A Highland Artform
The Highlands of old had little "pure" art not from any lack of
appreciation or ability but simply because the economy would not
support art for art's sake. Chiefs had their bards and pipers but
visual art was left to the craftsmen, who used it in the decoration
of necessary weapons and apparel. Plaid brooches, sporrans, targes
and sword hilts are well-known vehicles for artistic expression of
this kind but the fog of myth that surrounds tartan goes far
towards obscuring the fact that the Highlanders' native textile is
also an art form in its own right.
There is no doubt that the Highland village weaver had a great deal
to contend with. With a limited palette of colours, he had to make
a hard-wearing and almost weatherproof cloth and make it look good.
The check pattern that was an almost natural outcome of the
conditions under which he worked could be varied easily by the
addition of simple overchecks or wider bands of contrasting colour,
so that a range of similar, yet different, patterns could be
produced with the minimum of trouble, and the structure of the
cloth gave still further scope to the artistic inclinations of the
designer. The pattern of a tartan is woven into it, and where two
colours cross the result is a blend of them in equal proportions;
further, an increase in the number of 'base' colours brings about a
disproportionate increase in the number of blends, which diffuse
the pattern and lead each colour subtly into the next. To a large
extent it can be said that the more colours in a tartan the softer
the overall result.
Old Highland tartans were made with fine yarn and bright, soft and
unambiguous colours, so that the pattern was finely drawn and well
defined. The diagonal ribs of the twill weave catch the light in
such a way that the cloth has life and movement of its own as it
moves in the breeze or as the observer moves about it. Even a
primitive piece of such tartan has character; the general run of
them are beautiful, works of art indeed. Alas for the art form, the
old colours obtained from plant extracts were eventually replaced
by synthetic dyes more suitable for mass production and not only
were the subtleties of the old shades lost but the harsh brilliance
of the reds and the near-black of greens and blues were too strong
for the job; the thick hairy yarns of the late Victorian era masked
the sharpness of the pattern and tartans became either fire-engine
red with blocks of almost black or almost black with barely visible
There have been improvements since those days but the more recent
'ancient' colours still fall well short of the real old colours,
and have failed to revive shades like Rose and Bloom and the
slightly warm dark blue that was called Purple; 'Faded', 'Muted'
and 'Weathered' have little resemblance to the real thing.
The art form is almost lost but could be re-discovered; it is in
danger of being replaced by "Painting by Numbers".