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Issue 94 - Roddy Martine's View: The Gift of Tartan

Scotland Magazine Issue 94
September 2017


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Roddy Martine's View: The Gift of Tartan

Roddy Martine congratulates Barack Obama on his family tartan

Followers of my column will know of my enthusiasm and support for the wearing and use of tartan whenever it is appropriate. Throughout my life I have written extensively on the traditional striped fabric of the Scots, including a book that has since been republished through 10 editions.

The wearing of tartan is proudly and uniquely Scottish, the origins of woven striped cloth deeply embedded in the provenance of the ancient Celts. However, what generally tends to be known about its origins have, for the most part, been subject to the fantasy, whims, and interpretation of the past three centuries.

That doesn't really matter too much, so long as the kilt is worn with the respect that is due to what has come to be acknowledged as the traditional costume of the Scots. Unfortunately, Victorian affectation and military traditions have left us with some pretty eccentric conventions concerning our national dress. Yet despite this, tartan remains distinctly ours. Like Scotch whisky and Harris Tweed, it is instantly identifiable as belonging uniquely to Scotland. No other nation can lay claim to it.

Banned as a uniform of rebellion in the aftermath of the Jacobite Risings of the 18th Century, the individual Scottish clan connections associated with tartan, albeit often tenuous, have proved remarkably resilient. Having been commercialised after the lifting of the ban in 1782, every native Scot found themselves henceforth eligible to wear a clan or family tartan as an uncompromising statement of their nationhood. Since the revival, and especially over the 19th and 20th Centuries, colourful tartan patterns were widely adapted for fashion accessories such as ballgowns, skirts, scarves and shoes; furnishing fabrics such as curtains, carpets and rugs, and ceramic and tableware decoration.

There is an Australia tartan, a Pride of New Zealand tartan, and all of Canada's provinces and territories, except for Nunavut, have regional tartans. There are New York and Ellis Island tartans, a European Union tartan, a Hard Rock Cafe tartan, a Coca-Cola tartan, even a Peter Pan tartan. More than 7,240 variations were required to be approved and registered with the Scottish Tartan Authority, which was formed in 1996 from the database of the Scottish Tartans Society and the Scottish Tartans World Register, the organisation that previously held the responsibility.

I was thinking about all of this when I heard that as a gesture of friendship the charitable Hunter Foundation had commissioned Brian Halley, of Glasgow-based Slanj Kilts, to design a family tartan for the esteemed former US President Barack Obama. So far as is known, there is no immediate Obama clan or family bloodline in Scotland. However, as a statement of friendship towards a highly respected and internationally known figure, I can think of no finer gesture than to award him a tartan. As a Scotch whisky drinker, I hate to say it, but this gift of tartan was probably rather more appropriate than the UK Government's presentation of a traditional Scottish drinking quaich to the teetotal President Trump.

The colours of the Obama tartan threads were carefully chosen to focus on the Obama family history. The navy blue represents the flag of Hawaii, where the 44th and first African American US President was born. Kenya, where President Obama's father, a senior government economist, was born, is represented by the green of that country's flag. The red, sky blue and white are taken from the flag of Chicago, where Mr Obama lives and works.

As is the case with every clan, family, civic or corporate tartan, the design is legally patented and protected through registration with the Scottish Government supported Scottish Register of Tartans. Three kilts and a pair of trews were made for Mr Obama. Although the former world leader joked about exposing his knees at the presentation, which took place in Edinburgh during his first visit to Scotland in May, he was clearly much taken with the trousers.

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