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Tartan Ferret
Tartana - a Case for Clan Tartans

Tartana - a Case for Clan Tartans

The 1707 Union of the Parliaments of England and Scotland was hugely unpopular with the majority of Scots and it is known that, in the years following it, tartan was worn in Lowland towns as a political gesture of opposition to that Union. The Jacobite cause, the central intention of which was to return the Stuarts to the throne of the United Kingdom, drew support from many who simply saw it as a means by which to regain Scottish independence. Accordingly tartan was regarded as being a powerful symbol of Scots patriotism (which was precisely why the Hanoverian government made the wearing of it illegal after the '45 Rebellion).

Allan Ramsay was born in 1686 in Leadhills, Lanarkshire and as a young man was a founder member of the "Easy Club" of Edinburgh - an organisation known to support the Jacobites and independence. Although the poet appears not to have fought in either the 1715 or 1745 Uprisings, from his literary work, his own patriotism and sympathies with the Stuarts are unmistakable. It was out of this political situation and these loyalties that "Tartana" appears to have been wrought.

Apart from simply expressing his love of tartan in a poetic way, Ramsay crafts this work with some very interesting facets. Tartan was not worn exclusively in the Highlands as many have imagined as he makes clear with his references to - smooth meand'ring Tweed... haughty Clyde... lofty Tay... Edina's streets. It was a truly national garb.

He refers to the antiquity of the plaid - Look back some thousand years, till records fail, And lose themselves in some romantic tale, We'll find our godlike fathers nobly scorn'd, To be with any other dress adorn'd. He alludes to the military associations with tartan - No rattling silks I'd to my standards bind, But bright Tartanas waving in the wind; The Plaid alone should all my ensigns be, This army from such banners would not flee. (This written but three years after the 1715 Battle of Sheriffmuir).

He indicates that tartan is a considerable commercial asset to Scotland - On our own mountains grows the golden fleece, Richer than that which Jason brought to Greece; A beneficial branch of Albion's trade, And the first parent of the Tartan Plaid. Our fair ingenious ladies' hands prepare The equal threads, and give the dyes with care: Thousands of artists sullen hours decoy On rattling looms, and view their webs with joy.

Most controversially, Ramsay uses a number of poeticised surnames in a manner which appears to indicate specific clan tartans -
The piercing beams Brucina can defy. . . . If shining red Campbella's cheeks adorn. . . . If lin'd with green Stuarta's Plaid we view . . . . Or thine Ramseia, edg'd around with blue. . .to name just a few at this stage.


Firstly, it has been objected that Ramsay allowed his patriotic enthusiasm to lead him into exaggeration regarding the extent to which tartan weaving was a commercial asset to the Scottish economy of his time. In fact extracts from Burgh Records and the observation of travellers to Scotland confirm that tartan was a major business in both Highlands and Lowlands during the 17th century. Ramsay's language in this regard has proved justified.

"The same day, it being regraitted among the commissioners be the tredders with plaiding, it being ane of the chieffest commodities of this cuntrey... the tred of yairne now being come to ane gritt trade in this cuntrey..." (Convention of Royal Burghs: Perth, 4th July 1628).

Again referring to plaiding - "the same being ane of the grittest and chieffest treds within this cuntrey, and being desirous that the saids abuses may be taikin away and the saids waires reformit and brocht bak to thair former integritie, ordains the burghs of Edinburgh, Perth, Dundye, Abirdein, Stirling, Lynlythgow, Glasgow, Air, Wigtoun, Montrose, and Elgyne to direct thair commissioneris to meitt and convein..." (Convention of Royal Burghs: Dumfries, 4th July 1622)
Lest it should be argued that at that time, plaiding was not tartan as we now understand the term - "...the women of the country, did wear cloaks made of a coarse stuff, of two or three colours in checker work, vulgarly called Ploddan." Fynes Moryson, English Traveller, 1598.


