Tartan, arguably the best-known cloth in the world, is not peculiar to Scotland, although it has become the country's national costume, occupying a unique place in its history, and in the hearts and minds of millions of Scots. From the times of the early clansmen through to the traditions of the modern Highland regiments, the kilt, plaid and tartan have constituted the unmistakable costume of the Highlander. The dress today remains attractive, distinctive, colourful and martial. It has come to be linked with the virtues of courage and hardiness, with love of an area and with the music, poetry and culture of the Highlands. Irrespective of the complex plaid debate about the development of Highland dress and the origins of different tartans, this overall picture - of a special apparel that meant much to its wearers - was valid in the past and still holds true today.
However, many aspects of tartan and Highland dress are controversial and the subject is surrounded by a number of myths. For example, the word 'tartan', now associated by most people with the precisely patterned, intricately cross-barred and multicoloured cloth, is itself a matter for argument. Some authorities claim it derives from the IrishScots words tuar and tan - meaning 'colour' and 'district' respectively. There is also a possibility that the word derives from a Middle French word, tiretaine, which referred to a quality of material, of a thin, coarse linen and wool mixture, while an Old Spanish word of similar root, tartana, which means 'shiver', and refers to a very fine, quality cloth, has been proposed as yet another possible source. The Gaelic word for tartan is breacan, meaning 'chequered', 'variegated' or 'speckled'. (Robert Louis Stevenson's hero in Kidnapped was called Allan Breck; 'Breck' meaning 'pockmarked'.)
In Scotland, by the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries the word 'tartan' was being widely used by English and Scots speakers for distinctively woven cloth coming out of the Highlands. In 1538, for example, King James V, the father of Mary Queen of Scots, purchased 'three ells of Heland Tartan'. However, the name seems to have applied to a type and quality of cloth rather than to a design, a usage that had changed gradually by the eighteenth century. Similarly, the original practice of making tartan from light rather than warm material was also steadily reversed over many generations. Nowadays, tartan is generally defined as a fabric woven in bands of coloured yarn that repeat in sequence, not only across the width but along the
length of the cloth. A new hue is formed wherever bands of a different colour cross. It is sometimes said that modern Highland dress bears little relationship to that worn in the past, but this is not the case. All national costumes evolve over the centuries and what we see today in Scotland is a stylised version of an ancient garb.
There were normally six main stages in weaving tartan: gathering the wool, preparing the fibres by combing it to the desired texture for soft or hard tartan, and spinning by a method involving a drop spindle, or distaff and spindle, in which the yarn or thread was spun by the fingers and wound round the bottom of the spindle. (This was later replaced by the spinning wheel, and ultimately by modern machinery.) The wool was then dyed, woven and finally stretched. This last stage, also known as waulking, was often accompanied by singing, during which jokes would be made about friends, frequently in impromptu verses; a tradition that has continued into modern times in the Harris-tweed industry.
Looms were normally upright and operated by one person, with the warp - the threads running the length of the cloth - fixed along a frame with spaces in between and weighted at the base. The lateral threads, the weft, were then woven in across this. Much faster horizontal looms with foot pedals came into use in the nineteenth century, when the manufacture of tartan became a cottage industry. Production later moved to the mills, where water and later steam-power turned the mill-wheels, until eventually tartan preparation evolved into the highly technical procedure of today. Some of the most important of the tartan manufacturers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, like the firms of William Wilson and Son of Bannockburn and J. & D. Paton, at Tillicoultry, below the Ochil Hills, supplied the army with tartan and also exported it all over the world.
Some of the earliest references to the dress of the Scottish people, the Celts and Picts, appear in the writings of the poet, Virgil, and later Roman authors. During the attempts by the Romans to occupy Scotland, the Caledonian tribesmen who opposed them wore striped woollen cloaks, or blankets woven in several colours. These garments were draped over a shoulder and pinned, while underneath was a linen tunic shirt and sometimes a pair of truis or breeches. (Usually, however, the legs were bare, giving rise to the later nickname for Scots mercenaries - 'redshanks'.) A piece of cloth found near the Antonine Wall, the third-century Roman barrier that ran from the Clyde to the Forth, is an example of this simple two-coloured check or tartan, and was made from the dark and light wool of the original goat-like sheep of Scotland.
