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Tartan Myths and Legends

A controversial view of the origins of tartan from Blair Urquhart, author of the popular tartan history book, ‘Identifying Tartans’, Apple Press, London. 1993.

Sometime, around the year 1800AD, a group of absentee Scottish landowners gathered in a London club and formulated a plan to add momentum to the growing public relations exercise that was to restore to them not only the ownership of the Clan territories but also the perception of Scotland as a viable asset within the United Kingdom.

The warriors who had brought fear of a political overthrow, unknown since the Battle of Hastings (1066AD), were identified in the minds of the entire population south of the Highland Line, by a strong and powerful public image: That was tartan.

The plan was to allocate each Highland Clan with it own unique tartan. A Highland Chief in London could claim a measure of political power if he could demonstrate a controlling influence on his Clansmen. An identifying tartan gave credence to this claim and implied a kind of structure that might help bring the anarchic Highland rebels to heel.

The idea had already proved successful in the formation of Highland regiments in the British army. Highlanders were allowed to wear the kilt, banned as civilian clothing since the ’45, on the condition that they swore an oath of allegiance to the ‘crown’ and were signed up to fight for Britain’s empire in the Americas, India and South Africa.

The Clan Tartan idea was warmly received. In fact it seemed that it had always been the case. No questions were asked in 1815 when the Highland Society of London, with Royal approval, decided to collect and register samples of cloth from each of the Highland Chiefs. The Victorian love of history and romance cemented the idea for all time, and subsequent literary works filled in the missing evidence.

Out of these political manoeuvrings, a myth was born. Since 1831 when the first Clan Tartan book was published, there has been an ever increasing demand for more. This view does not seek to debunk the myth, but to explore and define it in the light of what really happened. The culture that survived the trauma of the ’45 rebellion may yet re-emerge, for it is clear that many of the tartans have been handed down ‘..since the dawn of time..’, despite acquiring names and associations in modern times. The art of weaving, the fashion of clothing, and the human need to identify with family and the place of birth, all conspire to ensure that tartan will live and grow in years to come.

Copyright © 1998, Blair Urquhart

House of Tartan

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