Saturday 25 March 2023

Exhibition Tartan Opening Saturday 1 April 2023 : Story of tartan through the centuries to unfold in V&A Dundee exhibition / 27-3-2023: Oldest tartan found to date back to 16th Century



Opening Saturday 1 April 2023

A radical new look at one of the world’s best-known textiles

UPDATED 27-3-2023: Oldest tartan found to date back to 16th Century


The Glen Affric tartan will be exhibited for the first time at V&A Dundee's Tartan exhibition from 1 April


A scrap of fabric found in a Highland peat bog 40 years ago is likely to be the oldest tartan ever discovered in Scotland, new tests have established.


The fabric is believed to have been created in about the 16th Century, making it more than 400 years old.


It was found in a Glen Affric peat bog, in the Highlands, in the early 1980s.


The Scottish Tartans Authority (STA) commissioned dye analysis and radiocarbon testing of the textile to prove its age.


Using high resolution digital microscopy, four initial colours of green, brown and possibly red and yellow were identified.


The dye analysis confirmed the use of indigo or woad in the green but was inconclusive for the other colours, probably due to the dyestuff having degraded.


No artificial or semi-synthetic dyestuffs were involved in the making of the tartan, leading researchers to believe it predates the 1750s.


Experts have said the tartan was more than likely worn as an "outdoor working garment" and would not have been worn by royalty.


The STA said the textile was created somewhere between 1500 and 1655, but the period of 1500 to 1600 was most probable.


This makes it the oldest known piece of true tartan discovered in Scotland.


Four initial colours of green, brown and possibly red and yellow were identified in the tartan


Peter MacDonald, head of research and collections at the STA, said the testing process took nearly six months but that the organisation was "thrilled with the results".


"In Scotland, surviving examples of old textiles are rare as the soil is not conducive to their survival," he added.


"The piece was buried in peat, meaning it had no exposure to air and it was therefore preserved."


He said that because the tartan contains several colours, with multiple stripes, it corresponds to what would be considered a true tartan.


Mr MacDonald said: "Although we can theorise about the Glen Affric tartan, it's important that we don't construct history around it.


"Although Clan Chisholm controlled that area, we cannot attribute the tartan to them as we don't know who owned it."


Historical significance

He also said that the potential presence of red, a colour that Gaels consider a status symbol, is interesting because the cloth had a rustic background.


"This piece is not something you would associate with a king or someone of high status, it is more likely to be an outdoor working garment," he added.


John McLeish, chair of the STA, said the tartan's "historical significance" likely dates to the reigns of King James V, Mary Queen of Scots or King James VI/I - between 1513 and 1625.


Due to where it was found, the piece of fabric has been named the Glen Affric tartan and measures about 55cm by 43cm (approximately 22 by 17 inches).


It will go on public display at the V&A Dundee design museum from 1 April until 14 January next year.


James Wylie, curator at V&A Dundee, said: "We knew the Scottish Tartans Authority had a tremendous archive of material and we initially approached them to ask if them if they knew of any examples of 'proto-tartans' that could be loaned to the exhibition.


"I'm delighted the exhibition has encouraged further exploration into this plaid portion and very thankful for the Scottish Tartans Authority's backing and support for uncovering such a historic find."


He added that it was "immensely important" to be able to exhibit the Glen Affric tartan and said he was sure visitors would appreciate seeing the textile on public display for the first time.

What's On

Story of tartan through the centuries to unfold in V&A Dundee exhibition


It has been woven into Scottish culture and identity for centuries.


By Brian Ferguson

Published 6th Jul 2021, 23:59 BST


Now Scotland’s national museum of design is to stage the biggest ever celebration of tartan and its global impact.


Billed as “a radical new look at one of the world’s best-known fabrics,” the V&A Dundee show, which opens in April 2023, will also “tell the story of Scotland through tartan.”


The five-month exhibition will explore how the patterned fabric – famously embraced by designers like Vivienne Westwood and Alexander McQueen, the author Walter Scott and musical acts like Rod Stewart and the Bay City Rollers – has shaped, influenced and been reflected in advertising, fashion, film and fine art.


However it will examine how tartan has been both “adored and derided,” been seen as a symbol of being radical and rebellious for centuries, and is still making its mark around the world in modern times.


The exhibition will also explore the “sometimes painful” history of tartan, which was famously outlawed in Scotland following the defeat of the Jacobites at the Battle of Culloden in 1746, but would go on to become a symbol of the British Army and Empire, and embraced by the Royal Family.


