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CARSE OF GOWRIE Kilts and Kiltmaker

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Welcome to the Carse of Gowrie Shop, Handmade Kilts made by a trained Scottish Kiltmaker, Alternative Kilts, Fly & Pipers Plaid, Sporrans & Belts, Buckles, Celtic Jewellery, Tartan Clan Ties, Tartan Cummerbunds & Bow Ties, Tartan Hose Flashes, Ghillie Brogue Shoes, Jacobite Shirts & Potaine Jackets, Formal Dress Shirts, Highlandwear Accessories


History of Scottish Tartan

The History of Tartan
From Ancient Times to the 17th Century

On the  ancient caravan route through the heart of Asia - the Silk Road - illness or natural disaster overtook a group of early travellers and they were swallowed up by the shifting sands of the Taklkamakan Desert in Xinjiang, western China.
2,500 to 3,000 years later, a Swedish explorer Sven Heden discovered the burial place of what were, by now, exceptionally well preserved mummies. Despite being in western China, their faces were Caucasoid with long slender noses, reddish brown or brown hair and fair skin. The textiles found in their burials were exquisitely woven of wool yarn and amongst them were perfectly preserved, complex . . . . . . tartans! Those ancient tartans, woven at least 500 years before King Tutankhamen of Egypt had been born, are proof indeed that tartan was a complex art form of those tall and long-nosed Celts - a group of west European peoples including the pre Roman inhabitants of Britain and France.

After that early manifestation of tartan, the art seemed to disappear into obscurity. Roman chroniclers tell of brightly coloured and striped clothing worn by the inhabitants of our islands, but they were not specific enough to identify the patterns as tartans. Another 1500 years was to pass before any meaningful references to tartan were documented. Even then the situation was extremely confusing —  the word tartan probably comes from the French tiretaine which was a wool/linen mixture. In the 1600s it referred to a kind of cloth rather than the pattern in which the cloth was woven. The first positive proof of the existence of what we now call tartan, was in a German woodcut of about 1631, thought to show Highland soldiers - no doubt mercenaries - in the army of Gustavus Adolphus and wearing a clearly identified tartan philamhor - the great kilt.


The History of Tartan
From Culloden to the 19th Century

The next major milestone in the history of tartan was the tragic Battle of Culloden in 1746, the very last major battle to be fought on British soil. The romantic Young Pretender, Charles Edward Stuart - Bonnie Prince Charlie - ranged his  inferior Jacobite forces of Highlanders against the English Duke of Cumberland's disciplined army. The Jacobite army was organised into Clan regiments and as historian Jamie Scarlett explains "here we have the first hint of the use of tartan as a clan uniform." To understand how this battle proved to be the catalyst for the great Clan Tartan myth, we have to look at the lifestyle and the terrain in which many of Scotland's major families or clans lived at that time.

Each area or community grouping would doubtless have, as one of its artisans, a weaver.  He - they were invariably men - would no doubt produce the same tartan for those around him and that tartan would initially become what we now call a District Tartan - one worn by individuals living in close geographical proximity such as glen or strath. By its very nature, that community would be one huge extended family that soon became identified by its tartan which it wore, not to differentiate it from its neighbours in the next glen - but because that's what its community weaver produced! It was one short step from there to connect that tartan to the name of the wearers.

All weavers depended very much on local plants for their dyes so the locality of the weaver might well have some bearing on the colours of the tartan that he produced. If he lived on the west coast of Scotland, Gipsywort would give him lettuce green, seaweeds would give him flesh colour and seashore whelks might provide purple. If he lived inland, then he would undoubtedly look to the moors for his colours:  heather treated in different ways would give him yellow, deep green and brownish orange; blaeberries (the favourite food of the grouse) would provide purples, browns and blues; over 20 different lichens would give him a wide range of subtle shades. If he was affluent or dyeing and weaving for a customer of some substance, then he would seek more exotic imported colours of madder, cochineal, woad and indigo.

