Jul 29, 2009

A Taste of Tartan

The other day, I was out antiquing with my sister when I came across a lovely little book on tartan. It was inexpensive, so I bought it without taking the time to flip through it. When I got to the car, I pulled it out of the sack and was delighted to discover that it wasn't just pictures of swatches, but the actual history of tartan, complete with historic images and illustrations. Well, that inspired me to start on a new figure based on one of the images in the book of a clan chief on the eve of The '45. He's wearing a period coat and shirt over a traditional belted plaid, which combines my passions for 18th century and Scottish costume. Jimmy, as I call him, is a full sculpt, meaning he's completely sculpted from clay, rather than part clay and part cloth. Well, except for his upper arms, which need to bend so I can get him into his clothes. In the painting, he's outfitted with a sword and dirk and there's a very nasty looking shield in the background with a spike extending out of the center. Yesterday (and boy was I excited) I found the perfect sword for him online: a Scottish basket hilt letter opener! Yowza!

Okay, so. My love affair with Scotland and tartan continues. I'm thinking of doing a whole series of Highland figures in traditional dress from varying time periods. Ambitious, yes. Guess we'll see if I can pull it off.

In the meantime, here's a little bit of history from my second novel, Bloodlust. This bit is stuck in between the Inverness Highland Games, where Robert (our vampire hero) is giving a political speech and tossing a caber and an interview he gives with a seductive reporter from the local newspaper.

Tartan plaid, far more than a repeating pattern of dyed wool woof and warp, has long been a symbol of Scottish pride and independence. That’s why it was the uniform of choice for the Jacobite uprising in 1745. And that’s why the English banned the wearing of all tartan and other forms of Highland dress in Scotland the year after the rebellion. The ban, a poison arrow aimed right at the heart of Highlander heritage, extended to the wearing of kilts (tartan skirts), trewes (tight tartan trousers), or philabegs (baggy tartan shorts); the playing of the bagpipes; the speaking of Scottish Gaelic; the bearing of all arms; and the gathering of clansmen. The penalty for a first offense was six months in prison. A second offense initially carried a sentence of seven years hard labor on a colonial plantation, but was later changed to a forced term of service in the British army in America, which chiefly defended the colony against the French, the strongest of Scotland’s allies.

The demoralizing measure was crafted to crush Scotland’s ancient clan culture as a means of squelching any lingering pro-Jacobite sentiments in the Highlands. Suspected sympathizers were forced to take an oath, which demonstrated England’s shrewd understanding of the character of the Scottish people:

“I ... do swear, and as I shall have to answer to God at the great day of judgment, I have not nor shall have in my possession, any gun, sword, pistol or arm whatever: and never use any tartan, plaid or any part of the Highland garb, and if I do so, may I be cursed in my undertakings, family, and property--may I never see my wife and children, father, mother, and relations--may I be killed in battle as a coward, and lie without Christian burial in a strange land, far from the graves of my forefathers and kindred-- may all this come across me if I break my oath.”

The ban elicited outrage and resentment among Highlanders, who vowed “it would take more than an act of Parliament to stop the Highlander wearing his traditional clothes.” But stop them it did. The ban, which lasted thirty-six years, was strictly enforced. In the span of two generations, the wearing and the weaving of tartan plaid virtually ceased with many ancient patterns and traditions forever lost along the way.

But what the measure took with one hand, it inadvertently gave with the other. The ban imbued the forbidden cloth with an air of danger and intrigue. The romanticism surrounding tartan was further enhanced by its continued use in the Highland regiments, the only group of Scotsmen exempted from the ban. The fighting prowess of the Scots, their continued wish to wear the kilt and tartan, and the standardization of many setts in a military form all contributed over time to a mood of public support for lifting the ban. So did the fading public memory of Culloden and wider acceptance in Scotland of the new British king.

Thus, in June 1782 in Parliament, the Marquis of Graham, who helped form the Highland Society of London, moved “that the clause of the nineteenth year of George II, which prohibits the wearing of the Scotch Highland dress, be repealed.

There was but one dissenting voice: Sir Philip Jennings Clerke, who wanted to have Highland dress confined to Scotland for the protection of the ladies. In making his plea, he relayed to the members of the House a story he had been told by a Hampshire innkeeper, who had recently quartered four officers of a Scottish regiment. The innkeeper complained that his wife and daughters were so taken with the men’s kilts and bare legs that he’d spent the duration of their visit keeping an eye on his women.

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