Weaving the story of Scotland
Tartan is one of Scotland’s greatest icons and probably one of the world’s leading national marks of identification. There are believed to be over 5,000 tartans in existence and the number is increasing at the rate of about 135 a year.
It was in the early 19th century that the available range of tartans grew from a handful of clan tartans to many hundreds of clan, district and fashion tartans. The popularity of tartan continued to grow with Queen Victoria’s romantic adoration of all things Scottish.
The precise date and origination of tartan is oft debated, but originally, check cloths or plaids were loosely associated with clans. Old descriptions of tartan use words like ‘mottled’, ‘striped’, ‘sundrie coloured’ and ‘marled’. The word tartan itself actually derives from the French word ‘tartaine’ referring to a particular kind of checked cloth.
The Gaelic word for tartan is ‘breacan’, meaning chequered, and the men of the clans wore as their everyday garment a ‘breacan an philead’, which means a belted plaid – about 12 yards of material worn round the waist, then passed diagonally over the breast and left shoulder and secured with a belt. The garment was also used as a blanket or as protection for the head in bad weather.
The original tartans were simple checks of one or two colours, and the dyes came from plants, roots, berries and trees found locally where the cloth was woven. People in the same area would wear the same tartan and so, in effect they became clan tartans.
Image courtesy of VisitScotland
In the early 18th century, the tartan was divided into two halves, one of which become the philead beg, or the small kilt and the other became the plaid. This was the early stage of the modern kilt and plaid of today. Around this time, regiments adopted tartan for their uniforms. The Royal Company of Archers adopted tartan for their livery, and in 1739 the Black Watch was the first Highland regiment to wear tartan. The Army began to use uniform tartans as a practical means of identification. Wilson of Bannockburn was the first company to weave tartan on a commercial basis in the 18th century. After the defeat of the Jacobites at Culloden in 1746, the British Government was determined to put an end to any further trouble from the Highlands by stamping out their culture, including the tartan. An Act of Proscription was passed which banned the wearing of tartan, the playing of the bagpipes and the speaking of Gaelic. By the time the Act was repealed in 1785, those Highlanders that were left had become accustomed to wearing ‘Lowland’ type dress and tartan had almost become something of the past. But in 1822, King George IV made a visit to Scotland. Sir Walter Scott orchestrated the arrangements and asked that all citizens should dress in their own tartan if they had one (or any tartan if not). Everyone responded with enormous enthusiasm and greeted the king kitted out in kilts and plaids. Even the king himself appeared in a Royal Stuart kilt! The tartan industry was reborn and from that day on, it has never looked back.
It was with the return of enthusiasm for native dress in the 19th century that the kilt ceased to be an everyday garment and became mainly a dress item. From Bonnie Prince Charlie jackets and sgian dubhs, to flashes and sporrans, all kinds of conventions sprang up about the correct dress. Tartan was updated for the 20th century with the use of chemical dyes, introducing vivid colours, which are known today as ‘Modern’ tartan colours. Tartan colours formerly produced using vegetable dyes became known as ‘Ancient’ tartan colours. The use of tartan is not confined to clothing. One of the first commercial uses was for home furnishings, and this remains popular, but from china to bags to toys to umbrellas, the uses for tartan are endless.
For centuries the islanders of Lewis, Harris, Uist and Barra have hand woven the magical cloth using pure virgin wool that has been dyed and spun in the Outer Hebrides. The world knows it as Harris Tweed- Clo Mhor in the original Gaelic: ‘the big cloth’. In 1846, Lady Dunmore had the Murray tartan copied by Harris weavers in tweed. This proved so successful that Lady Dunmore devoted much time and thought to marketing the tweed to her friends and then to improving the process of production. This was the beginning of the Harris Tweed industry. The Harris Tweed Authority was created by an Act of Parliament and established in 1993. It allows the authority to promote and maintain the authenticity, standard and reputation of Harris Tweed. Harris Tweed has been embraced by the fashion world, and now, this humble cloth has become a wardrobe staple for discerning fashion lovers across the globe. Harris Tweed Hebrides was formed in 2007 to ensure that Harris Tweed would continue to be available to its many devotees around the world. A new company was formed to revive the mill at Shawbost, which had been closed for more than a year, and to introduce new ideas and enthusiasm to match the excellence of the product. People who have spent their lives in the industry now say that the tweed being produced at Shawbost is the finest they have seen. Customers old and new, from around the world have welcomed this revival and are helping to make Harris Tweed the cutting-edge fabric of today.
- by Nathaniel Lamb
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