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Tartan Ferret

Oh what a Tangled Web!


I would not accuse the nineteenth century tartan enthusiasts of actually practising to deceive, but they did very well without even trying. How about this:-
"...the word tartan obtained its present application when
the Assyrian general Tartan (Isaiah XX 1-4) took Ashdad,
and carried away the Egyptians captive in an imperfectly
clothed condition, which must have made them bear a
striking resemblance to Scotch Highlanders in their native
That passage, taken from a Pall Mall Gazette of March 1875, appeared as a footnote in the 1876 edition of The "Scottish Gael", edited and annotated by the Rev. Alex. Stewart, who was perhaps better known by his pen-name "Nether Lochaber"; the Rev. Alex. was only poking gentle fun at James Logan but pronouncements of this kind, made with a straight face and the assumption of great authority found, and still find, a receptive and credulous readership. Of such stuff is the "history" of tartan made, and no amount of rational argument can put it right.
The nineteenth century was a period of increasing extremism in tartan. By its end, Highland dress had ceased to be the everyday dress of impoverished peasants - they could no longer afford it - and had become the ceremonial dress of the wealthy, who believed all the myths and somehow convinced themselves that tartan was some sort of status symbol.
Tartan became tinged with the kind of antiquarianism that in the not-far-distant past had made a detailed academic study of the bill of lading for the Ark, paying due attention to the labour requirements of "mucking out", and had calculated the precise date of the Creation on the basis that "a thousand ages in Thy sight are but an evening gone". Tartan - by which was meant "clan" tartans, for a tartan was not recognised as such unless it had a name - had to have emerged complete and systematized from the primaeval mists, and the Laws of Achy Edgathach (which allowed a person to have a number of colours in his cloak according to his rank) and the "Leabhar breac" (which said much the same except that an officiating priest was allowed one more colour than a king, to show that, by virtue of his office, he was set above earthly rulers) were adduced in support of the theory. Joseph's coat of many colours was held by some to have been of tartan. Whether or no this had some bearing on another idea, that the Highlanders were one of the Lost Tribes of Israel, I cannot tell; in view of the prevailing attitudes of those who set themselves up to pronounce on such matters, I think it not unlikely. Even simple and straightforward comments were given meanings beyond all reason. Martin Martin wrote that, to a person well versed in such matters, the place of a man's residence could be guessed from a sight of his plaid, making it "obvious" that a completely organised system of district tartans operated in 1607; an epic poem about Dundee's early Jacobite campaigns describes tartans in such terms as 'woven in triple stripe' and so "proves" that those worn at the Battle of Inverlochy were identical with those worn to-day.
How tartan came to take such a grip of the public imagination is open to guesswork. Probably the starting point was the repeal of the Act against the wearing of tartan and Highland dress in 1782. Much has been made of the cruelty of this Act and the harshness with which it was enforced, with talk of men being shot and hanged for wearing tartan. Perhaps they were, but a minister on Skye, contributing to the (old) Statistical Account of Scotland said that it would take more than an Act of Parliament to make his people give up the traditional dress and several others reported in similar terms, which suggests that the claims of general hardship may be somewhat exaggerated.


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