Sunday, 5 June 2016

Tartan - cultural identity through textiles

Last Sunday the followers of the Outlander TV series found Jamie and Claire back in Scotland, and gone were the gloriously embroidered costumes of the 18th century French Court and Paris.


The last few weeks have been a feast for the eyes and a delight for embroiderers, not only in the costumes but the interior scenes which have been filled with richly embroidered fabrics on all possible surfaces.


There is, however, still much to be enjoyed as a plenitude of tartan and rugged Highland scenery fill our TV screens.

Outlander 2014

For several centuries, tartan has been part of the everyday garb of the Highlander. Whilst tartan was worn in other parts of Scotland, it was in the Highlands that its development continued and so it became synonymous with the symbol of clan kinship.


Tartan was used to make the items of clothing which are today considered traditional Scottish dress. The kilt, or philabeg to use its older Gaelic name, has now become the standard dress for all "Highlanders". The kilt has its origin in an older garment called the belted plaid which was wrapped around the waist, secured with a belt  and cast over the shoulder and fastened at the front.
The English word "tartan" is most likely derived from the French tartarin meaning "Tartar cloth". It has also been suggested that "tartan" may be derived from modern Scottish Gaelic tarsainn, meaning "across". Today "tartan" usually refers to coloured patterns, though originally a tartan did not have to be made up of any pattern at all.  Patterned cloth from the Gaelic-speaking Scottish Highlands was called breacan, meaning many colours. Over time the meanings of tartan and breacan were combined to describe certain type of pattern on a certain type of cloth. The pattern of a tartan is called a sett. The sett is made up of a series of woven threads which cross at right angles, and are used to identify the clan, family, or regiment with which the wearer is associated.
Although the kilt is the most recognisable of the tartans, it also manifests itself in the form of trews (trousers), shawls, and skirts.

A hat, or bonnet of knitted wool sporting a badge of the clan, usually a plant of flower, would sit proudly on the head of the clansman. The highly ornamented leather sporran worn in front of the kilt served as a purse and completed the ensemble.

The women of the clan wore a curraichd of linen over their heads which fastened under their chin. The tonnag was a small square of tartan worn over the shoulders, and the arasaid was a long self-coloured or tartan garment, which reached from the head to the ankles, pleated all round and fastened at the breast with a brooch and at the waist by a belt.


Early tartans were simple checks of perhaps only two or three colours. Each area or community grouping would doubtless have a weaver. He  would  produce the same tartan for those around him and that tartan would initially become what we now call a District Tartan  worn by individuals living in close geographical proximity such as glen or strath. That community would be one huge extended family that soon became identified by its tartan which it wore, not to differentiate it from its neighbours in the next glen - but because that is what its community weaver produced.


All weavers depended very much on local plants for their dyes so the locality of the weaver might well have some bearing on the colours of the tartan that he produced. If he lived on the west coast of Scotland, Gipsywort would give him lettuce green, seaweeds would give him flesh colour and seashore whelks might provide purple.


If he lived inland, then he would undoubtedly look to the moors for his colours: heather treated in different ways would give him yellow, deep green and brownish orange; blaeberries (the favourite food of the grouse) would provide purples, browns and blues; over 20 different lichens would give him a wide range of subtle shades. If he was affluent or dyeing and weaving for a customer of some substance, then he would seek more exotic imported colours of madder, cochineal, woad and indigo.


With the evolution of chemical dies, weavers were able to introduce more elaborate patterns including more vivid and varied colours. As clans grew and branched through birth, death or marriage, the newer clans evolved tartans of their own by adding an overstripe onto the basic pattern of the parent clan.


It was after the Battle of Culloden in 1746 that the government in London attempted to purge the Highlands of all unlawful elements by seeking to crush the rebellious clan system. An Act of Parliament was passed which made the carrying of weapons and the wearing of tartan a penal offence. The Act was rigorously enforced. So much so it seems that by the time the Act was repealed in 1785, Highlanders had lost all enthusiasm for their tartan garb, content to wear the same type of dress as other Scots.

By 1785, tartan was a thing of the past, many of the weavers had died and with them the details of the old patterns were lost. as their wooden pattern sticks had rotted away leaving little evidence for future generations.


The great tartan revival started in 1822, when George IV visited Edinburgh and suggested that people attending the official functions should wear their respective tartans.


Almost overnight tartan became popular and families, who probably had never before worn tartan, (and hated the Highlanders) became the proud possessors of family tartans. The loss of the original patterns meant it was necessary for many ‘original’ tartans to be reinvented by the tailors of the day.

Another great boost to tartan came from Queen Victoria and her Consort, Prince Albert. They fell in love with Balmoral - the Royal residence on Deeside in Scotland - and with tartan and all things Highland. Prince Albert designed the now world famous Balmoral tartan and they bedecked room after room with it, further consolidating the Victorians' romanticised view of the 'noble' Highlander.


Over the last century tartan has developed into a multi-million pound industry dominated by a few large mills. Today tartan holds a unique place in the annuals of textile history and has come to symbolise, along with the kilt and bagpipes, the cultural identity of the whole Scottish nation.


Here's to it!
The fighting sheen of it,
The yellow, the green of it,
The white, the blue of it,
The swing, the hue of it,
The dark, the red of it,
Every thread of it.
The fair have sighed for it,
The brave have died for it,
Foemen sought for it,
Heroes fought for it.
Honour the name of it,
Drink to the fame of it -

- Murdoch Maclean

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