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Tartan Ferret

Tartan - a New Perspective


Issued in April 1994 on the occasion of the formal transfer of the James Scarlett Tartan Archive to the Highland Regional Archive.

This article is about tartan, not about who is supposed to wear which pattern. It will not retell, as incontrovertible facts, all the myths and fantasies which go to make up what passes in the public mind for the history of tartan; instead, it will attempt to explain the myths and, where possible, put something more reasonable in their place. Finally, there will be no coloured illustrations, for pretty pictures have only a small place in the discussion of the realities of tartan.

To the world at large, tartan is a nineteenth-century phenomenon, born of romantic fiction and enthusiastic antiquarianism, and nurtured by commercial interest. After the repeal of the repressive (but less repressive than is generally supposed) Dress Act in 1782, the Highlanders rapidly reached 'Noble Savage' status and found, like the Red Indians and the Zulus in their respective times, authors to give them a good write-up and extol their virtues while forgetting the vices that they must surely have owned since they were just people and so subject to human frailty.

In an era when antiquarianism relied heavily upon the precise and literal accuracy of the Old Testament, it was natural also to relate everything back to it. A 'science' which could work out a bill of lading for the Ark (making due allowance for an extra complement of herbivores on which to feed the carnivores) and cope with such minor problems as 'mucking out', -or calculate the age of the earth on the basis that 'A thousand ages in Thy sight are but an evening gone', would have found nothing strange in the revelation, published in the Pall Mall Gazette in March, 1875, that ". . .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 dress".

The most marked effect of the Dress Act was to bring to an end the making of tartan in the Highland villages and concentrate it in large manufactories on the Highland fringes. Tartan then became big business and great efforts had to be made to maintain it. In this period the myths became consolidated into tartan lore to the extent that they are now universally accepted and the general public so bemused by them that, if two entirely contradictory stories are presented, it is unlikely that either will be questioned.

Tales of History and Imagination
Our story begins in Roman times, when it began to be noted that the Celtic people liked striped and brightly coloured clothing. The nineteenth-century antiquarian imagination did not have to be stretched far to reach the conclusion that 'striped' might have meant tartan (actually, the Romans had a word for 'chequered', but that does not seem to have occurred to anybody) and but a few short steps from there led to the Ancient Britons facing Caesar's army in Clan regiments, each wearing its own tartan. Apart from there being no justification of any kind for this theory, careful consideration suggests that tartan needed particular geographical and social conditions, which were not present in the south of Britain, to foster its development.

Also in Roman times, about the middle of the third century A.D., a jar of coins, with a piece of woollen cloth stuffed into the neck as a stopper, was buried or lost near Falkirk, where it was discovered at some time in the 1930's. The fragment of cloth that is left, sometimes called the 'Falkirk Tartan', is in the Royal Museum of Scotland and is woven in naturally coloured wool with a regular pattern of checks in the twill weave that is traditional for tartan.
There are no grounds for supposing that tartan, as we know it today, was made in those days, but there is no doubt that the fundamentals were known.

Thenceforwards, little is said about tartan, save for the occasional disputed translation, until the sixteenth century, when the Exchequer Accounts record the purchase of 'Helande Tertane' to make trews for the King. A modern author, who should have known better, commented that 'this would have been the brilliant Royal tartan', though there is no evidence that the so-called Royal Stuart tartan was named much before the end of the eighteenth century; it is, in fact, a plaid setting of a pattern taken from trews associated with the Jacobite side in The '45, and consequently called 'Prince Charles Stuart's Tartan'.

The Highlanders never called tartan anything but 'breacan', signifying some kind of variegation so, despite earnest attempts to relate the word to a Gaelic source, we have, until something better offers, to accept that it comes from the French 'tiretaine', which is a light woollen cloth, no pattern of any kind being implied; this theory has some support in an order, dated November 1827, from a merchant to his supplier, requesting a quantity of 'plain dark green coloured tartan, no pattern on it'.

From this time on, references to tartan become more frequent. In 1582, George Buchanan noted that the Highlanders, who had previously preferred bright colours, had taken to duller shades, so that they might lie out on the hill undetected. A dubious statement, since the old soft colours and the broken shades that they produced are a near-perfect camouflage, but Buchanan's statement was good enough to be the seed from which all our 'hunting' tartans grew.