The coarse wool from these animals, which were primarily kept for their milk, was plucked rather than shorn. This was then spun and, using the different natural wool colours, an intricately woven and striped cloth was produced. Eventually, a particular design came to be associated with one specific district of the Highlands, and this was passed on from generation to generation. To remember the sett, or pattern, the women would mark a piece of wood with the number of threads to the stripe. This tradition, of a particular area employing a single design, meant that a person's home region, his probable clan and even his status could often be identified from the garments he wore.
Originally the Highlanders used only the natural shades of the sheeps' wool - black, brown or white - in the designs of their tartan cloth. Later they employed a range of leaves, berries, bark and lichens as natural dyes to develop cloth patterns involving many colours. The birch tree, for instance, produced yellow; while the alder produced black or brown; heather gave orange; the crowberry or blaeberry, purple; the bramble, blue; and the flower of tormentil, red. Urine -fual or graith in Gaelic - was used as a source of ammonia to deepen and intensify colours and to remove grease. Before the dyeing was completed the wool was always washed and a mordant (from the Latin verb, mordere, 'to bite') was added to make the dye permanent. The substance used was often the salt of alum, copper or chrome, and iron mordanting was obtained from black peat bogs.
It is impossible to say precisely when the tartan cloak evolved into the long garment known as the belted plaid (and which itself was the forerunner of the modern kilt), but it was probably around the tenth or eleventh centuries. This long plaid was wrapped round the body and was known in Gaelic as the feileadh mor meaning large and folded, or pleated. It was normally made up of two pieces of material, each about five metres long and seventy centimetres wide, the measurements being dictated by the size of the loom. The two pieces were then stitched together.
Although there is some dissent, it is generally thought that the Highlander originally put his plaid on by laying it out on the ground with a belt underneath, and pleating it until two aprons at either end remained. He lay down with the material about knee-height, folded over the aprons and fastened the belt. Then, he stood up and adjusted the rest of the plaid to suit his mood or the weather. When not used as a cloak, the upper part was pinned, but the sword arm would normally be left free. The belted plaid was a superb garment to wear while campaigning. Made of pure wool and closely woven, it was both strong and warm, and might easily be cast aside in battle. Centuries ago the hem of the garment was higher up the leg than it is today. The plaid worn by the pipers and drummers in modern pipe bands is a stylised version of the old feileadh mor.
It is interesting that in North America, where the kilted plaid is sometimes worn as evening dress amongst the members of Caledonian societies, the feileadh mor is known as the breacan feile, which means 'kilted-tartan' in Gaelic. The word 'plaid' can also carry a different meaning in North America, where it is sometimes used to mean tartan in general. In Britain, however, 'plaid', originating from the Gaelic word plaide (pronounced 'pladjer'), meaning a blanket, refers specifically to a particular type of garment.
The kilt worn today is the little kilt, the feiledh bheag (meaning the 'little fold') from which the anglicised word 'philabeg' derives. This garment originally had large box pleats that were stitched; while the neat tight pleats of today's kilt are the result of military influences in the nineteenth century.
The shortening of thefeileadh mor to a form rnughly resembling that of the modern kilt is normally said to have begun around 1725. One story often told is that of a Glengarry furnace-master from England who felt that the long plaid of the Highlander was an industrial hazard and should be cut down. Although this anecdote has been widely publicised, it seems highly unlikely that an entire form of Highland dress would be drastically changed almost overnight to accommodate the views of a single incomer. In spite of a shortage of evidence, it seems a far more likely explanation that the little kilt evolved simply as a matter of convenience and as the availability of other clothing, such as jackets, jerkins and tunics, increased.
Neil Munro (1864-1930), the author of two magnificent historical novels, John Splendid and The New Road, portrays some of his characters wearing a form of the little kilt in the seventeenth century. His hero, young Ekigmore, has returned to Argyll in 1644 after fighting as a Scottish mercenary in the army of Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden, and is dressing himself to go into the burgh of Inveraray. It is clear from the following quotation that the modern kilt is simply an adaptation of the belted plaid, stitched up, with the pleated seetion on the ont replaced by two flat panels.
