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Tartan Ferret

Tartan and the Dress Act of 1746

What was it about tartan that so infuriated, or frightened, the Hanoverian government that it made the wearing of it, by males in the Highlands, a criminal offence in the aftermath of the 'Forty-Five Rebellion ? Tartan having been worn, not only by Jacobite rebels, but also by clansmen who had fought for the government, it might appear an ill-considered and politically unsound measure which indiscriminately punished rebel and loyalist alike.

It is unwise, however, to consider the Dress Act of 1746 in isolation as a unique political, legal and cultural phenomenon. In reality it was the culmination of a thirty-year process, the dual-purpose of which was to eradicate the military threat, to the British government, of the Jacobite Highland clans, and to eliminate the culturally separate identity of the Highland people.

1.    Disarming Act of 1716

In the year 1715, the throne of the United Kingdom was occupied by George I of Hanover. The Earl of Mar (nicknamed "Bobbing John" because of his record of changing political parties) raised the Jacobite standard at Braemar, and over 12,000 Highland clansmen took up arms in order to gain the crown for James Edward Stuart (VIII & III). Bobbing John was not an experienced soldier, but the leader of the government forces, John, Duke of Argyll, was known as "Red John of the Battles". When the armies clashed at Sheriffmuir, in the Ochil Hills, the result was a kind of stalemate, but in effect it was the beginning of the end of the rebellion, with clansmen drifting back to their glens. In 1716 reprisals were stern. Two Jacobite leaders were executed (the others having fled into exile), estates were forfeited and rank and file Jacobite clansmen were sent as slaves to the plantations. Government attempts at this time to disarm the clans were largely unsuccessful. Jacobites simply handed in old, rusted and useless weapons, while putting more effective arms into hiding. It should be noted that disarmament had been intended to apply to both rebel and loyalist clans. Perhaps this was not so strange as it might seem. Throughout the realm, only in the Scottish Highlands did there remain the equivalent of "private armies" such as the clan regiments. So notorious were the changing of sides and hedging of bets by some of the chiefs, that it was difficult to be certain at any given time who was actually going to fight for or against the government. Seemingly the Highland clans were regarded as a threat en masse and legislated against accordingly.

In exile, Bobbing John, unabashed by his military failure, advised the House of Stuart -

"It is greatly for the interest of Scotland that the Highland Clans be encouraged and kept up, and their whole people armed… there may be easily fifteen or sixteen thousand of them modelled into regiments, if commanded by their different chiefs… To be cloathed in the Highland habit with plaids, westcoats, and treus in winter, which may be of different colours and different marks on their targets, as their chiefs shall think fitt, to distinguish what regiment they belong to."

(Dare we imagine that this implies clan tartans ?)

2.    Disarming Act of 1725

There was a further unsuccessful Jacobite uprising in 1719. The Earl of Seaforth and other Jacobite chiefs, supported by a body of Spanish soldiers, were defeated by General Wightman and the Royal Navy. This affair led to more determined legislation.

"An Act for more effectual Disarming of the Highlands in that part of Great Britain called Scotland, and for better Securing the Peace and Quiet of that Part of the Kingdom… "

by which the men of the clans were required to surrender their -

"…Broad Swords, Targets, Poynards, Whingers or Durks, Side Pistol or Side Pistols Guns or any other Warlike Weapon."

(As yet there was still no legislation relating to clothing or to tartan.)

The man given the job of enforcing this measure was Major General George Wade, Commander in Chief of His Majesty's Forces in North Britain. Wade (an Irishman) estimated that there were, at that time, some 20,000 clansmen capable of bearing arms in the Highlands. Half of that number, he advised, were potential Jacobites… but only around 2,500 weapons were surrendered. The Commander in Chief is best remembered for his programme of road-building, the purpose of which was to render the Highland glens more accessible to King George's redcoats. He was also responsible, however, for the reintroduction of the "Watch". Originally established in 1667 by the Earl of Atholl, at the request of Charles II, the Watch was the collective name for a number of "Independent Companies" - bodies of clansmen commanded by chiefs who were allegedly loyal to the government. Their official purpose was to keep a "watch upon the braes" (the Highland passes), from which phrase, probably, they took their name. In 1717 the companies were disbanded because of disloyalty and corruption among their commanders.