Secondly, there is the matter of clan tartans. If it were not for the fact that there has long been an influential and determined body of opinion set against the idea of clan tartans having existed prior to the late 18th century, then the obvious interpretation of the lines in question would be that Ramsay was referring to clan tartans. It is only because this is unacceptable to that perceived wisdom that other interpretations have been sought. In fairness, the argument against early clan tartans deserves respect and should be addressed with a reasoned response.

What are the main objections to clan tartans? It is said that the evidence of old paintings which depict tartan argues against uniformity and that there is no record of early clan tartans. There are also some anecdotal stories which imply that clansmen could not identify each other by tartans and there are instances from the early nineteenth century of clan chiefs apparently being unable to identify their own clan tartans.

How are these objections addressed? Evidence of tartans taken from the paintings of that time is extremely unreliable. Artists were naturally more interested in giving a likeness of their sitters than of the tartans they were wearing. Tartan is extremely difficult to paint with any degree of accuracy. There are, in fact, several 18th century portraits of members of the Royal Company of Archers wearing the jackets of the Company's uniform tartan. In each portrait the tartan looks decidedly different, and in none of them does it look like the actual jacket, one of which is now in the keeping of the National Museums of Scotland (dated to mid 18th century).

Another painting, which has often been used to disprove the existence of clan tartans during the '45 Rebellion, is by the artist David Morier. That depicts an incident in the Battle of Culloden and it has long been assumed that the artist used Jacobite prisoners as models for the work. Because they can be seen wearing a variety of different setts, this is put forward as an argument against clan tartans. If it was in fact, Jacobite prisoners who posed for Morier, they were most unlikely to have been wearing (after a period of captivity) the same tartans that they had worn on the field of battle. Either they would have thrown off their plaids during the Highland charge (which was the custom of clansmen in battle), or they would have been stripped by their captors. Any tartans they wore while posing for this painting would probably have been issued to them randomly from a pile of discarded clothing.

It is known that Cameron of Locheil, Lord Ogilvy and the Duke of Perth all ordered supplies of tartan for their clan regiments and it is practical common-sense that these would have been uniform patterns. It is pointed out that none of the tartans depicted in Morier's painting is identical to any clan tartan known to us now. What can be said about that? A cursory glance at this painting reveals that all of the setts depicted have been painted in a rough, one might say impressionistic, style, lacking by far the precision required for any attempt at identification. Further, it has been demonstrated from his misrepresentation of diced hose that Morier had great difficulty in depicting even the simplest of tartans. All of this illustrates that evidence from paintings simply cannot be used to any real effect in the argument about the antiquity of clan tartans.

There is no record of clan tartans? In fact there are some recorded references which support the pre 1745 existence of clan tartans. An eyewitness account of the Battle of Killiecrankie (1689) implies that uniform tartans were worn by clan regiments. Martin Martin (1695) records that a person's district could be "guessed" by the tartan he was wearing. This is a most important observation since by the very nature of Highland society a particular clan would tend to dominate a given district. So, through a natural process, the setts woven and worn in that area would become associated with that clan. It is believed that it was in this way that the whole concept of clan tartans evolved. The Laird of Grant (1704) gave instruction for his men-at-arms to wear a uniform tartan, as reported by a British Army officer. There is also strong circumstantial evidence (from one of Burt's observations) that the tartan worn by the Highland Independent Companies (later Black Watch) was originally a clan tartan (1725).

Clansmen unable to identify each other by tartans? Jamie Scarlett, in Tartan, Some Aspects for Study, addressing two of the more regularly employed anecdotes, demonstrates wisely that such evidence will usually bear differing interpretation -

"During the '45, a group of Jacobite MacDonalds expressed fears that they might become involved with 'their brothers of Sky' in the Government army and be unable to recognise them, 'seeing we are both Highlanders and both wore heather in our bonnets, only our white cockades made some distinction'. Two eminent authorities took different views of this. D.W. Stewart's was that since both groups would be wearing the MacDonald tartan and the Clan badge, there could be no other distinction than the cockades; Telfer Dunbar held that there were no 'clan' tartans at the time and so there could be no distinguishing marks but the cockades. Neither took into account the probability that groups of MacDonalds from far apart would be wearing different tartans anyway and the others might well not recognise them. A young Highlander, captured at Culloden and hauled before an officer, claimed to be a Campbell - and, hence, on the Government side - but could not be identified because he had lost his bonnet with its black cockade; again this is 'proof' that there were no clan tartans at the time, but all that is really proved is that the officer concerned was unable to recognise a tartan, which would not be altogether surprising."

