Tartan - UHI Wesbite Article
An article by James Scarlett MBE for the University of the Highlands and Island website, 2002.
Tartan is a complex and emotive subject which has, over the years, gathered to itself an enormous mythology that has become accepted as immutable truth by a confused and largely wishfully-thinking public. Its history is almost entirely fiction, written by people who understood little of the Highland way of life but who made their pronouncements with such an air of authority that they were accepted without question and, by constant repetition, have taken on the appearance of universal knowledge, so that to question them now invites hostility
There is no harm in a myth in its proper place and the myth that all Scots, from the beginning of time, could be identified by their tartans is a nice friendly one but one for which there is no recorded foundation. A rather turgid epic poem, written originally in Latin, tells of Viscount Dundee's early Jacobite campaigns and gives some vague descriptions ("woven with Phrygian skill in triple stripe", and "flowing plaid with yellow stripe" for example) of the garments worn by his Highlanders, which an agile brain can link to their modern counterparts, and early in the eighteenth century there are records of the Lairds of Grant ordering some of their tenants to have ready uniform outfits but these were men liable to be called out for local military service and not all of them were Grants or even from the Grant country.
The Jacobite Rising of 1745 produced some 'evidence' which has been used indiscriminately to 'prove' that Clan tartans were or were not worn at that time, though such solid evidence as we have suggests that the IDEA of 'Clan' tartans rose out of the Clan regiments of the Prince's army. Clan tartans in the modern sense did not make an appearance until late in the eighteenth century, when a few Clan names appeared in the manufacturers' lists. However, the idea got off to a good start and, by 1815, two Highland gentlemen were corresponding on the subject of preserving the ancient Clan patterns before they became completely lost, a correspondence that ultimately led to the founding, by the Highland Society of London, of a collection of Clan tartans certified by the chiefs of the Clans. One of the letters tells that one of them had, some thirty years earlier, sought information from 'several' old men of the Clan as to the details of the real Robertson tartan; all disagreed as to the correct pattern and so he adopted another, altogether different, which goes to show how ill-established what became a rigid system was at that comparatively recent date.
The cosy picture of the womenfolk of the clan sitting around the peat fire at their spinning wheels, spinning the yarn that they will dye with local plant extracts in accordance with ancient, jealously guarded recipes and then weave into the tartan for their menfolk, following patterns recorded on sticks wound with the correct number of threads of the colours and in the order of the stripes, is another that will not stand close examination. The Saxony type of spinning wheel came to the Highlands only late in the eighteenth century and the yarn was spun with the simple drop-spindle. Nowadays, we think of the spindle as a rather crude way of teaching children the rudiments of spinning but it is a very efficient instrument and its slow rate of production was balanced by a plentiful supply of spinners, who were able to carry their spindles with them and spin whenever the opportunity occurred. The range of colours obtained from native plants, and the regularity with which they were produced could only have been achieved by specialists. Weaving, too, is a professional skill and it is to the village weavers that we have to look for the origin 'clan' patterns, for they made them and, with a largely captive clientele, it would not have been in their interest to produce a multiplicity of designs; thus one might expect that at any given time the inhabitants of a village would have been found wearing generally similar tartans, one of which, by any one of dozens of means, would eventually become identified with them and so be the 'clan' tartan. The fabled 'pattern-sticks' are, in all probability, just fables, a jumped-to conclusion by someone who saw the back-stick of a loom with threads hanging from it
The tales that are told about tartan are misleading and entirely obscure the fact that, in reality, tartan is a Highland art-form of great antiquity, the essentials of which were known before the end of the third century AD; its beauty is vouched for by its popularity, but old specimens show that it has become sadly debased.
What is Tartan?
It is now generally accepted that the word tartan comes from the French 'tiretaine' by way of the Scots 'tertane' but this acceptance is not universal. Some prefer James Logan's derivation from the Gaelic tarsuinn, which he translates as 'cross and cross', in reference to both the pattern and the weaving process, which would be an attractive theory had the Gaels themselves ever called the cloth anything but breacan, which can be taken to mean almost any kind of variegation. The same weakness is evident in an apparently more recent theory that it comes from Tuar tan, which means 'District colour' and we shall see soon that, even until comparatively recently, tartan did not need to have either pattern or colour. Translated, tiretaine is "the name of several light sorts of cloth of wool or mixture" and such early pieces of tartan that have come down to us support the derivation, being of wool, thin and finely woven. The particular 'sort' that was tartan was woven from a smooth, hard-spun yarn in 'twill', the over-two, under-two staggered weave that gives tartan its distinctive diagonal rib and makes a denser cloth from a given thickness of yarn than does the over-one, under-one 'plain' weave; originally, 'tartan' meant only a type of cloth, and neither colour nor pattern was implied.
It is evident that this primary meaning persisted well into the nineteenth century, for in 1827 an Edinburgh merchant ordered a quantity of 'plain Dark green coloured tartan, no pattern on it', but a seventeenth century woodcut shows Highland soldiers in a Continental army wearing a definite tartan pattern and at the beginning of the eighteenth century Martin Martin wrote of arranging the stripes of a plaid; John Taylor, in the account of his Pennyless Pilgrimage to the Highlands in 1618, told of a "warme stuffe of divers colours which they call Tertane". Clearly Tartan cloth and Tartan pattern were close companions for a very long time before 'tartan' came to mean only the pattern. This is a matter of great importance, and urges caution, seldom followed, on those who assume that every early mention of 'tartan' necessarily means 'Clan' tartan.
