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Issue 30 - Everything you need to know about...Tartan

Scotland Magazine Issue 30
December 2006


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Everything you need to know about...Tartan

This issue, Roddy Martine reveals the history of tartan

What is so particularly extraordinary about tartan is that it is historically unique to Scotland. Nobody else seems to have come up with the idea.

That said, the sight of Mel Gibson portraying a tartan clad Sir William Wallace in his Hollywood film Braveheart was sheer inventive nonsense. As a 13th century knight, Wallace would have worn chain mail in battle, and besides, he was a Lowlander.

Sorry Mel, but you did get it awfully wrong. The first written reference to striped cloth being worn by the Scots appeared much later in the 16th century. By the 18th century, however, it had certainly evolved as the costume of the Scottish Highlander. In his 1703 Description of the Western Isles of Scotland, Martin Martin, Macleod of Macleod’s Skye-born factor, wrote, “The plaid worn only by men is made of fine wool, the thread as fine as can be made of that kind, it consists of diverse colours and there is a great deal of ingenuity required in sorting the colours, so as to be agreeable to the nicest fancy. For this reason the women are at great pains, first to give an exact pattern of the plaid upon a piece of wood, having the number of every thread of the stripe on it.” All considered, it is remarkable how such a mathematically ingenious formula came to be worked out by those supposedly simple people who manufactured the cloth.

But then the Scots have always been great inventors, and it did not take long for certain colour patterns to be identified with specific districts owing to the predominant plant dyes in those areas.

However, it is important to understand that despite the emergence of the Highland clans from the 14th century, there was no such thing as an identifiable “clan” tartan.

During the Jacobite Uprisings of 1715 and 1745, clansmen fighting on either side were identified not by their clothes, but by their cap badges, the white cockade of the rebels or the red or yellow crosses of ribbon worn by their opponents.

Nevertheless, post-1746, the wearing of tartan, seen as the uniform of rebellion, was banned. It was an absurd gesture by an insecure legislature, and the inevitable outcome was that when the ban was finally lifted in 1782, tartan became a rich man’s indulgence.

In 1822, King George IV visited Edinburgh. He was the first reigning British monarch to set foot in Scotland for 200 years and appeared in a voluminous kilt of the Stewart tartan worn over pink tights. Seven years later, two brothers, John and Charles Sobieski Stolberg Stuart, arrived in the Highlands claiming to be grandsons of Prince Charles Edward Stuart. Whether they were or not, their greatest impact came in 1848 when they published a book, Vestiarium Scoticum, showing 75 tartans in full colour. All of these have subsequently been adopted as “official” clan tartans.

In the following decade, Queen Victoria and her husband Prince Albert purchased Balmoral Castle in Aberdeenshire and embraced tartan as if it were their own invention (Albert did, in fact, design the Balmoral tartan). Every Scottish family of note followed their example, from Berwickupon- Tweed to John O’Groats. Tartan was no longer an exclusively Highland local fabric; it became a Scottish fabric intimately associated with the clans and family names of Scotland, Highland and Lowland.

Tartan is therefore today accepted worldwide as a Scottish icon of enormous importance to Scotland’s cultural identity.

Across America, the religious Kirkin’ o’ the Tartan ceremony, at which tartans are blessed, is seen as a symbolic act of sharing in Scotland’s heritage. In 1998, the United States Senate officially established April 6 as National Tartan Day, a celebration enjoyed by those of Scottish descent throughout the world. This was followed by a Companion Bill passed by the US House of Representatives in 2005.

Records to protect the authenticity and ownership of individual tartans are maintained by the Court of the Lord Lyon in Edinburgh. There are two existing Registers, the Scottish Tartans World Register (STWR) and the Tartans Index of the Scottish Tartans Authority.

The Lyon Court is the heraldic body appointed by the Crown in Scotland to look after matters of pedigree and patent, but in regard to tartan has found it increasingly difficult to assert its authority to protect registered thread counts from forgery and abuse. After widespread consultation, a Bill is soon to be introduced to the Scottish Parliament to establish a Tartan Register (Archive and Tartan Record). Spearheaded by Jamie McGrigor MSP, it will seek to move registration from private hands, where it is vulnerable, and to provide tartan with a long overdue official non-commercial public domain status.

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