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