An Outline of the Science
Tartanology is an unscholarly word, on an intellectual par with "workaholic", but the Greeks rarely offer help on Highland matters and it is at least expressive. Perhaps it is too expressive, for tartan has an unfortunate image in the public eye. Many people will say, "Everything is known about tartan so what is there to study?" Others will say that it is all nonsense anyway, so why pretend it is worthy of study? And still others will suppose that studying tartan means only learning to recognise all the patterns and being able to tell any chance passer-by which one he can wear, and what is the point of that when the shops can look it all up in their little books? There is an element of truth in all these notions, but they are founded on ignorance. Tartan is part of our Highland culture, an ancient Highland art-form combined with an advanced and durable textile that has been made into a huge commercial success founded largely upon myth.
Tartanology is the only word presently available to describe the serious study and analysis of the art-form, the cloth and its making and the psychological phenomenon of its popularity, which has led to the spontaneous eruption of special myths to make it exclusive and others to make it universal and available to all, regardless of race, creed or colour, and an even wider mythology which entirely supersedes the truth even in the eyes of those whose duty it should be to question it.
A mixture of art and science, Tartanology has much in common with archaeology (and especially with experimental archaeology) criminology, and logic. Clues, painstakingly sought for, more often turn up fortuitously. Evidence, when found, is more often inferential than direct and evaluation depends heavily upon reasoned guesswork; the reports of early travellers have to be taken into account but have also to be viewed askance, for they were mostly prejudiced, often failed to understand what they saw and seldom made their meanings clear. It is a practical pursuit, for many of the questions can only be answered from the standpoint of a seventeenth or eighteenth century weaver and the ability to weave tartan is an essential qualification for the serious student.
When some sort of story does emerge from our investigations it is subject to constant review in the light of further, quite often unrelated, discoveries and even then, is always open to the question "Could this have been so, or is some other thing more likely?" Of positive knowledge we have remarkably little. Parts of the puzzle have been put together and can be moved around in the hope that they will join on to other similarly assembled parts but the frame of the Jigsaw is not yet complete, it is doubtful if we shall ever find all the pieces and the picture we have for guidance is badly distorted and, in places, indecipherable. The obstacles on the road to the truth are such that the study is wholly fascinating.
With only comparatively small containers for dyeing, the Highlanders were unable to dye large pieces of cloth or large quantities of yarn at one time. Highland dyers were extremely skilful but to dye two batches of yam exactly the same colour would have been beyond them and so it would have been impossible to avoid streaks in a piece of cloth a single plain colour. If stripes, separated by others of a contrasting colour, are woven, minor mismatches can be disguised, though the colours in the warp will be degraded by the white or neutral weft; however, if the same stripes are woven in both directions the colours will be reinforced where the same colours cross and graded, rather than degraded where different colours cross. The sett being normally in two mirror-image halves which can be read from warp to weft, only the minimum of skill is required at the loom. Once it has been set up and adjusted, an apprentice could have attended to the business of weaving a square pattern, leaving the weaver free to deal with more pressing matters, perhaps setting up another web but, equally likely, getting in the peats, harvesting some crops or repairing the thatch, for the Highland economy was a subsistence one and keeping warm, dry and fed were prime concerns.
It would be overstating the case to suggest that circumstances forced the Highlanders to develop the tartan pattern but the fact that other self-sufficient mountain tribes have developed the style - though not the ballyhoo - lends some substance to the thought.
I am tolerably certain that, when an artist sets out to paint a picture, he is, unless he is 'daringly original', governed by a desire to produce a pleasant and harmonious arrangement of shapes and colours and leaves such matters as chiaroscuro, golden means, rules of thirds and so on to his trained instinct; it is not until the critics come along that these qualities are called upon to justify or condemn, frequently without regard to any resemblance the finished work may bear to the (or, indeed, any) subject.
So it was with the tartan artist. He had available fine fleece that could be spun into a fine, hard, yam which could be dyed in a limited but useful range of colours with remarkable consistency using simple dyestuffs, mostly of native origin, and could then be woven on a moderately sophisticated type of loom into a close, hard and lightweight cloth that was all but wind and waterproof. Within these limitations the artist-weaver's job was to produce cloth of sufficiently attractive appearance to sell to his customers, bearing in mind, though, that they were a captive clientele.
The unit of tartan pattern, the SETT, is an arrangement of lines and stripes which is, conventionally, the same in both directions of the cloth so that, by intention and within the limits of the weaver's skill, the sett is square. Also by convention, the sett is symmetrical and divided into two HALF-SETTS, which repeat across the width and along the length of the web, REVERSING as they go, so that each half-sett is the mirror-image of its neighbour. Symmetry apart, there is no compelling reason for strict adherence to these conventions and there are patterns in which the warp stripes differ from the weft and SETTS which join end-to-end and are NON-REVERSING although they are comparatively rare.
