Scots Heritage

The light-hearted suggestion that the skins of generations of Scottish emigrants turned tartan the minute they left Scotland’s shores, has a ring of truth to it — to this day, many of their descendants are still seeking to identify that tartan!

Of all the small nations on earth, Scotland basks in an historical and romantic glory that sees the estimated 30 to 40 million-strong Scottish Diaspora, immensely proud of its genetic heritage. Over the centuries, political, social and economic forces saw massive emigration fan out around the world — skilled professionals, mercenaries, missionaries, explorers, entrepreneurs and legions off Highland and urban workers. There is hardly a country that hasn’t benefited and prospered from that tenacious, hard-working and egalitarian influx, the evidence of which in modern times is manifested in what is assuredly the world’s greatest national icon —  Tartan!

How strange it is then – to re-work a well-known biblical quote – that for much of the 20th century “A tartan was not without honour except in its own country”. A complex mix of music hall ridicule, social class privilege, garish tourist outlets, a rebellious young clientele and perhaps a sprinkling of Calvinism had, in the past, relegated tartan to the status of a slightly embarrassing relative whom many would prefer to forget.

However, our distant kith and kin have decreed otherwise and their tangible, visible and public loyalties to their roots have been vested in tartan. Every Canadian province and region has its own, some 30+ American states have theirs and tartans have sprung up in almost every country where Scots settled and contributed to their early development. With the ever-increasing blurring of international borders and homogenisation of languages and cultures, accompanied by increasing turbulence and insecurity, there is great comfort in belonging to an identifiable group . . . to a family . . . to a clan which has as its own unique identity badge. It’s the only textile design in existence that allows its wearers to declare to the world at large that “I belong to this clan, this state, this church, this golf club, I went to this university, I work for this company, I support this sports team, I served in this regiment . . . . . . “

How refreshing it is therefore that in its modern homeland, tartan is now no longer ‘without honour’ and has been assimilated back into polite society with observers and historians looking beyond the Victorian hyperbole, the Royal Mile tat and the Diasporic-sponsored myths. Appreciation is gathering pace of its rich and complex history, its cultural heritage and its immense global symbolism and as a measure of its growing status, the Scottish Tartans Authority is actively developing an educational programme.

So — is it a Victorian invention as preached by a legion of gainsayers, or is it older than that and the world is really round? Circa 1,000BC when King Saul was plotting to put David to the sword, over 3,000 miles to the  east, a six foot, long-nosed, brown-haired Caucasian was being laid to rest with his ‘Asian’ family in the Tarim Basin in China’s Xinjiang region. Amazingly preserved by the arid desert of Takla Makan, he was eventually uncovered in the 20th century and, wrapped around his legs was discovered a complex woven fabric which was unmistakably a tartan!

The ‘How and the why and the where?’ were easily deduced by looking at the culture of the race that originated in the Caucasus region of southern Russia – the Caucasians or Celts as they became known. One of their well-developed crafts was the weaving of tartan-like fabrics and their ambitious territorial expansions took them to all points of the compass from their Balkan homeland. Liberal corroborative evidence of their ‘astonishing dress’ was documented by a series of Greek and Roman observers . . . “striped or checkered in design . . . . woven of divers colours . . . bright and shining cloaks . . . flaming coloured dresses.”

Equally identifiable tartans of the same period as the Chinese discovery were also found in the Celtic saltmines of Halstatt in Austria – on the route of the Celtic expansion into northwest Europe. When their advance was blocked by the Atlantic Ocean, they settled and their influence lives on in Scotland, Ireland, Isle of Man, Wales, Cornwall, Brittany and northwest Spain.

Despite the plethora of modern tartans acquired by those regions outwith Scotland, they’re all ‘Johnnie-come-lateleys’ and no historical evidence has ever been found to suggest otherwise. How tartan survived in the Highlands alone is still open to debate but it did open up another cultural schism as to its significance. One the one hand we have the tartan patriots (mainly spawned in the Victorian era) and the aforementioned gainsayers. The former attached clan significance to tartan from the ‘begining of time’ whilst the latter sneeringly insisted it was all a Victorian invention. As with almost all such polarised views there are crumbs of truth on both sides which need dispassionate sifting to arrive at the real story.

Tartan certainly survived in Scotland but it did so as an unremarkable textile design of no special significance — which probably explains why there’s such a paucity of written reference to it for over 1,000 years. It’s now accepted that tartans woven in one glen became associated with that particular glen and – by transference – with the occupiers of that glen – the Clan. There are isolated suggestions that as early as the 1500s some clan significance may have attached itself to one or two tartans, but the process was slow and not until the battle of Culloden did the phenomenon  gain wider credibility.

