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Falkirk Tartan - The Story of a Modern Tartan
The modern version of the Falkirk Tartan was designed in October 1989 by Jim McGeorge of Falkirk. This was the
winning entry for a competition run by Chris Hollins - Falkirk Town Centre Development Manager. It was woven by Dagleish and the idea behind the
competition was that any article made and woven in this design would be sold and a
percentage of each sale would be given back to the Town Centre
Improvement Committee to enable them to give treats to the children and old people of the town of Falkirk. Unfortunately, due to an oversight, the
copyright remained with the designer and not, as intended, with the Falkirk town. Be that as it may, the original concept was good.
Chris Hollins had only recently moved to Falkirk from England and during his visits to the library and local museum, he found reference to the Falkirk Tartan. When he saw the actual tartan, he felt that "the original Roman cloth did no justice to the lively, bustling town, nor to the the depth and variety of the district or to the spirit and drive of the people", but he thought it was a good idea to have a new tartan designed specifically for the town of Falkirk and its environs. With this idea in mind, he organised a competition and challenged the community to design a new tartan. Jim Crosbie, owner of J. & I. Carpets of Falkirk was particularly keen on having a Falkirk Tartan. So much so, he put up the cash to create and manufacture the first bale of material, together with help in recording the tartan at Lyon Court. There were over ninety entries received - both from children and adults.
To go on now to the original Falkirk cloth, held in the National Museum in Edinburgh, two fragments of this cloth were well enough preserved to show the weave. The largest piece measured approximately 4" square and gives a full repeat of the design. There were also loose threads and tiny fragments from the same textile. The wool was woven in two colours - dark brown and a pale greenish-brown shade. Although both are natural shades of the fleece from early breeds of sheep e.g. Soay - the greenish-brown shade was caused, no doubt, by contact with the coins found in it. The experts, at the time the hoard was uncovered in 1933, agreed that the wool was of fine quality. Since the pieces preserved were too small and loose to distinguish accurately, there was nothing to show which was warp and which was weft. Having stripes both in warp and weft, forming checks, it could be loosely described as a tartan, although the weave was not the same as we understand clan fabrics nowadays. The stripes were formed by nine dark alternating with nine light threads one way and eight dark and eight light the other, giving a reversing twill. This material could have been woven on the type of loom thought to have been in use in the North at that time. The loom known to have been used by the Romans was the vertical or tapestry loom. In either case four rod heddles would have been set up for the reversed twill design. You may be interested to know the the Navaho Indians used three heddles and a shed rod for the twills they wove on their vertical looms.
During levelling operations in Bellís Meadow, which is north of Callendar Park in Falkirk, a workman, Robert Wallace, struck a vessel of red earthenware approximately the same type and shape as those found by excavators at Hadrianís Wall. The jar had cracked with the blow it had received and it broke when lifted. A metallic cluster, covered in green mould, as well as the remains of a cloth which had apparently been used to seal the mouth of the jar, was found. Fragments of metal which had broken off the cluster, turned out to be silver coins. There were more than 1,925 coins and the date of the earliest coin was 83 B.C. , whilst the latest was A.D. 230. All the coins appeared used. The hoard of coins was probably the savings of at least four generations. It was thought that they had been concealed about A.D. 240 or 250. The treasure, due no doubt to the troublesome times prevalent then, was never recovered by its owners. It is safe therefore to assume that the cloth found with earthenware jar and coins was also of the 3rd century A.D.
The Falkirk cloth is certainly the earliest herring-bone designs recorded for Scotland and on the strength of the stripes and checks it could be claimed to be the earliest tartan known.
According to tradition, tartans were in use in very early days under the Gaelic name BRECAN from BREAC, meaning variegated or speckled but it is not until the seventeenth century that there is strong evidence of general use.
The Falkirk Tartan could be described as a poor manís plaid, having only two colours for a chieftain or four for his followers. This cloth is a true folk weave which surely persisted for homely wear, while the coloured varieties were evolving. Perhaps today it would be included in the class of district checks.
It is also interesting to note that the Romans called Falkirk VARIA CAPEALLA and the name Falkirk in Gaelic is AN EAGLAIS BHREAC - both mean "speckled or vari-coloured" church. It was appropriate for Falkirk to have its own tartan as the Gaelic for tartan is BREACAN.
As an interesting postscript, in June of this year, archaeologists working in advance of a new building being erected in Falkirk, rediscovered the Roman fort where the coins were probably originally found. The current thinking suggests that the coins were probably a bribe from the Roman General to a local tribal chieftain to dissuade him from attacking the fort. They also found shards of red pottery which they believe were made in Musselburgh.
Was the material Roman, or was it the chiefís cast off kilt? It is interesting that ancient Pictish stones, for example the Birsay stone from Orkney, show male figures wearing a skirted garment. The question I would like to know is - was this piece of material found worn by a Pict (or a predecessor) and if so, did the kilt and the tartan develop before the Scots arrived in Scotland from Ireland?
From Jim McGeorge - 14 December 04