Although the word 'kilt' has now come to be the universally accepted term for the colourful skrrt apparel that constitutes Scotland's nati6nal dress, its origins are not clear-cut. For example, it may come from Scandinavia, where there is a Danish word, kilte, which means a garment with pleats, folds or skirts. (Many Scots placenames are of Norse origin - a relic of Viking days.) Equally, it may stem from the Irish word for a screen, ceifte. In Scotland the word, both a noun and a verb, was originally associated with a garment of pleats, skirts or folds; as a verb it meant to lift or shape a garment into skirt form.
Centuries ago the dress of Highland men and women evolved along different lines, and the kilt is traditionally considered to be a masculine garment. Although women do wear tartan skirts, these are not generally kilts, which are often thought not to suit the female anatomy. For example, the authorities of the Aboyne Highland Games approved a dress for female dancers that is graceful, attractive and Highland in appearance, but this is not the male kilt.
The Highlanders also wore truis, which were a form of tartan trousers rather like tights or children's leggings covering both legs and feet. These were particularly worn on horseback, and sometimes with the belted plaid. Tartan trousers are still worn in some Scottish regiments, but strictly speaking these are not truis.
In order to understand fully the importance of tartan to the Highlander, and the impact of later British legislation which attempted to ban tartan, it is necessary to recognise the part this multicoloured cloth played in the Highlanders' intimate relationship with their environment. Old Highland society, living in close contact with nature and based predominantly on a cattle economy, adhered to its own particular set of values. Cattle raiding, for instance, was often regarded more as a manly pastime than a crime. Similarly, alongside their Christian faith, people maintained a belief in spirits, which were often thought to inhabit particular rocks or trees. Supernatural goblins, fairies and water-horses were all assumed to be living beings, and clansmen wore plants or leaves in their bonnets as talismans. (They were not generally clan identification badges, as is often said.) The calendar of the Highlanders, so closely linked to nature, the seasons and to a pastoral lifestyle, was vastly different to that of today.
The material requirements of daily life - house timbers, furniture, beds, tools and eating utensils -were obtained from the natural world. Lamps, called cruisies, were manufactured from fish or seal oil, with rush stems as wicks; the buds of birch could be used as a kind of shampoo. Given the Highlanders' deep affinity with their natural surroundings it is not surprising that the local wools, colours and patterns of their tartan garments evoked a feeling of intimate kinship with their homeland.
Whenever these cultured, though resilient and warlike people were called to arms, they invariably campaigned in tartan dress. At night they frequently slept in the long plaid and in the 1745 Jacobite Rising they refused to use tents. Sometimes they would soak the plaid in water and wring it out before going to sleep so that a kind of steamy heat was generated inside. In battle, although Gaelic foot soldiers were sometimes less steady under fire or in sieges than other troops, the very sight of the plaid, tartan and kilt often caused alarm amongst their enemies, especially during the famed Highland charge, which was a controlled affair of formidable power. (The use of a combination of old and modern weapons - swords, axes, dirks, muskets and pistols - is generally credited to Alasdair MacColla, the renowned military leader of the Clan Donald, and the second-in-command to the Marquis of Montrose during the Scottish Wars of the Covenant in the seventeenth century.)
The Jacobites (from the Latin word for James, Jacobus) supported the claim of the exiled House of Stuart to the throne of Britain in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. During the risings of 1715, 1719 and particularly of 1745, the Highland clansmen so frightened the Hanoverian government in England that, when they were finally defeated at the Battle of Culloden in 1746, fierce reprisals and penalties were exacted on the Highlands. One of the measures, which banned tartan dress, was imposed on all except those in the army or militia who had remained loyal to the Hanoverian government, and lasted from 1747-82. At the time, the government proclamation read:
In the nineteenth year of the reign of our sovereign Lord George the Second by the Grace of God, of Great Britain, France and Ireland, King, Defender of the Faith... 1746... An Act for the more effectual disarming the Highlands in Scotland: and for the more effectually securing the peace of the said Highlands and for refraining the use of the Highland dress.
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, philibeg or little kilt, trowse, shoulder belts, or any part whatsoever of what peculiarly belongs to the Highland garb: and that no tartan or partly-coloured plaid or stuff shall be used for great coats, or for upper coats: and that if any such person shall presume, after the said first day of August, to wear or put on the aforesaid garments, or any part of them, every such person so offending, being thereof convicted 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 offenses shall he committed, shall suffer imprisonment, without bail, during the space of six months, and no longer: and being convicted for a second offense 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.
