Tartan - a History within a History
Most primitive societies weave cloth in check patterns of some kind or another; development beyond the simple two-colour variety depends upon the artistic inclinations of the weaver, but there are indications that such developments were natural to isolated, self-sufficient, mountain communities1. Bhutan, Switzerland and Scandinavia all have their tartan- style patterns and a recently-excavated site in south-west China has yielded specimens of tartan-type fabrics; all of these point, in a general way, to the route along which the northern Celtic stream brought tartan to the Highlands. Some consideration must be given to the possibility that the harder, more exposed life of mountain people encouraged the development of art in the direction of dress, jewellery and weaponry rather than to household artefacts. Although it is claimed that tartan was brought to Dalriada by the Scots from Ireland, there is no evidence that this was so or that the southern Celtic stream, coming by way of the Iberian peninsula, Brittany, Cornwall and Wales, had anything to do with it apart, possibly, from contributing the blarney that is an essential part of tartan today.
Tangible history is scarce. The accounts of Roman chroniclers tell of brightly coloured and striped clothing worn by the inhabitants of our islands, but they are not specific; some historians have suggested that "picti" referred to patterned clothing. The so-called 'Falkirk Tartan' shows that the twill weave typical of tartan and the regular check pattern were known by the end of the third century AD, but the surviving fragment is too small to show the whole sett. Thereafter, we have to wait for several centuries for written accounts to appear, bringing with them the seeds of great confusion, for 'tartan', from the French 'tiretaine' by way of the Scots 'tertane', was a kind of cloth2 and, as late as November 1827, an Edinburgh merchant was able to order a quantity of "Plain Dark Green coloured tartan, no pattern on it", without causing any comment.
In the account of his Pennylesse Pilgrimage to the Highlands in 1618, John Taylor, the self-styled 'King's Water Poet', tells of "a warme stuffe of divers colours, which they call Tartane" and a German woodcut of about 1631, thought to depict Highland soldiers in the army of Gustavus Adolphus, shows a clear tartan pattern. Though it had probably existed for centuries, this is the first clear picture of tartan as we know it, and it can be followed in portrait and print thenceforward; however, only the very rash would read anything into this and the modern author who, commenting on the purchase of 'Helande tertane to be hoiss to the Kingis Grace'3, opined that this "would have been the bright Royal tartan" was very wide of the mark.
In the 'Clan' context, tartan presents us with several paradoxes. Weaving is perhaps the earliest form of mass production in manufacture and it is fairly certain that any community large enough to support a weaver very soon found itself wearing cloth of a simple standard pattern varied, perhaps, by changing the colour of a line here and there; anybody who wanted otherwise would have had to be wealthy enough to pay for it - an unlikely contingency - or powerful enough to demand it. To the extent that the group would, at that stage, be an extended family, these would have been Clan tartans, but there is no hint that they were thought of in that way until very much later. It is doubtful, too, if the 'clan' then was quite as we have been conditioned to think of it. When some Donald and his wife settled and started to raise a family, their sons, Donald, Iain, Alastair and whatever, would all have been 'Mac' Donalds and their daughters 'Nic' Donalds. But the sons of the next generation would have been MacIains, MacAlistairs and, because of the need for specialists in any community, maybe MacGowans and MacIntyres; daughters sometimes bring in husbands and so, in a very short space of time, our Clan would encompass several names, all owing allegiance to the original Donald.
By 1745, the art of tartan had reached a high standard and complex patterns were being exported to the Lowlands mainly for ladies' plaids. However, indigenous everyday Highland patterns had evolved into three main groups, in blue and/or green on a red ground. In the West, the MacDonald type has a broad green stripe with a narrower band each side while, east of the Great Glen and the Monadhliath, the green stripe is divided into two and the narrow bars become blue, to make the Mackintosh type; this is the largest group both numerically and geographically, reaching from Strathglass through Badenoch into Perthshire and branching into Speyside. In the North, the Ross type has separate blocks of blue and green on the red ground. There was a minority of nonconformist patterns but these three types predominated; they stuck fairly closely to their home territories but it is noticeable that several Clans from outwith the 'Mackintosh' area who had Jacobite inclinations have tartans of the Mackintosh type in their wardrobes. The Jacobite army in The '45 was organised into Clan regiments and here we have the first hint of the use of tartan as a clan uniform; that there is no evidence of tartans used in the 'clan' context before The '45, yet they were firmly established by 1822 suggests that this was the catalyst which caused the Clan Tartan Idea to burst forth under the influence of the romantic fiction of the early nineteenth century.
The ban on tartan and Highland dress that was imposed after The '45 is well-known but it is much less well-known that it did not come into force until more than a year after the Battle of Culloden, when there was little danger of another Jacobite uprising. The few references to the dress of the Highlanders that occur in the (old) Statistical Account of Scotland suggest that the average Highlander did not take much notice of the Act, one of the contributing ministers going so far as to say that it would take more than an Act of Parliament to make his people change their mode of dress. The enthusiastic stories of the enforcement of the Act take little account of the difficulty of making a whole nation change the form of its dress or of the practicality of such stratagems as stitching the kilt between the legs to make it look like shorts.