John Taylor, Thames Waterman and self-styled 'King's Water Poet' gave, in the story of his 'Pennylesse Pilgrimage' to the Braes of Mar in 1618, a description of the Highland dress and of the cloth, 'a warme Stuffe of divers colours which they call Tartane', of which it was made, adding that 'any man of what degree soever that comest amongst them must not disdain to wear it'. At about the same time, a woodcut depicting Highland soldiers in the army of Gustavus Adolphus, showed them wearing clothes of a distinct tartan pattern. In 1691, a somewhat turgid epic poem, in Latin, told the story of the campaigns of Viscount Dundee in the earliest days of Jacobitism and gave vague descriptions ('woven with triple stripe', 'flowing plaid with yellow stripe') of the tartans which a good imagination can equate with their modern counterparts.

In 1703 and again in 1704, the Laird of Grant instructed some of his men and tenants to have ready suits of uniform ('short coates trewes and short hose of red and grein set dyce all broad springed') tartan in which to turn out at short notice and this has been claimed as an early example of the use of 'clan' tartans, but, alas for wishful thinking, some of the tenants were Macdonalds, and from as far away from Grant country as Laggan, in Badenoch. Also in 1703, Martin Martin, a customs official in the Western Isles, wrote that patterns differed throughout the land, so that those versed in such matters could tell where a man lived from a look at his plaid.

This is a rather tall story, but there is something in it and it gave us, in due course, 'district' tartans. The 1715 uprising left us some tartan relics, but no mention has survived of the 'rebels' wearing Clan tartans though, by now, the Independent Companies of the Highland Watch had been wearing uniform tartans for some time. The same can be said of the '45, by which time there were two Highland regiments and some of the wealthier Chiefs might well have outfitted their men for the much longer and more serious Rising.

After The '45 came what we call the Dress Act, aimed at suppressing the war-making capabilities of the Clans, and it may have been an idea that tartan patterns had some significance that caused the wearing of tartan to be prohibited under this Act. Though the Act was clearly enforced over-enthusiastically at times, there are indications that it did not unduly inconvenience most of the people; the (old) Statistical Account of Scotland repeatedly records that 'the old dress continues to be worn', or reports in similar terms, and a Minister on the Isle of Skye says that it would take more than an Act of Parliament to make his people foresake it. The Statistical Account was not published until some ten years after the repeal of the Act, but there is no suggestion that the people had reverted to the old dress, only that they continued to use it.

The mills that grew up on the Highland fringes grew fat on orders from the new Colonies and Army but, when wars ceased and the Colonies became more self-sufficient, they fell on hard times. The repeal of the Act in 1782 allowed some home trade and by 1815 the idea was abroad that there had been distinguishing tartans of old by which the Clans could be recognised; moves were made to preserve these patterns and, as a result, the tartan collection of the Highland Society of London, now held by the Royal Museums of Scotland in Edinburgh, came into being. However, the great fillip came with the Royal visit to Edinburgh in 1822.

The King wore the kilt, his loyal Chiefs turned out, with their tails of retainers, in their Clan tartans (some of them seem not to have known that they had clan tartans, but doubtless there were merchants keen to inform them) and the whole affair got a very good press. In the public mind, the clans became almost noble and their Chiefs, minor Royalty. If one could not be related to major Royalty, minor Royalty was a good substitute and the possession of a 'right' to a clan tartan was a good start; and so began the great search for Scots grannies.

Tartan, it will be noted, was no longer the dress of the Highland savages (who, not so long ago, had been both hated and despised by the Lowlanders) but 'Scotland's National Dress'. There is not much more to be said. The idea that the Clans had had their tartan uniforms since day one or soon after became more and more popular and, very quickly, almost universally accepted. James Logan's The Scottish Gael, published in 1831, dwelt heavily upon this theme and the so-called Sobieski brothers' Vestiarium Scoticum, an elaborate forgery concocted in the 1820s and 30s and published in 1842, made it appear to a gullible public that Clan tartans (including Lowland ones, previously unknown) had been firmly defined in the sixteenth century.

Illustrated by drawings derived from rather inexplicit description in an allegedly ancient manuscript, the Vestiarium provided a tartan-hungry trade with seventy-five 'rediscovered' tartans, many of which displaced genuine and much more attractive designs, some of which were probably known, (though not as 'clan' tartans) before The '45. The 'What is my tartan?' business flourished and Olympian feats of genealogical gymnastics were performed in order to fix everybody up with the magic 'right' to wear a tartan, a far cry indeed from John Taylor. Of course, not everybody could be fitted into the system but there were 'district' tartans and 'national' tartans to fall back on.