There was immediate and widespread resentment of the measure in the Highlands. Men like Duncan Forbes of Culloden, who had supported the Hanoverian government in the 1745 Rising, and who was Lord Advocate, and Lord President of the Court of Session, tried to stop the ban being implemented. It was widely felt that the humiliation of the Highlanders in this way would be unwise and counter-productive. However, the ban was strictly enforced, causing much hardship, and further legislation was introduced in 1747-8 extending the ban. The plaid, philabeg or little kilt and tartan itself were all specifically prohibited. The penalties of imprisonment for a first offense and transportation for a second were later changed to enforced military service in Britain's American colonies at a time of growing French influence there. These measures had a seriously demoralising effect on the Highlanders. Those under suspicion of Jacobite sympathies were asked to take an oath which demonstrated a shrewd understanding of the character of the people:
"I... do swear, and as I shall have to answer to God at the great day of judgment, I have not nor shall have in my possession, any gun, sword, pistol or arm whatever: and 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 - may all this come across me if I break my oath."
The ban on the wearing of tartan was not repealed until it became plain that the Jacobite claims to the throne of Britain had ceased to be an important threat. It lasted for thirty-five years. This meant that more than two-thirds of the generation that saw the ban imposed had died before it was lifted, which caused much traditional tartan lore to be lost. Fortunately, through the men of the Highland regiments, or militia, tartan survived. These bodies of troops, which wore the belted plaid and the little kilt, and were known as the Highland Independent Companies, or Watches, had been set up as early as 1667 in an attempt to stamp outhe cattle raiding that was widespread in the Highlands. Most of the clans and families who supplied men for the Watches had supported the Hanoverian government against the Jacobites, and the Watches had been made exempt from the ban on Highland garb. The famous regiment, the Black Watch, has its origins in these militia, the name deriving from the dark colour of the tartan, or possibly from the colour of many of the original Highland cattle and the 'black trade' the Watch was supposed to stop. ( The word 'blackmail' also has origins in the Highlands, referring to the money paid by cattle owners to clans like the MacGregors in an effort to avoid their livestock being stolen. 'Black' refers to the colour of the cattle, or to infamous deeds, and 'mail' is an old Scots word for rent or payment.)
As the struggle between Britain and France for control of North America flared up into war in 1757, the Prime Minister, William Pitt, decided to commission new Highland regiments to take part. This idea had previously been pursued in 1692, at the time of the Glen Coe massacre, when Gray John, Earl of Breadalbane, had proposed that Highland soldiers fight overseas for the British crown. There had always been a strong tradition of Scottish soldiers serving as mercenaries or military advisors, and the annals of European monarchs and armies are peppered with accounts of Scottish heroism and skill.
Pitt's decision, however, involved a cynicism that causes revulsion even today, since he was motivated by an indifference as to whether or not the Highlanders were killed. The measure also struck at the traditional alliance that had existed between Scotland and France for centuries, particularly before 1707 and the Union of Parliaments, when Scotland had been a separate nation. For a period in earlier centuries, Scots and French had held dual citizenship, and Scots had provided the personal bodyguard for the kings of France. This cooperation had persisted in the eighteenth century, and the French had supported the Stuart claims to the British throne during the Jacobite Risings. The defeated Bonnie Prince Charlie escaped to France after the battle of Culloden, and Scots who held commissions in the French army and who had fought for the Jacobites were treated by the British government as formal prisoners of war when captured and not killed out of hand. Even in the Napoleonic Wars there are recorded incidents where as a result of the past links between the two nations, both Scots and French treated one another's prisoners and wounded with chivalrous respect.
The legendary fighting prowess of the Highland regiments, their continued wish to wear the kilt and tartan and the standardisation of many tartans in a regimental form all helped to create a mood of general public approval for the removal of the ban on tartan. Another factor helping to bring about a repeal of the ban was the character of the new king, George III, who, twenty years after the Rising of 1745, seemed to those north of the border less of a foreigner than either George I or George II.
