It would appear that the beginning of Highland dress started with the links that Scotland had with Ireland, and the emigration of Gaelic speaking Irishmen to Argyllshire and to the adjacent Inner Islands of the Hebrides, in the 7th century. The early Scots wore a longish saffron or other brightly coloured shirt plus a mantle. They also sometimes, according to their status wore trews, which were tight fitting, and resembled footed leggings, reaching from the waist down each leg separately to the ankle. This garment was known in Gaelic as “tribubhas”. The Book of the Kells in the 9th century refers to them. About 1095 AD a Norwegian King returned home from a visit to the Hebrides adopted the costume worn there, and he went about barelegged, wearing only a short tunic and an upper garment, which must have left a lot of the body without covering.
An early form of sporran, in which to carry provisions, was first mentioned, as far as can be found, about 1105. Roughly one hundred years later the first actual evidence of Highland dress was found in carved walrus ivory chessmen, which show military Highlanders. These were discovered at Uig in the Isle of Lewis. Three centuries on, that is to say about 1400, stone effigies on Islay and in western Ireland show it could have been a long sleeved coat with vertical quilting. Early in the 16th century the Highlander for every day use still wore no clothing from the middle of his thigh shirt to his feet, but covered himself with a saffron coloured shirt and a mantel. However, some Clan Chiefs had begun to have special weave made for them individually, which in time could or would have developed in to the Clan Tartan.
It must be noted that the word ‘tartan’ does not exist in the Gaelic language, and is most likely derived from the French word ‘tiretaine’ or the Spanish word ’tiritana’, simply meaning a coloured woollen material, which of course the cloth in the Highlands then was; not the strictly even threaded and multi-coloured cloth we have today. The word for the basic woollen material in Gaelic is ‘breacan’, meaning a large chequered blanket. In time ‘tartan’ became the recognised word for the Highlanders dress, and two weights came into being - a lighter one for the womenfolk, and a heavier and coarser one for men at work or at war.
At the end of the 16th century standardisation of the pattern of the tartan had not yet arrived, and Highlanders used their clothing as camouflage when hunting, stealing cattle or in armed conflict with other clans; accepting what was produced by the weavers in different areas, who used what dyes they could prepare from local lichens and plants, steeped in various peculiar and particular liquids. The resultant material was usually speckled in a chequered or mottled or herringbone weave.
By the year 1600 Scottish soldiers could be recognised by their mottled and fringed cloaks, with their belts worn over their cloaks. The cloak-like garment was the origin of the ‘plaide’ (Gaelic), meaning simply a blanket, and was know in time as the ‘faileadh-mor’ (Gaelic) or big kilt, which in due course became the ‘faileadh-beag’ (Gaelic) or little kilt, the later becoming shortened to the philabeg or filibeg. To make a plaid the Highland weaver put on his loom enough threads on the warp for the least five plaiden ells or about 16 feet. The width of the plaid was usually about 4 ½ feet. This figure of approximately 54 inches was beyond the reach of a handloom shuttle, so two widths of between 20 and 26 inches depending on the pattern by about 16 feet long were woven, matched up for pattern side by side, and then sewn together down the middle. Later, once the machine age had arrived, plaids of 54inches wide could be woven with no middle join. It might be of interest to learn that a standard Scottish ell measured 37.06 inches, and the plaiden ell equalled 38.42 inches. When the philabeg became popular one width of the handloom material of between the 20 and 26 inches was ample to make a suitable pleated garment for any height of Highlander. Gradually, however, over the years the kilt has lengthened. The modern machine width of a standard tartan is, as has been said, 54 inches, which is termed ‘double-width’. If a special order for a kilt is placed for a not too well known tartan, then the machine width may well be 27 inches, or ‘single-width’.
Prior to the arrival of Bonnie Prince Charlie, the Young Pretender, in the Western Highlands in August 1745, there was no completely rigid observation of Clan or family tartans, through this was beginning to come about. Highland soldiers serving the Crown wore standard dress and equipment, but all persons living above the Highland Line, which was and is from the southern end of Loch Lomond north east to Aberdeen, wore what their local weavers found most easy to supply, from the dyed wools which came to hand. There is a well known painting of about 1660 showing a Highland Chieftain, which could possibly have been Lord Breadalbane, and though it is a very decorative outfit that he is wearing, there is no regular sett or repeat in the material. There is also a painting, among others, of two your MacDonald boys, painted just after the Disarming Act of 1746 became law, which shows them wearing what can only be described as three different tartans.
