business. Using his engineering skills, he refurbished the loom and put it back together, making it safer than it had been before.
“We raised it about a foot, because it had been made for the average-sized Briton in Victorian times who was about 5’5” (1.65m) and now it was being used by Maasai, the smallest of whom are about 6’6” (1.98m).”
The Murray of Athol tartan was duly woven in the old way with the correct number of thread counts, but this time with a 25% acrylic content to compensate for the softer wool fibre of today. Not only was this acceptable to the aficionados, but it had the added benefit of making the kilts hardier than their predecessors and hand-washable, as well as being naturally moth repellent - normally the death knell for kilts, especially in Africa. When the Maasai aren’t busy weaving tartan for Harmse, they use the loom to weave their unique world-famous blue- and red-checked shukas.
Tales of Harmse’s feat spread far and wide and soon he was inundated with work for the various South African traditional part-time military units and the various Caledonian societies across the country. He also started exporting to the US and Canada with their extensive Scottish diaspora communities, as well as Norway, Sweden, Iceland - and Scotland itself. In 2016, he even completed an order for the Estonian army for a World War I commemoration it was planning to host.
“It’s an amazing feeling to watch the Basel Tattoo (in Switzerland) on TV and realise about 60% of the kilts on parade were made here in Springs.”
The cargo kilts never disappeared either. All handmade in heavy duty cotton in khaki or black or even camouflage, with the famous side and back pockets that make the traditional sporran superfluous, they’re beloved by artisanal craftsmen working as blacksmiths or knife makers, but even count journalists, lawyers and doctors among their fans.
“I’ve racked my brains trying to work out what the profile of the cargo kilt buyer is, but to be honest the wearers cut across all sectors. The one common theme would be their love of freedom of movement I’ve even made them for informal weddings, one of which was held on the slopes of Kilimanjaro.”
“Only if they’ve got access to daddy’s chequebook,” he grinned.
In truth, Harmse’s kilts sell for a fraction of what they would cost in the UK.
“I was inspired by the Maasai. You tell them what you need and when you need it by; there’s no micromanagement, you wouldn’t dare. You’d end up with spear in your ribs. The same goes for the people who do the leather work for me or the engraving of the belt buckles.”
He has no regrets about his change in career.
“I left the corporate world in 2010 to go into this full time. By the time I left I was in management and I was looking around at my schoolmates from Potch Technical High School who had all done apprenticeships and gone into the trades after matric. They’d never worried about paying off university loans.
“They were miles ahead, they never had to worry about retirement age or cash flow - and they stayed close to the technical side, which is why they’d gone that way in the first place, unlike me and others who had been sucked into management with all the toxicity that that brings.
“So, I left and turned my hobby into my livelihood.”