The rebel cloth

Posted by Stewart Bremner on

If you've been following my work, then you'll know that I make and sell Scottish-themed illustrations. I've been doing so for seven years, since I opened my Indy Prints shop in the summer of 2014 and yet only now have I fully embraced the most Scottish of all design elements – tartan!

I know that those of us who were born and raised in Scotland think tartan is twee, or shortbread tin tourist tat. It’s the accepted thought on the subject. But have ye ever stopped tae think why that micht be?

1. Tourist tat

Us Scots hae a complicatit relationship wi oor culture. We’ve been taught for a long time that is has no value, that it’s embarrassing an twee an parochial. You’ve felt it too, I bet. I know I have.

That is the Scottish Cringe.

It is the background to all manner of things, both cultural and political. Take the Scottish National Gallery, where the Scottish art collection was more or less hidden for decades in a dimly-lit and somewhat dingy basement. Or how about the widespread belief that Scotland – uniquely among nations – would be unable to function independently? That's the Cringe.

The origins of the Cringe can be traced back to things like prominent Scots taking elocution lessons in the period following the 1707 Act of Union. This act of cultural self-vandalism was undertaken because they wantit tae be taken seriously when the country’s seat of power moved tae London. Some even began to define themselves as 'Northern British'.

However, not all of the Cringe's background was creatit internally. Consider the Dress Act of 1746, which banned the wearing of ‘Highland Dress’ on pain of imprisonment or transportation:

"…no Man or Boy, within that part of Great Britain called Scotland, other than such as 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"

This was an attempt to stamp out Scottish identity (tartan had also been woven and worn in the Lowlands from the 1500s onwards) as well as the clan system. It followed in the wake of the 1745 uprising and went on to be in affect for 36 years.

By the twentieth century the effects of the Cringe were widespread. In schools the teaching of Scottish history and culture almost vanished. Near entire generations learned about 1066 but heard nothing about 1314. The use of Gaelic continued its frightening decline. Few even realised Scots was language in its own right. (Of course that the Cringe isn't the only reason why these things happened.)

The Cringe also extended to the ludicrous, for example seeing many adopt 'see you Jimmy' hats, whose origin lies in an ethnic stereotype created by an English comedian in the '80s. It really did seem that it was shite being Scottish.

To my mind the return of the Scottish Parliament was a turning point, although the effect was not really apparent until we reached the independence referendum.

That event and its aftermath, while overtly political, also saw increased interest in Scotland's history, languages and culture. A path that my work has followed.

I have created drawings that explore many aspects of Scotland's culture and moments of its history, as well as a whole series devoted to Scots language. My interest in these themes continues to grow as I learn more about our country.

Interacting with all of that is my long term love of art, design, illustration and colour. It has been a joy to apply these loves to Scottish themes in an era that is seeing something of a rebirth for Scotland.

I went about this by pairing those Scottish themes with various art and design styles of the twentieth century. This too grew out of my political work, where I used such styles to ground our indyref messages, to subliminally indicate that Scotland's independence is not a new idea.

Nothing I drew, of course, looked Scottish. (There was almost certainly a degree of the Cringe in that choice.) However early last year – in the before times – that began to change. I finally looked to tartan when I created a series of Scottish icon portraits, where each famous head was paired with one of their clan tartans.

Flash forward to this summer and I was looking for ideas for my 2022 calendars. The thought occurred to me that I could make a calendar solely of tartans…

To make it I needed to draw a few more tartans and while researching them came across the Scottish Register of Tartans. This is the government body that is the official register of all tartans created.

Now up to this point, tartan for me was not something I cared all that much about. If I thought about it at all, it would be with regard to the tourists, the tat and the shortbread.

A slight aside. In 2017 I got a kilt. There's a long story behind it, involving years of saving and my mum, but the important point is that I had this belief that a kilt should be for more than just a wedding. If you're going to have one, I decided, you should use it. Be proud of it, because it is about as Scottish a symbol as you'll ever get.

