Scottish Tartans Resources

Vestiarium Scoticum - 1842

In the bibliography of The Setts of the Scottish Tartans, published in 1950, D. C. Stewart wrote:

The brothers John Sobieski Stolberg Stuart and Charles Edward Stuart (variously known by the named Allan Hay, Hay Allan, Stuart Hay, Hay, and Stuart), were responsible for this work, the former as editor, the latter preparing the drawings from which the illustrations were produced.  These drawings were made from descriptions of tartans, found in a MS. the brothers claimed as belonging to the sixteenth century.  Three copies of this old MS. were supposed to have existed, but all trace of them was lost before they could be brought to critical examination, though a transcript was printed in the Vestiarium.  The work seems to have been planned and ready for publication in 1829, but publication was not achieved until 1842.  

"Seventy-five tartans are illustrated, and the reproductions leave little doubt as to colour and none as to pattern.  Many of these tartans have since come into general use solely on the authority of this imposing work.  That authority was from the first hotly impugned, but the tartans have remained.  Less than a dozen of the seventy-five are supported by independent evidence of their previous existence."

D. C. Stewart would later go on to author, with J. C. Thompson, Scotland's Forged Tartans, published in 1980.  This book is a critical examination of the Vestiarium Scoticum and the historical claims of the Stuart brothers.  The undeniable conclusion of the authors is that the work is a hoax.  This position is universally held by tartan scholars today.  While some of the tartans illustrated in this reference can be shown to have been in use prior to the publication of the Vestiarium, the majority were likely invented new.  The Stuart brothers were not themselves weavers, and indeed James D. Scarlett, a recognized authority on tartan weaving, has commented that most of the Vestiariumtartans appear to have been designed "on a drawing board, rather than on a loom."

Aside from being an infamous hoax, the Vestiarium Scoticum is also famous for being the first book on tartan illustrated by means of the printing method invented by William and Andrew Smith of Mauchline.  This new technique created the tartan images by drawing the tartan on the page laying down one line of ink at a time, much like weaving threads on a loom.  This method created the "half tones" where one color crosses another in the pattern, which generated more realistic depictions of the tartans than previous methods of illustration.

The tartans were illustrated by Charles Edward Stuart, based on the supposed descriptions of them in the original manuscripts (perhaps authored by brother John).  The descriptions are often vague and rather simple.  An example would be this description of the Monro tartan:

Monrois.  Thre blak strypps vpon ane redd feyld, and throuchovt ye redd sett ain strypp of quhite.

Or, to put it in modern English, "Three black stripes upon a red field, and throughout the red sett one stripe of white."

This tartan is not in general use by the Munroe clan today.  Indeed, in many cases the Vestiariumgives tartans for clans and families which are no longer in use, including Forbes, Gunn, and Graham.  Other times, the tartan given in the Vestiarium has been adopted as an alternate sett for the family and is still in current use alongside other tartans.  Examples would include the black and white MacFarlane tartan, the yellow MacLeod, and the grey Douglas.  In many cases, especially for lowland families, the tartan shown in the Vestiarium represents the first and only tartan given for the name.  These tartans are still in use today, with general acceptance by the family.  Examples would include Maxwell, Armstrong, Cunningham, Bruce, Hay, Johnston, and Kerr among others.

Perhaps this is the enduring legacy of the Vestiarium Scoticum.  For the legitimacy of a tartan pattern lies not in the date of its origin, or even whether it was created by a weaver at a loom, or a scam artist at a drawing board.  A tartan's legitimacy lies in the approval of a clan chief, or in the absense of such, the acceptance and use of the clan or family itself.  For many of these families, the tartan given in the Vestiarium is the only tartan they have ever known.  Today, after over 150 years of constant use, these tartans have become well established symbols, beloved by the familes they represent.

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