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The Ulster Tartan

by Willie Scobie

The Dungiven Tartan

It was in April of 1956 that Mr. William G. Dixon unearthed (during the removal of a turf wall) a set of garments about a mile north of the Irish town of Dungiven. He took these to the Belfast Museum and Art Gallery. The garments included a pair of tartan trews. Miss Audrey Henshall, of the National Museum of Antiquities in Scotland, being an authority on such matters, was given the trews for examination. She dated them to the 16th or early 17th century.

An article entitled "The Dungiven Costume", by Miss Henshall and Wilfred A. Seaby (Ulster Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 24-25, 1961-1962), gives us a clear illustration of the tartan of the trews, and the following additional information -

The garments were dated as "from about 1590 to 1650... the trews, on account of their fine fabric and tartan weave, are more likely to be associated with a Highlander of rank, one who might also have sided with the O'Neills in the Tyrone Wars or the Rebellion of 1641-49."

Appendix 4 of the article, written by W.A. Seaby of the Ulster Museum, Belfast, deals with the reproduction of the Dungiven Costume -

"With regard to the trews it was felt that, as much finer yarn was required, a machine-spun wool of the correct weight was all that was necessary. Through the kindness of Mr. D.H. Alexander, Principal of the Belfast Technical College, arrangements were put in hand for the manufacture of the cloth. It was not possible to obtain vegetable dyes but a range of warm red and brown Irgalan dyes, carefully selected and mixed to give suitable contrasts to the sett, were prepared by Mr. J. Skelly of the Chemistry Department. From this a tartan cloth, very close to that of the basic fibre from Dungiven, was woven in one of the hand-looms at the College by Mr. J. McMinn; the whole operation being under the supervision of Mr. H.J. Dorman, in charge of the textile Department."

In an article published by the Ulster-Scots Agency, Dr. Clifford Smith provides the additional information that soil analysis conducted by Mr G.A. Smith of the Department of Botany at Queen's University confirmed Miss Henshall's dating of the trews. He added -

"The original colours proved very difficult to distinguish, which was to be expected, given that the tartan had been buried for centuries. However, Audrey Henshall's specialist techniques enabled her to extrapolate what the original colourings in the cloth would have been. Having identified the colours red, dull green, dark brown and orange or yellow, the antiquarian stated that the ground consisted of wide blocks of red and green, divided into squares of about one inch by groups of narrow lines of dark orange, dark brown and green. A hand-loom in the Belfast College of Technology was used to re-create the Ulster tartan, based on the colours of the rags in the earth bank... This restored version is known as 'red Ulster tartan'"

One could hardly ask for a more rigorous, scientific analysis and reproduction of a sett of tartan. Thanks to the professional skills of the experts in Ireland and Scotland we can state with assurance that "Ulster Red" is a faithful rendering of an authentic early 17th century tartan.


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