Since the pattern is woven into the cloth, plain colour can result only when stripes of the same colour cross; elsewhere, the colour of a block is an equal mixture of the two crossing colours; the sett is therefore made up of regularly arranged rectangles of colour, some plain, some mixed. Blocks of plain colour can join only corner to corner on the diagonal. Laterally and longitudinally, they are separated by areas of mixed colour. Narrow OVERCHECKS are employed to break up the pattern, as ACCENTS or, often in the case of simple patterns such as the many based on the Black Watch tartan to 'difference' (to usurp a heraldic term) a pattern. The art of the tartan-weaver lies in his skill in arranging the blocks of plain and mixed colours into a whole, harmonious abstract pattern. The Sett is described by means of the THREAD COUNT and is best illustrated, for research purposes, by the COLOUR STRIP (See Appendix).
Highland dyers were highly skilled and surviving pieces of old tartan show that, although they normally produced only a limited range of colours and there were some regional variations in shade, the results they obtained, mainly from infusions of parts of native plants, though madder and indigo were imported in early times, were remarkably consistent. Red might be darker and more pink in the West than in more central areas, and green might be darker and more olive. The West also seems to have had a better source of black, but the 'standard' range of colours, red, green, dark and light blue, yellow and black appears quite ubiquitously.
Research into military tartans has suggested that the dark blue, green and black tartans had their origin in military fashion and that the 'aboriginal' base colours of tartan were red, green and dark blue; it may prove to be not without interest that these are the colours of the light filters used in colour separation photography.
Colours have IMPACT and IMPACT combined with QUANTITY gives WEIGHT; they also have CONTRAST in both brightness and hue. Contrast in hue is supplied mainly by red and green; in terms of brightness, dark blue contrasts with both and the light ACCENT colours contrast with everything. It is in arranging a balanced assembly of all these qualities that the art of tartan comes to the fore; it is not surprising that some exponents are more successful than others. The QUALITY of colour has an important bearing on the results. In order for the areas of plain colour to show clearly, the colours must be clear, bright and unambiguous and for the areas of mixed colour to be of a truly intermediate shade the colours must be soft and none must be so strong as to swamp another. The colours of modern tartans nearly all fall short of these requirements in some respects. The very dark blue and green and harsh red of the so-called 'modern' colours are far too strong, the popular 'ancient' colours lack distinction, especially in the blues and green and the 'Reproduction' or 'muted' range are seriously distorted from the facts.
The areas of mixed colours are the visual links which lead the eye from one plain colour to the next and properly balanced colours are essential if true intermediate shades are to come of their mixing. The number of mixed shades in any tartan is related to the square of, and hence varies in rapid disproportion to, the number of 'starter' colours, so that the more complex the pattern and the more colours used, the softer and more diffuse will be the end product.
The word TARTAN originally referred only to a type of cloth, a type far from clearly defined, so that we have to draw a specification from actual examples. These show that, from very early days, tartan was woven from wool in 'plain twill', the 2-over, 2-under, staggered weave that makes a denser and heavier cloth than does the simple 1-over, 1-under plain weave and produces the distinctive diagonal ribbing traditional to tartan and helps to give some 'life' to the pattern. The yarn was coloured and of the worsted, that is to say smooth rather than the hairy, woollen spun, kind used in tweed. The weft yarn was commonly thicker than the warp, running at between two thirds and three quarters of the number of threads per inch of the warp and it was not unusual for the thickness of the weft to vary from colour to colour.
The structure of the cloth has its own effect on the art-form. The slightly unbalanced weave caused by the thicker weft stresses the stripes in one direction and in the areas of mixed colour, the diagonal ribbing of the twill weave gives the appearance of shading, with parallel lines, alternately of each colour, which is quite different from the 'pepper-and-salt' effect of plain weave. There is a subtle difference, which cannot easily be defined, between the pattern seen across these lines and that seen along them.
Romance has painted a pretty picture of the women of the Clans seated around the peat fire with their spinning wheels, dyeing the yarn and weaving it into tartan for their families, but much of what now passes for the history of tartan is the product of fertile imaginations uninhibited by common sense and unsupported by knowledge of the subject or, indeed, reasoned argument. This is not to say that the women did not dye or weave - a Badenoch family in the eighteenth century was known as 'The offspring of the woman weaver' - but to make clear that weaving was a professional occupation and did not mix with the normal activities of a busy housewife.
