The Checkered History of Tartan: The Myths of Clan Tartan

Like many Australians, when I travelled to Scotland I took great pleasure in tracing back my family history and ancestral clan. I took an interest in the history of tartan, how it relates to clan heritage and where to get the real McCoy.

I discovered that tartan has a rich and checkered (forgive me) history, as vivid as the designs themselves. But what began as an effort to identify the sett of our family clan tartan and a bit of genealogy, exposed a fascinating history of Scotland’s cultural identity. Some legitimate, some dubious. But true to Scotland’s heart, it made for a rollicking good tale.

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The History of Clan Tartan & the Myth

Contrary to popular belief the history of tartan and its association with Scottish clans is an invented tradition. In other words, a tradition that attempts to emulate age-old customs while being relatively recent in origin.

The earliest known tartans were created with natural dyes made from local plants, roots and berries. They reflected geographical regions, not family clans and they probably looked more like tweed than the tartans we recognise today.

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The History of Tartan

Highlanders, Jacobites & the Banning of Tartan

Following the Battle of Culloden in 1745, the final conflict of the Jacobite uprising, tartan became associated with the Highlander, clan identity and political rebellion. However, there is limited evidence to support this connection.

Captain Edmund Burt’s views on tartan help shed some light on the fears regarding the Scots and their Highland dress:

“…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

Captain Edmund Burt

The History of Tartan & The Dress Act

The English banned tartan in 1746 under The Dress Act. Under this legislation Scots who were suspected of supporting the Jacobite rising were forced to take an oath:

“...never use any tartan, plaid or any part of the Highland garb, and if I do so, may I be cursed in my undertakings, family, and property – may I never see my wife and children, father, mother, and relations – may I be killed in battle as a coward, and lie without Christian burial in a strange land, far from the graves of my forefathers and kindred”.

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It was part of the Act of Proscription (1746–1782) which sought to destroy the Clan system and force Scotlands’ assimilation into Britain; effectively eliminating the Highland culture. By today’s standards, this would constitute ethnic cleansing.

Then in 1782 James Graham (3rd Duke of Montrose) successfully had the ban lifted. In 1815, the Highland Society of London recognised and registered all known family clan tartans.

But the prohibition of tartan had succeeded in suppressing traditional highland dress, leading to a decline in popularity for at least a generation. During this time, many of the traditional tartan weavers had died and with them, the craft.

The History of Tartan Revival and the Birth of Clan Tartan

In 1822 George IV revived interest in tartan by encouraging attendees of the Grand Ball (unofficially known as the ‘Highland Ball’) to dress in their clan tartans. However, many original tartan patterns and records had deteriorated with age making it impossible to replicate the original designs. Local tailors created new designs for Scottish families to meet the demand sparked by renewed interest in the history of tartan. The resurgence united the Highlanders and Lowlanders, eventually leading to tartan’s integration into Scottish national identity and national dress. Thereafter, Registers at Lyon Court increased efforts to preserve records of clan tartans.

The Dubious History of Tartan: Vestiarium Scoticum

The Sobieski Brothers

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My research into the history of tartan took an unexpected turn when I discovered an article about the Sobieski brothers.

John Hay Allen and Charles Stuart Hay Allen, also known under the alias’ John Sobieski Stuart and Charles Edward Stuart, were brothers born in Wales during the late 1700’s. They moved to Scotland as young men and adopted the Scottish spelling of ‘Allan.’ During their time in Scotland, they fuelled rumours that their publicly known grandfather was in fact a foster parent and that their true biological grandfather was Bonnie Prince Charlie. The suggestion of a royal lineage assisted the charismatic brothers movement in Scottish society.

The Sobieski brothers claimed to have viewed ancient manuscripts containing clan tartans which pre-dated the Act of Proscription. Then in 1842 they published ‘Vestiarium Scoticum: from the manuscript formerly in the Scots college at Douay’ containing images and descriptions of 75 clan tartans. The book was presented as a reproduction of the afore mentioned 16th century manuscript. In the absence of any other records it was accepted by Clan Chiefs and the Highland Society of London without question. It was almost 140 years before the manuscript was revealed to be a hoax.

Scotland’s Forged Tartans

Analysis discussed in Scotland’s Forged Tartans states:

“Despite the misgivings of a few, but potent, authorities, these tartans were eagerly accepted by a public desperate to wear its ‘authentic’ clan tartans and a trade equally desperate to sell them, and they have remained with us, highly respected and totally unauthenticated. Beyond all doubt, the Vestiarium and its background material are complete forgeries.”

D.C. Stewart and J.C. Thompson

While some illustrations were accurate portrayals of existing tartans, potentially based on historical samples the great majority were fabrications. Eventually the brothers’ claims to a royal blood line, as well as the ‘Vestiarium Scoticum‘ manuscript were determined to be an elaborate hoax.