The Cringe and my love for Scottish culture were in opposition on tartan, even if I didn't quite realise.

When it came time to choose a tartan for my kilt, I spent a long time looking through sample books. My family has no tartan of its own, however is allowed to wear the Farquharson tartan (I'll get to this later).

The Farquharson tartan is one of those myriad tartans formed from the almost base tartan palette that combines some or all of red, blue and green as well as yellow, black and white. I didn't care for it. I chose instead one I had no association with whatsoever called Crantson Dress Muted, which is mossy green, teal and rich maroon and is just gorgeous.

In conversation at the kiltmaker, I was told that there are thousands of tartans. In the summer when I began to explore the Scottish Register of Tartans, I found that there are in the region of six thousand! Quite staggering.

Since then I have become somewhat obsessed with tartan, with its myriad of colours and lines, the way its thread colours merge to create other colours, its deep seam of history and myth, its origins, its eras in high fashion.

Consequently, over the last few months I have drawn three hundred tartans. I chose ones based on the most common surnames in Scotland, ones that I simply just liked and ones that linked to my own genealogy.

It occurred to me, probably too late, that I may have gone too far. I created a body of work almost equal in the size to everything I have in my shop to date and, in all likelihood I fear, tartan lies on the far side of the Cringe.

Because the Cringe runs deep in us. Often unknown. Tartan is one of the places where I believe we have internalised it the most. For all that I have been consciously pushing against the Cringe in my work for seven years, only now have I found place for tartan.

I feel like I may have taken a huge risk in drawing so many of them, that I've gone from drawing things that create 'proud to be Scottish' to provoking 'embarrassed to be Scottish'. Time will tell.

Will you come on this journey with me? I do hope so, because it begins probably much longer ago and farther away than you might think.

 

2. Tartan time warp

Tartan can trace its origins at least back to central Asia, some time around 2000 BCE, and scraps of fabric found on mummified bodies in what is now western China. From there, the peoples who wore it moved west into Europe. Further evidence of the fabric was found in salt mines at Halstat, Austria, thought to be from around 1200 BCE.

These people became known as the Celts. Greek historian Diodorus Siculus: "The way they dress is astonishing: they wear brightly coloured and embroidered shirts, with trousers called bracae and cloaks fastened at the shoulder with a brooch, heavy in winter, light in summer. These cloaks are striped or checkered in design, with the separate checks close together and in various colours."

The Romans also came up against the Celts, who were by this time mostly on the western-most edges of the continent. The Celts' colourful garb is mentioned several times in Roman writings.

Moving forward, the Scottish Tartans Authority finds mentions of tartan, or tartan-like fabric, in records from 1100 – roughly when what we now call Scotland came under the control of a single leader – onwards.

This from the 17th Century: "Their habite is shoes with but one sole apiece; stockings (which they call short hose) made of a warm stuffe of divers colours, which they call Tartan; as for breeches, many of them, nor their forefathers, never wore any, but a jerkin of the same stuffe that their hose is of, their garters being bands and wreaths of hay or straw, with a plaid about their shoulders, which is a mantle of divers colours, much finer and lighter stuffe than their hose..." – poet John Taylor, on a visit to Braemar.

While there are many historical descriptions of tartan, there is far less corroboration of the origins of the clan tartan.

Clan tartans are specific tartan designs that are named and linked to individual clans. As far as can be understood, given the spotty historical records and centuries of romantic reinvention – as well as plain and simple myth – clan tartans are mostly thought to have arisen from geographical considerations, rather than genealogical ones.

Weavers would often work in a single location, where they would use natural dyes sourced from their surroundings. They would also weave their own patterns. This tended towards each weaver making their own distinctive tartans and, with most areas of Highlands under the control of a single clan, the link between the clan and tartan came into being.