The Saxony type of spinning wheel came late to the Highlands and, although it was preceded in some parts by the simpler Big Wheel, both types are large, cumbersome within the confines of a traditional blackhouse and expensive; a spinning wheel monopolises the spinner's attention. The simple drop-spindle costs no more than the trouble of finding a short, straight stick and fashioning a weight at one end, it is completely portable and it can be used concurrently with many domestic tasks; it is easy to use and, although it is a slow producer of yarn, there could be many more spinners using spindles than using wheels. The fleece was taken from the sheep by hand, at the point of moult, which would have left it in straight locks, ready for spinning without further preparation.
Highland dyers were highly skilled and it is evident not only that they were professionals but that they had little trouble in getting the colours they wanted from the materials to hand. Martin Martin told of 'an exact pattern' made by the women upon 'a small rod' and this, 'interpreted' by James Logan and enshrined in imitation Old Scots by the Sobieski brothers, has given rise to the widespread belief that the tartan setts were preserved in the form of Pattern Sticks, which were wound with yarn in the order and the appropriate number of turns of each colour. No known example of these sticks exists and it is probable that what Logan saw was the back-stick of a loom with the thrums hanging from it and that the Sobieski brother merely elaborated this. What Martin saw is likely to have been a warp, ready for the loom, being taken to the weaver wound on a carrying-stick.
A further virtue of the tartan pattern is that it can easily be read from warp to weft. Once the loom was set up, all that was needed was for the warp stripes to be followed, and made the same width, in the weft. It is not easy, when looking down on the web at an angle, to match the widths of the warp and weft stripes and so some kind of measuring stick may have been used, giving another possible source for the 'pattern stick' story. Weaver, Dyer, and Shepherd produced surnames, Spinner and Warper did not. It is not therefore too long a stretch of the imagination to look on the former occupations as professions and the latter as part-time occupations. We can see, probably under the eye of the weaver, the gathering of the wool, the spinning of the yarn by anybody who cared to do it, who had the time to spare or could mix it with some other occupation such as herding or baby-sitting, and the dyeing by professionals. Warping was a task that could easily have been carried out by women working in their own homes; they would
certainly have made an 'exact pattern' - there would have been trouble if they did not - and would have taken finished warps to the weaver wound on carrying sticks as did the Spitalfields silk weavers into this century. Finally to the loom and, when woven, the only finishing required would have been a soak in soft water and slow drying on a roll.
The Psychology of Tartan.
The psychological aspects of tartan are perhaps the most interesting, but they are highly specialised and all that can be done by the present study is to pose questions and hazard a few very tentative guesses at the answers. We can begin by asking why the notion that, from earliest times, every male inhabitant of Scotland wore the distinguishing tartan of his Clan, took such firm hold as soon as it was mooted. Women, for some reason, are not supposed to have favoured clan tartans, possibly because they would have to change them when they married, which would have made it difficult for the What is my Tartan lists. There is no evidence of the early existence of a Clan Tartan System and none that the level of social organisation would have permitted the imposition of one. Such evidence as there is indicates that the patterns were made by the local weavers and bought by the local people to become, in due course, identified with a particular name or place and so be designated as clan or district tartans - but not until somebody invented these.
Stories that people were permitted numbers of colours in their plaids according to social rank can safely be dismissed or explained in terms of economics; a rich man could afford more colours than a poor one. In its way of life. Lowland Scotland was like Norman England, very different from the extended family that was the Highland Clan; the dress was different and did not offer the opportunity to proclaim the wearer's identity in the same way. Can it be that the Picti, the painted people, were really painted with some prominent tribal tattoo-mark, and that some vestigial folk-memory of this remains?
Why is there such an avid demand for tartan? It is an attractive pattern, but why could that not be enough, without the need to fake up largely mythical entitlements and rights? Why was it necessary to invent a whole series of myths aimed at making these rights exclusive and then another whole series to make them universal? Even outside Scotland, people, many of them with no shadow of a reason, clamour to be allowed to wear the pattern peculiar to a race widely regarded as savages until well into the eighteenth century. Is it all due only to a deeply buried desire to be a part of something rather than just a lonely individual? Or is it that, in a world in which we are all being conditioned to be part of the herd and not to think for ourselves, to be marked as a member of a small group actually confers some of that lost individuality without bringing total loneliness? And why is it that the general public grasps with enthusiasm the wildest stories about tartan in preference to the truth? Surely it must go deeper than mere romanticism. These questions and many others need to be answered by the psychologists before we can put tartan into its proper place as Highland art-form and part of the Highland heritage.