Its growing impact can perhaps be gauged by its post-Culloden banning by the British Government which was designed to break the clan culture which saw clansmen swearing loyalty to their Chiefs rather than to their monarch. The nature of the ‘ban’ has been the subject of ongoing misapprehension over the last 200+ years with the widespread myth that the ultimate punishment was death! What was actually banned from 1746 to 1782 in the Highlands (defined as being north of a line drawn from Dunbarton in the west to Perth in the centre) was the wearing by man or boy (unless they were in the military) of Highland Clothes – the plaid, the philibeg (little kilt) trowse (tight trousers), shoulder belts and anything that was conventioanlly regarded as Highland ‘garb’. The only mention of tartan was this “ . . . and no TARTAN, or partly-coloured plaid or stuff shall be used for great coats, or for upper coats.” The 32 year ban theoretically prevented the wearing of the kilt whether it was a tartan or not but didn’t apply to women or anyone south of that Highland line and its enforcement was patchy to say the least.

Another irrepressible myth – mawkish and romantic in the extreme – emanated from 20th century north America. It was suggested that at Highland church services during the ban, Scots would secrete in their clothing a tiny patch of tartan which they would press to their heart during the service and pray that ‘the Lord would return their tartan to them.’ As is the case with such imaginative postulations, a lie has travelled halfway round the world before truth has even got its kilt on and this particular tale has morphed into Kirkin’ o’ the Tartan services in churches across the land in which clansmen take tartan banners to the service for blessing.

The real origin of the service is much more prosaic and down to the Rev. Peter Marshall, originally from Coatbridge, Scotland. When he was pastor of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington DC he often held prayer services to raise funds for British war relief. At one of them on April 27, 1941 he gave a sermon entitled “the Kirkin’ o’ the Tartans” – and thus a legend was born.

1814 saw the birth of a series of romantic novels that became the most popular and widely read books in Europe. Sir Walter Scott’s Waverley novels were pivotal in establishing the romantic image of the Scottish Highlands — an image which Scott firmly cemented by his brilliant stewardship of the 1822 visit to Edinburgh of King George IV. Highland dress and clan tartans were the order of the day and if you were a forgetful Highland chief or head of a lowland family, the weavers and merchants were only too happy to ‘discover’ and supply your tartan. The impact of the corpulent George IV’s appearance in full Highland dress (Royal Stewart tartan and toning pink tights to shield the royal flesh) was the masterstroke of Scott’s PR campaign. In that one inspired move, he managed – Star Trek style – to transport the ‘dangerous Highland savage’ to the genteel drawing rooms of high society north and south of the border.

A plethora of Highland cultural societies prospered and in the warm afterglow of 1822, two Welsh-born Englishmen called Allen – fantacists and forgers – appeared on the Scottish social circuit where their discretely implied status as grandsons of Bonnie Prince Charlie, assured them of ready acceptance. With gifted imagination, great diligence and name changes to Sobieski Stuart, in 1842 they published their magnificent magnum opus — Vestiarium Scoticum. Allegedly based on a 1571 manuscript acquired by their Royal grandfather, the lavishly illustrated tome documented over 70 ‘true and authentic’ tartans. Not just for Highlanders but – much to their suprise and delight – the hitherto tartanless Lowlanders and Borderers. Despite Scott’s – and others’ – implacable debunking of the imposters and their concoctions, the book was widely accepted and its impact on the history of Scottish tartans was immense with many of the brother’s designs enjoying a hallowed place in the tartan books of today.

In that same year – 1842 – Queen Victoria paid her first visit to Scotland and she and her consort, Prince Albert, fell hopelessly in love with the country and its peoples. Ten years later Albert bought Balmoral Castle and in so doing, added a word to the English language –Balmorality – officially defined as ‘ an idealization of Scottish traditions and culture.” Less kindly it could be defined as Scottish kitsch but . . . kitsch or culture, it has swept the globe, launched many a thousand Highland Games, inspired hundreds of societies, pipe bands, kilted weddings, catwalk creations, edgy street-fashion, corporate identities and – most importantly – valuable exports.

After its history, the most intriguing aspect of tartan is its global symbolism that seems to encapsulate every real and imagined virtue of the Scots from John Knox through to Sean Connery. That symbolism is probably best exemplified by Apollo 12’s lunar module pilot Alan Bean celebrating one of modern Man’s greatest achievements by carrying down onto the surface of the moon —  a piece of his clan tartan.

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