The Jacobite uprisings of the 18th Century are thought to have helped increase the use of clan tartans, where the different patterns became useful militarily in helping define regiments. This was not just the case for the rebels, but also for Hanoverian troops. In 1729 a 'watch' was raised and they wore the Government tartan. That tartan is more commonly known by that company's name, the Black Watch, and it is one of the oldest defined tartans.

At the same time, wearing tartan became more popular in the lowlands, where it was seen as a political gesture both in support of the Jacobite cause and against the recent and unpopular Acts of Union. It came to be seen as the Rebel Cloth.

However, following the defeat of the Jacobites at the Battle of Culloden, the Dress Act of 1746 was passed. This ban on Highland Dress was punishable up to and including "transportation to any of his Majesty's plantations beyond the seas and there to remain for a space of seven years."

 

This was seen as a way to not only crush 'Highland' culture, but to attack the very clan system itself. The Dress Act remained in place until 1782. Over that time weavers' skills were lost, along with many historical patterns.

The period also gave rise to many famed Highland regiments, the only place where Highlanders would wear their traditional dress. Facing harsh treatment, impoverishment and the Clearances at home, many joined up. The regiments won renown fighting for the insidious British Empire and, with the Jacobite threat over and the various regiments known for their colourful tartans, the romantic vision of the noble Highlander was born.

This romantic myth was fostered, amongst others, by the writings of Sir Walter Scott and by the many Highland Societies that began to flourish. Ironically, the very members of those societies were often the ones clearing people from their land. Previously clan chiefs, they were now landowners more interested in securing their riches and their legacies, rather than looking after those who had once believed they were part of a clan on clan lands.

Scotland was growing unhappy. Disenfranchised former clan members in their uncountable thousands had been cleared – many ending up in Scotland's growing cities. The effects of the booming Industrial Revolution, where things like the invention of the flying shuttle caused a large transformation in weaving, was putting more thousands out of work. The unwanted Union was still a fresh resentment. There was a distant, unloved – and to some unlawful – monarch. (In line with Scottish custom, an unwanted monarch could be removed – a concept first noted in the Declaration of Arbroath in 1320, a document that was only brought to popular consciousness at the end of the 17th Century.)

With unrest high and the British Government fearful of an uprising similar to the recent French and American revolutions, an uprising was stoked. Called the Radical War of 1820, it was also known as the Scottish Insurrection and it failed.

In the aftermath, following executions and transportations, where the British government's use of agents provocateur was known, resentment remained. George IV was advised to make a state visit to Scotland, which was thought would quell unrest. He would be the first monarch to visit Scotland since 1651.

Walter Scott, who was both an enthusiastic member of a Highland Society and a friend to nobility, was asked for advice on the manner of the state visit. Soon plans for a grand Highland pageant were born.

The visit was a tartan extravaganza and created tartan fever. This coincided with the end of the Scottish Enlightenment when, as French philosopher and historian Voltaire said 'We look to Scotland for all our ideas of civilisation'. It is perhaps not a coincidence then that the fever spread outwith Scotland's borders.

Another by-product of the visit was the codification – and in many cases invention – of clan tartans. In 1842 the Sobieski Stuart brothers – supposedly secret Jacobean heirs – published the first collection of clan tartans. Called the Vestiarium Scoticum, it was quite a hit (although it is now thought that a good deal of this too was an invention).

The mid 19th Century also saw the invention of cheaper and more reliably-coloured chemical dyes, along with the birth of the power loom. Both allowed for a quicker and more standardised production of tartan.

From here on the use of tartan grew far and wide. In many ways, our current association of tartan with tourist tat grew out of these events. Nevertheless, the fabric is entwined throughout Scotland's history and is one of the country's most defining emblems.

 

3. Setting the stage

Contrary to some beliefs, tartan has not been frozen in time since the 19th Century. For one, the creation of new tartans continues to this very day. New tartans are registered every week, from as far away as Australia (which is no surprise given its connections to those cleared) and Japan (who are curiously keen on tartan).