1. An old word for non-reversing was CHEEK, which caused great confusion when read as CHECK.
2. This is a usage of convenience. The pattern of a tartan is woven into the cloth, not superimposed upon it, nevertheless it is customary to refer to the 'ground', 'base' or 'background' of a tartan,
3. Some authorities state that these three colours are the first to appear in all primitive art.
4. The word -colour' is used loosely here. Beautiful tartans have been made using the natural shades of undyed wool. These shades arc not neutral, nor are they conventionally -coloured.
5. There are formulae for this. If n be the number of starter colours, M the total number of colours in the finished pattern and S the number of mixed shades: C = ½ (N2 ) + ½n and S = ½ (n2 ) - ½n
6. I.F.Grant (Highland Folkways) gives mid 18th century as the time of its arrival in the eastern Highlands and tells that there was none in Gairloch in 1825.
7. Generally regarded as being no more than a flywheel-driven spindle, and a pretty crude and clumsy one at that, the Big wheel is a precision tool with the ability to put an exact and measured twist into the yarn' which is a matter of importance in spinning a worsted yarn.
8. They knew their business but we do not, and there is scope for a great deal of serious experimental work towards recovering their methods. Sue Grierson's work in this respect has been outstanding but, from the narrow angle of the specialist in tartan, dauntingly comprehensive.
9. Another aspect of 'clan' tartans becomes evident when Highland surnames are considered. Donald's sons were all 'Mac' Donald but they took up various trades and activities and had individual physical characteristics, so their sons might become Mac a'Gogha (MacGowan, the smith's son), Mac an't Saoir (MacIntyre, the wright's son), Mac Iain Duibh (MacIndoe, the son of dark Iain) and so on, while remaining MacDonalds every one.
The Lowlands have taken tartan over and made it into a commercial success but there is no need on that account to conceal the truth. It is in the Highland context that tartan needs to be studied and given back its dignity. There is a vast amount of work to be done of a highly specialised nature. Mistakes will be made and wrong roads will be followed but the foundations of a new science are being laid; a mistake made and not repeated is a lesson learned and a wrong road explored and mapped will not lead us astray a second time.
1. A typical reversing type of pattern, with the half-setts pivoting on the blue line and the red
2. A non-reversing (cheek) pattern. The superimposed white line shows the extent of the sett, which repeats from the beginning, without reversing. [Buchanan]
3. Solid (unmixed) colours can occur only on the diagonal. Warp-wise and weft-wise the two crossing colours mix as alternate ribs of each. [Hunting Stewart]
4. A thread count is, strictly, a list of the stripes of the warp in order, giving the colour and number of threads in each, the width of the cloth and the number of setts or half-setts to that width, and stating, in some way, the number of threads per inch and whether the pattern is reversing or non-reversing. By extension 'threadcount' has come to mean a table of proportions, usually relating to a minimum line of two threads and leaving the weaver to decide on the size of the sett, the gauge of the yarn and the width of the web. A true threadcount for a reversing set usually ends at the centre of the pivoting stripes, so that these figures are doubled in making up a warp, but a list of proportions usually has them already doubled. A full threadcount appears in the following, or a similar, form:-
"Mclntosh", for the 18 reed, 4 half setts, 22½ inch wide.
x4 = 932
[Extracted from the 1819 Key Pattern Book of William Wilson & Son, Bannockburn.]
An "18" reed contains 18 'Porters' of twenty 'splits' to a width of one Ell; a 'split' is the space between two wires and, normally four threads are put into each split, making a total of 1440 threads to the Ell, which would correspond to a known gauge of yarn. Some reeds, e.g., "400" are given as the number of splits to the Ell. The sums never work out exactly, but are sufficiently close for practical purposes.
A Pattern Table is given thus:-
R B R G R B
48 12 6 24 8 2
[Extracted from The Setts of the Scottish Tartans]
There are other ways of giving the tabulated information. James Logan, and, when he first began to record setts, the Lord Lyon, used one eighth of an inch and fractions thereof as the unit of measurement.
The Check Pattern and some derivations shown in colour strip form. The Superimposed Check and some derivations shown in colour strip form.
Sindex was devised by D.C.Stewart as a means of keeping track of the two hundred or so setts on which he was working for The Setts of the Scottish Tartans; its efficiency was demonstrated when he subsequently expanded it to deal with the whole collection of the Scottish Tartans Society. The following brief description is condensed from Tartan: The Highland Textile.