On 17 June 1782, the Marquis of Graham, who helped form the Highland Society of London, appealed to parliament to move 'that the clause of the nineteenth year of George II, which prohibits the wearing of the Scotch Highland dress, be repealed'. There was only a single dissenting voice, which is still a cause for mirth even today. Sir Philip Jennings Clerke wanted Highland dress to be confined to Scotland because of a story he had been told by a Hampshire innkeeper. When the latter had had four Highland officers quartered with him, his wife and daughters had been so taken with the tartans and bare legs of the soldiers that the keeper had had to spend the whole time keeping an eye on them.
The end of the ban on tartan was met with wide rejoicing. A Highland proclamation announced:
"Listen men! This is bringing before all the Sons of the Gael, that the King and Parliament of Britain have for ever abolished the Act against Highland Dress; which came down to the clans from the beginning of the world to the year 1746. You are no longer hound down to the unmanly dress of the Lowlander. This is declaring to every man, young and old, single and gentle, that they may after this put on and wear the truis, the little kilt, the coat and the striped hose, as also the belted plaid without fear of the law of the realm or the spite of enemies."
The celebrations at the time included such odd spectacles as the Reverend Joseph Robertson Macgregor, the eccentric minister of the Gaelic church in Edinburgh, parading throughout the city clad in a complete Suit of Macgregor tartan. Even today the sideways kicking step of Highland dancers performing the Shean Truis dance is said to symbolise the kicking off of the trews or trousers in favour of the kilt.
However, the rebirth of tartan amongst the Highland regiments that fought in the American War of Independence, and in Britain's other colonial wars or against Napoleon also began a controversy which escalated with the new popularity of tartan and which is still with us today. Is there really such a thing as a clan tartan, which, in the past, was readily identifiable and which was worn only by its members? If so, are the contemporary clan tartans the same' as those worn in the period prior to 1746 and the ban?
The issue is complex and ranges between two extreme views: that the modern tartans are pure invention - the product of Victorian romanticism; or that the patterns worn today are precisely the same as in the heyday of the clans. The truth, however, lies between the two schools of thought. It is certainly a myth that long ago the people of one glen wore a tartan of blue and green, while their neighbours in the next wore red and yellow. Yet, it is the case that the weaving patterns for tartan, the setts, the thread counts and the designs created in one particular, area were traditionally associated with it, and a man's clan allegiance could often be identified on the basis of his dress. There is insufficient space here to go fully into both sides of the issue. However, Martin, a native of Sky and the factor to the MacLeods, wrote a book in 1703 called Description of the Western Islands of Scotland in which he said:
Every Isle differs from each other in their fancy of making plaids, as to the Stripes in breadth and colours. This humour is as different thro' the main land of the Highlands insofar that they who have seen those places is (sic] able, at the first view of a man's plaid, to guess the place of his residence.
It has also been recorded that in 1703 the Laird of Grant ordered that a gathering of 600 of his men should all have tartan coats of the same colour and fashion - red and green.
Further evidence to support the theory that there were some individual clan tartans before 1746 is found in the account of the Battle of Killiecrankie by Bonnie Dundee's bardic chronicler in 1689. Here, he wrote of Glengarry's men parading in tartan woven in triple stripes, while the men of his brother had a tartan with a red stripe. MacLean of Duart and his brother wore plaids with yellow stripes, and that of McNeil was as bright as a rainbow. It is also interesting to note that when the Highland regiments were formed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries many had new tartans specifically designed for them, some of which were based on older weaving patterns. For example, when Sir Alan Cameron of Erracht (1750-1828) founded the 79th Regiment, the Cameron Highlanders, he desired a new tartan for it and wrote at the time that the main tartan worn in Lochaber before the ban was red in colour. It might be presumed from this that many of the wearers could be identified as Lochabermen and, therefore, probably Camerons. (The Erracht tartan avoided using red, as this clashed with the military tunics of the time.)