In the end, we got piles of books telling the enthusiastic pseudo-Highlander what he should wear and how he should wear it, and those lists that can be seen in shop windows in tourist places. Headed 'Is your name here?', they might as well be subtitled 'If it isn't, you haven't got one'. The idea that all men who wear the same tartan are brothers and that all who wear any tartan are cousins is a nice friendly one, but totally false. In no way can the organisation have existed in early times to provide say, all the Macdonalds with the Macdonald tartan and it cannot be supposed that names derived from trades, such as Macintyre, Macgowan, Macpherson, Clarke and many others, carried with them the obligation to wear the trade tartan rather than that of the locality to which the bearer belonged. The only tenable theory which will account for the development of 'clan' tartans is that the local weavers made the patterns, the local people wore them and, eventually, particular patterns became identified with particular communities.

That such individual patterns should have developed in the Highlands is in no way surprising, for it is in fact part of the development of tartan itself. Highland communities were small, isolated and self-sufficient, and the limitations imposed upon their textile manufacturing capabilities almost dictated that tartan should be the result. The Highland weavers were artists, using local produce, including dyes, to create works of abstract textile art that their customers would buy. Some of them were very good artists, others not so good; though isolated, they were not totally incommunicado, and there is evidence that weavers borrowed from next-door, so that the same basic pattern might apply to a wide area, with local modifications.

The Highland Textile
Un-thought-out romantic notions are also responsible for the popular conception of tartan manufacture in olden times. In almost all the accounts of the 'history' of tartan that are put out for general consumption we can read of the wool being plucked from the sheep and visualise the pretty picture of the women of the clan gathered around the peat fire at their spinning wheels; we hear of them dyeing the yarn by age-old, secret recipes handed down from mother to daughter and weaving the cloth to patterns remembered in rhyme or recorded by means of coloured threads wound around sticks, finally finishing it by 'waulking' to shrink and full it.

One would not risk serious error by saying that little of this ever happened. The wool was certainly taken from the old Highland sheep by hand, but at the point of moult, so that the longest and straightest fibres were taken untangled and ready to be spun. The Saxony type of spinning wheel did not make its appearance in the Highlands generally until after tartan had been banned and, although there may have been some of the older 'big' wheels about, neither, in Highland society, would have been as cost- effective as the simple drop-spindle.

Any kind of wheel would have been expensive and was static, so that few women would have been able to own one and only those with nothing else to do would have been able to use one; the spindle, on the other hand is no more than a straight stick notched at one end and weighted at the other. It can be carried about and used at any odd spare moment and a child can produce a good even thread after a little practice. The spindle is a slower producer than the wheel, but this disadvantage would have been more than outweighed by the larger number of spinners. It is clear that the women were quite able to do their domestic dyeing, but equally so, as can be seen from the quality and consistency of colours in old relics, that dyeing for tartan production was in the hands of professionals, who could get the colours they wanted and do so again and again with great regularity. The same may be said of the weaving. A loom is simply not the kind of thing that would be found in every Highland cottage; it is big and expensive and could not possibly justify its presence unless it were in use all the time. Highland women were just too busy to be weavers as well.

Then there were the patterns. Such rhymes as I have seen are lacking in detail and the 'pattern sticks' seem to be almost entirely imaginary. Martin Martin wrote of the women 'making an exact pattern upon a piece of wood' James Logan embroidered it and the Sobieski brothers embroidered it more and made it appear a sixteenth century idea. It appears that what Martin described was a prepared warp (which was indeed an 'exact pattern') being
taken to the weaver in the customary manner, wound figure-of-eight fashion on a stick; the others were just guessing.

Waulking, from the Gaelic 'luadhadh', is the process of fulling which is applied to cloth such as tweed, which is woven from a 'woollen spun' yarn. Such yarn is spun from a comparatively short-staple fleece which is prepared for spinning by 'carding', which lays the fibres at random and makes a soft, fluffy thread that weaves into a soft and absorbent cloth which shrinks and felts readily if worked in hot soapy water. Tartan, on the other hand, is woven from a yarn of the worsted type in which long-staple fibres are laid parallel by combing, and the shrinkage is much less. Being woven as closely as possible, tartan needs little more than a soaking in warm water to swell the yarn so that the individual threads 'nudge' each other into a even texture. Cloth such as this tends to throw off water whereas cloth of the tweed pageType, with the softer and more open texture, remains well ventilated until a shower comes along, when the yarn swells to give a modicum of protection from the wind and generates a small amount of heat in the process.

