Early Years
The Ban
Tartan Today

The Tartan Ban

" . . . no man or boy will put on or wear the clothes . . "

Charles Edward Louis John Casimir Silvester Severino Maria Stewart was born at Palazzo Muit in Rome on the last day of December in 1720. Only a scant 25 years later, this son of the Old Pretender, the exiled titular King James VIII of Scotland and III of England, pursued with the greatest of passion, his family's royal birthright. After landing almost alone on a sandy beach on the Island of Eriskay in the Western Isles - called the Prince's Beach to this day - Bonnie Prince Charlie or Charles III as many of his supporters called him, set in motion a train of events that was to change Scotland forever. It is very appropriate that another name for the island that was Charles' first ever footfall in Scotland, was the Gaelic Eilean na h'Oige - the Isle of Youth.

The movement to reinstate the Stewarts on the throne of the 'united kingdom' was known as the Jacobite movement - Jacobus being the Latin for James, (Charles' father) and it was Charles' decision to adopt Highland dress as a uniform for his army at Culloden, that resulted in tartan becoming the symbol of the Jacobites. Had that not happened and had it not triggered the banning of its wearing in the Highlands, then the whole evolution of tartan, its tragic but romantic associations and its spread throughout the civilised world, might never have occurred and we would all be the poorer for it.

The first act to disarm the Highlands was actually introduced in 1716 after Charles' Father's abortive attempt the year before to depose King George I:  the Old Pretender failed to arrive in Britain until it was over and French backing evaporated with the death of Louis XIV. Culloden brought about a third attempt to subdue to Highlands, this time with the Act of Proscription 1747 which was actually introduced in 1746  but gave the authorities a year to prise all arms from the Highland miscreants. August 1st 1747 was the 'crunch' day for the Highlanders and "no man or boy, within that part of Great Britain called Scotland . . . .  will wear or put on the clothes commonly called Highland Clothes (that is to say) the plaid, philibeg, or little kilt, trowse, shoulder belts, or any part whatsoever of what peculiarly belongs to the highland garb; and that no tartan, or partly-coloured plaid or stuff shall be used for great coats, or for upper coats . . . ." For transgressing this new Act, which for the first time included Highland dress and tartan in particular, the punishment was six months in prison or, if a second offender, "transportation to any of his Majesty's plantations beyond the seas and there to remain for a space of seven years."

There were many contemporary reports indicating that "it would take more than act of Parliament to stop the Highlander wearing his traditional clothes." What the act did seem to stop during its 36 year span however, was the dyeing and weaving of tartan in the Highlands and it was doubtless also responsible for the loss of some ancient patterns. What the act took away with one hand however, it inadvertently gave back with the other.  The ban imbibed tartan with a frisson of danger and intrigue and actually helped to keep it alive and promote the myths and romanticism surrounding it. This was also greatly helped of course by the increasing use of tartan by the Highland regiments. These were quite legitimately raised by leading citizens and often called after their commanding officers. Frequently, light coloured lines would be added to the Black Watch (Government) tartan to distinguish a regiment from its fellows and those regimental tartans were further developed down through the years. As the sphere of operations of those Scottish regiments expanded, so too did their battle glories, further adding to the glamour of tartan.

By the time King George IV took the throne in 1820, memories of Culloden were fading and in 1822, he became the first reigning monarch to visit Scotland since Charles II.  Most scholars and historians credit the influential novelist and poet Sir Walter Scott with romanticising the history of tartans and he, together with Major General David Stewart of Garth, masterminded the state visit of George IV who appeared in kilt and plaid at the huge Edinburgh levee. Such was the scramble amongst clan chiefs to identify their tartans for the event that it's said that famous weavers Wm. Wilson & Sons of Bannockburn manufactured about 150 tartans.

Thirty two years later in 1837, George IV's niece Queen Victoria ascended the throne at the age of 18 and in 1840 married her cousin Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg. In 1848 they leased Balmoral Castle and they both fell in love with all things Highland. Much of their living quarters was decked out with the Royal Stewart tartan and in 1853, Prince Albert designed the now famous Balmoral tartan which remains to this day, the private tartan of the Royal Family.

Members of the Royal Household at Balmoral were frequently dressed in all their tartan finery and at the request of the Queen, the noted Victorian painter Kenneth MacLeay produced a series of 31 stunning water colours of staff and prominent members of Highland society. The tartan genie was well and truly out of the bottle. Into this melting pot of romanticism stepped two brothers, originally called  John & Charles Hay Allen. They soon let it drop in Highland society that they were the long lost grandsons of Bonnie Prince Charlie and that their real names were John Sobieski Stolberg Stuart and Charles Edward Stuart (the Sobieski connection came from  Bonnie Prince Charlie having married into the Polish Sobieski family).

Despite their real father's surprise at this claim, they were greatly feted and in 1842 produced the Vestiarium Scoticum which purported to be a copy of a medieval manuscript detailing the patterns of various clans. The book was later (much later!) proved to be a forgery but the skill of their documented 'research' and the high quality of the book's production, resulted in many falling for the subterfuge and there are numerous clan tartans revered to this day that owe their origins to that work.

If George IV and Victoria and Albert let the tartan genie out of the bottle, the 'Sobieski Stuarts' most certainly rammed the cork back in so the genie remained forever free.
As contemporary Scottish poet and parodist William Edmondstoune Aytoun (1813 - 1865) wrote:
"Nowhere beats the heart so kindly . . . . as beneath the tartan plaid."

Article by Brian Wilton of the Scottish Tartans Authority, reproduced here by kind permission of the House of Edgar, Perth.