The most important effect of the Act was to stop the Highlanders making tartan, and this led to the founding of large weaving manufactories on the Highland fringes, to supply the considerable needs of the Army and the new colonies; this was the beginning of the modern story of tartan. Almost certainly the largest and longest-lasting of these concerns was the firm of William Wilson and Son, at Bannockburn who, to our good fortune, were great hoarders of paperwork and to whom we owe most of our knowledge of the early tartan trade.
The new factories became big and prosperous on military and colonial orders but, as wars died down and the colonies became self-sufficient, hard times loomed ahead and the Highland Romantic Revival that followed the repeal of the Act in 1782, aided by Sir Walter Scott and the 1822 Royal Visit to Edinburgh, must have come as a great relief.
Demand for tartan was stimulated to the extent that, at about this time, Wilson's recorded that they were "like to be torn to pieces for it". Soldiers had been exempt from Act and evidence is now beginning to emerge concerning the new type of pattern "different from any other"4 that had been devised for their use; a simple pattern, based on equal stripes of blue, black and green with a coloured line at each end, this eventually evolved into the Black Watch tartan of today, and also became the basis for many of the 'fancy' patterns that the new factories began to turn out in quantity.
Also in the early 1820s the Sobieski brothers produced their supposedly 250-year-old manuscript which gave currency to the idea of Lowland tartans and the tartan industry, as it expanded, happily joined in with 'dress' (based on the light-coloured arisaid patterns worn by the women), 'district' (attributable to a remark by Martin Martin5), 'hunting' (similarly due to George Buchanan6) and 'funeral' tartans, (based on pure imagination). The Queen herself went overboard for tartan and everything Highland, so who could blame her subjects for following suit?
But by now, tartan was 'Scottish' and had lost its Highland character; it had become a trademark and a status symbol. Everybody who was anybody, many who were not and most whose not-so-remote ancestors would have run home to bar their doors and shutter their windows at the sight of a flurry of tartan, all sought their 'true and ancient' setts and, if they could afford it, decked themselves out in 'Scotland's' national dress.
The tartan trade loved this, of course, and capitalised on the legend of 'entitlement' and therefore the exclusive 'right' to wear a particular pattern, while doing its best to ensure that such rights should be distributed as widely as possible. Olympic feats of genealogical gymnastics were performed in order to confer this mystical 'right' upon as many as possible. All Wills, Williams and anyone else with a 'Wil' in his name became a Gunn because of a certain Will Gunn who did great execution among the Keiths, and all Walters, Watts and Watties became Buchanans after a Sir Walter of that ilk.
Oversimplification assumed that all MacDonalds reached back to one ultimate Donald and so on, a distinction that could not be claimed by many except, perhaps, the MacAdams! In similar vein, a progenitorial blacksmith fathered all MacGowans and an original carpenter did the same for the MacIntyres, but anomalies like these mattered little to people in the grip of the tartan frenzy. "Septs", those rather ill-defined sub-clans and dependent groups, were a great help here, for some names are common to several Clans and others had the 'right' to their own tartans. 'District' tartans were especially helpful, for 'entitlement' to one of these could be stretched almost to the point of just liking the place. The myths, founded upon tiny grains of truth, had begun to grow into the immense inverted pyramid, poised on a tiny point of reality and kept from toppling by a solid column of cash at each corner!
Emigrant Scots contributed their own myths. The first emigrants must have been only too glad to find a new and less hard country to live in and have been fully occupied in making a living, and it was the later generations, nurtured on romantic tales of the home land, who fell for such fictions as "Kirking the Tartan" and the stories in support which, like the other myths, have passed into history without question. To question them now, even if they directly conflict, is to invite disbelief and hostility, especially from Lowlanders.
From the time of the Victorian revival there have been students of tartan. Most of them, richly endowed with that little knowledge that is so dangerous, took for granted that every early mention of tartan meant 'clan tartan' and indulged in lengthy and frequently acrimonious arguments in attempts to prove the antiquity of clan tartans in general and certain patterns in particular, arguments made more pointless and futile by both sides using the same evidence which in fact proved nothing and could be used with equal effect by either.
An exception to the norm was Donald William Stewart who, in 1893, published Old and Rare Scottish Tartans with an Historical Introduction in which he had collected every reference to tartan and Highland dress that he could find from the earliest days. One cannot always agree with his conclusions but the information upon which they are based is invaluable and, nowadays, treated with circumspection, is the nearest most of us can come to primary sources.
