Check Mates

Rebecca Pearson on the eternal allure of Scotland’s rebel thread

By Rebecca Pearson

June 15 2020

A flame-haired, broad-chested man blows his bagpipes, the wind whipping tantalisingly at the hem of his tartan kilt. Judging by countless covers of romantic novels and boxes of porridge, this is a commonly held image of everything ‘Scottish’; a symbol that evokes rebellious counter-culture and aristocratic respectability at the same time. But the complex story of tartan reveals how ready we are to be seduced by fable rather than fact, although the truth is as vibrant as the colours in the Clan Buchanan tartan.

So what is tartan? In technical terms, it’s a woven fabric with a check pattern in which bands of colour are repeated in equal proportion: lengthways (the warp) and crossways (the weft). To kit yourself out in the best, head to Scotland’s oldest tailors, Stewart Christie & Co, founded in 1720. Its owner, Vixy Rae, even wrote a book on the subject (The Secret Life of Tartan). I ask her what signifies a ‘deluxe’ tartan. “Look back at the history of tartan, and the more colours within the make up of the ‘sett’ design, the more affluent you were,” she says. “So the Rob Roy tartan is pretty simple, with its two colours, while the Ogilvie of Airlie tartan has six colour changes. That is a very complex sett design and would have been considered for the higher echelons of Scottish society.”

Tartan can be woven in a very fine yarn, or come in silk and cashmere for a luxurious sheen and texture. “One of the most impressive qualities of tartan I have seen was in the Stewart Christie archive and was a pure cashmere woven by Johnstons of Elgin, from around 1952,” Rae remembers. “Johnstons still weave some wonderful cashmeres, but this one was bright and vivid and particularly thick. Strangely, it was for tartan trews, which would have been really cosy, but not especially durable.”

Though tartan is synonymous with Scottish heritage, its roots have been traced to the Iron Age and such far-flung lands as Egypt, the Alps, the Himalayas, Japan, and China, not all of which had trade routes with one another. The Cherchen Man, a 3,000-year-old mummy found in the Taklaman Desert in Xingian in northwest China, happened to be wearing a natty pair of tartan-like leggings. This suggests that wherever that weaving was developed, it came from a drive to create with vibrant colour and pattern.

Queen Victoria was a particularly enthusiastic fan of tartan, and of Scotland in general: “I think the Highlanders are the finest race in the world,” she declared. Much of the romanticism surrounding tartan aesthetics can be traced back to Prince Albert’s and her passion for her ‘Dear Paradise’, the Balmoral estate. Yet it was the British Government that had banned the wearing of Highland garb such as trews, kilts, shoulder belts and tartan with The Dress Act of 1746. Though generally believed to be a way of bringing warrior clans under control after the Jacobite Uprisings, this argument does not stand up to closer scrutiny. Plenty of clans had supported the British Monarchy, or kept out of the conflict. So why did the Sassenachs, as the Scots called the English, ban it?

Professor Hugh Cheape is the expert on this subject: author of Tartan: The Highland Habit, he co-curated a seminal tartan exhibition at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York and in 2017 was awarded an MBE for services to Scottish cultural education and traditional music. He notes that most literature on tartans has had ‘Anglocentric’ sources; put those aside and what emerges about Highland culture between 1400-1800 is the sense of an independent people with their own lively trade routes through Ireland, France, Spain, the Middle East, and beyond. The tartan of Boisdale Life’s Editor & Chief, who hails from Clan Ranald, with a chieftainship passed through the Boisdale Clan, is apparently from Barcelona!

Rather than following clan guidelines, tartan weaving was about creating the brightest and the best. Vibrant reds were desirable as they were tricky and expensive to make: Analysis of an 18th-century length of tartan from Glencoe reveals cochineal dye from Mexico, not native Highland plants. Tartan culture was diverse, flamboyant, in your face, and fun. The Dress Act set out to break spirits rather than clanships and, alas, as that generation of weavers died, they took much of their knowledge with them.

Linda Evangelista
Linda Evangelista models top-to-toe tartan for the Vivienne Westwood ‘Anglomania’ collection, Autumn/Winter 1993

The irrepressible fabric rebounded in the early 19th century, with a pageant organised by Sir Walter Scott. In 1822, King George came to the Scottish capital – the first British monarch to visit in 172 years. Scott decided that a gathering of clan chieftans in the more flamboyant, traditional ‘belted plaids’ (swathes of tartan held in place with a belt, rather than kilts) would display unity and look spectacular at the Highland Ball that closed the pageant. A frenzied scrabbling for individual clan tartans ensued. Countless letters of enquiry were sent to the William Wilson & Son mill because it had continued to operate through the ban, and so had the most reliable archive. “If you can’t find ours, make it up,” was the general gist of these letters.

Sir Walter Scott had pulled off a PR coup, ensuring tartan’s future: The public wanted to wear it, decorate with it, and learn about it, and The Highland Society of London was happy to oblige, for in 1815 it had collected sample tartans from clans all over the Highlands, sealed with the signature of their chief. The very act of classifying the patterns made them covetable, helping revive the Highland economy, which had suffered dreadfully since the wars and clearances.

This heritage lives on in brands such as Burberry, which incorporated tartan into the lining of its trench coats in the late 1910s. But tartan is also punk, grunge, and sex. Vivienne Westwood is synonymous with this aesthetic – her boutique, Seditionaries (1976-1980), kitted out The Sex Pistols in fetishwear and clashing tartans, while her ‘Anglomania’ collections of the 1990s saw the supermodels of the day striding down the catwalk in kilts, knee-high socks, vertiginous platforms, and plush, tartan silks that married Victorian with burlesque silhouettes. Far cleaner looking than Johnny Rotten, but still with a rebellious edge.

Tartan mystique was celebrated by Alexander McQueen, too, whose ‘Highland Rape’ collection (1995) featured the red and black McQueen tartan, with models staggering down the runway as if brutalised, glassy-eyed, with breasts exposed through slashes in the fabric. It was a divisive moment in fashion: McQueen was lambasted for objectifying women and trivialising rape, but he had been exploring his Scottish roots and was portraying the rape of Scotland by England. Watching films of the show still stirs a visceral sense of unease, the slashed clothing and models’ demeanour channelling the designer’s anger about an era of history often forgotten or glossed over.

In 2020, tartan is a delightfully mixed bag. Whether referencing Bonnie Prince Charlie, Kurt Cobain, or Cher from Clueless, there are no rules (unless you want to wear Balmoral tartan, restricted to royalty). You can even design your own tartan online. Rae suggests starting with a tried and tested family sett and playing with the colours, while Cheape suggests choosing what looks best rather than trying to reflect your Gaelic roots. Indecisive ladies could buy a kilt from Le Kilt, which mixes different patterns together in one.

Ignore the rules: A fabric that has always been about expression, rebellion, and fun, tartan can never be tamed.