Clan chiefs being unable to identify their own clan tartans? Much could be said about this. In fact there are two particular instances which are usually resorted to by those whom we may call the "disbelievers". These are Robertson of Struan and MacPherson of Cluny. The present writer has dealt with these stories elsewhere, but regarding this question perhaps it may be enough to quote James D. Scarlett again, this time referring to the registering of clan tartans by chiefs with the Highland Society of London around 1816.

"The people who contributed to the Highland Society collection at the beginning do not seem to have had much trouble rustling up a genuine tartan; it seems to have been 1822 and later when difficulties arose..."

Let us now return to Allan Ramsay and "Tartana". We have spoken of how the clan tartans are likely to have evolved in the Highlands and Islands from the district patterns. It may be that when Ramsay refers to Brucina (Bruce), Pringella (Pringle), Hepburna (Hepburn), Hamilla (Hamilton) etc. that another process has taken place. As has been said, at the time the poet was writing this work, townsfolk (perhaps particularly the ladies) were expressing their political opinions by the wearing of tartan. It is perfectly possible that individual Lowland families were adopting favourite patterns which became identified with them, later to become their "clan tartans". Is it reasonable to expect those clan tartans to be identical to the ones of the same names which we know today?

The first systematic records we have of commercially produced tartans are those of William Wilson and Sons of Bannockburn. That company began to market clan-named setts in the early 1790s and we have, therefore, a span of over seventy years to bridge. In fact, most of the setts which bear family or clan names appeared rather later, in the early nineteenth century. So a hundred year gap would be more realistic.

Let us look at the very few clues which may be in the poem: "The piercing beams Brucina can defy, Not sunburnt she's, nor dazzl'd is her eye..."is not particularly helpful in descriptive terms. The modern Bruce tartan originated in the Vestiarium Scoticum, a questionable collection of setts which was not published until 1842. It is known, however, that Wilsons produced a tartan which was called "Old Bruce" which certainly had the look of a group of setts which are believed to have been around in the first half of the 18th century.

Of Pringella (Pringle) it is suggested that it is bright, with much white in it - "The lily, pluckt by fair Pringella, grieves, Whose whiter hand outshines it's snowy leaves..."
The only Pringle tartan we are aware of was not designed until 1998.

Campbella (Campbell) would appear to have been a red sett - "If shining red Campbella's cheek's adorn..." This is most interesting. The great majority (nearly all) of the Campbell tartans now considered to be such are of the green/blue/black style typified by "Black Watch". However, in his book on military tartans Jamie Scarlett points out that early Campbell portraits show red tartans. We have cautioned against the use of paintings for the purposes of identifying particular setts, but it is surely reasonable to expect that an artist is unlikely to have given a green/blue/black tartan the appearance of a red one. So Ramsay may very well have been describing a Campbell sett of his time.

"If lin'd with green, Stuarta's Plaid we view..." is not especially useful to us in isolation but more will be said about this Stuart tartan in due course.

"Ramseia, edg'd around with blue..." One might assume that Ramsay would get the tartan of his own name correct. The Ramsay tartan which we know today comes from the Vestiarium Scoticum. It has no blue in it. There is a blue sett regarded as a "hunting" Ramsay, but it appears to be of more recent origin.
Fergusia (Ferguson) gives nothing worth quoting. There is a Ferguson tartan which was included in the collection published by James Logan in 1831.
Hepburna (Hepburn) seems to suggest a check of white and black, but the only Hepburn tartan now known is of recent design.
Keitha (Keith) offers nothing descriptive. Our Keith tartan (though listed as Austin by Wilsons) was supplied by Messrs. Romanes and Paterson of Edinburgh to the Keiths early in the 19th century.

