History of the Stewarts | Tartans
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Checked cloth was worn all over Europe from the earliest times - the Celts certainly wore it and there have been various finds of checked cloths from this period in Scotland and elsewhere. Many Highlanders in the middle ages wore a tunic and a mantle (a long length of cloth draped over the head or round the waist) very similar to those worn in Ireland at this time and there is some archaeological evidence of checked cloth from this period, most notably at Fast Castle in the Borders. However before the sixteenth century there are no descriptions of any Highlanders wearing anything that we would understand as tartan or the plaid. Although checked cloth was common throughout Europe in the middle ages and the Renaissance, Scotland has made tartan her own and in more recent times exported it to the rest of the world.
In the sixteenth century evidence for tartan does begin to appear in Scotland. The most famous example is in 1538 when James V´s accounts mention a Highland dress for a hunting trip in the Highlands, " variant cullorit velvet" for "ane schort Heland coit" and "Heland tartane to be hose to the kinge´s grace".
By the seventeenth century the word tartan was being used to describe a woollen cloth woven in stripes or checks of colour. The dress of the Highlanders was by the time seen as being exotic and different to those in the Lowlands. The mantle that the Highlanders had worn in the middle ages had it appears evolved into the plaid which was worn wrapped around the body.
John Taylor, a poet, travelled to Scotland in the year 1618. He published an account of his visit under the title of ´The Pennylesse Pilgrimage´ in it he describes the dress of the Highlanders in the following of his visit to Braemar for the purpose of paying his respects to the Earl of Mar and Sir William Moray of Abercaimey, "their habit is shoes with but one sole apiece; stockings (which they call short hose) made of a warm stuff of divers colours, which they call tartan: as for breeches, many of them, nor their forefathers never wore any, but a jerkin of the same stuff that their hose is of, their garters being bands or wreaths of hay or straw, with a plaid about their shoulders, which is a mantle of divers colours, of much finer and lighter stuff than their hose, with blue flat caps on their heads, a handkerchief knit with two knots about their neck". In 1689, the latin poem the Grameid written about the campaigns of Viscount Dundee describes Glengarry´s men as wearing plaid and Lochiel as wearing tartan (many coloured) hose.
The plaid was generally worn above the knee and often short hose cut from the same cloth and gartered below the knee were worn also. The Highlanders appear to have retained the medieval hose (very tight fitting trousers made from wool cut on the bias) and these became ´trews´ or triubhas in Gaelic. They seem to have been worn in bad weather or for riding. Plaids were worn all over Scotland by men working outside, however in the Lowlands they would have been worn in addition to their normal clothes. The Lowland plaid was often a simple black and brown check on an off-white or natural coloured background known as a Shepherd´s plaid. The plaid seems to have been a piece of material up to about 5 metres in length. There is no evidence that at this point the sett - the arrangement of the checks and stripes on the cloth - had any particular relationship to clans or areas except in the sense that specific weavers might prefer particular patterns or colours.
Plaids were also worn by women, known as the arisaids in Scots or earasaid in Gaelic. They seemed to have varied in material from wool to silk depending on the status of the wearer. It was worn as an outdoor garment and most probably worn when looking smart, for church or visiting, rather than everyday. The airsaid was finely made and coloured, often with red and yellow stripes rather than checks on a white or pale background. After the Union of the Parliaments in 1707, some writers describe women in the Lowlands wearing tartan as a pro-Stuart, anti-Union fashion. However by the ´45 it was beginning to go out of fashion and certainly in the 1750s, the plaid had been replaced for the fashionable by cloaks or shawls.
Tartan became associated directly with the Jacobite cause and the whole of Scotland. In the 1680s, a fashion for tartan flowered briefly at the Duke of York´s court at Holyrood James himself does not seem to have worn tartan however Prince Charles Edward Stewart did and it seems likely his father did too in 1715. In the 1745 uprising the Prince adopted Highland dress as the uniform for his army.
After Culloden, the Disarming Act of 1746 outlawed the wearing of Highland dress. "That from and after the first day of August, One thousand and seven hundred and forty-seven, no man or boy within that part of Great Britain called Scotland, shall on any pretext what so ever, wear or put on the clothes commonly called Highland clothes (that is to say) the Plaid, the Philabeg or the little Kilt, Trowse, shoulder belts or any part whatever of what peculiarly belongs to the Highland Garb; and no tartan or party-coloured plaid or stuff shall be used for Great Coats or upper coats, and 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 ..shall be liable to be transported to any of His Majesties plantations beyond the seas, there to remain for a space of seven years"
By the start of the eighteen century, a hint of clan tartan distinctions were described by Martin Martin in his Western Isles of Scotland (1703), which also contains a description of the dress of the Highlanders and the manufacture of tartan. "Every isle," he observes, "differs from each other in their fancy of making plaids, as to the stripes in breadth and colours. This humour is as different through the mainland of the Highlands, in so far that they who have seen those places are able at the first view of a man´s plaid to guess the place of his residence".
