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Tartan Ferret

False Plumage


One does not need to have a very suspicious mind in order to feel that the VESTIARIUM SCOTICUM is not all it claims to be. The language in which it is written is a little too peculiar, a little too inconsistent in both spelling and phraseology and the illustrations do not look quite right, but intuition is not proof; more would be known about tartan to-day and many violent quarrels would have been avoided in the past if previous students of the subject had relied less on intuition and sought for evidence instead.
True or false, the Vestiarium was an important document. It revealed the existence of seventy-five tartans, most of them previously unknown, introduced Lowland tartans for the first time and made it appear that "clan" tartans had been in systematic use during the sixteenth century. By a strange coincidence, all these were exactly what people wanted to be told, so few questions were asked. If they were, there was plentiful "evidence" contained in the body of the book to prove its authenticity. Support for the MacLean tartan came in the form of land charters; Martin Martin and James Logan had both referred obscurely to 'pattern sticks' and here they were, described in full along with other details of the old manufacturing processes. If anybody knew, it did not seem strange that the reputed author of the manuscript on which the Vestiarium was based, "Schyr Richarde Urquharde Knychte" could not be found to have existed, or that only one of the three manuscripts had been seen by any independent eye. People believed what they wanted to believe and most of them wanted to believe in the Vestiarium, and so numerous beautiful and genuinely old tartans were abandoned in favour of these new 'ancient' discoveries.
Efforts to prove or disprove the authenticity of the Vestiarium had been both half- hearted and inconclusive. In 1894 the Cromarty Ms was submitted to two eminent analysts, one of whom said that it showed signs of having been artificially aged and the other that he could not positively pronounce it to be a forgery, and the Marchmont Herald endeavoured to vindicate it in a series of articles in the Glasgow Herald in 1895-6. It was as part of the former investigation that the Ms was photographed and it was a set of prints from those photographs that J.C.Thompson bought, for the sum of œ5, from a secondhand book seller in Glasgow. These prints were in first class condition and more legible than the actual manuscript, which came to light later; having transcribed them and examined the document from the point of language, spelling and word-usage, Thompson was left in no doubt that it was a forgery. Meanwhile, D.C.Stewart, himself highly sceptical of the authenticity of the Vestiarium, had drafted a short note on the tartans contained therein and had reached precisely the same conclusion; the result of their collaboration, published in 1980 as SCOTLAND'S FORGED TARTANS, effectively disposed of any lingering belief that it might be a genuine sixteenth century compilation. Careful examination of the photographs showed insertions and discrepancies, even different handwriting in places, and the tracking down, to the Royal Library at Windsor Castle, of Sir Thomas Dick Lauder's transcript threw up further anomalies in the way of late alterations, and different tartans to the same descriptions. A certain ambiguity in some of the descriptions and some lack of precision in most could easily have led different artists to interpret them differently, but both the Lauder Transcript and the Vestiarium proper were illustrated by Charles Sobieski, so that particular fault should have been easy to avoid.
Research has continued since Forged Tartans was published and what I feel is a further telling point against the Vestiarium involves the MacGregor and Scott tartans.
In the early 1800's there was a tartan named "MacGregor-Murray", either used by or named after John Macgregor-Murray, who led the campaign to have their name restored to the Clan Gregor and afterwards became Chief of the Clan as Sir John Murray MacGregor. The MacGregor-Murray tartan became "MacGregor", and a very slightly modified version appeared under the name in the Vestiarium. If the middle element of that tartan - a green bar with a white line at its centre - be doubled, we have the main outline of the Scott tartan. For an accidental similarity between the tartan of the most widely known MacGregor and that of his greatest publicist to have happened at all is unlikely enough; for it to have happened long before either was born is surely stretching credibility far beyond breaking point.


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