The definition of ‘forgery’ is an unauthorised replica of an original item. As such, the Vestiarium does not technically constitute a forgery; the hoax lay in its claim as a historical record.

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The Lasting Influence of the Vestiarium Scoticum in the history of tartan

Despite questionable origins, many tartans found in the Vestiarium Scoticum are still associated with family clans today. As there is no evidence that my family’s tartan predated the Vestiarium Scoticum we can deduce that it is one of the many fabricated designs. What constitutes an ‘authentic’ tartan is a fluid concept, and today we accept the tartan that is approved by the Clan Chief.

History remembers the rule breakers and the rebels. The history of tartan is no exception. Consider the Vestiarium Scoticum a vibrant thread woven into the fabric of Scottish history, leaving an indelible mark and a wink to the reverie of ‘getting away with it’. A true Scottish sentiment.

“There are crimes which become innocent and even glorious through their splendor, number and excess”

François de La Rochefoucauld

The History of Tartan, Clans & Design

Having established that what we now know to be clan tartans are in fact fabrications, the sentiment is embraced. With this in mind, let’s explore the design.

Sett

The sett (pattern of lines and squares) and colour combinations make each clan tartan distinctive. But within each clan tartan there can exist numerous variations, which can be viewed online at The Scottish Register of Tartans. Common variations within a given family clan tartan include:

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Ancient – produced with muted colours to give the appearance of tartans made with natural dyes and weathered with time. Note, it’s not an actual old tartan. Consider this the Scottish version of stone-wash jeans.

Modern – the same sett as the ancient tartan but with more vivid colours produced by modern chemical dyes.

Weathered – an extension of the ancient tartan. Further muting of colours to mimic fading due to exposure to the elements.

Hunting – worn for sport and hunting. Often green and brown in colour for camouflage. Hunting tartans are more relevant to clans with brightly coloured tartans (ie red). Clan tartan’s which are already predominantly green and brown may not have a hunting tartan.

Dress – for Highland dance, traditionally worn by women. Often with white as one of the primary colours

Mourning tartans – black and white

Bumbee, Fashion & Corporate Tartan

The Scottish Register of Tartans keeps records of all registered tartans, including corporate tartans, fashion tartans, and football club tartans. There’s an Elvis Presley tartan: ‘Presley of Memphis’ commissioned by a Presley tribute artist. Art imitating life, imitating art.

Many countries have their own tartan, despite having little or tenuous links to Scotland. Surprisingly, the Japanese are the largest consumers of Harris Tweed tartan clothing outside of Scotland. Hello Kitty has her own tartan.

Outside of The Scottish Register of Tartans, are the unofficial or fashion tartans. The Scottish slang for these unnamed tartans is ‘bumbee.’

The History of Tartan: Modern Incarnations

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Punk

The punk scene revived and reinterpreted tartan in the 90’s. Tartan had long been associated with authority, despite its subversive origins. But when it was worn ironically by a group of misfits and rebels it became a symbol of anti-establishment. With Vivienne Westwood as its ambassador, the punk music scene had its uniform. In 1993 Westwood commissioned her own tartan, the McAndreas, named after her husband, Andreas Kronthaler.

Ironically, Westwood’s designs in the 70’s began as a deconstruction of fashion, but went on to establish a fashion house in its own right. Vivienne Westwood continues to release tartan collections to this day.

Burberry

British fashion house, Burberry are most famous for their outerwear. In World War 1 they produced a garbardine coat known as the Tielocken for British officers. As it was frequently worn in the trenches, the Tielocken earned the nickname ‘trench coat.’ After WW1 Burberry released trench coats designed for civilians, lined with the now iconic tartan. The famous ‘Haymarket check’ (named after the street the London store was located) is registered with the Scottish Register of Tartans and is recognised as a ‘corporate tartan’.

The Chav sub-culture appropriated the Burberry check in the early 2000’s and counterfeit products flooded the market. Football grounds banned the Burberry check due to its association with football hooliganism.

The history of tartan continues to attract subversion.

The History of Tartan & Etiquette

Despite the dubious history of tartan, an etiquette exists regarding who can wear which tartan. Clan membership is technically through an individuals surname. Therefore, you should only wear the tartan of your family.

Of course, there are no fashion police and this is a matter of contention. There are those who think you should be able to wear whatever tartan you want, and those who prefer to stick with tradition. In the interest of diplomacy, there are a number of ‘free’ tartans which are open for anyone to wear. They are the Black Watch (military), Caledonian, Hunting Stewart and Jacobite tartans. However, it is considered a serious faux pas to wear the Balmoral tartan, which is strictly reserved for the Royal Family. Don’t you love the irony.

Where to Buy

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Those wanting to own a piece of chequered history, Kinloch Anderson and MacGregor & MacDuff sell locally made, good quality tartan.

Kilts, trousers, scarves, tyes…. Wear your piece of checkered history with pride!