Today Americans of Scottish descent will join pipers, drummers and whisky-drinking expatriates in celebrating Tartan Day, an event that, while obscure, has been officially recognized in the United States since 1998.
Tartan has long proven useful in decorating and exporting sentimental and patriotic images of Scotland, especially to Americans in search of their roots. But tartan’s commodification belies a complex history that is as rebellious and contradictory as it is romantic and traditional.
In the 1970s, when English punks adopted tartan, they did so to challenge authority by subverting a textile that had become twee and tainted by association with the establishment. Their favorite was the Royal Stewart, personal tartan of Queen Elizabeth II, and it has remained a consistent presence in Vivienne Westwood’s designs.
But tartan already had a legacy of subversion. Two centuries before punk, the Jacobites wore it in a series of uprisings that attempted to restore the House of Stuart to the throne – most notably those of 1715, led by James Francis Stuart, and 1745, led by his son, Charles Edward Stuart. The féiladh-mor, a length of tartan woolen cloth that could be gathered at the waist into a kilt and swung over the shoulder to form a wrap, identified the wearer as a supporter of the cause.
The Jacobite Uprisings and their ultimate failure in a final defeat at Culloden on 16 April 1746 have become the stuff of romantic tales, most recently in Outlander, whose second part of the first season premiered last weekend. What followed, however, was far from romantic. As part of a brutal crackdown on Jacobites and their sympathizers, and in order to finally crush Highland culture, British parliament banned the wearing of Highland dress and tartan in the 1746 Dress Act. Punishment was six months’ imprisonment for the first offense and transportation to “His Majesty’s plantations beyond the seas” for the second.
And yet, stories of people defying the ban abound. In Damn Rebel Bitches, a history of the women of the 1745 uprising, Maggie Craig describes Lady MacDonald of Sleat, who had “her young sons painted wearing Highland dress around 1750”. The painting was unsigned, Craig writes, “because the artist was committing a criminal offence, as were the boys for wearing tartan and their mother for choosing to dress them in the Highland style”.
Then there was the ambiguous 1749 portrait of John Campbell, who, as cashier of the Royal Bank of Scotland, worked for the government, yet wears a tartan kilt and jacket. Perhaps most famously, Flora MacDonald, who helped Charles Edward Stuart escape after Culloden and was jailed in the Tower of London for her efforts, appears in a 1749 portrait painted after her release, with a tartan plaid (shawl) over her shoulders.
While it’s tempting to conclude that its banning transformed tartan into a subversive textile, Brian Wilton from the Scottish Tartans Authority, who I spoke to over phone and email, offers a more cautious take. “That may be an overseas view among the descendants of Scots,” he told me, “they tend to romanticize everything.”
Although “the ban probably acted as an added incentive” for Jacobite sympathizers to wear tartan, he says that “there’s quite a bit of confusion around what the ban was”, pointing out that it applied only to men and boys. “The society ladies in Edinburgh were reveling in wearing it. Quite possibly in an act of rebellion, but I suspect it was more because they were fashion conscious.”
That said, in the period following Culloden when government forces hunted down Jacobite sympathizers, so strongly was tartan associated with rebellion that even a woman wearing it was cause for suspicion. In her book, Craig tells of December 1746 orders put out to search Edinburgh and Leith and arrest women wearing tartan and white ribbons under the suspicion they planned to celebrate the Prince’s birthday.
Tartan’s rebellious roots truly fizzled out when, in 1782, the ban was overturned. No longer associated with uncivilized Highlanders, the textile was comfortably adopted by royalty and the colonial empire’s military. In an 1822 visit to Edinburgh – orchestrated by Sir Walter Scott, whose novel Waverley had offered a romanticized view of Highland life – King George IV wore full Highland dress to present an image of a now-unified Britain and claimed the Royal Stewart (a now Anglicized form of Stuart) tartan as his own. With the threat of the uprisings now long over, tartan could be used to sell a romantic image of the Highlands and there followed a mania (many say dubious) for linking tartans to the ancient clan system and a boom in mass production of the textile. By the time Victoria and Albert decorated Balmoral Castle in wall-to-wall tartan, the pattern’s rebellious connotations had been fully sanitized – at least until the punks.
In spite of its contradictory elements, tartan has remained a persistent fashion staple – seen recently at Prada and Marc Jacobs. Twenty years ago, Alexander McQueen first sent models down the runway dressed in his own distinctive red, black and yellow tartan, but his use of the pattern was a comment on its murky history. His controversial autumn/winter 1995-96 show, named Highland Rape, had half-naked and bloodied models staggering down a runway strewn with bracken and heather. Accused of glorifying violence against women, McQueen explained that the show “was a shout against English designers … doing flamboyant Scottish clothes … about England’s rape of Scotland”.
Though born and raised in London, McQueen, who died five years ago, felt a deep connection to Scotland. His Scottish father’s roots were on the Isle of Skye, where McQueen’s ashes were scattered – his memorial lies close to Flora MacDonald’s in Kilmuir Cemetery. In a 1999 interview with the Independent, he said he felt patriotic about Scotland “because I think it’s been dealt a really hard hand. It’s marketed the world over as, you know, fucking haggis, fucking bagpipes. But no one ever puts anything back into it. I hate it when people romanticize Scotland. There’s nothing romantic about its history”.
Widows of Culloden, his autumn/winter 2006-7 collection, forms a second act to the drama of cultural annihilation that McQueen began with Highland Rape. The collection was a melancholic ode to the Highland clearances and the widows of those lost at Culloden who “got on a ship and moved to America” taking the embers of Highland identity with them. “What the British did there,” the ever anti-establishment McQueen told the Independent, “was nothing short of genocide.”
The reappearance of tartan in Widows of Culloden was, writes Dr Jonathan Faiers in an essay accompanying Savage Beauty, the ongoing VA’s McQueen retrospective, “a comment … on the inevitable triumph of fashion … McQueen used his tartan to suggest how the traditional dress had become commodified and Anglicized as fashion”. Given all of the contradictions of the pattern, it is perhaps fitting that McQueen used the medium of high fashion to explore its commodification.
Tartan changed irrevocably after Culloden. Exiled from the Highlands and spread throughout the diaspora, it has taken on multiple meanings – subversive to some; fashion, or a romantic image of a long-lost homeland to others. Although it initially registers as clichéd, perhaps Tartan Day is a fitting name for a celebration of Scottish heritage: tartan has a complex and unsettled history, much like the country itself.