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Tartan Ferret

Jamie Scarlett (1920 ~ 2008)

Jamie Scarlett at his loom

James Desmond Scarlett was born in London in 1920 and educated at various private schools. Joined R.A.F.V.R. in March 1939 and served in the R.A.F. in a technical capacity from the outbreak of war until February 1946, picking up various useful accomplishments on the way.

After demob, trained as a quantity surveyor, preserving a degree of sanity by indulging in serious photography and learning to fly light aircraft. A chance encounter during a holiday in Perthshire in 1962 re-kindled a latent interest in tartan and led - through the Scottish Tartans Society - to a long and fruitful collaboration with D.C.Stewart which ended only with Stewart's death.

Since 1977 he engaged in in-depth analysis of the tartan art form and in the reconstruction of the old styles of tartan weaving, and in the reconsideration of the problem of military tartans in the light of recently discovered information.
Amongst numerous booklets and papers, his publications include:

The Tartan Spotter's Guide (1973)
Scotland's Clans and Tartans (1974)

How to Weave Fine Cloth (1981)
The Tartan Weaver's Guide (1985)
Tartan, The Highland Textile (1990) 

Brian Wilton, Director of the Scottish Tartans Authority was a friend and colleague of Jamie Scarlett and was with him when he died in Inverness in 2008. The following was the funeral address he delivered at the Requiem Eucharist for Jamie at Inverness Cathedral on 4th June 2008.

James Desmond Scarlett at his home in Moy, Inverness.


"Whilst my coming into Jamie's life was only in the last decade, my frequent contacts with him - by phone, e-mails and visits - proved enriching to us both. To me because I had instant access to one of the towering figures in the world of professional tartan research and to Jamie because it demonstrated that even in his twilight years, he had an immense amount to offer to historians and indeed Scotland.

Our joint experiences in the RAF proved another shared interest and I liked nothing better in our many phone calls than to joke outrageously with him and have the reward of hearing his rare laughter.

Very appropriately I happen to be wearing a black kilt today. This was said to be a Victorian invention to be worn at times of mourning. Jamie dismissed that with his usual irrefutable logic by asking how many people could afford to have a black kilt hanging in the wardrobe just waiting for the next funeral. Well Jamie, I'm glad that I had one because I think it marks your passing in the most appropriate fashion.

Those of you who visited Jamie in his croft at Moy may have noticed that he was no domestic goddess and according to his little sister Margaret (little sisters always tell tales on elder brothers!) that was very evident from the early days of his interest in tartan. Whilst still living at home he built a loom in his bedroom and the banisters were forever festooned with hanks of wool in all states of preparedness. His experiments with dyeing those wools, meant that he frequently commandeered his mother's pots and pans for boiling up his witches' brews of colouring agents and then he would leave the dirty pans for someone else to clear up. Uncharacteristic of Jamie's usual excellent attention to detail, was to learn that having built that loom in his bedroom, when he came to leave home, he found it was too big to get out through the door.

Jamie Scarlett's Highland croft

Jamie married late in life - his beloved Meta in 1972 - and in 1976 he gave up quantity surveying and devoted himself entirely to the study of tartan. His scholarly output was prodigious and his many books on the subject were joined by countless articles and home-produced booklets. What amazed me was that his output hardly diminished with advancing age and he was forever inundating me with new work to add to our archives. As a humorous aside. Jamie - or Jim as his family know him - granted me Power of Attorney and we joked about my stepping in to help search for them if Jamie ever lost his marbles. What I discovered was that his marble collection was very much bigger and better than mine and he had no intention of losing any of them. So I'm pleased to report that I never had to unleash my powers.

Jamie will certainly be sadly missed. As another tartan doyen from the United States e-mailed: "He was the Dean of Tartan Scholars and invented the term "tartanology.". He was the last link between the 19th & 20th century fathers of early tartan research D.W. and his son D.C. Stewart."
So very many people have expressed their sadness at Jamie's passing and I would like to read just three from individuals who didn't meet him until comparatively recently, all of them connected with the bill going through the Scottish Parliament to establish an official tartan register.

The first is from Michael McElhinney, The Scottish Government's Head of Manufacturing Policy:
"While I only met Jamie a couple of times and on work on the tartan register, he made an immediate impression with his impressive knowledge of tartan and his passion for the subject. His welcoming hospitality and sense of humour made the trip up the A9 seem shorter. I subsequently read some of his works and this served to confirm my initial impression, that Jamie was indeed one of Scotland's leading tartan academics."
George MacKenzie Keeper of the Records of Scotland, wrote:
"Jamie Scarlett was one of the foremost authorities on tartan, and will be much missed. His scholarship, which shines through his notes and publications, will both help and inspire us as we work to establish the Register of Scottish Tartans."
Alison Diamond, the project officer at the National Archives of Scotland had this to say:
"I have read a lot of his books over the last few months and have learned a huge amount from them. I was looking forward to being able to draw on his vast knowledge and practical experience as the Register developed. He'll leave a huge hole in the tartan world. Hopefully we can create a register that he would have approved of."
As most of you may know, about 10 years ago, Jamie was awarded an MBE for his outstanding contributions to Scottish Heritage. A lesser man might have become a little puffed up about that, but Jamie never did and I always marvelled at his willingness to modify some of his long-held views in the light of subsequent research and discussion. Talking of what made a good researcher, he said they needed an enquiring mind and an ability to smell a rat. His self-effacing attitude was best typified by his saying that he never believed anything he saw in print . . . even if he'd written it himself.
His humorous asides and his often acerbic comments on the many tartan myths that circulate, will long be remembered. But one of his cleverest and funniest outputs had nothing to do with tartan at all. Most of you will know that between Inverness and Perth, there are two high altitude spots on the A9 that frequently become blocked with snow - the Slochd and Drummochter Pass. Jamie penned a couplet many years ago which read. "When the Slochd is blochd, Drummochter is blochter!" Years later, in a folksy Scottish magazine he read that very same couplet which was described as an 'old Highland weather saying.'
Jamie's favourite tipple was a good malt whisky and in parting and in celebration of a very special person, a very worthwhile life and mercifully, a very peaceful end, I lift an imaginary glass and say to Jamie "Slainte, Here's tae ye . . . wha's like ye!"

Brian Wilton, Director, Scottish Tartans Authority.

D C Stewart with Jamie Scarlett & Mrs Bailey, Uplyme, 1976


Jamie Scarlett's croft at Milton of Moy, 17 miles south of Inverness.


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Scottish Charity Number SCO24310

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