The Dress of a Thief

“Tartana, or The Plaid, an ode to tartan” was written by Allan Ramsay in 1718. It fuels the belief that clan tartans are much older than conventional wisdom dictates.

“Tartana” mentions the following names in connection with tartans: Bruce, Pringle, Campbell, Stewart, Ramsay, Ferguson, Hepburn, Keith, Hume, Hamilton, and Maxwell. No Highland clans among the long-standing prominent lowlander families mentioned. Presumably the Highlanders then dressed in tattie sacks!

Conventional wisdom has largely been coloured by the scorn which has been heaped upon the concept of early clan tartans by commentators who attribute their creation to the London Highland Society, David Stewart of Gath, Sir Walter Scott (for the 1822 visit to Scotland of King George IV), the Sobieski Stuarts, that great nostalgic Queen Victoria, and the wicked weaving industry seeking to drum up business amongst dewy-eyed descendants of Gaels.

A piece of cloth found near the Antonine Wall (constructed 3rd-century) is a two-coloured check or tartan, made from the dark and light wool of the original Soay sheep. These animals were kept for their milk and meat, and the wool was plucked rather than shorn. A woven striped cloth was produced and eventually, a particular design came to be associated with one specific district and passed on from generation to generation. To remember the sett a piece of wood was marked with the number of threads to the stripe. This tradition, of a particular area employing a single design, meant that a person’s home region, his probable clan and even his status could often be identified from the garments he wore. Later a range of leaves, berries, bark and lichens were used as natural dyes to develop cloth patterns involving many colours.

For instance:

• Birch tree produced yellow.
• Alder produced black/brown.
• Heather gave orange.
• Blaeberry gave purple.
• Bramble gave blue.
• Flower of tormentil gave red.

Stale urine producing ammonia was used intensify colours and to remove grease. Before the dyeing was completed the wool was always washed and a salt or “mordant” to make the dye permanent.

Much said and written about tartans in the18th century is unfounded, especially in regard to the tartan adopted by Bonnie Prince Charlie’s army in the 1745-46 Rising in Scotland.

How the tartan was worn by the 18th century Highlander is well-illustrated in the Swiss artist David Morier’s painting of Culloden 1746 done shortly after the battle which portrays the Jacobites of Clan Cameron assaulting Barrell’s left flank grenadier company. Models for the Highlanders were actual Jacobite prisoners, sourced from London’s Southwark gaol and the prison ships on the Thames at Tilbury. It is said that the Highlanders illustrated are wearing their own clothes, the but individuals can be seen to be wearing a different tartan for each garment –kilt, waistcoat, doublet or coat and hose – and of the eight principal figures 23 different tartans can be counted, none of them today recognisable as a clan tartan. It seems that the fashion of the time was to choose a tartan for its colour and pattern, rather than as a badge of clanship.

By the 19th century there was a fashion boom for tartan, and it became popular wear at high-society balls. Military tailoring had a strong effect on Highland dress presumably because this was ready source of affordable garments.

Modern convention is that if you have a clan connection wear that, if not then the district tartan from whence your people originated, or a standard tartan such as the Black Watch, corporate etc.

The sash worn by women is purely an accessory. There is a lovely letter written by a young lady who attended a ball on the evening of the Battle of Waterloo describing how the ladies put on sashes and cumber-buns of tartan to match the menfolk.

The only rule is avoid the left shoulder or else some shrew will draw to public attention your “pretentiousness.

There is information on the web on the style of wearing a sash on Lord Lyon, Clan and kilt-hire websites. However there is very little on how to fit a sash well including stitching, pinning and draping it for effect. Some women put “turn” in the across-the-body style which makes it sit closer to the body. Without the turn it tends to gape especially for ladies who are larger in the upper body.

The style favoured by Scottish country dancers is to stitch pleats and trun back so that both ends are behind with one attached at the opposite hip. This displays the tartan well which not getting in the way of dance manoeuvres.

Kilts are remnants of the top part of the great kilt.
Originally kilt material was woven on looms a bit under 30 inches wide. After “waulking” the material shrank to about 25 inches. Two pieces were sewn together to make a blanket 50 inches by several yards. The Highland Regiments issues 6 1/2 yards to make a kilt. These were worn pleated and fixed with a belt in the manner of a belted cloak.

From fairly early the two pieces were separated into a “little kilt” and the “plaid” and this became the practice after pleats were stitched down on the bottom part from the 1770s. There is no truth that an English man, Thomas Rawlinson “invented” the little kilt, images of men in little kilts pre-date Rawlinson’s arrival in the Highlands by 5 decades.
Most of the conventional ways of wearing almost any Traditional Scottish regalia is actually English. Since they were part of the British military. Like the ornate Dirks that would never be used in combat. The grips are really bad. Not to mention hoaky. IMHO I believe the earliest know Sett was a black and green check ordered for uniformity of houshold guards. Ill try to find the Lairds clan. If you look at the portraits from Culloden where they had Scottish prisoners posed, none of the Tartans are recognisable as belonging to any known clan. And they are wearing more than one tartan.

By the 19th century there was a fashion boom for tartan, and it became popular wear at high-society balls. Military tailoring had a strong effect on Highland dress presumably because this was ready source of affordable garments.

Lord Macauley wrote of the tartan displays on the occasion of George IV’s visit to Edinburgh (1822): ” … disguising himself in what, before the Union, was considered by nine Scotchmen out of ten as the dress of a thief”.