It might be useful here to explain a little more of what a tartan is.

 

 

Tartan is formed by the repetition of vertical and horizontal lines (the warp and the weft threads of the cloth). The lines are coloured differently, with typically around four or five colours per tartan, however there are some with just two and others with up to eight colours.

These colourful lines, when woven together, form a 'sett' – that is the basic four-sided pattern which repeats to form the tartan. The sett is defined by a thread count, which lists the number and order of each coloured thread. The thread count is almost always identical for the warp, which runs the length of the weave, and the weft (or woof), which runs across the weave.

In the 19th Century, when 'modern' chemical dyes were invented, these setts became more defined, colourful and darker than they are thought to have been previously. These dyes created those tartans that some think of now as garish.

By the 1920s, this style of tartan was beginning to seem unfashionable, linked to the dark intensity of Victorian design. Weavers sought out lighter tones for their tartans, with which they could re-colour their setts. It is thought that part of the reasoning behind this trend was an attempt to recreate those tartans made with early, natural dyes. In this way bright reds were toned down to orange hues, royal blue to sky blue and so forth.

This then created two different potential palettes (or colourways) for any given sett. In order to distinguish between the two, the new style confusingly became known as 'Ancient', for the supposed link to old dyes, and the Victorian style 'Modern', from its use of modern dyes.

Some decades later, around the late 1940s as story has it, a piece of tartan was found on Culloden field, buried in peat. This reflects stories of people hiding or burying their kilts when the Dress Act came into effect. Although why someone at Culloden would have buried their kilt a year before the Act is entirely open to speculation and may be another tartan myth.

The colours of the discovered tartan where quite altered by their two hundred years in peat. Green became brown, blue turned grey and other colours took on a faded, earthy tone. In short, it gave rise to a third palette for weavers to use on each sett. Most commonly called 'Weathered', this is the most natural-looking of the colourways.

Next came the 'Muted' tartans. These came into being in the 1970s and feature toned down colours, for example a rich maroon would be used instead of a bright red.

These four colourways are the basis for all the tartans that we find today, although typically only the most popular tartans will be available in all of them. Yet this is not the end for tartan varieties. There are two more which need to be mentioned, ones that alter the basic sett as well as the colours.

Firstly there is the 'Hunting' tartan. These are a less bright and flashy version of the standard clan tartan, intended to provide something of a camouflage to hunters. They tend to include brown and green in addition to, or replacing, the colours of the origin sett. Since this changes the thread count and design of the sett, these are seen as separate tartans and are registered as such. It also means that Hunting tartans may be available in the four colourways.

Similar to the Hunting tartan is the 'Dress' tartan. Here instead of toning down the sett, the aim is to brighten it for formal occasions, such as weddings or dances. Where Hunting tartan uses brown and green, Dress tartans include a lot of white in the sett. Again, these are separately registered and some can be found in more than one colourway.

There are more tartans – and more varieties of each – than there have ever been. This does not mean, however, that there is a tartan for your family. There are to this day still some long-established Scottish families with no tartan.

When this is the case, the inclusion of clan septs in the codification of clan tartans can be considered. A sept is a smaller (or junior) family aligned with the dominant family in their area. Some of these septs are formal and some informal. The Bremners, for example, are a formal sept of the Clan Farquharson. (Interestingly, the Farquharson tartan that I rejected a few years ago is one of many that is a variant of the Government / Black Watch tartan.)

A trend has also grown outwith the clan system for family tartans. These are for those families that have no formal clan and so cannot be endorsed by a clan leader or the heraldic Lord Lyon of Arms. There are now a good number of these designs (and yet still no Bremner tartan – for now).

In addition to clan tartans, there are also district tartans. These can be seen as something of a hold over from the roots of the clan tartan system that have remained with us. Many regions, cities and towns across Scotland – as well as around the world – have their own tartan.