Wade's six Independent Companies (collectively known as the "Black Watch") were commanded by three Campbells, a Munro, a Grant and a Fraser. They would be -

"employed in disarming the Highlanders, preventing depredations, bringing criminals to justice, and hinder rebels and attainted persons from inhabiting that part of the kingdom."

It is around this time that we first encounter Hanoverian official thinking relating to Highland clothing and to tartan. It was understood that clansmen would be able to police the glens more happily and effectively if they were permitted to wear the garb of their country, which was, essentially, the long plaid.

On the 15th of May 1725, General Wade issued an order -

"take Care to provide Plaid Cloathing and Bonnets in the Highland Dress for the Non-Commission Officers and Soldiers belonging to their Companies, the Plaid of each Company to be as near as they can of the same sort and Colour."

From the time that the Companies were regimented, in 1739, as the Royal Highland Regiment (Black Watch), they were almost certainly wearing the green, black, blue Government Tartan - "Black Watch". Here we see early recognition of the profound significance of tartan to the Highland soldier.

We are most fortunate in having a clear insight as to the attitude of the English outsider toward the Highland people and their culture at this time in the writings of Captain Edmund Burt, a government engineer, who wrote his "Letters from a Gentleman in the North of Scotland" in the  1730s. Burt was recording first-hand experiences of his time with Wade in the Highlands. Regarding the traditional clothing of the people he has this to say -

"Various reasons are given both for and against the Highland dress. It is urged against it, that it distinguishes the natives as a body of people distinct and separate from the rest of the subjects of Great Britain, and thereby is one cause of their narrow adherence among themselves, to the exclusion of all the rest of the kingdom…"

Here we most certainly have a harbinger of what, in our own time, might be considered racial and cultural intolerance, which would, in the years to come, be expressed by the legislation against Highland clothing. Burt continues -

"…but the part of the habit chiefly objected to is the plaid (or mantle), which they say, is calculated for the encouragement of an idle life in lying about upon the heath, in the daytime, instead of following some lawful employment; that it serves to cover them in the night when they lie in wait among the mountains, to commit their robberies and depredations; and is composed of such colours as altogether, in the mass, so nearly resemble the heath on which they lie, that it is hardly to be distinguished from it until one is so near them as to be within their power, if they have evil intention…"

The reader might be forgiven for suspecting an implication that, south of the Highland Line, among folk who were properly dressed, there was an absence of idleness and criminality. Burt leads on to the political dimension of the matter -

"…that it renders them ready at a moment's warning, to join in any rebellion, as they carry continually their tents about them."

We need not doubt that there is in all of this an element of racial prejudice. Burt himself alerts us to it in his first letter -

"…yet there are some among our countrymen [the English] who are so prejudiced, that they will not allow (or not own) there is anything good on this side of the Tweed."

3.    Dress Act of 1746

On the 2nd of August 1745, Prince Charles Edward Stuart, eldest son of James (VIII & III - the "Old Pretender"), landed on the isle of Eriskay with seven companions. When the standard of Royal House of Stuart was raised at Glenfinnan, Highland clans rallied to the cause. The subsequent course of the 'Forty-Five Rebellion has been so oft recorded, and is so well known, that suffice it to say, the army of "Bonnie Prince Charlie" looked for a time set to victory, with the Jacobites reaching Derby by December. There was panic in the House of Hanover, with King George II preparing to flee to the Continent. Lord George Murray, was among those, however, who counselled a Jacobite retreat, and the long and the short of it was that, on the 16th of April 1746, the army of Charles Edward was defeated by that of the Duke of Cumberland on Culloden Moor, outside Inverness. There followed a bitter excess of reprisals -

"As Commander-in-Chief, Cumberland must take responsibility for the many atrocities committed in the aftermath of the Rising, for he instigated them, but he was probably no worse than his Generals - Hawley in particular - and junior officers, whose brutish behaviour, especially when, as they frequently were, in their cups, is well documented. This was an era when murder, pillage and burning were the normal lot of the losing side in any fight but, even so, the reprisals against the ordinary Highland people were, to any normal mind, excessive and left an evil memory, distorted by time and politics."

