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Tartan Ferret

Highland Dyes

Much has been written on the subject of natural dyes, the most comprehensive work probably being Sue Grierson's The Colour Cauldron, but none of them have focused on the more limited question of how the Highland weavers obtained the colours for their tartans. It is suggested that schools could be enlisted in a programme of experiments aimed at recovering the lost art, with Primary schools cultivating, harvesting and preserving the dye materials and Secondary schools carrying out specified, controlled and disciplined experiments as an introduction to more complicated sciences. I see the operation as being mostly extramural and extracurricular but capable of being linked loosely to the general science curriculum.
In The Clans Septs and Regiments of the Scottish Highlands, Frank Adam gives a more than adequate list of dye plants but does not quote sources. It is evident that the list could be heavily pruned, on the grounds of rarity, inaccessibility or improbability; another good rule is that if you could eat it you did not dye with it. Maximum pruning would still leave a list of formidable length but, if groups of schools were to be involved, not every school would need to grow every plant. Bearing in mind that the plants are, essentially, weeds, it should still be possible to get advice on cultivation from local gardeners, garden clubs and Parks Departments and the importance of different types of soil to different plants would be learned.
Dyeing experiments would be strictly a matter of trial and error but the variables are comparatively few and each trial would yield a tangible result of some kind. Even if negative, something positive could be learned from it and, as a practical application of science, it would be of value educationally.
For apparatus, Highland dyers had iron or copper pots and a peat fire to heat them on; probably the best modern substitute for the latter would be an electric hot-plate with a 'simmer' setting. Water came from the burn and nowadays should be taken from above the highest dwelling to avoid contamination of the dye bath, especially with detergents and the like. The mordant most commonly used appears to have been alum, but fir club moss, which contains aluminium was also used; slightly acid water would have caused the mixture to be slightly polluted with iron or copper, according to the pot used, and this could cause some darkening of the colour. It is well known that stale urine was used as an alkaline additive to the dye bath, but proprietary liquid ammonia of known strength, added in known proportions, would be preferable, though less "romantic".
It is known that the part of the plant, the season at which it is taken and whether it is used dried or fresh, all have a bearing on the colour produced; overheating usually spoils the colour completely and marked differences in the colour and in its permanence are brought about by ageing of the infusion. Something like fifty experiments with each plant would probably be required

and these should by no means be beyond the capacity of a bunch of enthusiastic youngsters, but it would be necessary for the experiments to be carefully planned and the plans followed meticulously. This would call for teacher-supervision and organisation on 'project' lines would appear to be the best way forward.
J.S. 05.02.03.



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