If the concept of clan tartans was born at Culloden it wasn't universally known - in that battle there was frequently no way of differentiating friend from foe by the tartan he wore. The only reliable method was to see with what colour ribbon each combatant had adorned his bonnet. There is a contrary view that this was caused, not by the lack of clan tartans, but by the Highlander's propensity for discarding his cumbersome philamhor (belted plaid) before charging into the fray.

After the dust of battle had settled, out of a total of some 5,000 in the Prince's army, it's reported that 1200 died - including very many slaughtered as they lay on the battlefield. 50 escaped overseas and over 100 combatants and Jacobite supporters were later executed, and over 1100 transported to the West Indies to end their days in slavery. Government losses were reported as 76.

The Prince's army had, in the main, consisted of rag, tag and bobtail - not professional soldiers but farmers, shopkeepers, students, weavers, joiners and young and old from all walks of life, high and low, led by just a handful of trained military men. Many of them were unwilling participants, inveigled into action by their own chiefs with threats of imprisonment, death and the burning of their homes. No-one on either side of this conflict came out of it smelling of roses!

What of the aftermath? Existing schisms were widened even more . . . clan set against clan . . . church against church . . . community against community . . . country against country . . . senior figures in Scottish clan society killed in battle, executed or transported . . . the carrying of weapons, the wearing of tartan and Highland dress, the playing of bagpipes . . . all banned . . . whole communities pillaged and sent into the hills for no crime other than an inability to speak English . . .  the total extinction of the ties between clan chief and clan . . . 18th century ethnic cleansing with a vengeance!


A major repercussion of Culloden was that King George II sanctioned the Act of Proscription of the Highland Garb, and whilst it only applied to the Scottish Highlands, one of its major effects was to stop the Highlanders making tartan, which in turn led to the loss of a generation of weavers - the Act was not to be repealed for 36 years. As historian Jamie Scarlett adds: " . . . this led to the founding of large weaving manufactories on the Highland fringes, to supply the considerable needs of the Army and the new colonies; this was the beginning of the modern story of tartan."  The largest and most successful of these new manufactories was that of William Wilson and Son of Bannockburn. Fortunately for tartan lovers and historians, they were great hoarders of paperwork and there exists today a huge wealth of correspondence on their designs and their commercial undertakings.


The History of Tartan
From The 19th Century

The next milestone in the romanticization of tartan was the visit of King George IV to Edinburgh in 1822. Famous novelist Sir Walter Scott was in charge of affairs and the call went out to Highland Chieftains to attend the huge levee in Edinburgh, dressed in all their tartan finery. Despite the fact that - 7 years earlier - The Highland Society of London had acquired a huge collection of clan tartans, each certified by the chief - there were still many clans who did not know what their tartan was, or indeed, if they had ever had one. Tales abound of Chiefs searching out the oldest members of the clan to see if they could remember! One merchant wrote to Wilsons of Bannockburn pleading "Please send me a piece of Ross tartan, and if there isn't one, please send me a different pattern and call it Ross."

The next and greatest boost to tartan came from Queen Victoria and her Consort, Prince Albert. They fell in love with Balmoral - the Royal residence on Deeside in Scotland - and with tartan and all things Highland. Prince Albert designed the now world famous Balmoral tartan and they bedecked room after room with it, further consolidating the Victorians' romanticised view of the 'noble' Highlander. In the spirit of the times two brothers, claiming illegitimate descent from Bonnie Prince Charlie, charmed society with their largely spurious but fascinating publication Vestiarium Scoticum. Claiming to have discovered an ancient manuscript - which they never managed to produce - Charles Sobieski Stuart and his brother recorded a wide range of clan tartans, many of them of very doubtful authenticity. Of the better known tartans, the book offers some minor variation, but in other cases it provides the only recorded version of many tartans in use today.