"In the file, each sett has a record card which carries the colour strip along its top edge and, immediately below it on the left, the name and on the right the Slog, which is the vital part of the system and describes the sett in terms of the stripes inwards from each end of the reversing half-sett and from one end of the non-reversing sett. Nominally, the first three stripes are listed, using the code letters above, but no stripe may appear more than once and up to five may be needed for a non-reversing sett and for the second group of a reversing sett.
Briefly, the operation of Sindex is as follows:- Having determined the pivotal stripes of the reversing sett, the first three stripes from the alphabetically lower end are listed, followed by a colon and then by the first three stripes from the other end. If there are fewer than six stripes in the sett, the second group is curtailed accordingly; if there are fewer than four, the first group is shortened, so that there is always at least one letter in the second group. Up to five letters may be used in the second group, but more than five is difficult to manage and a number in brackets is a more satisfactory means of differentiation.
A non-reversing sett is Slogged from one end only, choosing whatever colour comes lowest alphabetically and moving in the direction of the next lowest; again, five letters is the practical limit. As examples, the Slog for Mackintosh is BRG:RBR and that for Buchanan is BGKBK
Simplicity is the keynote and in listing the colours, all Blues - including purple, mauve etc., (except light blue) go under B, all shades of Red are R and so on; attempts to go into detail of shade have undermined the system badly. It is sometimes difficult, in old specimens, to be absolutely sure whether a colour is light blue, light green, white, or grey; in such cases, all have to be tried. It should be noted that Sindex was not intended to be used for the direct comparison of setts and is quite unsuitable for this purpose.
7. Classification of setts by pattern.
Many attempts have been made to invent a system of classifying tartans according to the arrangement of the stripes in the pattern and all have foundered on lack of flexibility and general complication which lead, in the end, to arbitrary, instead of natural, decisions and the forcing of square pegs into round holes.
If all the fine lines are removed from a sett it will probably fall into one of four basic pattern groups, the Plain Background, which is self-explanatory, the Simple Check, which is equally so, the Superimposed Check, which is a simple check with a square of a third colour laid on one of the others, and the Multiple Check which has separated squares on the ground. These four, with another that may be called Limbo, form the main divisions of the system and, since the system depends on pattern, and not colour, can be subdivided for finer distinction. The Limbo group is a 'holding' group for patterns that do not readily fall into one of the other groups and which will remain in Limbo until more of the same turn up or to form a group of 'wild geese', out of the way of the others.
Most of the technical terms are explained in the text but this Glossary is included for quick reference.
Ancient colours. The washed-out pastel shades that are supposed to match the old natural dyes.
Big wheel. An old style of spinning-wheel in which the spinning of the yarn and winding it on to the bobbin are separate operations.
Cheek Pattern. An old term for a pattern that does not reverse in repeating. (see text)
Colour strip. A diagrammatic representation of the threadcount.
Ell. An old measurement of cloth, some say the width to which a web has to be set on the loom in order to finish a yard wide. Tartan is woven close and loses little width in finishing, but English woollen cloth was woven loosely and heavily shrunk and felted to give it body, which might account for the English Ell being 45 inches while the Scottish one is only 37½ inches.
Modern colours. The very dark blues and greens and the strident reds and yellows that came with the early synthetic dyes.
Muted colours. Another name for Reproduction colours, q.v.
Pattern Sticks. A supposed method of keeping patterns by winding the correct number of threads of each colour round a strip of wood. The idea arose from an unclear description by Martin Martin, which was 'explained' by James Logan and embroidered by the Sobieskis.
Plain twill. The 'over two, under two' staggered weave traditionally used for tartan.
Plain weave. 'Over one, under one', sometimes called 'tabby' weave.
Porter A group of twenty of almost anything in Scottish weaving.
Reed. A comb-like device which spreads the warp on the loom and beats in the weft.
Reproduction colours. A range of colours derived from a piece of tartan said to have been dug up on Culloden Moor. The name was patented by its originators and so copies are called 'muted'
Sindex. A system of notation similar to Sindex can be used in conjunction with an existing
Saxony Spinning-wheel. The type of wheel which winds the yam on as it is spun
Sett. The unit of tartan pattern
Split. The space between two 'teeth' of the reed.
Tartan. Originally a type of cloth, which came to mean cloth with a tartan pattern, then the pattern itself and, finally, a pattern peculiar to some Clan, District or organisation.
Thread count. A table which lists the stripes of the warp in order, giving the colour and the number of threads in each. See Appendix.
Warp. The lengthways threads of the cloth, which are stretched (warped) on the loom.
Weft. The crossways threads, which are woven.
Woollen-spun yarn. The rough, hairy, yam from fleece prepared for spinning by 'carding' as distinct from a worsted-spun yarn, for which the fleece is combed.