IN modern times it seems there is no end of items that can inspire a tartan: from football clubs to, well, literally anything. Just yesterday it was announced that there was to be a new tartan created, inspired by the fishing industry.

The north-east community of Buchanhaven is to unveil its tartan – a mixture of red for local granite, blue for the sea, and green and gold, which are the colours of the local school’s tie – next month.

It may seem like sacrilege to some but it would appear there is a lot about what we know about tartan that is simply myth.

THE history of tartan is complex and not entirely accessible. The subject of clan tartans can be particularly provocative.

There are two extreme positions on the matter. An outdated view is that from time immemorial those with Scottish surnames (members of Highland clans or Lowland families) wore specific tartan patterns that were exclusive to those surnames.

The present received wisdom is that the entire concept of clan tartans is bogus, having been invented in the 19th century by charlatans and unscrupulous merchants. The truth is to be sought somewhere between these two positions.

If clan tartans were not, in fact, invented until long after Culloden, the only realistic suspects can be the big manufacturers, most notably William Wilson & Sons of Bannockburn. According to their records they were selling named clan tartans as early as 1793. By any reckoning, thousands of Highland folk whose memories stretched back to the time before Proscription (the outlawing of tartan by the British government) must have still been alive then and able to distinguish between a genuine tradition and a merchant’s con. A 70-year-old person in 1793 would have been 23 in the year of Culloden.

The argument that the concept of clan tartans was not invented until about the beginning of the 19th century depends upon an assumption that Highlanders alive at that time had no knowledge of whether such a tradition had or had not existed prior to the period of Proscription (1747-1782). In fact, it has been estimated that almost one-third of the generation that saw the introduction of Proscription were still alive when it was lifted.

It would, of course, be wrong to underestimate the effect of the ban. It was enacted by a ruthless government that intended it to be enforced and there are records of instances in which it was enforced.

Probably the weaving of tartan in many glens ceased or was greatly inhibited (at least during the early years of the legislation). It should be remembered, however, that the ban only applied in the Highland part of Scotland, it did not apply to women, and judging by the amount of portraits of the time in which the sitters wore tartan, it seems not to have deterred gentry. (Gentlemen who could command three servants, women and boys, in addition to those serving in the army, were exempt from the ban.)

The Earl of Holderness, in 1752, noted reports that “…universally the sheriffs, or their deputies, are very negligent of their duty in omitting to secure [imprison] persons wearing the Highland dress or carrying arms”.

There is, in fact, much evidence, not least from the old statistical accounts, which were written by parish ministers, to indicate that the ban on tartan was far from entirely effective. James D Scarlett, widely considered to have been the best authority on such matters, ventured the following opinion: “Except in the hands of a few Hanoverian officers, who saw in it an opportunity to persecute the Highlanders, the Dress Act does not seem to have been much enforced.”

The point of this is that tartan was obviously enormously significant to Highlanders or the Hanoverian government would have had no reason to ban it. Given this significance surely, in spite of the ban (or in a sense because of it), steps would have been taken to preserve the knowledge relating to tartan and the old traditional patterns. It is inconceivable that the Highland people, faced with this measure from a hated regime, would have tamely destroyed every stitch of old plaiding and applied themselves obediently to the business of forgetting their traditional setts.

Proscription simply would not have brought about a period of racial amnesia during which all memory of tartan patterns stopped being handed down from father to son and from mother to daughter. The oft-repeated assertion that this was so is the real invention. It not only offends common sense, but is contradicted by a sound body of evidence.

We know from the ledger of William Wilson & Sons that prior to the repeal of Proscription their customers were (apart from military and colonial) largely on Scotland’s eastern coast. However, after repeal in 1782, they increased sales of tartan in the Highlands. This is to say that when they began to promote clan tartans they were selling them to Highlanders, many of whom were old enough to remember whether such a concept was authentic or a deception. We also know that Wilsons took trouble to seek out genuine traditional setts from the Highlands.

“Wilsons were known to have toured the Highlands in the late 18th and early 19th century, looking for old patterns that they could use as a basis for their traditional tartans”, (Peter MacDonald, Head of Research, Scottish Tartans Authority).

Even as late as 1822, the year of the visit of King George to Edinburgh, there remained living eye-witnesses to the 45 uprising (Patrick Grant, who had fought alongside the Glengarry regiment at Culloden, was 108. The widow of James Stewart of Tulloch, who gave Prince Charles Edward a pair of brogues at Dunkeld, was 99 – some 30 years after Wilsons had started to sell clan tartans in the Highlands).