4. That sense and worth, o'er a the earth

The last few months of exploring tartan has been a fascinating and busy time for me. I have been immersed in design, history and Scottish culture and I have grown to love tartan.

As well as gleaning an overall, surface level understanding of tartan and its history, I've found brilliant wee nuggets. For example, the Harkness Dress tartan was designed in 1981 to be deliberately different from that of the Douglasses, the original family landlords "for whom the Harknesses have NO love." That is how the tartan was registered. How can you not love that?

And how can you not love that tartan's story stretches from those parochial moments to the world stage? Tartan is globally recognised as Scottish. There are tartan societies around the world – often formed by the very descendants of those who were transported all those years ago. As the Proclaimers sing "All the blood that flowed away / across the ocean to the second chance".

The Scottish diaspora are proud of their heritage because their families didn't endure centuries of denigration and the Cringe. How great is it that there are countless people overseas who think Scotland is brilliant? Our past and their past are entwined. If they can celebrate and see the value of tartan, why can't we? Might not their enthusiasm inspire ours?

Tartan has also been used in fashions for centuries, from Victoria and Albert's influential obsessions to Vivienne Westwood shaking off its seemingly stodgy roots to create an iconic punk look. There is almost no style that tartan can't be applied to and that is amazing. And it's Scottish!

Those wild and diverse applications make tartan an enviable design system. That us Scots, almost alone in the world, view it with distaste is telling of a people whose culture has been systematically denigrated, both by forces within and outwith the country. Surely it's time to take stock of that unfortunate viewpoint and look to the future? It may not be bright but some of it could be tartan. A wee bit of tartan. A wee bit of hope. Not sullied by external forces who seek to turn us against each other.

We might even, with not too much of a stretch, link the denial of tartan's worth with the denial of Scotland's worth.

Seven years ago my work was entirely political. I moved from there to embrace Scottish culture. But in reality I've either come full circle, or I've not moved at all. In seeking to make work that might increase oor knowledge an value o oor ain culture, leids an history, ah hope tae hae consequently increased oor knowledge an value o Scotland itsel. To my mind, that is political. Think of it this way: the only sure way of telling one country from another is by its culture.

Tartan is deeply embedded in Scotland's culture. Do you really want to deny its worth? Go and spend an hour or two rummaging through the Scottish Register of Tartans website and marvel at the variety of designs, the wealth of origin stories, the spread of designer's locales.

Tartan is loved worldwide and it is important. It is oor culture. It is past time we stopped writing it off.

5. For life

All of this is a very long way of writing that I hope you like my new tartan drawings. Each one features the tartan alongside its name, colour palette and details of its designer, year of creation and Scottish Tartan Registry number. They've available as prints, small mounted prints, posters, cards and magnets. And yes, some of them are featured in my 2022 Tartans of Scotland calendar.

Please let me know what you think and please share them with a friend. The more of us that get on the tartan bandwagon the better!

Remember: tartan is for life, not just for weddings.

 

6. Further reading

Scottish Register of Tartans
Scottish Tartan Authority

1707 Act of Union
1746 Dress Act
1820 Radical War
1822 visit of George IV

Declaration of Arbroath
Scottish Enlightenment


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  • The North British Cringe is something interesting, is it behind the derision and attacks on Gaelic and Scots, and other distinct features of Scotland’s multitude of cultures?
    I don’t cringe at shortbread or tartan, in their own sake but shove it in a tourist shop and maybe aye, but then so too a aec routemaster.

    No what triggers the cringe in me is poorly played bagpipes, an instrument that manages to either be played brilliantly or terribly and no in between, no sensible parent would allow their child to learn to play the pipes in the house so out into public they must go to strangle cats and as I have in the past put it, “a cringe swept over the town square, like a Doric speaker had stood up to make the keynote speech at a unionist convention”

    Fifeing Eejit on

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