The real story on tartans.

by Dr Bruce Durie

Sir Walter Scott usually gets the blame for foisting upon Scotland the vision we now have of tartan-kilted, plaid-wearing, claymore-wielding, bagpipe-playing, sword-dancing Noble Savages, bestriding the mist-swirled bens and glens, baking bannocks in a blackhouse and shouting “Och Aye!” every time a Clan Chief went past.

Of course, that’s a travesty of Scotland. But it’s also a travesty of Scott himself. Yes, he did provoke an outpouring of Highlandry when he organised the visit to Edinburgh of King George IV in 1822, and, yes, he did invent a number of “ancient” traditions more or less on the spot. But at least he was sensible about tartans.

Certainly, the idea of weaving a patterned cloth is ancient – the earliest Scottish example is from the 13th Century. Originally, the patterns was probably typical of a region, using the vegetable dyes common in the area. But the linking of a pattern to a surname is a fairly modern one. There are contemporary paintings of individual Highlanders (including some Chiefs, and fighters at Culloden) wearing two or three different tartans.

Scott knew very well that, in his own words, the "idea of distinguishing the clans by their tartans is but a fashion of modern date . . ." and rejected the idea that Lowlanders ever wore clan tartans. That was in a letter to his close friend Sir Thomas Dick Lauder, Bt., dated 19 November 1829. And what they were discussing was a fake collection of clan tartans of Scottish families, called Vestiarium Scoticum, produced by a pair of rogues and social poseurs calling themselves Sobieski Stuart and grandsons of Charles Edward Stuart. Their forgery still causes ructions today.

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