Tartans of Strathearn
Strathearn District Tartan
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There is evidence that Celts
have used striped and checked material for thousands of years. The Scoti,
who settled Western Scotland from 5-6thC onward and eventually gave the whole
country their name, are said to have used striped garments to signify rank.
One possible derivation of the word Tartan comes from the Irish tarsna
- crosswise & Scottish Gaelic tarsuinn - across. The basis of
the pattern, dress style and word may date back to the time when the Scots
introduced their Gaelic culture into what was to become Scotland. If early
Tartan, like the Gaelic language, were used across Scotland in the 10thC,
by the 13thC they would have been confined to the Highlands. Lowland Scotland
began adopting the language of the northern Angles and Norman social structure
from the 12thC.
However, another derivation
may be from Old French tartaine - cloth, implying the introduction
of checked woollen cloth in the early middle ages which simply became popular
in the Highlands.
In 1538 there is a reference
to 'Heland Tartan'. A Frenchman at the siege of Haddington in 1537 describes
Highlanders who were present as wearing what appears to be Tartan. From 1581
there is a description of 'variegated garments, especially stripes, and their
favourite colours are purple and blue'. Poet John Taylor clearly describes
the woollen Tartan garments of Highlanders at Braemar in 1618. Martin, a
doctor on Skye around 1700, gives the first descriptions of Tartan which
imply their significance as regional and the importance to weavers of ensuring
that their cloth always has precise local patterns. Martin states that it
is possible to tell from a man's plaid where he came from. There is no
implication from any of this that specific families or Clans wore their 'own'
Tartans - the patterns appeared to be regional.
The battle of Culloden in
1746 saw the end of Jacobite claims to the throne. Many Highlanders, but
by no means all, had backed the losing side of Prince Charles Edward Stuart.
The great importance of Tartan and associated dress to Highland Culture at
this time can be deduced from the fact that the government banned it from
1746-82. This proscription however applied only to common Highland men -
not the upper echelons of Highland society, not to Lowland Scots and not
to women. But most importantly, it did not apply to the Highland regiments
that were being formed in the Government army.
The new regiments were mainly
associated with specific Clans, containing the men of that Clan and often
led by the Chief or a senior member of his family. The first regiments used
the 'Government Tartan', the Black Watch, but others quickly adopted distinctive
new patterns. From this it appears that specific regimental Tartans became
Clan or family Tartans and not vice-versa.
Central in this 'new Tartan'
industry was the Lowland company of William Wilson. He meet the growing demand
for Tartan by inventing new patterns. He supplied the Army and the flourishing
demand for cloth in the Lowlands. All his patterns were initially simply
given numbers but some quickly became popular in certain areas and became
known by that regions name - thus were born the regional Tartans. Others
were commissioned for a specific person and soon the surname of that person
became the name of the Tartan!
New patterns appeared each
year for Wilson's salesmen to market. There is no evidence that Wilson's
Tartans had anything whatsoever to do with any ancient regional or pre-1746
patterns. The Tartans worn at the Battles of Sheriffmuir or Culloden have
been lost forever. In 1816 an attempt was made to match Clan to 'true' Tartan.
Tartans were gathered but these had more to do with regimental uniforms and
Wilson's successful marketing than any older patterns. But the idea that
Tartan and Clan paired had become firmly established.
By the early 19thC the Gaelic
mythology of Ossian had been translated and was popular. Sir Walter Scott's
novels were popular. At times almost half the British army was Highland and
the worldwide success of these regiments was legend - never mind the Clearances,
look at our nice new Empire (a note of sarcasm from the author). When in
1822 George IV visited Edinburgh, Tartan and Highland Dress was the order
of the day thanks to Sir Walter Scott's personal planning. Tartan was seen
as Scottish rather than just Highland.
The variety of Tartans has
never stopped growing. Many Clan Tartans have become available in ancient,
modern, weathered, dress or hunting. Almost every surname from the British
Isles has been associated with a Clan and their Tartan. People's wish to
wear 'their' Tartan has been enthusiastically meet by manufactures. Companies,
organisations and sports teams have their own Tartan.
To finish, however, I return
to the initial point. For all it's doubtful pedigree and commercialisation,
Tartan symbolises Scotland and Scottish Culture more than anything. And as
a born-again Scotland moves into the new millenium, Tartan will continue
to play it's central symbolic role.
And anyway - it looks good!
Further historical information
Clans and their Castles