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Tartan Myth

Is there really such a thing as a clan tartan, which,
in the past, was readily identifiable and which was
worn only by its members? If so, are the contemporary clan tartans the same as those worn in the period prior to 1746 and the ban?

These questions were raised, first of all, in the early
nineteenth century. Napoleon had been defeated, and the Highland regiments had come home to glory. The issues, then, were as complex as they are today and ranged between two extreme views: that the modern tartans are pure invention or that the patterns worn today are precisely the same as in the heyday of the clans, The truth, however, lies between the two schools of thought. It is certainly a myth that long ago the people of one glen wore a tartan of blue and green, while their neighbours in the next wore red and yellow. Yet, it is the case that the weaving patterns for tartan, the serts, the thread counts and the designs created in one particular area were traditionally associated with it, and a man’s clan allegiance could often he identified on the basis of his dress. Martin Martin, a native of Skye and the factor to the MacLeods, wrote a book in 1703 called
Description of the Western Islands of Scotland in which he said:

The plaid wore only by the men is made of fine wool, the thread as fine as can he made of that kind. It consists of’ many colours, and there is a great deal of ingenuity required in sorting the colours, so as to be agreeable to the nicest fancy. Every Isle differs from each other in their fancy of making plaids, as to the stripes in breadth and colours. This humour is as different through the main land of the highlands insofar that they who have seen those places is able at the first view of a man's plaid to guess the place of his residence.

It has also been recorded that in 1703 the laird of Grant ordered that a gathering of 600 of his men should all have tartan coats of the same colour and fashion, being red and green.

Further evidence to support the theory that there were some individual ‘clan tartans’ before 1746 is found in the account of the Battle of Killiecrankie, which took place during the first Jacobite rebellion in 1689, by the bardic chronicler to Viscount Dundee, Bonnie Dundee. Here he wrote of Glengarry’s men parading in tartan woven in triple stripes, while the men of his brother had a tartan with a red stripe. Maclean of Duart and his brother wore plaids with yellow stripes, and that of McNeil was as bright as a rainbow.

It is also interesting to note that when the Highland
regiments were formed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries many had new tartans specifically designed for them, some of which were based on older weaving patterns. For example, when Sir Alan Cameron of Erracht (1750—1828) founded the 79th Regiment, the Cameron Highlanders, he designed a new tartan for it and wrote at the time that the main tartan worn in Lochaber before the ban was red in colour. It might he presumed from this that many of the wearers could be identified as Lochaber men and, therefore, probably Camerons.

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