It first major in-house exhibition, which has been announced four months after the attraction secured national status and an extra £6 million in funding from the Scottish Government, will be staged nearly five years after the museum was unveiled.


V&A Dundee director Leonie Bell said: “Tartan is a ubiquitous and universally recognised fabric of Scotland, which is loved and loathed in equal measures, but lives on into new interpretation all the time. It is seen as a cliche, but is also seen as a really interesting fabric for contemporary designers.


“We're going to be telling its full design story for the first time – we don’t think any other exhibition has done that before. We will be looking at its history of attachment to tourism, tradition and the clans, how it was used across the Empire, how it has been subverted by punks and fashion designers, and how it has endured from quite simple beginnings to be something that is recognised by everybody.


“We will be going back as far as we can. It’s an ancient fabric that has not really changed very much but has continually been adapted again and again by people in all kinds of different sectors.


“It’s really fascinating when you start to get under the skin of it and you realise it’s something that we live with in Scotland all the time but maybe don’t understand the true story of it and the potency it still has – as a cloth that can be about being radical and rebellious, but also about tradition.


"It’s really interesting that the Tartan Army can own it at the same time as Vivienne Westood. It transcends ownership in a way that no other fabric does.


"The exhibition will be deeply about Scotland and our understanding of identity. But it will also be very much about V&A Dundee opening up to the world again in a way that we’ll probably be a tentative about this year and into 2022. It will tell the story of Scotland through tartan, but it will have a real internationalism to it as well.”


My ancestor modelled our tartan when George IV came to town


A show dedicated to tartan and its history opens next month at the V&A Dundee. Ben Macintyre considers its social and political significance and investigates his family’s relationship with the cloth


Saturday March 25 2023, 12.01am GMT, The Times


Tartan is tricky. It is the world’s most recognisable textile and pattern but also a subject of intense and intractable dispute: a national dress and a symbol of servitude, a fashion staple and a political statement, simultaneously traditional and rebellious, uniquely Scottish but wholly international, a fabric that unites and divides.


This tangled legacy has been teased apart by the V&A Dundee in a new exhibition devoted to tartan: the story behind the kilt.


Some insist that tartans are the visual index of the ancient Scottish clan system. Others argue, just as passionately, that the idea of clan tartans was a 19th-century socio-political invention, and largely bogus. A generation ago, the kilt was often seen as posh attire for sassenachs and foreign-born would-be Scots; today it is practically de rigueur at Scotland rugby matches, the chosen uniform of the Tartan Army football supporters’ club. In some Scottish nationalist circles it is a reminder of colonial (English) oppression; for others, equally nationalist, it represents independence itself.


Tartan was banned in the 18th century as a symbol of Jacobite sympathies. Less than a century later it came triumphantly back into vogue, partly thanks to one of my Macintyre ancestors: the first, and last, fashion model in the family.


Tartan is now ubiquitous and trans-national, inspiring architecture, graphic and product design, photography, furniture, glass and ceramics, film and art. But above all clothing: Chanel, Dior, Alexander McQueen, Vivienne Westwood and Comme des Garçons have all adopted and adapted tartan in various ways, along with contemporary designers such as Grace Wales Bonner, Nicholas Daley and Olubiyi Thomas.


Tartan wearers range from monarchs to the Sex Pistols, from the Doctor in Doctor Who to the Bay City Rollers. Idi Amin, self-styled Last King of Scotland, went through a tartan phase. Tartan has been deployed for political purposes by Bonnie Prince Charlie, George IV, Sir Walter Scott, the Windsors, and on Nicola Sturgeon’s Covid facemask. Hollywood dressed Mel Gibson in tartan as William Wallace in Braveheart. A fragment of the MacBean tartan was carried aboard Apollo 12 by the American astronaut Alan Bean.


I wear a kilt to weddings, christenings and parties in Scotland. My children started wearing kilts soon after they were born. The kilt-over-the-nappy look is particularly endearing.


There are three different Macintyre tartans: the dress tartan (a gaudy red); the ancient tartan (which is no more ancient than any other invented tartan); and the hunting tartan (in darker green, supposedly because prey was likely to spot the brighter coloured kilt fabric and run away). My branch of the clan wears the hunting tartan. I have no idea why.


Some clans went a step further and invented a “mourning” tartan, using the existing pattern of stripes and squares but in funereal black and white. Queen Victoria’s long mourning for Prince Albert was largely responsible for this craze.


