So here is an image and with it, I’ll assume, a good deal of blank faces. Possibly a small percentage understand the insinuation straight away, but they aren’t much amused. The rest perhaps sigh their askance, “Ho-hum, so what’s this then?” Let’s parse it shall we? There is text. It reads, “An then yer arse fell aff.” This is Scottish vernacular; A phrase employed to call out the tell-tale wafting of bullshit particles into a nasal cavity. Below the text we have a kilt. Taking into consideration the inclusion of legs and socks, surely purposeful, we could assume that the focus is not the kilt specifically but rather the tartan pattern itself. A good assumption, making an ass of no one. So what are we left with then? Why, a calling-out of the incredible hokum which is the “ancient Scottish clan tartan.” That’s what.
Minds the world over, when compelled to conjure a Scotsman without the benefit of personal experience, likely create a burly, bearded fellow, with scotch on his breath, rectum pressured by haggis gas, bagpipes at the ready, his wind-tightened balls just out of sight behind a kilt which is itself woven in his ancient clan’s proud, traditional tartan…
Our minds are complete ignoramuses, obviously, but we who navigate them over the shoals of stereotype can’t bear all the blame. This image, or some slight variation of it, forms in our feeble minds for a good reason: because it sells, and has for a long time, and is consequently perpetuated. Oh yes, as any representative of the Scottish tourism board will tell you under condition of strict anonymity– “it’s all aboot the Sterling Laddie!!” If you could get a Hollywood exec to stop sniffing coke through his rolled-up Braveheart residual-check for a second he’d likely tell you the same.
Depiction of various clans and their dress from La Costume Historique, 1888
This oversimplification of Scottish culture down into a few Highland-specific customs is such a widespread phenomenon that there is actually a term for it– Tartanry.
The fact is that the “small kilt” is not ancient at all. As for the “clan tartans” they bare, overwhelmingly these are not of ancient origin either. The whole kilt/tartan business, in the cohesive, romanticized form it’s celebrated today, is less than 300 years old, and is so willfully mixed-up it’s hard in many cases to separate the facts from the folklore and finance.
Crest of the Skene Clan
The kilt and that’s what the belted plaid basically was.
Old man of the clan Furquharson. Plaid, kilt and stockings of the clan breacan. Detail from La Costume Hhistorique, 1888.
Quote: “The kilt was a traveling tent… The garment itself was a length of woolen cloth, two yards by six yards… At night the clansman wrapped himself in it and slept. In the morning he laid a belt on the ground and then carefully pleated the great lump of stuff on top of the belt. And then he lay down on top of the lot, brought the ends of the belt up, and buckled it round his waist. He was now enclosed in a tube of cloth, reaching from his knees to right over his head.” –Clifford Hanley.
That the kilt has come to symbolize all of Scotland can, ironically, in large part be attributed to three kings George.
King George II imposed the Act of Proscription on the Scots in 1746. Among its many provisions, created to try and assimilate the “rebellious” Highlanders, was the Dress Act which made the wearing of tartan or kilts illegal. The logic was that by criminalizing the cultural signifiers of the clan system they could eventually break down the system itself.
Quote: “The Highlanders had been wearing their outlandish tartan suits, and since the Highlanders were weird beasts anyway, in the eyes of authority, the tartan was taken to be a very big juju. heap strong totem, like Sioux war bonnets. The government realized it could shear the Scotsman of his courage by abolishing the stuff altogether. Later that year a law was passed forbidding the wearing of multicolored cloths in the Highlands. Penalty for the first offense was six months in jail; for a second offense, seven years’ transportation to the Colonies. A few rash Highlanders were actually nabbed for this fiendish crime.” –Clifford Hanley.
Crest of the Macfarlane Clan
The Act was repealed in 1782 by King George III and soon Highland dress became all the rage as fashion among all classes of Scottish society, the vast majority of whom had never worn a kilt or tartan in their lives, and in fact, as Lord Macaulay put it in the 1850’s, was previously “considered by nine Scotchmen out of ten as the dress of a theif.”
Quote: “...the kilt had fallen out of use as an item of ordinary dress, allowing for the romantic rehabilitation of Highland dress… No longer the threat from the north, the image of the Highlands could represent this wilderness within the bustling economy of the “new” Britain. Rather than dangerous, barelegged barbarians, the Highlanders became admirable, a kilted version of the “noble savage.”
This romantic fascination reached its peak in 1822 when another George, King George IV, staged a lavish visit to Edinburgh wearing the full Highland regalia.
Quote: “This publicity stunt promoted the kilt as fashionable wear among the Scottish nobility and, in so doing, helped establish the kilt as the national dress of Scotland. However, the king’s clothes, like those worn by Scottish noblemen, were far removed from those worn by the Highlanders of the previous century. Given the fact that they were largely designed for the levée, assembly, and ballroom, the emphasis was on the dramatic and spectacular… ‘Highland dress’ turned into ‘tartan costume.’”-Andrew Bolton, From The Kilt, a Metropolitan Museum of Art thematic essay.
