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Tartan Ferret

The Art of Tartan

The word 'tartan' derives from the French 'tiretaine' by way of the Lowland Scots 'tertane' and signifies only a type of cloth, and examples of the cloth from early in the eighteenth century show it to have been woollen, closely woven from a tightly-spun yarn of the worsted type. Koler's woodcut of 16311 shows clearly that the Highlanders wore cloth with a rectangular pattern at least from the early part of the seventeenth century and the writings of John Taylor, the self-styled King's Water Poet, tell us that it was multicoloured 2.

Thus, over the centuries, tartan has thus come to have three meanings, which are used indifferently and to the considerable confusion of the uninitiated and the careless; it can be a type of cloth, and this meaning persisted well into the nineteenth century 3, or a particular type of pattern or any kind of cloth (or, indeed, any type of substance including plastics and ceramics) bearing that type of pattern) or a travesty of it.

The cloth is woven in 'plain twill' 4, which, apart from producing a denser and more weather-resistant cloth, forms diagonal ribs in the fabric, so that where stripes of differing colours cross the appearance is rather like pencil shading, with alternate lines of each colour, rather than the pepper-and-salt effect of plain weave; this has a subtle effect on the appearance of the pattern, which varies according to whether it is being seen along or across the diagonal. Old tartans were not a balanced cloth and the weft was commonly about 50% thicker than the warp 6; consequently the pattern could sometimes appear to be striped rather than checked. Overall, these characteristics gave a considerable liveliness to the pattern.

There are no indications that tartan was used in the Lowlands in the Clan or Family context until some time after The '45 and, indeed, such evidence as there is points to its having reached the Highlands by a northerly route, through Scandinavia and not from Ireland as is commonly supposed. Laying aside specifically Lowland tartans, the dark setts, which appear to have their origins either in military fashion or with George Buchanan, and any in which the Sobieski brothers are involved and whose genuineness can therefore be heavily discounted, the remaining patterns, a surprisingly large number, are found to be predominantly red, with green and dark blue, or black, and to fall mainly into three groups which we call, from their 'parent' types, MacDonald, Mackintosh and Ross. In the West, the MacDonald type has a broad green stripe with a narrower black or blue one each side, in the Central Highlands, the Mackintosh pattern has the broad stripe divided in two and the Ross type of the North; a subgroup of the Mackintosh type has four equal stripes, two blue and two green, with the blue innermost.

Although, as might be expected, shades of colour varied somewhat, Highland dyers clearly had their medium under control. Their colours were bright but soft and, generally speaking, reds and greens were of roughly equal 'grey value' and blue was dark with a hint of warmth. Red and green thus provided the artist with colour contrast and red and blue or green and blue gave him black-and-white contrast. The facts that these colours are those of the light-filters used in three-colour photography and are the first to appear in all kinds of primitive art may be coincidental or may indicate some deep psychological significance. The other colours available and in general use were black, white, yellow and light blue, but it is apparent that if a dye-lot went wrong it could be worked in somewhere. Some apparently intentional variations were made; the dark blue that the later tartan trade called purple could be lightened to mauve, the aforementioned zinc-grey or lavender and a deep rose red and pink were used in addition to the normal scarlet. Geography.

If tartan patterns are collated with a map of Clan territories, it can be seen that the basic patterns tended to travel along lines of communication gathering slight changes or embellishments as they went until perhaps, they might meet an above-average designer-weaver with fairly drastic results. The three main groups stay fairly closely confined to their respective territories, the MacDonald type running down the West side between the mountains and the sea and the Mackintosh east of the Great Glen from Strathglass south into Perthshire, branching east into Rothiemurchus and Speyside, though a few tartans of the type occur in connection with some Jacobite Clans outwith the area. The Ross type is confined Ross-shire and Sutherland and north thereof. There are some apparent anomalies as, for example, what is now known as the Huntly District tartan which was originally private to a Marchioness of Huntly and as such was a 'fancy' variation on Ross and had no territorial connection.