Culloden and The Proscription
On the 16th April 1746, Prince Charles Edward Stuart’s exhausted and ill-equipped Highland army was routed at Culloden, near Inverness, by William, the Duke of Cumberland’s regular troops in under half an hour. The Jacobite uprising had caused considerable alarm in the Government in London. There had been previous attempts to curb the Highlanders in their warlike activities, and there were Disarming Acts passed in 1716 and 1725. Within only months of the battle, if it can be called that, of Culloden another Disarming Act had been passed on 12th August 1746. This Act, which discouraged the use of the Gaelic language, proscribed the wearing of Highland dress and its material accoutrements, and the use of any tartan by men and boys; but id did not apply to Highland Regiments, women or landowners or their sons. The penalty for breaking the new law was six months imprisonment on the first offence, and a maximum of seven years transportation for the second offence. This proscription was a terrible burden on the Highlanders and their families. For example, from where did they quickly get their new clothes, even if they could afford them? If they did not procure them they were in real trouble, for troops in the early years of the Act covered the Highlands, and when the Act was first passed had orders to shoot on sight any person “dressed in the Highland garb”. In consequence the art and the knowledge of the waving of Clan, District and family tartans, such as they were, was gradually lost, as the older weavers (men) and the producers of the dyed wools (women) died off.
Effect of The Repeal
The un-tartaned Highlands remained peaceful for the next few years, but help for the national dress was on the way. In 1788 the Highland Society was formed in London, and they strenuously campaigned for the repeal of the Disarming Act. With the assistance of John Graham, the Marquis of Graham, who later became the Duke of Montrose, a bill was introduced in Parliament in London, and the Act was repealed, without opposition, on 17th June 1782, after over 35 years on the Statute Books. It is interesting to note that between 1740 and 1815 there were 86 Highland Regiments formed for military service. Also, that after the defeat at Culloden a cycle of depopulation of the Highlands had begun with many men and families emigrating overseas with sheep taking their place on the hills and in the glens. It followed that the development of the Highland dress and the tartan had been broken, but gradually after 1782 the weaving of tartan was begun again.
By 1800 William Wilson and Son, who had their factory at Bannockburn, were manufacturing a few tartans, other then military ones, and by 1822 were producing 150, when King George IV visited Edinburgh. There are probably one thousand tartans today. In about 1815 the Highland Society of London came on the scene again. It is assumed that the Members of that Society decided to record all Clan tartans.
Accordingly they approached all Clan Chiefs, and asked them for a sample of their authenticated tartan. Many of them sent such a sample, but some did not, or were unable to, having no Chief. All the same by about 1816 the Society managed to produce a list of tartans showing the setts, accurate as far as possible, and this included the Clan MacArthur, but not the single stripe tartan worn by Clansmen and Clanswomen today.
The Method of Weaving Tartan
Let us now look at how a piece of tartan is woven. A given number of threads of each colour are stretched length-wise on the loom. As an example I shall use the present day Clan MacArthur tartan. Accordingly we have 64 black threads, 12 green, 24 black, 60 green and 6 yellow. A weaver would understand that, but it only takes us halfway across the sett, and to complete the pattern it goes on, that is back in reverse to the beginning, with 60 green, 24 black, 2 green and 64 black, then you start again with 12 green etc. That makes the warp, and the exact same thread counts will produce the crosswise weft, which when complete from black 64 to yellow 6 and back to green 12, in both directions, will result in the present day Clan MacArthur sett of a perfect square. It will be seen that only three colours of thread are used, but it must be noted that the old vegetable hand-dyed wools produced a lighter coloured tartan than today’s chemical dyes do; though a lighter chemically coloured tartan, called ‘ancient’, is available nowadays. But what about the 1816 London recorded Clan MacArthur tartan? It again was only of three coloured threads, the same black, green and yellow, but in different thread counts. These were black 30, green 4, black 8, green 36, yellow 4, green 36, yellow 4, green 36, black 8, green 4, arriving back at black 30. These thread numbers of course produce two yellow stripes crossing the sett in both directions, creating a pleasing effect. How has his, presumably older sett, been lost?
