|Thoughts on Clan Tartans
By Trudi Mann
It is strange that among lay people, everyone knows that distinguished tartans have always been worn by the Highland Clans, while those who have studied tartans fairly deeply have been unable to find any appreciable evidence to support this contention. In fact, such evidence as there is, tends to refute it. The Clansmen originally recognized each other by the use of plant badges and not particularly by the tartan worn. For example, the MacDonalds used to tie heather to a broomstick before marching to battle behind it. Lord Lovat issued yew to his Fraser Clansmen to put in their bonnets before they went out in the 1745 rising. True, there are some orders bidding the men of Grant to turn out upon two occasions at the beginning of the eighteenth century in "Tartans of Red and Greine Sett Broad Springed", but the need to issue such instructions would argue that uniform tartan was not generally worn.
The Grameid, an epic poem written in Latin upon the subject of the campaigns of Viscount Dundee, makes clear reference to bodies of men wearing uniform tartans, but these bodies were what accounted to private armies and we can assume that they were kitted out by their respective chiefs for the occasion.
Uniforms for military purposes have been used for many centuries, for reasons of economy before those of pomp and circumstance and here is no reason to suppose that a Chief mobilizing his army in 1689 would be any more sympathetically inclined to a suggestion that all his men should dress differently than would a modern defence minister.
No support can be found either, for what we can call the clan Tartan ideas, in the comparatively large number of family portraits that have survived from pre '45, since apart from the well-known Grant Piper, these portraits do not show a tendency towards any uniformity and the tartans depicted are certainly not the recognizable modern tartans of the clans that their wearers represent. It might be argued that these portraits are mainly of Chiefs, who were in a position to wear what they liked, but this argument also reveals that their clan tartans - supposing that they had them, had no great significance for them. The tales that painters toured the Highlands taking with them pack horses loaded with canvasses completely painted except for the sitter's head, so that a client could choose a pose to his liking and could go down to posterity with the minimum of bother and expense, can also be discounted to a great extent. However, we can be fairly certain that this tale would not have arisen if the sitters had decanted to be painted in their own clan tartans.
Among all this anti-clan tartan evidence, there is one dissenting voice. Martin Matin, who, in his "description of the Wester Isles", printed at the beginning of the 18th century, remarks that "every isle differs from each other in the fancy of making plads, as to the stripes in breadth and colours. This humour is as different thru the mainland of the Highlands, in so far that they who have seen those places, are able, at the first view of a man's plad, to guess the place of his residence."
Martin's reputation as a reporter is a rather mixed one - Samuel Johnson states that "he has often suffered himself to be deceived" and that "he probably had not knowledge of the world sufficient to qualify him for judging what would deserve or gain the attention of mankind" and "the mode of life which was familiar to himself, he did not suppose unknown to others, nor imagined that he could give pleasure by telling that of which it was, in his little country, impossible to be ignorant.
How much weight can be given to Samuel Johnson's opinions is questionable.
F. Fraser Darling and J. Morton Boyd, wrote in the "Fontana New Naturalist Series - 'The Highlands and Islands' - give for instance as their opinion, 'that Martin's work was detailed, accurate and is invaluable today.
In the field of tartans, Martin's reputation rests upon the remarks quoted and upon another statement that has given widespread belief to the idea that the early records of tartan patterns were kept in the form of pattern sticks, made by winding yarn round small sticks of wood in the colours with the appropriate number of turns of each stripe of the tartan. This practice has been viewed with some concern by weavers who have tried it.
It has always been easy for those seeking a simple answer to this difficult question of the existence of early clan tartans to dismiss Martin' reports as rubbish, and to settle for the theory that clan tartan came about solely as the result of the machinations of Sir Walter Scott and General Stewart of Garth at the time of George IV's visit to Edinburgh in 1822. It is supposed that the entire clan tartan system and tradition was manufactured by these gentlemen on the basis of the uniform tartans worn by soldiers of the Highland Regiments of the British Army.
The alternative theory would be that Martin's remarks prove the existence of a completely defined system of District Tartans in his time is equally well supported.
To brush either of these notions aside without consideration would be as unscientific as those who first made them. It should be pointed out, as can be seen with the men of Grant, some awareness of uniformity, outside warlike usage, a considerably long time before the army began to use tartan in any great quantity.