Many years later, in 1939, Donald William's son, Donald Calder Stewart, having inherited none of his father's interest in tartan and seeking a means of whiling away a long train journey, picked up one of the standard tourist tartan picture books on the Inverness station bookstall; by the time he reached the end of his journey he had decided that "if people were going to write books about tartan they should do it properly". He proceeded to do so and his book, The Setts of the Scottish Tartans, provided the inspiration for, and laid the foundations of, modern tartan research. (insert photo here of Jamie Scarlett & Donald Stewart)
For the time being, though, tartan remained a fetish7 with strong commercial possibilities and its modern history has reflected those possibilities. About 1920, it was realised that the harsh, strong colours of the early synthetic dyes were totally unlike the real old colours and the pastel 'ancient' colours were invented. These also were not very like the old colours, of which there were plenty of specimens around to be copied, but they were quiet and 'ancient' was a good word. Soon after the end of the 1939-45 war, 'reproduction' colours made their appearance; these were supposed to replicate the colours of a tartan that had been buried in peat for two hundred years, something that no Highland dyer would have wished to do, but 'reproduction' was also a good word.
In 1963, Stuart Davidson, a Stirling schoolmaster, inspired by The Setts, gathered around him most of the serious students of tartan of the day and founded the SCOTTISH TARTANS INFORMATION CENTRE, shortly to become the SCOTTISH TARTANS SOCIETY, dedicated to research, collection and dissemination of accurate information. D.C. Stewart became its first archivist and invented the Sindex system of recording, indexing and identifying tartan; the members of the Advisory Panel covered wide areas of expertise and a small museum was established in the Tolbooth at Stirling. Much valuable work was done in finding and cataloguing relics, but, though the Lord Lyon had appointed himself the ultimate authority on tartan, which had become regarded as a kind of heraldry, no official support was forthcoming. The key men were all elderly and as they began to die off no young blood came forward to replace them; the original purpose of the Society was lost sight of, a new museum opened at Comrie became a financial liability and a new management was unsuccessful in solving the problems. The American members broke away and founded their own Tartan Educational and Cultural Association (TECA) which eventually joined forces with the Scottish tartan trade to form the Scottish Tartans Authority (STA).
The accepted history of tartan is almost pure fiction, its composers, carried away by the 'romance' of the idea that a man could, from time immemorial, be identified "from the first sight of his plaid"8. This took no account of probability, credibility or even the circumstances of the Highlanders. The picture of the women of the clan, seated at their spinning-wheels round the peat fire, spinning the yarn which they will dye and weave into cloth which their menfolk will wear into battle (in full evening dress) for their Prince, or to steal their neighbours' cattle, is a pretty one. However, the reality was a long way from this: the Saxony type of spinning wheel came late to the Highlands9 and prior to that, spinning was by means of the drop-spindle which, although now regarded as a crude toy with which children can be taught the rudiments of spinning, can with very little practice produce a fine and even yarn and is highly cost-effective. Its slow rate of production was balanced by the number of people who could carry it around, spinning as they went.
It is probable that the fine, long fleece of the Highland sheep, taken by hand at the point of moult, needed little if any preparation for spinning. Nor is a handloom the sort of thing that can be pushed into a corner of a Highland cottage and pulled out to dash off the odd plaid. Weaving is a job for professionals and so was the dyeing of the yarn. But all this romance and romancing appealed greatly to the general public and commercial interests made the most of it.
Commercialisation of Scottish comestibles such as shortbread naturally gave rise to the tartan biscuit tin and the rising tourist trade produced tartan Loch Ness monsters and tartan-clad dolls; everything Scottish or pseudo-Scottish had to have its tartan trimmings. Tartan had begun its downhill slide.
There is little to add. Tartan began as a commercial operation and became a tradition, a cult and a source of pride in turn; it is still all of those things but now, with its wrapping-paper image and any fancy check pattern named after a pop-star dubbed a 'tartan', it has lost the dignity and respect due to a beautiful native art-form. Sunk in a morass of baseless myth and legend, its place as part of the Highland Heritage, equal in importance to the symbol stones of the Picts, is beyond the comprehension of those who claim to promote that Heritage, but surely an art-form which can consist only of coloured rectangles and with the number of colours regulated by a mathematical formula10 is worth a PhD or two?
1. James D Scarlett: A High Land Artform. Presidential Address to the Inverness Field Club, 1999.
2. Larousse: Nouveau Dictionnaire Encyclopedique. 56th ed. 1910. "Tiretaine: Nom de plusieurs ‚toffes anciennes en laine ou melange."
3. Lord High Treasurer's Accounts, 1538.
4. General David Stewart of Garth: Sketches of the Manners and Customs and Present State of the Highlanders of Scotland, 1822.
5. Martin Martin: A Description of the Western Islands of Scotland, 1703 & 1716. "Every Isle differs from each other in their Fancy of making Plad..."
6. George Buchanan: Rerum Scoticarum historia, 1582. "... the majority, now, in their dress, prefer a dark brown, imitating nearly the leaves of the heather, that when lying out on the heath in the day, they may not be discovered by the appearance of their clothes."
8. Martin Martin: op. cit.
9. I.F. Grant: Highland Folkways.
10. Each stripe of a tartan crosses every stripe in the other direction. Where stripes of the same colour cross plain colour results, but where they differ there is a 50/50 mixture. The number of these mixtures in given by the formula «(x2-x) where x is the number of 'starter' colours. The more colours we start with, the disproportionately softer will be the result.