Tartan is produced with alternating bands of coloured thread woven at right angles, both the warp and weft, producing a vast number of colour combinations and symmetrical patterns. The identifying sequence of each individual tartan is known as a “sett”. No one knows where tartan began, but since the earliest and simplest form of weaving using two colours of wool produces a checked pattern, it came from everywhere, and nowhere.


Even the origin of the word is debated. It is probably derived from the French tiretaine, and its Spanish equivalent tiritana, meaning a blend of linen and wool. But it may equally derive from tartarin meaning “Tartar cloth”, suggesting inspiration in central Asia, or the Gaelic word tarsainn, meaning “across”.


“Tartan” leggings were found on a 3,000-year-old mummy in the deserts of Xinjiang in China; he didn’t buy them in Dundee. Today anyone can design their own sett, and by applying to the Scottish Tartans Authority (and paying a fee) get it registered in the record of officially approved tartans.


The invading Romans appear to have encountered Highlanders wearing brightly coloured cloth. In the 1690s Martin Martin of Skye wrote: “The plaid wore only by the men is made of fine wool. It consists of divers colours: and there is a great deal of ingenuity required in sorting colours so as to be agreeable to the nicest fancy.”


The earliest surviving Scottish example is the Falkirk Tartan, a fragment of cloth dating from the 3rd century AD, used as the stopper for an earthenware vessel containing a hoard of silver coins discovered in 1934. It is more checked than tartan, two shades of natural wool, one light brown the other greenish, as warp and weft.


Early tartans did not denote clanship so much as geography, the colours reflecting whatever natural dyes were available in the different regions of Scotland. The early plaid, fhéilidh-Mor in Gaelic, was not a kilt as it would be recognised today but a length of woven cloth, some six yards long and two wide, that was wrapped around the body and belted at the waist, easily converted into a rustic sleeping bag at night. Early depictions of tartan suggest these were worn in a profusion of different patterns, some asymmetrical, often denoting fealty to a particular overlord rather than kinship.


It was not until the Act of Union of 1707, uniting Scotland and England and ensuring the Hanoverian succession, that tartan turned political. Wearing the kilt became an expression of Scottish nationalism, Jacobite sympathy and support for the Stuart cause. The Jacobite rebellions of 1715, 1719 and 1745 were metaphorically and often literally clad in plaid. The tartanised Bonnie Prince Charlie still found on Scottish shortbread tins is wearing the clothes of rebellion, a direct sartorial Stuart challenge to the Hanoverian dynasty.


After the Jacobite defeat at Culloden, the Disarming Act of 1746 banned the wearing of Highland dress, including tartan, as part of a systematic attempt to eradicate remaining opposition to English rule. Some were exempt from the ban, notably the Highland regiments of the British army raised by the Hanoverian crown. Tartan went underground: Jacobite sympathisers still wore it, and secretly had themselves painted wearing it. Confusingly, the fabric became a symbol of both repression and rebellion, depending on the sympathies of the wearer.


But in 1822, less than 80 years after it was outlawed, tartan came back with a flourish, with the help of Sir Walter Scott, George IV and, in a small but significant way, my ancestor Peter Macintyre.


George IV’s state visit to Edinburgh in 1822 marked the first time a Hanoverian monarch had set foot in Scotland since the uprisings. A show of national unity was called for, a demonstration that the Scots were snappy dressers and not mere savages; the person chosen to stage-manage this display was Scott, bestselling novelist, president of the Celtic Society, and the inventor of a romantic conception of Scotland that persists today.


Aided by his technical adviser, Colonel David Stewart of Garth, Scott put on a dazzling tartan extravaganza. As Jonathan Faiers, professor of fashion thinking at Southampton University and consultant to the exhibition, puts it in his book Tartan, Scott “consciously used tartan as a primary visual component of a series of spectacular tableaux that succeeded in expressing, via clothing, a counterfeit connection between the Celtic Royal Houses of Scotland and the English Hanoverian line”.


The chiefs and their clansmen were encouraged to turn out in full Highland regalia, “all plaided and plumed in their tartan array”. The king himself was upholstered in what became known as Royal Stewart tartan. And the person deputed to greet His Majesty formally on landing at Leith was the leader of the Drummond Highlanders, Peter Macintyre.