The colour and quality of the plaids varied, the popular red and yellow colours in many eighteenth century tartans were for the most part produced by imported dyes as they gave a brighter colour than the dyes from native plants which seems counterintuitive since there is a tendency to think of muted colours as being more ancient but in actual fact the more garish and brightly coloured the better since Gaelic tradition favoured bright colours not muted. In ´Òran don Bhriogais´ or Ode to Trousers by Duncan Ban MacIntyre from 1746 the poet lamented the Disarming Act of 1746 and suggested that George IV might have lost valuable tax revenues charged on the imported dyestuffs needed for the colours favoured for tartan.
Alasdair Mac Mhaighstir Alasdair (Alexander MacDonald) was an important Gaelic poet and chief propagandist for the Prince during the uprising of 1745. Mac Mhaighstir Alasdair expressed his opinion on the Highland dress in the song-poem Am Breacan Uallach (The Proud Plaid):
B´ fhearr liom breacan uallach
Mu m´ghuaillibh, ´s a chur fo m´achlais,
Na ge do gheibhinn còta
De ´n chlò as fearr thig a Sasgunn.
Mo laochan fèin an t-èididh
A dh’fheumadh an crios ga ghlasadh:
Dèis èirigh gu adair astar
I prefer the proud plaid
About my shoulders and under my arms,
To any coat I could get
of the best cloth that comes from England.
My own little hero is the garb
That would require a belt to fix it on
Putting the kilts into pleats
After rising to go on a journey.
The Royal Company of Archers were the first military body of troops in the service of the British Crown to adopt tartan as a part of their uniform. The original uniform of the corps appears to have consisted of a tartan waistcoat, lined with white, trimmed with green and white ribbons; a white sash, with green tassels; and a blue bonnet, with a St. Andrew´s cross, a tartan coat, with knee-breeches and white vest. From 1713 to 1746 a red tartan sett was used for uniform, but it has not been satisfactorily settled as to what sett of tartan this was..
In the later part of the eighteenth century the familiar clan tartans began to emerge. The Marquis of Graham in 1782 with the support of the recently founded Highland Society of London campaigned successfully for the repeal of the Disarming Act. He declared in Gaelic in a proclamation that was posted throughout the Highlands that the "Act against Highland Dress that came down to the clans from the beginning of the world until 1746" was abolished. They were "no longer bound down to the unmanly dress of the Lowlanders."
It is largely thanks to the Highland regiments, whose soldiers had dressed in tartan throughout the 18th century that tartan survived. It is also at this period that the little kilt , initially known as the feileadh beag (little plaid) without the plaid draped round the body or shoulders began to be worn. The Highland Society of London also collected samples of tartan which helped preserve many of the older setts - their collection is often referred to when looking for ancient patterns. However the key moment in rehabilitation of tartan came in George IV´s visit to Edinburgh in 1822 - when the king himself wore tartan and the city was dressed in swathes of it. Tartan became fashionable. By the beginning of Queen Victoria´s reign in the 1840s - tartan was everywhere, much of it made by the Wilson family of Bannockburn and it´s from their pattern book that many of the setts and patterns of tartan as it is known today developed. The Sobreski Stuarts codified and plain invented many of the tartan patterns whilst looking for the origins of tartan in their books ´Vestiarium Scoticum" (1842) and "The Costume of the Clans" (1845).
Martin, M A description of the Western Isles of Scotland Cornhill: Andrew Bell 1703
Philip, J The Grameid ed Murdoch, A Edinburgh: Scottish History Society 1888
Taylor, J The Pennylese Pilgrimmage London:1618
Brown, I From Tartans to Tartanry: Scottish culture, history and myth Edinburgh: EUP 2010
Cheape H & Quye, A. Rediscovering the Airsaig in Costume vol.42 2008 pp1-20
Cheape, H Tartan: The Highland Habit. Edinburgh: National Museum of Scotland 1995
Stewart, A Tartan in The Stewarts Vol.24 No 3 2014 pp 249-252