Sir Walter Scott played such a major part in the organising of the 1822 visit (and has, indeed, been thought of by some as the inventor of clan tartans) that it is worth considering his views on their provenance. He is often quoted as saying: “I do not believe a word of the nonsense about every clan or name having a regular pattern which was undeviatingly adhered to.”

Less well known is his conviction that clan tartans were “of considerable antiquity” and that he believed that he could demonstrate that they had been worn “a great many years before 1745”. These comments indicate that Scott very sensibly saw that clan tartans had their origins during the era prior to Culloden.

The present author’s suggestion for a realistic definition is: any pattern that has had a special association with a particular clan, probably because it has been woven and worn in a territory dominated by the clan in question, or any tartan known to have been worn in a uniform manner by a clan.

What is being opposed here is the assertion that the concept of clan tartans was invented some 50 or more years after Culloden. It is not the purpose of this article to maintain that all clans necessarily had exclusive setts pre-45, but that there is convincing evidence some clans had tartan patterns particularly associated with them, and that in effect there were clan tartans in Highland society prior to 1745.

Crucial to penetrating this mystery is the actual experience of the generations of Highlanders who lived throughout the 18th century. These were the people who knew, and who handed down, the truth. It is a fact of history that generally only the wealthy and influential leave records of their recollections and opinions for posterity, so relevant material is strictly limited. In fact the present writer has found not a single clear and specific statement from any such person denying the existence of clan tartans prior to 1745.

On the other hand, evidence by statement or by implication to the effect that clan tartans were a reality of the Jacobite era is not difficult to come by.

Anne MacVicar was born in Lochawe, Argyll, in 1755. This was during the period of the ineffective ban on tartan. She married and became Mrs Grant of Laggan, Speyside. Anne was a poet. In 1795 she wrote The Highlanders. When this work was included in the collection Poems on Various Subjects, published in 1803, her notes to The Highlander included this statement: “[Tartan] was the manufacture of their women, and the distinction of their clans, each having had a sett (as they styled it) of tartan peculiarly their own.”

General David Stewart of Garth was the co-organiser, with Sir Walter Scott, of the 1822 Royal Visit. Garth had served in the Black Watch regiment since 1787. He was the author of Sketches of the Character, Manners, and Present State of the Highlanders of Scotland (1739). In his preface to that publication the General explains that he had been fortunate in having received much of the knowledge that he passes on from older men of the regiment, writing: “I had also the advantage of being acquainted with several highland gentlemen who had served as private soldiers in the regiment when first organized.”

Garth then has this to say about clan tartans: “In dyeing and arranging the various colours of their tartans, they displayed no small art and taste, preserving at the same time the distinctive patterns (or sets, as they were called) of the different clans, tribes, families, and districts. Thus a Macdonald, a Campbell, a Mackenzie. &c. was known by his plaid; and in like manner the Athole, Glen-orchy, and other colours of different districts were easily distinguishable.”

Garth adds an observation that though only a statement of common sense, is worth repeating in the context of this article: “It was easy to preserve and perpetuate any particular set, or pattern.”

Those who refuse to accept evidence of this quality must resort to effectively accusing Mrs Grant and General Stewart of having been misled or being in some other way channels of disinformation. Is their testimony to be overruled in favour of a modern prejudice?

At the risk of labouring the point, when William Wilson & Sons started to sell clan tartans to Scottish Highlanders there could have been absolutely no mystery as to whether this was an authentic tradition or a commercial novelty. If a person was too young to remember 1745 and what had gone before, he or she had only to ask a father, mother, uncle, aunt, or an elderly neighbour or friend. It seems unlikely that proud Highlanders would buy into something that they knew to be a racket.

As for the disappearance of all the old setts, no matter how often this has been copied from book to book, it was always too preposterous to require serious attention. Of course big manufacturers made the most of clan tartans, exploited them, if that term is preferred, but they did not dream the idea up out of thin air and gleefully bamboozle a generation of Highlanders.

With regard to provenance, each clan tartan has to be considered individually. Some have been passed down from Jacobite times, some are military in origin, some were designed or adopted in the early 19th century, and yet others are even more recent. There need not be any sense of the romantic and gullible versus the wise and realistic.

In truth, where the history of tartan is concerned, very few are wise. It is surely ironic that such a vibrantly colourful subject is comprised so frustratingly of grey areas. Anyone championing any point of view (including this one) has difficult questions to answer.

Allan Breck Stewart, of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped, was surely a romantic character. Yet he was a real man and Stevenson’s novel was based very much on real events. These events took place during the period of Proscription. Regarding the sett, which we know as Stewart of Appin, James D Scarlett had this to say: “Without being foolishly definite, I would say that it would be probable that Allan Breck wore the Appin Stewart sett and would certainly regard it as authentic.”