Prince Charlie’s “Grandsons” and the Tartan Boom
We must go back to history, and to Bonnie Prince Charlie, who was born in Rome in 1720, and died there in 1788, having married Princess Louse of Stolberg at the age of 52, in the hope of producing male heir. He apparently did not. The mother of Charles Edward Stuart belonged to the Sobieska Royal House of Poland. Round about the year 1817 two young brothers named John and Charles Allen arrived in London, and then moved to Edinburgh, claiming to be the legitimate grandsons of Prince Charles Edward. They were right royally received everywhere they went, and Lord Lovat settled them in due time in a house on the island in the River Beauly, not far from Inverness. Prior to that they had lived off and on for nearly four years on Lochawe-side. The brothers produced a tattered manuscript of 38 pages dated 1721 of 75 “authentic” tartans. Then in June 1829 more pages were added showing more Clans and families. The two Allens by now called themselves John Sobieski and Charles Edward Stuart. Sir Walter Scott assisted by General David Stewart of Garth had arranged the visit of King George IV to Edinburgh in August 1822, and this Royal appearance in Scotland had caused a tremendous upsurge in the use of tartan. Wilsons at Bannockburn had to install and extra 40 looms. By the way, Wilsons were in business from 1720 to 1976, when they closed down, having been the most successful tartan manufacturers in their time. Needless to say the two brothers John Sobieski and Charles Edward Stuart took full advantage of this colossal demand for tartan.
In 1842 William Tait, a publisher in Edinburgh, produced a limited edition of 50 copies of a book called “Vestiarium Scoticum”. It was sold at 10 guineas a copy, a fair price in those days. The Introduction and Notes were written by John Sobieski Stuart, with the illustrations of 75 tartans by Charles Edward Stuart. It was a large book, and the tartans were shown in full colour; but nearly all of them were unknown to tartan manufacturers of that time. However, these particular tartans soon became popular, to the extend that they were quickly widely known, and are seemingly recognised today. I have it on good authority that the Clan MacArthur tartan with the single yellow thread count of 6, appeared in the “Vestiarium Scoticum”, and presumably because everything the two brothers said or printed was taken as gospel, because people wanted to believe, it was accepted by the manufacturers. So a MacArthur from the 1850s onwards, ordering a kilt or other Highland dress for himself or his wife and family, would have been shown only one tartan by his tailor, such as J. Spittal and Son in Edinburgh, as the tailor in turn would only have been shown one tartan by the weaving factory. Thus the double lined tartan, which in 1816 was shown as the original and authentic
MacArthur Tartan, was “lost”. However, I have in my possession a piece of that double yellow tartan, and I have had it photo-copied in colour, a copy of which I have sent to the editor of the “Round Table”. I am sure he will find it of interest.
In 1845 the firm of J. Menzies of Edinburgh published from the Allen (Stuart) brothers another book called “The costume of the Clans”, and it seems that they for some considerable time continued to delve deeply into the Highland way of life, both social and domestic, as well as into the local costumes. John died in 1872 aged about 76; Charles died in 1880 aged about 83, having in their later years gone to live on the Continent. They were both buried at Eskdale Church not far distant from Beauly. Much more could be written about those two, but I feel that I have given you enough to fill out a picture of them.
Hand-Woven MacArthur Kilt Over £200 (or $500) in 1990
If any Clan society Member was interested in having an eight-yard kilt length hand woven in Scotland, of either of the tartans, if he could find such a weaver, as there are very, very few left, he should expect to pay at least £25.00 a yard. That is, a hand woven Clan MacArthur kilt, which of course is the best, and would last for years and years, would now cost over £200 initially, with the making up charge on top. A machine produced kilt length would be somewhat cheaper, but not all that much, for a certain amount of the cost goes on setting up the machine, especially for a short length. Should readers of this column desire more information about a tartan kilt or skirt length write to me and I shall do my best over here to help.
A Second Tartan Boom
And now lastly. There is a Scottish Tartans Society at Comrie in Perthshire, which maintains a Register of All Publicly Known Tartans, and its archives are extensive, together with its museum. It was inaugurated by the Lord Lyon King of Arms, Sir Thomas Innes of Learney, on 13th May 1963, and I am given to understand that the Lyon Court keeps a watching brief on what goes on in the Society. I have mentioned the sudden surge in demand for the tartan, which took place from 1822 onwards, but it seems that the same thing is occurring again today. The couturier houses in London, Paris and New York are using tartans extensively in creating their exclusive day and evening dress designs for women, not forgetting the outfits for men, who also want to be in the tartan fashion.
First Published in The Round Table 61st Edition March 1990