THE two major untruths about the kilt and tartan were told for political reasons and they’re still being repeated as though they were true. There’s the one about the kilt being invented by an Englishman, and there’s the one about Sir Walter Scott being responsible for popularising tartan and the kilt, as it were from the top down. The truth is it was popular from the bottom up – if you’ll pardon the expression. Just in case you still regard these international icons of Scottish culture as mere tartanry and post-Romantic Victorian nonsense, let’s take a step back in time.

Examples of tartan from well before 700BC are known from the mummies of Urumchi and Hami in China, and others from Hallstatt in Austria from before 400BC. This might seem too remote for any connection with Scotland and our association with tartan but, as Elizabeth Barber writes: “The striking similarities between the plaid twills of Hami and Hallstatt greatly strengthen the case for the Celtic and Hami weavers arising from the same ancestral tradition. Though lying four thousand miles apart, they parallel each other too closely for sheer chance.”

She also writes that “the overall similarities between Hallstatt plaid twills and recent Scottish ones, right down to the typical weight of the cloth, strongly indicate continuity of tradition. The chief difference is that the Hallstatt plaids contain no more than two colors ... whereas the Scottish tartans are generally multicoloured”.

So tartan weave is probably part of a Celtic tradition for which we have evidence going back over 2500 years. Twill weave is what is used in tartan and we have a Scottish example from as early as c500BC, from the Oakbank crannog on Loch Tay. After hundreds of years underwater, no colours survive; however, Nicholas Dixon, the archaeologist who recovered it, describes it as of a “very fine and strong type of cloth, sometimes still used to make kilts”.

Another example of actual cloth (rare in archaeological records) dates from c200AD. It’s from near Falkirk and is a two-colour tartan weave like today’s black and white “shepherd’s plaid”. The two colours are natural wool and require no dye.

From 217AD comes a remarkable Roman depiction of tartan trousers, or trews, worn by a defeated Caledonian warrior and shown on the cloak that was part of a massive bronze statue which once surmounted Caracalla’s arch at Volubilis in Morocco.

The original cloak probably had the warrior embroidered on it. To render this in bronze the sculptor used varied bronze alloy and silver insets to give the impression of tartan (different setts on each leg) and it must have cost a fortune. So tartan was not just iconic of the Caledonians, but vitally so, indicating the Romans’ determination to represent what must have seemed to them a fabric of striking significance.

The Caledonians were not Gaels and as far we know (which is not very far) they spoke a different Celtic language. So before you east-coasters dismiss the tartan as a west-coast Gaelic conspiracy, you might want to reconsider your position.

The word “tartan” itself is probably derived from the Gaelic for crossing over – tarsainn. The proposed French origin (tiretaine) makes less sense, being too generalised. “Tartan” was in use by 1500 and, in 1538, with specific reference to the Highlands: “Item, for iii elnis of Heland tertane to be hois to the Kingis grace” and an adjacent entry for a velvet “heland coit” for the King, describes it as “variant cullorit”, implying a connection between Highland fashion and variegated colours.

In 1581, George Buchanan, one of Europe’s leading academics and probably a native Gaelic speaker, wrote about the clothing of the Highlanders: “They use party-coloured garments, and especially striped plaids, preferring of all colours, the purple and blue. Their ancestors used party-coloured

plaids, differentiated in many places, which custom some of them still retain.”

To the Irish, tartan was distinctively Scottish. O Clerigh’s early 17th-century The Life Of Aodh Ruadh O Domhnaill describes Domhnall Gorm and MacLeod’s troops in 1594: “They were recognised among the Irish soldiers by the distinction of their arms and clothing, their habits and language, for their exterior dress was mottled cloaks of many colours with a fringe to their shins and calves, their belts were over their loins outside their cloaks.”

So there you have it. Tartan has been specifically associated with Scotland for at least 2000 years.

Next week I’ll be defending the kilt from the dirty tricks department of the Westminster Government which gave Hugh Trevor-Roper a knighthood for twisting history in order to devalue Scottish culture.

He is still believed – but we’ll see about that.

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