'The Highland Art-Form
The tartan art form is peculiar, if not unique, in depending on a regular geometrical pattern and accurately counted numbers of threads of each colour; the art lies principally in careful choice of colours and balancing their impact, light against dark and large areas against small.

The basis of tartan is the simple check, which is broken up by overchecks in 'accent' colours and varied by the addition of broader stripes. What may be regarded as a more primitive form and more nearly related to the blanket has a plain, usually light, background with a regular pattern of overchecks. Each colour being woven into the cloth appears on its own and in equal mixture with every other colour; only mixed colours can appear alongside plain colours, which can only join point to point. Careful choice of colours so that none swamps another, and so that mixtures make clear and definite intermediate shades, is therefore
essential to the best effect, and it is in this respect that most modern tartans fail. The strident colours and harsh contrasts produced by the early synthetic dyes overwhelmed the subtleties of the colours obtained from the natural dyestuffs and by the time 'ancient' colours were invented about 1920 such subtleties had been forgotten.

'Modern' colours are altogether too extreme and 'ancient' colours too wishy-washy to do the job properly; the real old colours were bright and clear and unambiguous but soft. The old-time designers used what colours were available (and they were not too proud to incorporate faulty dyeings in their designs) to produce well-balanced and harmonious patterns. The modern method is all too often to indulge in what is called 're-colouring', that is, taking an established pattern and weaving it in different colours. This can rarely be more than partially successful because a change of colour in even one section of a tartan, changes the visual impact of the whole; even a simple change like putting a blue line on the red ground of the Mackintosh tartan, making it into the tartan worn by the MacBeans of Tomatin, necessitated a complete re-balancing of the pattern. Put into words, it all looks too easy but old tartans show clearly the skill of the Highland weavers of bygone days, both as artists and artisans. Today, we have few tartans to match their work, mainly because the clan tartan cult has elbowed out art and replaced it with painting by numbers.

What Now?
Tartan has been and continues to be a huge commercial success but this is at the expense of sterilisation of the art form. The 'tartan explosion' which followed the 1822 Royal visit to Edinburgh and those which came later in the Victorian and Edwardian eras, stimulated demand but branded tartan as something exclusive, each pattern cut and dried from time immemorial and only to be worn by certain people.

Generations of tourists have been nurtured on these ideas and come to the Highlands in search of 'their' tartans; or they come to the Highlands anyway, and take home with them some newly invented design named after a Loch, Ben or Glen in the belief that these are 'district' tartans and appropriate wear for anybody who has seen those places. Tourists are
also wooed with new colour ranges; modern technology provides them with tartan teacups and tartan golf clubs.

All this obscures art and debases it for, if myths will sell bad art, who will bother to produce good art, which is harder work and less rewarding? Yet though the tartan art-form is all but forgotten and its very existence unknown to most, it is still alive and a flash of genius is still, though far too rarely, seen. Modern materials and a divergence from 'standard' colours can work wonders. It was at one time the fashion among tartan weavers to brighten up their products by weaving the fine red, white and yellow lines in silk, which gave clearer and brighter colours as well as importing a little sparkle to the cloth; some tartan-style
patterns in taffeta, seen in Edinburgh a few years ago, used "Lurex" in this role to stunning effect.

It is not every nation that carries its works of art on its back when going about its daily business and it is time for the dignity that belongs to tartan to be restored to it. We do not need to turn back the clock to the days when Clan tartans in the modern sense were un-thought-of; let us have our 'clan' and 'district' tartans, but let us not pretend. When the Bannockburn weavers, William Wilson & Son, compiled their Key Pattern Book in 1819 they included some two hundred patterns of which about fifty had names (and only a handful of them 'clan' or 'district' names); the rest were approximately equally divided between small two-and three-colour checks in tartan material and true tartans, miniature and full-size; they were known only by numbers in the list but they sold because they were attractive designs.

Highlanders have a great deal to be proud of in their tartan heritage but the universal total belief in the myths and fantasies hides it from them. Museums, Tourist Boards and the Press present false images because they know no others and do not even suspect that others may exist. We do not need to turn the clock back, but we do need to give some attention to the Highland Art Form and to set about re-creating it.



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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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