Humea (Hume or Home) is not described. The modern tartan comes from the Vestiarium. Hamilla (Hamilton ) gives us nothing decipherable. Today's Hamilton sett is also taken from the Vestiarium. Maxella (Maxwell) is without obvious description. Although the Maxwell tartan has the appearance of an older sett, it is also of the Vestiarium. So many of these tartans are said to have originated with the Vestiarium Scoticum that it is, in fairness to the much reviled "Sobieski Stuarts" who published it, worth pointing out that they most certainly did not "forge" all of the tartans which that book contained. The MacGregor sett (just to take one example) had been included in the collection of the Highland Society of London long before it appeared in the Vestiarium. So it is perfectly possible that some of the tartans said to have originated with that publication had in reality been around much earlier.

Having said all of this, it seems undeniable that no very obvious direct link can be established between the extremely scant descriptive clues contained in "Tartana" and the equivalent clan tartans we see today. Given the circumstances this should hardly surprise us. However, it was indicated that we would return to the subject of the Stuart tartan. In one passage the poet gives us a veritable spectrum - The plaid itself gives pleasure to the sight, To see how all its sets imbibe the light; Forming some way, which even to me lies hid, White, black, blue, yellow, purple, green, and red.

The Royal Company of Archers, a sort of gentleman's club in the 18th century (and now the Queen's Bodyguard in Scotland), was widely regarded as being pro-Jacobite. According to The Domestic Annals of Scotland the Company was - "...a sodality composed almost exclusively of the Jacobite aristocracy, and, in fact, a sort of masked muster for the cause of the exiled Stuart." In 1713 the Archers adopted a uniform of tartan and according to historian Ian Hay and tartan researcher John Telfer Dunbar, that pattern was "Stuart" - a logical choice for a Company which had been granted its Royal Charter by Queen Anne, and which supported the Stuart Dynasty.

Three year later, the staunchly Jacobite Ramsay published "Tartana" which, as we have seen, included the words - "If lin'd with green, Stuarta's Plaid we view."
In 1724 the Company held an archery contest in Edinburgh and we read in Old and New Edinburgh: Vol. IV: " Their dress was tartan, trimmed with green silk fringe..."
Of the same occasion, and from the same source - "The cavalier spirit of Allan Ramsay glowed at seeing these elegant specimens of the Aristoi of Scotland engaged at butts and rovers, and poured itself forth in verses to their praise."

That 1724 event was under the leadership of the Duke of Hamilton and in another poem - on the Royal Archers Marching. . . " - Ramsay writes: "See Hamilton, wha moves with grace, Chief of the Caledonian Race . . . the Archers him their Chieftain chose . ." Is this the Hamilla of his Tartana poem? In yet another of his works on the Archers, he gives a list of members' names which includes Pringle (Pringella?)

In the beautiful surviving Royal Company of Archers jacket (dated to mid 18th century) which is presently in the keeping of the National Museums of Scotland, the green edging is there to be seen as are all the colours mentioned earlier by Ramsay. Can there remain the slightest element of doubt that the Jacobite poet was, in "Tartana", specifically referring to the Stuart tartan as worn by the Jacobite Royal Company of Archers? From there, it is reasonable also to assume that the other references to Brucina, Campbella, Pringella et al are also referring to tartans associated with those names.

This being so, we have in this piece of literature strong (one is almost tempted to say irrefutable) evidence of the existence of clan tartans in the year 1718.

Tartana, or The Plaid . . . an ode to tartan . . . was written by Allan Ramsay in 1718 and here we offer an incisive analysis by Research Associate Willie Scobie. It adds to our long-held perception that tartan - and indeed the concept of clan tartans - are very much older than conventional wisdom dictates.





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