Tartan myth style tips
After the stripe, the plaid or check is the easiest pattern to weave, something our earliest ancestors discovered for themselves as soon as their various cultures had attained the technological level of the loom. Costume historians have logged plaids, sometimes muted and discreet, sometimes joyously garish, in sources as disparate as an early Japanese print and a primitive Sienese painting.
The non-expert would be forgiven, however, for assuming, along with the rest of the world, that the plaid was uniquely invented in the mist-bound, granite fastnesses of the Scottish Highlands some time before the Emperor Hadrian took to wall-building. Indeed, there are some overly refined souls who hold that the kilted tartan in attack formation was the reason why he did and thank God for Latin aesthetic sensibility. In fact, as many historians have been at recent pains to prove, the tartaning of Scotland was the first major confidence trick in the resourceful history of tourism. And it set a pattern much emulated but rarely equalled. For a start, the chief copywriter, one Sir Walter Scott, was a cut above your average hack – and titled, too, with the good connections that always implies. His background briefings, copious and literate, created an irresistible mythic scenario and his personal stage-management of a Royal Visit to Edinburgh just after Waterloo was the archetype upon which all later well produced launch parties were to be based.
The celebrity endorsement campaign didn’t mess about either. There was, it must be conceded, a slightly slow start as the portly, flabby-kneed tail end of the Hanoverian line posed for portraits in Royal Stewart kilts and rosy flesh-coloured tights but Victoria changed all that. Once the campaign got a youthful, pretty and fecund sponsor, it got lift-off, too. For this sponsor was no mere cipher, content only to wear the gear, smile for the cameras, take the money and run. She had integrity. She really wore the stuff in private, and even had a special Balmoral tartan designed for the holidays and a particularly tasteful one in lavender and white just for herself and named Victoria.
In fact, the plaid never had the quasi-heraldic and clan-identification significance with which it was retrospectively invested. All that researchers have established is that a small cross check pattern, known colloquially as a “tartan”, was adapted for use in kilt, plaid (the shawl/cloak length of fabric worn against the cold) and hose around about 1660. Pattern tended to be employed for its decorative value and had no clan or family connotations. And it was peasant dress. The aristocrats demonstrated their status by wearing the latest court fashions from Edinburgh, London or Paris. It was only when the victorious Hanoverians banned the plaid after the battle of Culloden that it acquired a romantic glamour and political symbolism which the Jacobites were able to exploit. The concept of exclusivity, that a certain pattern could and should only be worn by a person entitled by blood or regiment to do so, was introduced when, in the late eighteenth century, tartans were designed as part of the new military uniforms for the Highland regiments. The earliest, like the 42nd Regiment of Foot or Black Watch, survived the period of Caledonian romanticism as approved “clan” tartans with fictional pedigrees as long as one of Sir Walter’s tales.