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Fascinating Facts – Fact or Fiction?

By Matthew A. C. Newsome

Curator of the Scottish Tartans Museum



In an article published in the August 2003 issue of the Scottish Banner, entitled, “More Fascinating Facts About Tartan,” the author, David Keith, contributes much to the myth and misinformation circulating about the history of Highland Dress.  I do not hold Mr. Keith personally accountable.  In all likelihood he is simply passing on what was presented to him as the truth.


From the get go, he makes the mistake often repeated in early histories of the tartan by making reference to the Brehon Laws, which stipulated the number of stripes worn to indicate the rank of the wearer.  Many today erroneously apply this to tartan – in other words, the more stripes in a clan’s tartan, the higher “rank” the clan was.  (This would mean, of course, that poor Rob Roy would have been the lowest peasant, while the Earl of Airlie would have been the King of Kings!)  The problem is that these Brehon Laws existed in Ireland, not Scotland, and dealt with striped ceremonial cloaks, not tartan of any kind.  Yet this reference is repeated often enough that many take it to be true.


Keith further states that the earliest reference to tartan cloth in Scotland comes from thirteenth century Episcopal documents from Aberdeen, which state that all clerics are to “avoid red, green, or striped clothing.”  The problem is that nowhere in the quoted text is tartan even mentioned.  Tartan is not synonymous with “striped.”  There are many types of cloths that can be striped without being tartan.  Tartan is created from the unique repetition of a striped design in both the warp and weft of the cloth.  A reference to a cloth simply being “striped” does not always mean tartan!


Keith no doubt selected this reference to give tartan in Scotland an early date, but unfortunately he did not mention the earliest piece of tartan cloth that has been found in Scotland, the so-called “Falkirk Tartan,” believed to date from between 250 and 325 AD, which would have more than proven his point.


When discussing the belted plaid (the earliest form of the kilt worn from the late sixteenth century to the mid-eighteenth), he correctly identifies it as an untailored length of tartan cloth, gathered and belted around the waist, but mistakenly asserts that “great care” was taken to ensure that “the sett or pattern was displayed properly.”  What he is referring to is “pleating to the sett,” meaning that the sett (short for “setting,” or pattern of the tartan) is repeated in the pleating of the kilt.  This form of pleating did not come into fashion until rather late in the nineteenth century, long after the Highlander had abandoned the belted plaid of old!


As a matter of fact, when arranging the belted plaid, it is more accurate to think of the cloth as being loosely gathered rather than pleated.  It certainly was not anything like the neatly pressed knife pleats of today’s tailored kilts, and the repetition of a specific pattern in the pleats was not even a consideration.


Regarding the next generation of the kilt, the feileadh-beag, or “little kilt,” we are again treated to some misinformation.  Keith asserts that the phillabeg (as it is often Anglicized) was “made of six ells [yards] of tartan, pleated and sewn” and “looked very much like the kilt as we know it today.”  Further, he states that it “had developed at least by the early 17th century.”


The true feileadh-beag (literally, “little wrap”) was simply the lower half of the feileadh-mhor (“big wrap”), or belted plaid.  It contained, on average, four yards of cloth, and like the belted plaid, was simply gathered around the waist and belted on.  Instead of an equal amount of cloth above and below the waist, the upper part of the phillabeg simply hung over the belt a few inches to secure it into place.  This very simple garment could possibly (and I stress that word) have developed sometime during the seventeenth century, and most definitely was worn in the early-to-mid eighteenth century.  Certainly it is overstating the case to claim that had developed “at least by the early 17th century” as Mr. Keith does in his article.


In any case, the phillabeg most definitely was not a tailored garment, as Keith claims when he says it was “pleated and sewn.”  The pleats of the phillabeg were not sewn in!

The first tailoring of the kilt (where the pleats were sewn in) was not done until the 1790’s.  Even then, the first tailored kilts contained only four yards of cloth.  They were box pleated, either to the stripe (in the military) or to no pattern at all (for civilian wear).  Knife pleating and pleating to the sett, as I said earlier, did not come into fashion until the latter part of the nineteenth century.  This fashion required more yards of cloth, increasing the amount used in most civilian kilts to about eight.


Keith repeats another myth when he discusses the “ancient” and “modern” colors used in tartans.  This one is so often repeated and taken for gospel that one can hardly blame him.  Most people aware of the distinction between the ancient and modern colors are told, as Keith repeats, that the light ancient colors reflect the colors available with natural vegetable dyes, whereas the dark modern colors reflect the colors available with modern chemical dyes.


This is not entirely accurate, as anyone who practices the art of natural dying could tell you.  Dark colors are most certainly obtainable with natural dyes!  However, without modern day chemicals the cloth was not as color fast, and as a piece of tartan aged, it would naturally fade a bit.  The color in these older (“ancient”) pieces of tartan cloth would be lighter in hue.  So when we see a tartan produced in the ancient color scheme, it is merely meant to reflect a piece of tartan that has faded a bit with age.  Like “stone washed jeans” the tartan is newly made to look old.


In general, Keith’s article can easily confuse readers with imprecise dating and confusing context.  For example, without dating it he mentions the Clergy tartan of blue, black and white.  The use of the Clergy tartan can actually be dated to the mid-nineteenth century.  However, the context of his reference was the Reformation in Scotland (sixteenth century) and shortly after this he makes reference to tartan in the fifteenth century.  This context could certainly lead one to believe that the Clergy tartan is much older than it actually is. 


Similar confusion arises from his brief discussion of the differences between a man’s kilt and a lady’s kilted skirt and the development of the clan tartan system.  He glosses over much without making reference to any pertinent details (mention of Wilson’s of Bannockburn is completely absent in his brief treatment of clan tartans), which serves only to keep the history of tartan in the realm of legend and myth for most readers.


As all things Scottish continue to grow in popularity, more people are looking into the authentic history of Scotland’s national garb.  As historians are providing us with more and more accurate research about tartan and the kilt, it’s high time to put some of these myths to rest.  Since accurate information about the history of Highland Dress is more readily available now than ever before, the Scottish Banner and other Scottish publications should take care before they publish such stories that they are contributing to scholarship, and not myth. 

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