Martin's remark about the variation of patterns from District to District is of much more use to us, although one would have to be something of a die-hard to claim this as certain evidence of the existence of a stabilized range of District Tartans during his time.
As far as tartans are concerned, it was not until the eighteen hundreds when the weaving firm of William Wilson & Son from Bannockburn began to make written records of its products and presumably, discoveries of old tartans, that any genuine attempt was made to record patterns accurately and in detail. Wilson's 1819 key pattern book gives complete details of about 200 patterns (not all of which are what we would now call tartans) and this provides a very valuable framework into which other records and new discoveries can be fitted.
The author of the setts of the Scottish Tartans - D.C. Stewart, instigated a scheme which fitted into this framework, particularly in developing the colour strip method of illustrating tartans and the sindex method of indexing them. The colour strip is essentially a drawn and coloured version of the pattern stick and shows the stripes of pattern in one direction of the material only.
Because the strip is uncluttered with the blended colours of the woven fabric, direct comparison of two patterns is made possible and latent likenesses are revealed.
It is surprising how often one finds a simple statement being made, and then copied by one author after another, without any apparent thought being given to its possible accuracy or otherwise. A case in point is the tale of the pattern stick, now hopefully revealed in an article published in the proceedings of the Scottish Tartan Society 1968. Another, more relevant to our present concern is the regular assertion, that it was the women of the family who spun, dyed and wove the cloth.
It seems peculiar that the names Weaver, Fuller and Dyer have come down to us as surnames, whereas the name Spinster has not.
A practical worker will know that weaving and dyeing are full-time jobs and would have to be carried out by men skilled in those trades as bread-winning occupations, particularly in those cases where any volume of production was called for. The women would gather the dye plants and spin the yarn, for these were tasks that they could carry on during their ordinary day-to-day tasks. It is possible that they might have done some design work and sample weaving, but it seems almost ceratin that the bulk of the real weaving would have been done by specialists who, having set up a loom would apply two simple principles to their trade, namely to "keep it in the family", so as to make as much money as possible, and to make only a minimum of patterns so as to make as much material as possible. In this situation a weaver would only be able to supply a limited number of customers and the customers in their turn, would be able to buy perhaps only one pattern, since lack of transport operated on the side of the weaver and the customers were unlikely to be able to go else-where. It could be that at any given time, the inhabitants of a particular place would all be found wearing the same tartan. The tartan would be more accurately called a "Clachan" Tartan rather than a Clan Tartan.
The beginning of the clan Tartan tradition is there to be seen, the only rel difference being that it carried no more significance with it the than for example, the Demob suits after the Second World War.
Detailed examination of many tartan patterns, the antiquity of which cannot be proved, but which we have reason to doubt, shows a tendency for these to have travelled and to become varied as they went. This of course is very marked where communications were good, and shows up very clearly along the Great Glen, where very obvious traces of MacKintosh parentage are shown in the tartans used by the Grants; MacGillvrays; MacDonnels of Keppoch; Stewarts of Appin and MacQuarries. A tartan formerly called Locheil, but now sold as "Old Munro" also shows its origin quite plainly, as do two obsolete designs -one a Fraser and the other Wilson's Red "MacPherson of Cluny" Tartan. Even the dark Hunting Stewart, especially in its original form, when the two fine black lines were one firm one, conforms, and there are several un-named fragments in museums which go to show when Wilsons named the Red MacKintosh Tartan as "Caledonian Sett" in their earliest records, they had a lot right on their side.
From all this, two apparently indisputable facts emerge, one, that it was the weavers who made the patterns, and two, that these patterns had no significance to the customer beyond being the only ones they could get. If these assumptions are correct, we can add the probability that the tartan trade got a firm grip on its customers much earlier than had originally been thought, so that by the time Sir Walter and General Stewart came on the scene, there was already a lengthy tradition, which we could call the Clan Tartan fact, of distinguishing tartans for the Clans, which had already begun to crystallize into the later Clan Tartan idea.
It was left to these gentlemen to contribute the publicity and organization which, added to the romanticism of the times, and aided by the reaction which had set in following the repeal of the Dress Act in 1782.
I would like to give my sincere thanks to my good friend Jim Scarlett who sent me extensive notes on this subject in 1968 and which I have used liberally in this article.