Those who want to emphasise that the clan tartans of today have a dubious pedigree point out that anyone looking at the Jacobite battle line at Culloden could not clearly distinguish men by their clan tartans. However, allowances must be made for clans being split up into formal regiments and for the effects of campaigning. Undoubtedly, bogus claims are made for scraps of pre-1746 tartan, and also for forty pieces of tartan, held in museums and collections, which are said to have been worn by Bonnie Prince Charlie. Eight of these were supposedly worn by the Prince at Culloden. A famous painting by David Morier, showing Barrell's regiment facing Highlanders at Culloden, was reputedly painted using Jacobite prisoners as models. Since Morier was George II's military painter and since the work was intended for the Duke of Cumberland, the king's son and brutal military commander, it is widely quoted as evidence for modern clan tartans being bogus. Eight High-landers in the painting are wearing twenty-three different tartans. Others have counter-argued, saying that Morier was simply an inaccurate war artist, and that he was not present himself at the battle. Inevitably, this debate continues; but it must be said that although there are historical illustrations and paintings showing people in Highland dress, in the belted plaid, the little kilt, truis, or in both, and wearing tartan in profusion, examples of specific clan tartans, as opposed to area tartans, are in short supply.
By the nineteenth century a fashion boom had occurred in tartan, and it became popular wear at high-society balls, both in Britain and abroad. Military tailoring also had a strong effect on Highland dress; garments were given tighter, neater pleats, with coloured stripes falling exactly on the fold of the pleat. Immense public interest was aroused regarding the precise design of family and clan tartans. Colonel David Stewart of Garth produced a classic work called Sketches of the Character, Manners and Present State of the Highlanders of Scotland, with Details ot he Military Service of the Highland Regiments, and he urged a painter of miniatures, Andrew Robertson, to persuade the Highland Society of London to ask chiefs and heads of families to lodge what they considered to be an authentic sample of their own tartan with the society. This posed some difficulty, and the problem was compounded by the practices of some of the tartan-weaving firms, which by then had attached names to patterns without too much research.
James Logan, the son of an Aberdeen merchant, made a study of tartans which produced a level of standardisation. A student of law and art and for a time the secretary of the London Highland Society, he walked around Scotland in 1826 gathering tartan specimens and talking to people who claimed to have authentic first-hand accounts of past practices. He published a valuable work on the subject in 1831, although some of his conclusions have been disputed.
The waters were further muddied in the nineteenth century by two colourful brothers, John and Charles Sobieski Stuart, who were said to be the legitimate grandsons of Bonnie Prince Charlie and lived on an island in the River Beauly. They claimed to have a sixteenth-century manuscript on which they based a book entitled Vestiarium Scoticum, published in 1842. This purported to give the original tartans of the clans. They also produced The Costume of the Clans in 1845. The brothers' work, even today, is a cause of much controversy. Their manuscript, said to have been found in the old Scots college at Douai in France, was never produced, and the value of their contribution to tartans research is doubtful. Between 1842 and 1845 another major and popular book appeared. The Clans of the Scottish Highlands was largely written by James Logan and illustrated in a highly stylised and romantic form by R.R. McIan.
The origins of some tartans may have been questioned, but the overall popularity of the cloth was beyond dispute. Tartan was used for plaids, shawls, blankets, table covers and other commercial items. Even boxes, tins and dishes, known as Mauchline ware, were produced with tartan designs and sent far overseas. One account suggests that brightly coloured tartan shawls were popular with the slave owners in the West Indies of the late eighteenth century, because slaves wearing the shawls could easily be seen if they ever ran away. The correspondence files of Wilson's of Bannockburn contain a letter from Jamaica which says:
'Please send 200 yards of Lindsay to the enclosed pattern. As it is for Negro wear it must be low price, not above one shilling a yard if you can.'
Tartan achieved wider popularity in the nineteenth century through the romantic writings of Sir Walter Scott, who masterminded the famous visit to Edinburgh by George IV in 1822. This was the first monarch to visit Scotland since Charles II, and the event was an occasion for great celebration. Heads of families were swathed in tartan, much of it of doubtful authenticity, while the portly Lord Mayor of London, William Curtis, bedecked himself in tartan costume and, as the festivities progressed, danced naked down Princes Street. However, the event placed tartan firmly in the mainstream of Scottish culture, and it is from this time that the kilt evolved into the national costume. Queen Victoria's love of the Highlands also gave tartan's popularity a boost, and to this day members of the Royal Family wear the kilt when visiting the Highlands.