("The Highland People" James D. Scarlett)

This was the mood against which the Dress Act of 1746 was drafted and passed by Lord Chancellor Hardwicke.
"From and after the first day of August, one thousand seven hundred and forty seven, no Man or Boy, within that part of Great Britain called Scotland, other than such as shall be employed as Officers and Soldiers in His Majesty's Forces, shall, on any pretence whatsoever wear or put on the Clothes commonly called Highland Clothes (that is to say) the Plaid, Philabeg, or little Kilt, Trowse, Shoulder Belts, or any part whatsoever of what peculiarly belongs to the Highland Garb; and that no Tartan, or party-coloured Plaid or Stuff shall be used for Great Coats, or for Upper Coats; and if any such Person shall presume after the first day of August, to wear or put on the aforesaid Garments, or any part of them, every such Person so offending, being convicted thereof by the Oath of One or more credible Witness or Witnesses before any Court of Justiciary or any one or more Justices of the Peace for the Shire or Stewartry, or Judge Ordinary of the Place where such Offence shall be committed, shall suffer imprisonment, without Bail, during the space of Six Months, and no longer, and that being convicted for a second Offence before a Court of Justiciary, or at the Circuits, shall be liable to be transported to any of His Majesty's Plantations beyond the Seas, there to remain for the space of Seven Years."

(It will be noted that the Act is not worded in such a way as to apply to ta

There was one sense in which this, arguably bizarre, punitive measure was discriminatory, and there was another sense in which it was outrageously indiscriminate. There had been many combatant Lowland Jacobites. There had even been some English Jacobites in arms. But only the Scots Highlander was singled out for this calculated humiliation. The majority of clansmen had actually either kept out of the conflict, or had remained loyal to King George. Even so, the Mackays, the Grants, the Campbells, the Munros… and all the other clans, whose fathers, sons, brothers and husbands had fought and died for King George, were to be mortified in the same way. There were objections, of course. Lord President Forbes of Culloden (very much a government man) in a letter to the Lord Lyon, dated 8th July 1746, gave this opinion -

"Now, being too many of the Highlanders have offended, to punish all the rest who have not, and who, I will venture to say, are the greatest number, in so severe a manner, seems to be unreasonable; especially as, in my poor apprehension, it is unnecessary…"

It has been written that one purpose of the exercise was to destroy the distinctive identity of the Highland people as an indiscriminate whole, and it is difficult to avoid this conclusion, but there was a profound contradiction to this written into the Act itself -

"… other than such as shall be employed as Officers or Soldiers in His Majesty's Forces."

It was to be quite acceptable for a Highlandman to retain his traditionally distinctive garb, provided he was prepared to do so in the service of the King in London. This may be difficult for 21st century readers to believe or to understand, but there is considerable evidence to show that many, very many, Highlanders were prepared to enter into just such an agreement. Of course, there were matters of practicality. The plaid was especially suited to the Highlander's way of living and of working. There were economic and social pressures which encouraged enlistment, but we are left in little doubt that the desire to wear kilt and plaid was a major factor. There was obviously something special in the relationship between the clansman and tartan. Just what was it ? Another quote is suggestive -

"The greatest blow to the dignity and self-respect of the Highlander, to the mystic link between the present and a heroic past, to his deep and passionate pride in the Gaidhealtachd, had been the ruthless imposition of a new Disarming Act and a further statute that denied him the right to wear tartan and plaid."

("Mutiny", John Prebble)

  Let us first clear up an important point of frequent misunderstanding. Tartan had been worn by, and was significant to, not just the Highland Scot, but the Lowlander also. It is abundantly recorded that tartan had been woven and worn in the Lowlands from the 1500s. At the time of the Union of the Parliaments, Lowland Scots had chosen to wear tartan as an expression of opposition to what they regarded as Scotland's loss of independence. During the 'Forty-Five itself, all Jacobite combatants - Lowland and Highland - wore tartan as a badge of their cause. So clearly tartan had an overtly political significance. It was a symbol of Highland pride, of the Stuart Dynasty and of Scottish Independence. Three concepts which were distinct, yet historically interwoven. At a superficial level, therefore, it may seem obvious why a Unionist, Hanoverian government would be hostile to tartan, yet one suspects there was more to this…