The Tartan Pattern
Many attempts have been made to lay down rules about what is or is not a tartan. A process of elimination suggests that indigenous Highland tartans were almost always simple patterns of blue and green stripes upon a red ground. In the West, there was a single broad green stripe with a narrower blue stripe each side, in the Central Highlands a red stripe divided the green into two and north of the Great Glen there were separate blocks of green and blue; these arrangements can be seen clearly in the MacDonald of the Isles, Mackintosh and Ross tartans respectively. The pattern is called the 'sett' and is usually expressed as a half-sett which repeats along and across the cloth reversing as it goes, so that each half-sett is the mirror-image of its neighbour. Usually, the pattern is the same in both directions but there are some patterns in which the warp and weft differ and also some which do not reverse.
The stripes of a tartan are woven into the cloth and, by the nature of the pattern, every stripe crosses every other stripe; where a stripe crosses another of the same colour, pure colour results and where it crosses one of another colour the result is an equal mixture of the two. The number of mixtures increases rapidly out of proportion to the pure colours and so the more colours in a tartan the softer the result.
Following the 1745 Rising several steps were taken to break the power of the Clans and among these was a ban on the wearing by men, except soldiers, of tartan and Highland dress. This ban remained in force from 1747 to 1782 but the indications are that it was not very effective and fell into disuse fairly soon.
However, the ban had one far-reaching effect. It put the village weavers out of business and since tartan was still needed in quantity for the Army and for export large manufactories grew up on the Highland fringes to fill the need, prospering hugely on military and colonial orders. In the Colonies, tartan was especially popular for clothing for slaves, being cheap and colourful. Surviving records of one of these firms reach back to the late eighteenth century and we are indebted to them for almost all our present-day knowledge of tartan at the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth centuries. They include pattern books covering the period circa 1790 to 1850, some ten or twelve thousand letters and orders, and sundry legal papers and architect's drawings. The business handled considerable sums of money, mostly on credit and mainly on trust, though they were careful to see that financial matters did not get out of hand. The younger members of the family travelled extensively as 'commercials' and would have been in a position to look after that question.
But booms do not last for ever, and with the end of the Continental wars and the Colonies becoming more self-sufficient, a period of hard times began. Some of the smaller concerns went out of business, but the larger ones survived to turn tartan into something of a 'fashion fabric', though clan tartans began to appear in increasing numbers as the idea became popular, especially in the Lowlands.
The visit to Edinburgh of the King, George IV, in 1822 gave tartan a welcome boost. An occasion of great pageantry and publicity, it turned the spotlight on the Highlanders who, having less than a century before been sauvages ‚cosses and 'our northern barbarians' were suddenly rehabilitated and given, retrospectively at least, a 'noble savage' status akin to that of the North American Indians and the Zulus. Now every Highland frog had become an enchanted prince. The Clan system got good publicity and a Clan connection began to be perceived as something like a link with the nobility; the Clan tartan was a visible sign of that link. Though the time was not yet ripe, it was soon to come to pass that everybody who was anybody or, more accurately, anybody who aspired to be somebody, had to have a tartan and this led directly to those 'What is your tartan?' lists that hang outside the shops in tourist centres during our summers. It also led to prosperity for the tartan manufacturers.
The Clan Tartan Idea had got off to such a good start that, in 1831, James Logan was able to include pattern tables for 45 clan tartans in his book The Scottish Ga‰l, but exciting developments were just around the corner.
About 1820, two young men, John and Charles Allen, appeared on the Scottish scene. Moving north, they were well received in Highland society and word got around that they were legitimate grandsons of Prince Charles Edward Stuart. Soon, they disclosed that their father possessed a sixteenth-century manuscript that had been found in the library of the Scots College at Douai and which contained details of all the old Clan tartans. This manuscript, edited and collated with two other 'discoveries', was published in 1842 as Vestiarium Scoticum; by this time, the brothers were calling themselves John Sobieski Stuart and Charles Edward Stuart, but were often known simply as 'The Princes'. Here was treasure trove indeed, seventy-five new 'ancient' tartans, the first collection of Lowland tartans and much other information all dressed up in what looked to the uninitiated like ancient language, proof positive that 'Clan' tartans and all that went with them had been in existence for at least three hundred years. The world was tartan-hungry and no-one was in a mood to ask questions or express doubts; in fact, any excuse to produce a new pattern or another version of one already current was good enough. Great feats of genealogical gymnastics were performed in order that as many names as possible should gain the mystic 'right' to wear a tartan and many stratagems were devized to widen the net. Possession of a Scots grandmother was a good enough 'entitlement' but, for those who could not qualify there were 'district' and even 'national' tartans. To wear a tartan because one liked it was no longer acceptable and might be taken as an insult or worse by someone who claimed the 'right' to wear it.
One might reasonably have expected, even hoped, that it might all have stopped there, but eventually somebody got the idea that the colours given by the early synthetic dyes and carried on into modern times were far from the colours of the real old tartans, and invented the pale, washed out colours called 'ancient', which were followed, shortly after the Second World War, by 'reproduction' colours (also called 'muted') based on a relic said to have been found by a peat-cutter on Culloden Moor. None of these colour ranges is particularly like the real old colours, and the patterns, whether 'ancient', 'modern' or 'reproduction' are the same, just made in different shades.
To-day, we are in the grip of another tartan mania; companies have them, clubs have them, Canadian Provinces have them and American States have them; they are used to advertise pop stars or anything else. By this, a tradition is demeaned and an art-form endangered but surely an artform based on rectangular shapes and a calculable number of colours is worth thinking about?