The Mackintosh group is the largest - a late-eighteenth century manufacturer's list calls it Caledonian Sett, which is understandable - but its subgroup has, so far, only four examples. D.W.Stewart (Old and Rare Scottish Tartans) reported a portrait of Robert Grant of Lurg, at Troup House, in Aberdeenshire, in which the sitter was wearing his tartan with a white overcheck on the red. Lurg is on Speyside, close to the confluence of the River Dulnain and following the Dulnain into Strathdearn we come across the pattern again at Invereen, on the River Findhorn, in the form of a plaid probably of late eighteenth or early nineteenth century origin, this time with a blue overcheck. With the blue and green stripes conjoined, this is the pattern of a plaid known to have belonged to Hugh Fraser of Boblainy, who inherited his estate from a cousin in 1805 but, between the two, it forms the basic structure of the tartan deposited by Sir Aeneas Mackintosh of Mackintosh as the tartan of his Clan with the Highland Society of London in 1817; much decorated with black and yellow, and with the blue lightened to a zinc-grey, it shows what a Highland artist/weaver could build upon a simple structure. In a simpler but perhaps more subtle way the Invereen plaid is turned into the red Clan Mackintosh tartan by moving the pairs of green and blue lines close to the blue overcheck and doubling the width of the green stripes.

Tartan is woven from threads which cross at right angles and the pattern, called the SETT, therefore has, of necessity, to be of rectangular format. It comprises a series of stripes which, although exceptions are not uncommon, generally are (a) the same in both warp and weft of the cloth and (b) are expressed as a half-sett which repeats, reversing as it goes, along and across the cloth, so that each half-sett is the mirror-image of its neighbour; these introduce further inviolable rules.

1. When two stripes of the same width cross, they will make a square, and when of different widths they will make a rectangle. If a stripe is wider in the warp than in the weft, the length of the rectangle will fall across the web and vice versa.
2. When two stripes of the same colour cross, the result will be plain colour, and when of different colours, the colours will alternate in the ribs in the fabric (see above).
3. Plain colours cannot appear side by side; they must be separated by areas of mixed colour and can only join point-to-point, on the diagonal.
4. The number of mixed colours will increase in rapid disproportion to the number of base colours, in accordance with the formula M = ½ (B2 -B), where M is the number of mixtures and B the number of base colours.

The more colours we start with, therefore, the more diffuse and broken will be the appearance of the final tartan but there is a subjective aspect which modifies this effect. Put simply, the physical size of a stripe or block affects its visual impact; two threads of red crossing two of yellow does not have the same affect as would an inch of each.

Different colours have different degrees of visual impact and the art of tartan lies in the achievement of a nice balance of mass and colour to produce a soft and harmonious effect overall. In this connection overchecks - fine overlaid lines or sub-patterns of contrasting colours - are of value and can be used,

a) as a feature of the design, as in the opposed pairs of red and green lines in the Erskine tartan,
b) to accentuate a feature, as would a white edge to a red, blue, black or green stripe, or
c) to bring about an apparent reduction in the size of a large sett by repeating a feature within it.

Colour strips.
Colour strips were first used by D.C.Stewart, in The Setts of the Scottish Tartans as a means of illustrating a large number of tartans economically and in a small compass and they are also of great value because they can be 'tweaked' gently to facilitate comparison of patterns. It is relatively easy to extract a single-dimensional strip from the two-dimensional cloth but by no means so to work in the opposite direction. Nevertheless, a familiarity with strips, which can be gained only by working with them and the cloth together is a great asset to the would-be designer of tartans and time spent in acquiring it will not be wasted; the drawing board is no substitute for the ability to visualise the finished pattern.

2. In the account of his Pennylesse Pilgrimage to the Highlands in 1618, Taylor writes of a
"warme stuffe of divers colours, which they call Tartane". Describing the Highland dress, he goes on to say that "...any man of what degree soever that comest among them must not disdaine to weare it..."
3. In the early part of the nineteenth century, references to 'plain' tartan in commercial correspondence are not uncommon but, in November 1827, an Edinburgh merchant was more specific, ordering a quantity of "Plain Dark Green coloured tartan, no pattern on it" from Wilsons' of Bannockburn
4. In plain, or tabby, weave each weft thread passes alternately over and under single warp threads. In twill, it passes over and under pairs of warp threads, moving on one each throw.
5. The spinning-wheel came late to the Highlands and spinning was with the simple drop- spindle which, according to I.F. Grant (Highland Folkways}, remained in use, in more remote parts, until the middle of the nineteenth century. Now regarded as a crude toy, the spindle can, with very little practice, produce a fine and even thread; its slow rate of production would have been compensated by its portability and the large number of spinners who could have carried it about with them, spinning as the opportunity offered.



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Scottish Tartans Authority (Scottish limited company no. 162386), c/o J & H Mitchell, 51 Atholl Road, Pitlochry, PH16 5BU
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