The Early Years
On the ancient caravan route through the heart of Asia - the Silk Road - illness or natural disaster overtook a group of early travellers and they were swallowed up by the shifting sands of the Taklamakan Desert in Xinjiang, western China.
2,500 to 3,000 years later, a Swedish explorer Sven Heden discovered the burial place of what were, by now, exceptionally well preserved mummies. Despite being in western China, their faces were Caucasoid with long slender noses, reddish brown or brown hair and fair skin. The textiles found in their burials were exquisitely woven of wool yarn and amongst them were perfectly preserved, complex . . . . . . tartans! Those ancient tartans, woven at least 500 years before King Tutankhamen of Egypt had been born, are proof indeed that tartan was a complex art form of those tall and long-nosed Celts - a group of west European peoples including the pre Roman inhabitants of Britain and France.
After that early manifestation of tartan, the art seemed to disappear into obscurity. Roman chroniclers tell of brightly coloured and striped clothing worn by the inhabitants of our islands, but they were not specific enough to identify the patterns as tartans. Another 1500 years was to pass before any meaningful references to tartan were documented. Even then the situation was extremely confusing — the word tartan probably comes from the French tiretaine which was a wool/linen mixture. In the 1600s it referred to a kind of cloth rather than the pattern in which the cloth was woven. The first positive proof of the existence of what we now call tartan, was in a German woodcut of about 1631, thought to show Highland soldiers - no doubt mercenaries - in the army of Gustavus Adolphus and wearing a clearly identified tartan philamhor - the great kilt.
The next major milestone in the history of tartan was the tragic Battle of Culloden in 1746, the very last major battle to be fought on British soil. The romantic Young Pretender,Charles Edward Stuart - Bonnie Prince Charlie - ranged his inferior Jacobite forces of Highlanders against the English Duke of Cumberland's disciplined army. The Jacobite army was organised into Clan regiments and as historian Jamie Scarlett explains "here we have the first hint of the use of tartan as a clan uniform." To understand how this battle proved to be the catalyst for the great Clan Tartan myth, we have to look at the lifestyle and the terrain in which many of Scotland's major families or clans lived at that time.
Each area or community grouping would doubtless have, as one of its artisans, a weaver. He - they were invariably men - would no doubt produce the same tartan for those around him and that tartan would initially become what we now call a District Tartan - one worn by individuals living in close geographical proximity such as glen or strath. By its very nature, 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's what its community weaver produced! It was one short step from there to connect that tartan to the name of the wearers.
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.
If the concept of clan tartans was born at Culloden it wasn't universally known - in that battle there was frequently no way of differentiating friend from foe by the tartan he wore. The only reliable method was to see with what colour ribbon each combatant had adorned his bonnet. There is a contrary view that this was caused, not by the lack of clan tartans, but by the Highlander's propensity for discarding his cumbersome philamhor (belted plaid) before charging into the fray.
A major repercussion of Culloden was that King George II sanctioned the Act of Proscription of the Highland Garb, and whilst it only applied to the Scottish Highlands, one of its major effects was to stop the Highlanders making tartan, which in turn led to the loss of a generation of weavers - the Act was not to be repealed for 36 years. As historian Jamie Scarlett adds: " . . . this led to the founding of large weaving manufactories on the Highland fringes, to supply the considerable needs of the Army and the new colonies; this was the beginning of the modern story of tartan." The largest and most successful of these new manufactories was that of William Wilson and Son of Bannockburn. Fortunately for tartan lovers and historians, they were great hoarders of paperwork and there exists today a huge wealth of correspondence on their designs and their commercial undertakings.
The next milestone in the romanticization of tartan was the visit of King George IV to Edinburgh in 1822. Famous novelist Sir Walter Scott was in charge of affairs and the call went out to Highland Chieftains to attend the huge levee in Edinburgh, dressed in all their tartan finery. Despite the fact that - 7 years earlier - The Highland Society of London had acquired a huge collection of clan tartans, each certified by the chief - there were still many clans who did not know what their tartan was, or indeed, if they had ever had one. Tales abound of Chiefs searching out the oldest members of the clan to see if they could remember! One merchant wrote to Wilsons of Bannockburn pleading "Please send me a piece of Ross tartan, and if there isn't one, please send me a different pattern and call it Ross."
The next and greatest 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. In the spirit of the times two brothers, claiming illegitimate descent from Bonnie Prince Charlie, charmed society with their largely spurious but fascinating publication Vestiarium Scoticum. Claiming to have discovered an ancient manuscript - which they never managed to produce - Charles Sobieski Stuart and his brother recorded a wide range of clan tartans, many of them of very doubtful authenticity. Of the better known tartans, the book offers some minor variation, but in other cases it provides the only recorded version of many tartans in use today.
Meanwhile, down in their lowland 'manufactory', Wilsons of Bannockburn were quick to see the business opportunities of tartan's great popularity and produced design after design for an ever-hungry public. Whilst their tartans were initially just identified by numbers, they gradually acquired the names of the major buyers or the areas where they sold best. Great Highland and Lowland families hitherto 'tartanless', gradually acquired the much sought after and greatly-coveted social distinction of owning their very own tartan.
Now, in the 21st century, little has changed. Fascinated by their heritage, more and more Scots and Scots' descendants around the world, eagerly research their genealogy, contact their 'namesake' kith and kin via the marvels of the Internet, form family societies and then crown their endeavours by having their own family tartan designed.
Tartan is the bonding that joins Scots around the globe - long may it survive and prosper.
Article by Brian Wilton of the Scottish Tartans Authority, reproduced here by kind permission of the House of Edgar, Perth.