For this purpose Macintyre got himself kitted out head to foot in an outfit he had surely never worn before: tartan kilt, jacket, socks, a bonnet with an eagle’s feather, and armed to the teeth with sword, dirk, shield and pistol. Even his sporran top and garter flashes are in matching, hi-vis scarlet. No subdued hunting tartan for this Macintyre. You can see him in most paintings of the event, a bright red figure in peacock plumage stationed immediately behind the king.


Soon after the event, Macintyre was painted in his finery by the portrait artist James Ramsay, on a vast canvas some 15ft high and 6ft across: a poster boy for the new tartan fashion.


Tartan became trendy. By the mid-century, a vast assortment of tartans were being created and artificially linked with Scottish clans, families, individuals or institutions who were (or wished to be seen as) associated with a glorious and colourful Scottish heritage.


The most influential promoters of the supposed links between specific tartans and the ancient clans were the Sobieski Stuart brothers, who arrived in Scotland in the 1830s and set up their own Jacobite court, claiming to be the grandsons of Charles Edward Stuart, the Young Pretender. In 1842 they published the Vestiarium Scoticum based on an ancient manuscript and describing, in elaborate detail, the historical antecedents of the various tartans dating back to 1571.


The Sobieski Stuarts were fabulous frauds. They were Englishmen from Egham in Surrey, the sons of a Royal Navy officer named Thomas Allen. Their book of tartans was a strange mixture of make-believe, deliberate fakery and genuine scholarship. They may not have been brothers but lovers, a pair of gay Victorian fashionistas from Surrey who spotted in tartan a golden commercial opportunity.


The claims of the Sobieski Stuarts were comprehensively debunked during their lifetimes. Even Walter Scott, while avid for all forms of an imaginary Scottish past, pointed out that the “idea of distinguishing the clans by their tartans is but a fashion of modern date”. With typical acidity, the historian Hugh Trevor-Roper later described Vestiarium Scoticum as “shot through with pure fantasy and bare faced forgery”.


But the idea of clan-based tartans took permanent root. Demand for tartan exploded, and ignited a tartan taxonomy craze among Victorians, with new chemical dyes, romantic legends from Scottish history and a taste for social and familial distinctions.


The German Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha had a particularly acute case of tartanophilia. Queen Victoria’s consort invented the Balmoral tartan, still worn by the royal family, and decked out the castle in no fewer than three (clashing) tartans: Royal Stewart and the green Hunting Stewart tartans for carpets, and Dress Stewart for curtains and upholstery.


There is still a certain sort of lip-curling Englishman, like Trevor-Roper, who cannot resist pointing out that tartan kilt-wearing is an invented Victorian fad; but that is to be blind to the power of myths, of which the Scots have many and the English not enough. As Kirsty Hassard, the curator of the V&A exhibition, points out: “The meaning of tartan is in the eye of the beholder.”


Peter Macintyre rolled up his painting a few years after it was finished and departed for Australia, never to return. I recently visited my cousins at their sheep station in New South Wales, where the original portrait still hangs: a long-forgotten 18th-century fashion plate to which every tartan-wearing punk and tweed-clad royal owes a small debt.

Tartan is at V&A Dundee from April 1 to January 14, 2024

Tartan: Revised and Updated - Textiles that Changed the World

Professor Jonathan Faiers (author)


“An outstanding and comprehensive contribution to the history of Tartan. - Telegraph Featuring new insights and an additional chapter on masculinities, this updated edition of Tartan revitalizes discussions about the fabric's traditional, sentimental Highland origins and its deliberate subversion by contemporary designers. Tartan's history has made it uniquely capable of expressing both conformity and subversion, tradition and innovation. Through positioning tartan within broader philosophical, political and cultural contexts, from the tartan-clad Highland regiments and Queen Victoria's royal endorsement, to the fabric's influence on Westwood and McQueen and a generation of Japanese designers such as Watanabe and Takahashi, Jonathan Faiers traces tartan's development from clanship to contemporary fashion and its enormous domestic and global impact. Beautifully illustrated and weaving together a story out of history, art, music, film and fashion, Tartan demonstrates that this most traditional and radical fabric has become one of extraordinary versatility and far-reaching appeal.”

Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing PLC

ISBN: 9781350193772

Number of pages: 360

Dimensions: 246 x 189 mm

Edition: 2nd Revised edition



An outstanding and comprehensive contribution to the history of Tartan. * Telegraph *

Intriguing study ... mixes the serious with the saucy. * International Herald Tribune *

A rare treat; a readable, enjoyable academic text. * Selvedge *

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