The tartan-producing firms of the nineteenth century started to bring out books of specimens, which ultimately gave rise to the standardisation of family and clan tartans that we enjoy today. However, despite the contemporary legitimacy of tartan's pedigree, it should not be forgotten that some clan or family names have been attached to particular setts or designs almost by accident, or because of the arbitrary choice of a mill-owner. Much modern research has been carried out in this area, and it is a welcome development that the Scottish Tartans Society keeps a record of all known tartans, now totalling over 1,800. This ensures that the pedigree of an individual clan or family's tartan can be precisely researched and logged, and also that when new tartans are created these too can be placed on the register after a period of investigation.
The Lyon Court, Scotland's court for armorial matters, founded in the fourteenth century, also encourages the registration of tartans in its court books.
One example which has intrigued contemporary researchers came from the pattern books of the Clackmannanshire firm of Patons. An entry from the nineteenth century shows a scrap of largely blue and red tartan with the thread count falling in sevens, entitled 'The 7th Cavalry Tartan'. No British military formation has such a name, although there was an American 7th Cavalry, which achieved fame under General Custer at the Battle of the Little Big Horn, when it was massacred by the Sioux Indians. Apparently, General Custer had a liking for military bands and formed ad hoc brass and bagpipe bands. It is probable that the 7th Cavalry wrote to Scotland to commission a tartan for their pipers and drummers, since the regiment contained many Americans of Scottish descent.
Tartan's heritage is both glorious and controversial, but what of its current standing and its future? There is a living military tradition which has ensured that Highland dress and tartan are respected and often revered. There was uproar, for example, amongst the Scottish regiments when the War Office decreed in the Second World War that the kilt was not a suitable campaigning garment. Some soldiers organised protest bonfires and others insisted on taking the kilt with them into action in spite of the ruling. Individuals have worn the kilt into battle in many modern wars, but the last kilted unit, operating as an organised body, was a platoon of the Cameron Highlanders, which fought an heroic rearguard action at Dunkirk in 1940. This occasion, however, ended a tradition of over 1,000 years. With the amalgamation of so many regiments in modern times the supply of ex-army kilts, once the source for many older Boy Scouts, has dried up.
There is continued affection for tartan among Scottish football and rugby supporters, who often flaunt it with immense enthusiasm. There are also growing numbers of pipe bands and Highland dancers, while the kilt is a favourite garment for weddings. It has always been popular dress at musical festivals and ceilidhs, and one senses an increase in the wearing of the kilt for other social occasions. Unfortunately, there is a music-hall tradition that persists among some comedians of mocking the kilt.
One of the biggest problems with Highland dress is the high cost of a kilt and accessories. However the kilt is a comfortable garment, warm in winter and cool in summer, and a good example should last for generations. The golden rule for anyone tempted to wear the kilt is to go ahead and purchase one. Consult a reputable shop or the Scottish Tartans Society and ensure that you are properly measured, The choice of tartan is entirely a matter of individual taste, although it is generally good manners, despite the fact that many clan tartans are nineteenth-century in origin, to select something appropriate. Statements that you may not wear your mother's tartan are untrue. There have often been cases in Scottish history when men and women have attached themselves to a clan or family by choice, and it was not always a question of birth or blood loyalty. The modern man in Highland dress may also wear a Balmoral hat, which is rather like a beret and is generally blue - a link with the famous 'blue bonnets' that were part of the campaigning dress of many Scots, and particularly of Highlanders. Sometimes Balmorals have a diced pattern round the rim. This is a relic of an old accounting system that was taken into the heraldry of the Stewarts or High Stewards of Scotland and became known as 'the checky', from which the word 'exchequer' derives. Scottish policemen also wear this pattern, a symbol of guardianship and protection. The boat-shaped Glengarry hats are of nineteenth-century military origin.
Shirts, jackets and ties are entirely a matter of taste, although tweed jackets (largely green or brown) for daytime wear and black for evening wear, with rather more ornate shirts and accessories, are generally the custom.
In the past, belts were normally made of leather with brass buckles, but now there is a whole variety of designs and materials. Sporrans (the name is the Gaelic for 'purse') were once worn on the hip and had draw strings instead of studs. Now strikingly modern sporrans are produced following old designs, and synthetic materials have replaced seal, goat or deer skin. The kilt pin dates from the nineteenth century, and largely resulted from the desire of Queen Victoria and her senior military staff to have modesty among her soldiers. Underwear beneath the kilt - so often a cause for humour - is a relatively modern development, and in the past men wore nothing. This is still true of several Scottish regiments, apart from some sentries and dancers, on whom the kilt might fly up. Most other people wear shorts or pants, according to personal taste.