"The Dress Act puzzles me. It did not come into force until a full year after the end of the Rising… I think it possible that the Government suspected that tartan had some group-identity significance and was not going to let private armies start up."
(James D. Scarlett, letter dated 21st July 1998)

"The problem could possibly be compared with that of the British Raj insisting that Indians or Malays working in the fields should wear trousers and shoes instead of their practical native dress. However, the form and make-up of attire was not what occasioned the real problem. It was a belief that the varied patterns of tartan available at this time represented clan allegiances… There is evidence, however, that 'district' tartan did become associated as 'clan' tartan, since those of a particular area where a particular design of cloth was manufactured were most likely to be of the same kin."
(Roddy Martine, "Scottish Clan & Family Names")

So, in spite of all that has been said about "clan tartans" being the inventions of a later era, it would seem that the Hanoverian government in 1746 had a belief in clan tartans, at least in prototype. (One remembers Lord Mar's reference, some twenty years earlier, to the plaids, waistcoats and trews "of different colours… as their chiefs shall think fitt, to distinguish what regiment they belong to.")

Little in the history of tartan is straightforward or clean-cut. It seems that tartan, in spite of all its associations, had an attraction even for the House of Hanover.

There is a splendid painting, executed by the artist Barthelemy de Pan, which depicts five of the royal Hanoverian children. Among them is a boy wearing a beautiful red tartan coat. The boy grew up to be George III. The painting was produced around 1750 - not so long after Culloden and the introduction of the Act which made the wearing of tartan by Highlandmen a criminal offence !

It is often said that tartan was "romanticized" in the 19th century. Commercially mass-produced, systematized and promoted - these are perhaps more appropriate terms, for surely tartan had no little romance in the Jacobite era ? Paradoxically and undoubtedly, the Dress Act proscribing tartan had the long-term effect of adding to that romance. John Prebble used the word "mystic". Few would disagree that, over the centuries, tartan has had - and retains - a certain inexpressible quality which imparts depths of meaning and beauty to those who can appreciate it. Tartan inspires. In the eighteenth century it inspired all of the allegiances which stood against an English dominated Union and the House of Hanover. This is why they tried - and failed - to eradicate it.

Perhaps surprisingly, there was a precedent. Burt, Wade's officer of engineers, when describing the antipathy of his government towards the Highlanders' plaid, went on to add intriguingly -

"…it was thought necessary, in Ireland, to suppress that habit by Act of Parliament, for the above reasons, and no complaint for the want of it now remains among the mountaineers of that country."

The redcoat was evidently referring to legislation imposed on the Irish in the 16th century. Among other affronts, during the reign of Henry VIII, it was enacted that, after the 1st of May 1539 -

"…no person or persons, of what estate, condition or degree they be, shall use, or weare any mantles, cote, or hood, made after the Irish fashion."

As in the case of the Scots Highlanders some two centuries later, here was a London parliament, with breathtaking arrogance, literally laying down the law about how a race of Gaels might clothe themselves in their own land. As might be expected, in each instance the law was treated, in large part, with the contempt it deserved.

In 1782, thanks largely to the efforts of the Duke of Montrose, the 18th century Dress Act was repealed. In the 19th century tartan-clad soldiers of the Highland regiments contributed much in blood and gallantry to the creation and defence of the British Empire. In our own day tartan is loved throughout the world… and, indeed, beyond !

 There is perhaps no better illustration of the enduring power of tartan to inspire, than the story of the "Moon Tartan". On November 19th 1969, Commander Alan Bean of the Apollo 12 Mission, became the fourth man to walk on the surface of the moon. So proud was the astronaut of his Scots ancestry that he carried with him, on that historic landing, a piece of the Clan MacBean tartan. Earlier this year Commander Bean generously gifted a part of that very piece of tartan to the Scottish Tartans Authority. Aye, tartan may be said to have gone a long way since Alan Bean's ancestors fought for Bonnie Prince Charlie on Culloden Moor.

© Scottish Tartans Authority
Scottish Tartans Authority (Scottish limited company no. 162386), c/o J & H Mitchell, 51 Atholl Road, Pitlochry, PH16 5BU
Scottish Charity Number SCO24310

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