Which brings us to the “clan tartan” itself. This is where outside historical forces and the natural flow of fashion give way to straight-up sham and flim-flam, of which the Scots are, themselves, complicit.
Contrary to popular belief, and to clarify the “lies by omission” offered by hundreds of websites offering family patterns to genealogically obsessed consumers, specific tartans almost never trace their roots in a straight line back to antiquity, nor in a curvy, jagged, or meandering line for that matter.
Crest of the Macgillivray Clan
Quote: “...the Highlanders wore any tartan that came up their backs. They had never heard of the idea of an official clan design, and if they had, they would have dodged it because in those days advertising your name could easily get you a dirk between the ribs.” –Clifford Hanley.
Or as C.C.P. Lawson put it in his History of the Uniforms of the British Army “Remembering the continuous clan feuds and the consequent state of more or less perpetual hostilities, a recognizable clan plaid would have been a positive danger to the wearer outside his own territory.”
The truth is that the fashion craze for all things Highlander that began with the repeal of the Dress Act directly leads into the Clan Tartan craze of modern times. The growing excitement paired with a consuming desire by Scots, both of highland and indeed lowland and border dwelling descent, to claim some ancient clannish birth-rank of their very own, rendered reality and actual tradition of negligible importance.
Around this time two clever con-men saw which way the wind was blowing and got to work cashing in.
These con-men were the Brothers Allen, better known today under the aliases John Sobieski Stewart and Charles Edward Stuart. Where they spent their early years before arriving in Edinburgh and what they did prior to this episode is unknown, as is much about them.
Quote: “All that we can say of them is that they were both talented artists in many fields. They wrote romantic poems… they were learned, though evidently self-taught, in many languages; they were skillful draughtsmen, wood-carvers, furniture makers. They had persuasive manners and great social charm, which enabled them to move at ease in the best society. Whatever they did, they did thoroughly and with flair.” — From The Invention of Tradition, by Eric J. Hobsbawm.
All you need know about the brothers in context of Clan Tartans is that in 1829 they revealed to a patron that they had in their possession a Latin manuscript dating back to at least 1571, of noble provenance, titled Vestiarum Scoticum or The Garde-robe of Scotland. This manuscript “just happened” to directly feed into the Highlander craze while simultaneously validating the tartan’s ancient origins.
In 1842 the Vestiarum Scoticum was published in limited edition, and billed as a reproduction, with color illustrations , of the original Latin manuscript setting forth, unequivicably, the ancient origins of 75 tartans and their clan associations.
Though it didn’t take long for the experts of the time to dismiss the Vestiarum Scoticum as a hoax, and its creators as charlatans, the book was a huge success anyway. In that it offered validation to not only Highlanders but Scots from the lowlands and border-clans as well, people seemed willing to overlook the little matter of it being total bullshit. So long as no one spoke up, it simultaneously offered them a solution to their desire and salve for their conscience.
As Clifford Hanley puts it, “Everybody, of course, wanted to be in on the act. Families who hadn’t even had a pair of knees now discovered they had a tartan, all to themselves.”
Man of the clan Colquhoun, 18th century; long plaid, flat cap and the emblem of the clan. Detail from La Costume Hhistorique, 1888.
Two years later the brothers published an even more lavish book titled The Costume of the Clans which expanded their portfolio of fictional tartans and traced their origins back even further. Not long afterward their claims of royal blood caught up with them and forced them to leave Scotland, but this little nudge from two dubious brothers, in the form of two books, was essentially all that it took to kick-start an extremely lucrative industry; one that just happens to depend on the indefinite extension and continual elaboration of a con.
It makes modern complaints of “tartantry” seem altogether more amusing. More than that knowing the truth transforms the burly, bagpiping, kilted figure that your mind conjures at the mention of “Scottish” into an entirely more complex figure. Where as initially you might have felt vaguely embarrassed or guilty at your mind’s involuntary employment of such stereotypical imagery, now you almost have to laugh.
I mean, think about it… who the hell is that guy anyway? An “ignorant oversimplification” of a fictional romantic character amalgamated from various traditions and conceits who himself is masquerading as an historical figure? A caricature of a false historical ideal who none the less reflects, on some level, the actual modern figures who have adopted the fiction as a fact and by their action made him real? How do you even begin to approach a creature like this emotionally or philosophically?
Truth is I haven’t the faintest idea. I just think the whole thing fascinating. But then I am a Morrison lad after all, and whatever else he is, that burly, farting, bagpiping, kilted figure with his balls exposed to the Scottish wind is quite possibly me coosin!
Anyhow, crazily longwinded though this post was , I hope at least a few among you soldiered through and enjoyed.