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Tartan Ferret

What is Authentic?


Many years ago an American friend asked for my help in defining authenticity with respect to tartan and I accordingly went to my dictionary where I found that "authentic" is something "of which the whole history is known". Tartan is not without its paradoxes, but this presented a problem since it excluded all the traditional tartans - in fact, the more traditional, the more excluded - as well as most recent ones, many of them made to satisfy some unrecorded demand or just in the hope of drumming up business.

Nevertheless, the question is a serious one deserving more thought, for no-one wants to be caught wearing an 'unauthentic' tartan and the 'right' to wear some tartan has been so hyped-up that nobody nowadays thinks of wearing a tartan just because he or she likes it; the days when most patterns were known simply by numbers in a maker's list are long gone.

So what is an authentic tartan? A satisfactory yardstick is that used by the brothers William and Andrew Smith, who compiled their book AUTHENTICATED TARTANS OF THE CLANS AND FAMILIES OF SCOTLAND in 1850. They speedily found that few people, even the Clan Chiefs, had any idea what their tartans looked like; in 1815, Robertson of Struan reported that wide consultation with his clansmen had failed to produce agreement on the pattern of the Robertson tartan and in 1817, Duncan Macpherson of Cluny gave to the Highland Society of London, as a specimen of his Clan tartan, a pattern previously included in a well-known manufacturer's list as "No43, or Kidd Sett or Caledonia pattern". The brothers Smith therefore adopted as their criterion "use and wont", reversing the dictionary definition and making "traditional" "authentic". "Use and wont" is still the most widely applicable authentication of tartan but it must also be remembered that a Chief, or the Head of a family, has the power to say that a particular pattern shall be worn by his people or to vary the pattern that they are already wearing. Having authenticated a tartan in this way, a Chief or the Head of a family, and in some circumstances, a corporate body, can apply to the Lord Lyon to have the pattern registered at the Lyon Court and, if the application is granted, it becomes an offence, punishable by law, for a manufacturer to diverge to any significant extent from the sealed pattern.

The Scottish Tartans Society, based at Comrie, Perthshire, also maintains a register of tartans; like the Lyon Register, but without the force of law and covering much wider ground, the Register of all Known Tartans seeks to record standard patterns but does not, of itself, authenticate them.

Authenticity of tartan is clearly a quite delicate matter, and it might be reasonable to ask what makes an un-authentic pattern. I have not looked into that yet but I think that a tartan made by taking an established pattern, weaving it in different colours and calling it Loch This, Glen That or Ben Something else, has a strong claim.


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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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