Of the other Highland dress accessories, knitted socks are also a fairly recent innovation. In the past, hose were made from the same material as the kilt. The small flashes at each side of the stockings are symbolic of the kind of ribbon-garter that was used in the past and tied with a special knot. Shoes, like socks, are a matter of personal preference. The convention for evening wear, however, is black. The Gaelic for shoe is brog, from which comes the English word 'brogue'. The holes that are often punched in the leather symbolise the holes made in deer-hide footwear to let water out. (The Gaelic words for 'my footwear' are mo chasan, and it has been suggested that Scottish migrants to North America who used this word might have given rise to the Indian word, 'moccasin'.) The small knife tucked into the stocking is called a sgian dubh, or black knife, and was originally an implement for eating or skinning, although nowadays it is mainly symbolic. The adjective 'black' derives from the use of coarse metal, rather than the prized shining metal used for weapons. Some people wear ornamental dirks attached to their belts for evening wear.
It is undoubtedly the case that a Highlander from many centuries ago, should he see the dress of his nineteenth- and twentieth-century descendants, would recognise his own garb. With female dress this is perhaps less likely. Early Highland women wore a longer version of the man's shirt and then had a version of the man's belted plaid, known as the arisaid (earrasaid in Gaelic, and pronounced 'varoosatch'). It was made of tartan and white was generally the predominant colour. The garment reached down to the ground and was fixed at the waist with a belt and fastened with a pin at the breast. There was sufficient loose cloth to pull over the head like a hood in bad weather, and underneath a full petticoat was worn. Occasionally an additional shawl was used. Modern conventions on the use of tartan sashes and plaid-type sashes, or brooches, are largely a matter of taste.
There are now many new tartans, some of which are extremely attractive. For example, there are tartans for some American states and Canadian provinces, for overseas military units and bands, for special anniversaries, for civilian organisations such as the City of Glasgow, even for fire brigades and airlines. The proposed designs for these go before the Scottish Tartans Society, which monitors and registers them, and awards certificates. In addition, the society continues its research into ancient aspects of Highland dress and generally brings much-needed discipline into the whole subject of tartanology.
Finally, there are a few persistent misconceptions which it would be valuable to clarify. For instance, the amount of white worn in so-called dress tartans or Highland dancing tartans is entirely modern and lacks an ancient pedigree, except in its connection with the arisaid. Similarly, the names of some supposedly 'ancient' tartans refer to dyes copying old hues and not to the sett or pattern. Hunting tartans are of nineteenth-century origin, although it is probable that in the more distant past men wore a dark design when hunting. Lastly, it is considered poor taste to wear a chief's tartan unless the use has been sanctioned, the same being true of tartans associated with the Royal Family.
Tartan enthusiasts owe a great debt to a number of modern scholars, particularly Scots like J. Telfer Dunbar, James D. Scarlett, the late Donald Stewart (who pioneered the system of filing tartan samples and pedigrees), the late Captain Stuart Davidson for his pioneering work, Dr Gordon Teall of Teallach, chairman and executive president of the Scottish Tartans Society, for his research on district tartans; also to American Fellows of the Society - J. Charles Thompson, Robert Martin and Philip Smith.
It must be said that a resentment towards kilt-wearing has lingered in modern Scottish society - a hangover from the time of the nineteenth-century injustices, when the kilt was worn by the landowning aristocracy as social garb, or the feeling that the modern kilt was only for the wealthy. Fortunately, this phase is now passing. There is a heartwarming zest of Scots overseas for the kilt and tartan that has a strong and beneficial effect on those who wear the kilt in Scotland. In America, for example, there is a charming custom called 'the kirking of the tartan', which means to have the cloth blessed in church. The American astronaut, Neil Armstrong even took a piece of Armstrong tartan to the moon and back, which shows the depth of feeling for this special and internationally known cloth.
Scottish author, Neil Munro, wrote a poem called 'The Kilt is my Delight', which became the title of a television programme. The kilt can be your delight as well. Bring forrit the tartan!
Extracts from - Scottish Tartans Society "Tartans, The Facts & Myths"
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