Meanwhile, down in their lowland 'manufactory', Wilsons of Bannockburn were quick to see the business opportunities of tartan's great popularity and produced design after design for an ever-hungry public. Whilst their tartans were initially just identified by numbers, they gradually acquired the names of the major buyers or the areas where they sold best. Great Highland and Lowland families hitherto 'tartanless', gradually acquired the much sought after and greatly-coveted social distinction of owning their very own tartan.


The History of Clan Tartans

There has long been controversy, often heated and frequently acrimonious, as to when, sometimes exactly when, "clan" tartans began to be used. Some have held that the 'Scots' emerged from the primeval mists wearing their identifying tartans, others that Sir Walter Scott started it, and there have even been a few who would lay it at the door of Queen Victoria's Prince Consort, Albert.

   There is little logic in any of these opinions. An organised system cannot exist without organised communities and uniform tartans require both technology to make them and mass-production to encourage them; they are therefore unlikely to have come into being until weaving had become a specialised trade in its own right. It is doubtful if even the wizardry of Sir Walter could have conjured up the complete Clan Tartan System and all that goes with it, more or less overnight and, while Queen Victoria did a great deal towards founding the romantic reputation of the Highlands - which still endures - it has to be said that the beginning of the Clan Tartan Idea came before her time.

  It has to be remembered that, in the present context, tartan is Highland and that the Lowlands did not adopt it in the 'family' sense, to any large extent, until the mid-eighteenth century, when the Lowland tartan industry had begun to grow up as a result of the 1747 Act which sought to abolish tartan altogether. My recent research into military tartans suggests strongly that the blue, black and green tartans owe their existence to military fashion or even War Department ruling: this is not to say that all such tartans are military ones but that the army started the idea. The other class of dark tartans, those known as 'hunting', almost certainly derive jointly from a rather obscure statement by George Buchanan (see the right hand column) and the strident colours of the early synthetic dyes. A third class, many-hued, comprises the Sobieski confections, which are either inventions or minor modifications of established tartans of their time.


   Laying these three classes aside as being late, standing out from what remain are three variations on a theme in red, green and dark blue, each with its own geographical affinity. Naming them by the clans who use the simplest versions, they are, in the West the Macdonald type which has a broad green stripe with a narrower blue one on each side, in the central Highlands, running from Strathglass in the north well into Perthshire, the Mackintosh type in which green stripe is divided by a wide central red stripe, and north of the Great Glen the Ross type in which the green and blue elements are in separate blocks.
      However, there are some exceptions: Stuarts of Appin and MacDonells of Keppoch are associated with tartans of the Mackintosh type; the now-forgotten MacPherson of Cluny's tartan, listed by Wilsons'before the end of the 18th century, Loch Eil Tartan, another early listing by Wilsons', which I think was probably worn by Locheil's men in The '45, and one associated with the Fraser contingent at Culloden are also of the type, giving a distinctly Jacobite undertone to the pattern.

    The Jacobite Army in The '45 was organised in Clan regiments and in such a long and mobile campaign some re-equipment must have been necessary so, however the men may have been dressed at the outset, it is probable that a considerable degree of uniformity must have ensued which resulted in clan regiments eventually wearing uniform tartans that became Clan Tartans by a natural process. Whatever inferences enthusiastic protagonists may draw from the totally inadequate evidence, there is no clear reference to the use of tartan in the 'clan' context before The' 45 and the Clan Tartan Idea made rapid progress very soon after. There seems to be a strong probability that the Clan tartans are a direct legacy of the last Jacobite Rising.

   When large numbers of prisoners were taken, groups of them wearing the same tartan and the individual groups wearing recognisably similar tartans it would have been hard for the responsible Government authorities to avoid seeing in tartan a badge of underground armies. A ban on tartan in disaffected areas would be a natural outcome and can be seen as a precaution against a future outbreak rather than as some kind of punishment or a deliberate attempt to destroy the people.