Scottish Highland dress is a fascinating lens through which to view the cultural and political changes throughout Scotland’s history, from ancient times to the Jacobite Risings, from the commercialisation of Highland culture to its modern use today.
In this three part series, I will be explaining the different kinds of Highland dress worn by women, men and children along with its history and how it was made. As always, I will include a bibliography of references at the end of each article.
Since tartan is an integral component of Highland dress, today let’s take a look at the history of tartan, how its use in Highland dress has evolved over time and how it was traditionally made.
Three Early Examples:
There are references and examples of tartan existing outside of Scotland dating back to ancient times. But to keep things brief, I’ll be focusing on examples relating directly to Scotland in this article.
1. The earliest known example of tartan fabric we have from Scotland is known as the Falkirk Tartan (see above), which dates to the 3rd-4th century AD and was found in 1933 along with a jar of Roman coins – the largest hoard of Roman coins ever found in Scotland to date. Opinion appears to differ between experts whether the pattern is actually true tartan or not. Analysing the fabric, I identify it as an early form of tartan but I’ll leave you to decide!
2. Another early example of tartan is surprisingly found on a Roman statue (see above). The statue depicts the Roman emperor Caracalla, the so-called (by himself) “Conqueror of the Caledonians”. It was originally part of a triumphal arch built circa 216-217 CE in Volubilis, an ancient Moroccan city that was once part of the Roman empire. The statue was destroyed centuries ago and only a three foot long bronze fragment of Caracalla’s cape survives. Depicted on this cape is a Scottish (known as Caledonia by the Romans) warrior, who wears a pair of “trews” – tartan trousers. The maker/s of the statue used complex techniques to create a detailed impression of the tartan’s texture and colours. The warrior is shown holding a Celtic-style shield and is depicted as a captive of the brutal Roman campaigns against Scotland undertaken by Caracalla and his father Septimus Severus, indicated by his hands tied behind his back.
“The giveaway is the checked leggings – the first ever depiction of tartan.’’
“The leggings or trews are relatively skin-tight and you can see the definition. The legs are two different patterns. This is the pre-history of tartan as we know it,”
– Dr Fraser Hunter of the National Museum of Scotland
Source: BBC, ‘First tartan’ on Roman statue’, 4 Dec 2012, https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-scotland-20579219, accessed June 2023.
The fact that tartan was used as a recognisable depiction of a Scottish warrior on a statue situated far away in Morocco suggests that the the fabric was commonly used by Scottish people during this period and something that the Romans associated with them, a stereotype if you will, especially since the warrior depicted on the cape is shown as a prisoner, a “barbarian” enemy of the Romans, rather than someone who accepted their rule and adopted the Roman culture and style of clothing.
3. A third example of early tartan is the Glen Affric tartan dating to 1500-1600 AD, found preserved in a peat bog. Testing revealed that it was dyed using traditional ingredients like woad or indigo and contained the colour red, an interesting fact since this was part of a working-class garment rather than a garment of royalty or nobility that red was usually worn by.
Tartan and Culloden:
A defining moment in the history of tartan and Highland dress was the Jacobite defeat at the Battle of Culloden on the 16 April 1746. In the months that followed Culloden, King George II and his government created the 1746 Highland Dress Proscription Act, which banned Scottish males from wearing Highland dress, including the plaid, philibeg/little kilt and other traditional components unless they were or became members of the British army.
While the act does not directly specify tartan as being banned, it was in essence banned de facto, since tartan was such an integral part of Highland dress and had been since at least Roman times, as we discussed earlier.
“That from and after the first day of August, one thousand seven hundred and forty seven, no man or boy, within that part of Great Briton called Scotland, other than shall be employed as officers and soldiers in his Majesty’s forces, shall on any pretence whatsoever, wear or put on the clothes commonly called Highland Clothes (that is to say) the plaid, philibeg, or little kilt, trowse, shoulder belts, or any part whatsoever of what peculiarly belongs to the highland garb; and that no tartan, or partly-coloured plaid or stuff shall be used for great coats, or for upper coats; and if any such person shall presume, after the said first day of August, to wear or put on the aforesaid garments or any part of them, every such person so offending, being convicted thereof by the oath of one or more credible witness or witnesses before any court of justiciary, or any one or more justices of the peace for the shire or stewartry, or judge ordinary of the place where such offence shall be committed, shall suffer imprisonment, without bail, during the space of six months, and no longer; and being convicted for a second offence before a court of justiciary or at the circuits, shall be liable to be transported to any of his Majesty’s plantations beyond the seas, there to remain for a space of seven years.”
– the 1746 Highland Dress Proscription Act
The act was repealed thirty-six years later in 1782. After the act was repealed, a different kind of tartan emerged.
Commercialisation and the Evolution of “Tartanry”:
in British English
the excessive use of tartan and other Scottish imagery to produce a distorted sentimental view of Scotland and its history
Source: Collins dictionary, collinsdictionary.com/us/dictionary/english/tartanry
In 1822, King George IV (grandson of George II), in an attempt to show unity between England and Scotland, appeared in full Highland dress during the Hanoverian monarchy’s first visit to Scotland since before the Battle of Culloden.
The reaction was mixed, and later called “tartanry”, an excessive use of tartan to portray an over-romanticized concept of Scotland.
An article by the National Geographic makes an interesting point with regard to this subject:
“Twenty years after King George’s wardrobe misstep, Queen Victoria took tartanry to new heights with her purchase of Balmoral Castle. Decorated in wall-to-wall tartan, her weekend retreat solidified Scotland’s transformation from a threat to a vacation destination.
The Highlands—cleared of many of its inhabitants following Culloden—were relegated into the “wild” and “empty” idyll of tourist brochures. Scotland became a brand marketed by tartan, mass-produced and spread across the Empire by the British army, into which Highlanders had been assimilated.”
With the commercialisation of tartan and Highland dress, colours became brighter due to new chemical dyes and imported dyestuffs (such as cochineal) replacing traditional dyes of plants, fungi and berries.
This is why so many older tartan designs (pre commercialisation) aren’t as boldly coloured as their modern (post commercialisation) counterparts. It also served a practical purpose since the Scottish landscapes tend to be made up of softer, more muted colours, making it easier to blend in when hunting or fighting.
It’s important to note that most (but definitely not all) clan-specific tartans that we commonly associate with Scotland today were invented during and after commercialisation, although many clans (pre-1746) had a preference for certain setts (patterns and lengths) of tartan or a particular combination of colours, often based on the landscapes of their clan territory. If in doubt, searching the name of the tartan you are interested in on the Scottish Register of Tartans website may give you some info on its history/age.
How was traditional tartan made before commercialisation?
Tartan and other components of highland dress were often made by women in the home. They would buy wool locally or harvest it from their own sheep, dye and card the fleece, spin the wool into thread/yarn (on traditional Scottish drop spindles or a spinning wheel) and then weave it either on hand looms or foot-operated looms. Depending on the season and the size of their home this was sometimes done outside. They would then turn the tartan fabric into garments and items used in the home. Some women/families would also contract weavers to make tartan for them from their own wool.
The chiefs, lairds and other members of the Scottish aristocracy would hire men and women to weave the tartan for them from the best quality materials or buy from professional weavers. Sometimes, depending on the family and their budget, the wives of the chiefs or lairds would make the tartan themselves or assist in the making of it.
In conclusion, while tartan is now found all over the world and in many different forms, from haute couture fashion houses to supermarket shortbread tins, it is and will forever be linked to the traditional culture, clothing and history of the Scottish Highlands.
Meas blàth [Scots Gaelic: warm regards]