Battle of Culloden, April 1746

When researching Mistaken Premise, I learned much about tartans and their role in Scotland’s history. Tartans are a woven textile, or its representation, made of a pattern of interlocking stripes in both the warp and weft (horizontal and vertical) of the cloth. It varies from tweed, that other invariably Scottish icon, by using a two-over-two twill weave, which permits the creation of patterns of interlocking stripes of bold colour. Nor are they only Scottish; the earliest known samples of tartan date to 2000BCE in China, amazingly similar to modern tartans notwithstanding the distance in time, place, and culture.

Roman and Greek writers describe the early Britons wearing, “…brightly-coloured and embroidered shirts, with trousers called bracae and cloaks fastened at the shoulder with a brooch, heavy in winter, light in summer. These cloaks are striped or checkered in design, with the separate checks close together and in various colours.” (Diodorus Siculus, Greek Historian, 100BCE) A second-century AD bronze statue fragment of the Roman Emperor Caracalla, the self-titled, “Conqueror of the Caledonians” (ancient Roman word for Scotland) in Northern Africa – some 1500 miles from Scotland – depicts Caledonian prisoners wearing plaid. And the National Scottish Museum houses the Falkirk Tartan – a fragment found wrapped around a horde of Roman coins, which dates to the third-century AD.

Falkirk Tartan fragment, National Scottish Museum

Woollen tartans proved strong and long-lasting, and the lanoline rich fibres also provided protection against the ever-present cold and rain. It is little wonder it became the preferred fabric for the hardy Scots. Whilst tartans were undeniably part of Scottish culture, the idea of the brave warrior marching out to defend his clan’s colours is largely a myth. The availability of naturally occurring dyes led to regional differences in tartan’s patterns, and a clan laird might have a preference, but no one clan claimed a specific style.

The story of the kilt-clad highlander marching across fields of heather to defend their freedom from English oppression was born in the eighteenth-century. In 1745, the Roman born, Young Pretender, the Bonnie Prince Charlie, the son of James Stuart, claimant to the British throne as King James II/VII’s grandson, landed on Scottish soil, he bedecked himself in tartan to ally with his fellow Scots and lead a rebellion on his father’s behalf against the Hanoverian King George II. Tartan-wearing clansmen died by the dozens at the Battle of Culloden, cementing in the mind of the Hanoverian forces that the tartan was such a part of the Scottish identity and series of Jacobite uprisings, that Parliament banned its use in 1746.

The Bonnie Prince Charlie, Charles Edward Stuart 1720-1788, by William Mosman c1750

Many of our modern perceptions of the Scottish clans, with their specific plaids and kilts, came after the law’s 1782 repeal from none other than Mr Walter Scott as his contribution to the Scottish revivalist movement. Walter Scott was an avid supporter of King James VI/I’s vision of a united Scotland and England, and his earliest works were to set down the stories and ballads of his countrymen ere they passed from memory. He then published his romanticised versions on the lower half of the shared island, showing that Scottish culture was more than simply rebelliousness; it had ancient ties and beauty, notwithstanding its unfamiliarity to London society.

Scott was so successful in his endeavours that, with no small campaigning on Sir Walter’s part, King George IV (more familiarly known to Regency readers as Prinny) actually visited Edinburg in 1822. The King was such a devotee of Scott’s stories that at the levee he held, he demanded all the Scottish lairds and clan chieftans attend with their individual clan tartans in full Highland Dress – unaware that prior to this demand, there was no such thing. Reports abound of both the Highland lairds rushing to commission “clan tartans” and the more English-ised Lowland lairds rushing to get any tartan made into a kilt.

Scottish Highland Formal Dress, made popular by King George IV’s 1822 Edinburgh levee (Imagine ODB so dressed, dear readers – I sure did! LOL)

Therefore, in Mistaken Premise, the tartans used at Netherfield and as accents in Lizzy’s gowns, would merely be plaids favoured by her uncle, Laird Boyte, the Duke of Soloway or ones she found pretty. In my head canon, the official Boyte Clan tartan kilt Darcy wore to King George IV’s Edinburgh levee was the same pattern as the tartan sash Lizzy wore at her come out ball.

And my little nerd heart is happy to share all the fun tartan facts with you, my dear readers.

For more information:

To read about Lizzy and her tartans check out:

8 responses to “Textiles and Tartans”

  1. Regina Jeffers Avatar

    As I am more than 40% Scottish, I love attending Highland style games, etc. I recently purchased a book on tartans for my DIL for her to explore her family roots. Thanks for adding to my knowledge of tartans. I did a similar piece in April on Kilts and Tartans on my own blog.

    1. Cherith Boardman Avatar
      Cherith Boardman

      I am glad I was able to add to your knowledge, Ms Jeffers. This nerd can never have too much of it, so thanks for sharing your post, too!

  2. Riana Everly Avatar

    This is a fascinating piece of history. I’ve been amazed at the quick turn-around in attitudes toward tartan, from it being absolutely forbidden, to being this huge fashion craze. We were recently in Dundee, where the V&A there had an exhibit on tartans. We didn’t go to this exhibit, alas, since we were a bit short on time and it seemed to be focused on the future rather than the past, but I’m regretting that now.
    Thanks for this informative and interesting post! Here’s lookin’ up yer kilt!

    1. Cherith Boardman Avatar
      Cherith Boardman

      According to my research, Ms Riana Everly, all tartans were never fully forbidden, even after the 1746 law. It was complex as to when and where it could be used, and I chose not to delve too deep into archaic 18th-century legalese. Though, without a doubt, tartans were NOT the fashionable choice for many decades.
      We really do have Sir Walter Scott (when but a Mr) and the other Scottish writers, artists, poets, and politicians who were active in the efforts to redeem Scotland and her culture to the English to thank for that. And as much as I hate to give Prinny any credit, King George IV’s visit to Edinburgh is what made Tartan a fashion icon.

  3. Elizabeth Hollis Avatar
    Elizabeth Hollis

    This was so very interesting, I was so intrigued by how long tartan cloth was in existence. Thank you so much for researching this and writing such an interesting article. Plus I loved your book.

    1. Cherith Boardman Avatar
      Cherith Boardman

      What floored me, Ms Elizabeth Hollis, is how much that piece of tartan – which is defined by the style of weaving – from Ancient China looked like I could see it on a cold day in my local park! And to know that the Greeks and Romans even mentioned it in their histories – astounding.
      I am so glad you liked my nerd article (and Mistaken Premise).

  4. cindie snyder Avatar
    cindie snyder

    Cool post! It seems tartan has been around for a long time!

    1. Cherith Boardman Avatar
      Cherith Boardman

      It certainly has, Ms Cindie Snyder! I knew the brightly coloured tartans we see today were a later 19th- to early 20th-century phenomenon. The commercial dyes required to create such vivid shades were impossible before this, but the Scots, and others, have certainly been making tartans for millennia – even if more muted in colour.

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