Tartans Abroad Assignment

Tartans Abroad

For many students, studying abroad is the highlight of their college career. It is a time to explore new places, new languages and new cultures. It is also a time of adjustment and self discovery. We hope this section of the website will prove useful for students while they are away from Carnegie Mellon. Included in this section is practical information about adjusting to the host culture and searching for jobs while abroad. We will also use this section to communicate with study abroad students. Please visit this site periodically to see if any updates have been posted. We hope that all our students enjoy their time abroad and keep in touch!

Staying in Touch

Students will undoubtedly enjoy their time abroad and become immersed in the host culture, but it is important to remain in contact with OIE while abroad. OIE will communicate with students periodically to check-in, request information, report new university policies, and provide cultural adjustment advice.

The Study Abroad Newsletter "Tartan Travels" is produced two times a year - mid-Fall semester and mid-Spring semester - and is the primary way OIE will communicate with students during their time abroad. This newsletter includes student stories and photos, and students are encouraged to submit their stories and photos online.

OIE will also post emergency information and other timely items on the Tartans Abroad section of the Study Abroad website, so check back often.

Students who are abroad occasionally need to contact Carnegie Mellon staff and faculty. We have compiled a list of Department Contacts.

Adjusting

Adjusting is a major component of study abroad. Students have to adjust to the host culture, and then re-adjust to life in the U.S. For some students, the transition seems almost seamless; for others it can be an emotional and trying process. We hope that the information below will provide students with information and tips to make the adjustment easier. We encourage students to stick with it and ask for help when they need it. Most importantly, stay healthy!

View the following helpful resources:

Academics

There are a few academic considerations that must be addressed while abroad:

Follow-Up SATC Form

Students must often make changes to their coursework abroad due to cancelled classes or time conflicts. Because this happens so frequently, OIE has developed a simple procedure for gaining new course approvals abroad. Students who have made changes to their course registration abroad should use the Follow-Up SATC (pdf) form to update their courses with their academic advisors.

Please complete all categories, including URLs for specific courses. Once this is completed with signature approvals, email the form to goabroad@andrew.cmu.edu. 

Course Registration for the Return Semester

Students currently abroad who plan to return to Carnegie Mellon must register for courses while abroad. This can be done online during the designated time. Students who do not have regular internet access may request that their academic advisor register for them. Be sure to gain approval for all courses and discuss registration with all academic advisors before going abroad.

Job Search

One question many students have while studying abroad is how to search for a job or an internship to take place upon their return to the U.S. We recommend that students meet with their career consultants before going abroad and continue to connect over email while abroad. Career consultants are excellent resources in all phases of the internship and job search processes.

If students are thinking about returning abroad in the future for internship and job opportunities we highly recommend they try to make contacts while they are abroad. Working abroad has many benefits (similar to study abroad) including gained confidence that comes with taking risks, international contacts in professional fields, foreign language skills, marketability, personal and intellectual growth, appreciation for different methods and contexts, and cross-cultural skills and understanding. The Career & Professional Development Center has additional information on its website with regard to international job searches.

The skills that students gain by studying abroad are highly marketable throughout the job search process. We encourage students to find ways to talk concretely about the intra-personal, inter-personal and professional skills they have learned while abroad. Students should work with their career consultants to add these skills and others to their résumés and interviews:

  • Flexibility
  • Proven ability to adjust to new situations and environments
  • Work well with people from different cultures and countries
  • Willingness to learn new methods and strategies
  • Adapt to different management styles
  • Demonstrated perseverance in solving problems
  • Foreign language skills

Sources of the Tartans

Matthew Newsome, GTS, ©2005

This is not a history of tartan. This is not a history of the kilt, or of Highland dress. Nor will I address the histories of individual tartans. If you are expecting to discover the origins of your particular clan tartan, you will be disappointed. What I hope to address is a very important, yet often ignored, aspect of tartan’s history. This is a brief history, an overview, of how tartans have been recorded. So when you seek out information on the origins of a particular tartan, you will know when, how, and by whom the tartans will have been recorded and preserved throughout their history.

That being said, it would be helpful at the onset to make sure that one has a correct notion of tartan’s place in history. The idea persists that a system of clan tartans was born in the mists of the Celtic past, hours after Scotland’s mountains burst forth out of the primordial oceans. This is a myth that tartan scholars have spent the past hundred years or so attempting to debunk, but one that still survives at Scottish Highland Games, in various “tourist” books, and now with the internet on many web sites.

The truth is that in the pre-industrial era, all tartan was woven by hand and usually supplied locally. Tartan was an art form, and the weavers were (and are) artists. Therefore variety and uniqueness in design abounded. This makes perfect sense to anyone who would simply think about it. Imagine anyone who creates an artistic craft — let’s say a landscape painter, for instance. Would you expect a landscape painter to paint the exact same view of the exact same mountain range, without change, hundreds of times? Of course not. So why do we think that weavers would produce the exact same tartan for every member of a clan, or every resident of a village, for his entire life?

While it certainly may be true that individual weavers favored certain design motifs, or that certain colors were more common in a particular area, nothing like a defined and regulated clan tartan system can be shown to have existed — in practice or even in theory. The idea that “you are a member of this family and therefore these are the clothes you have to wear” just was not a part of Highland society, any more than it was in England, Bavaria, or Spain.

This is relevant to our present study of tartan recording. No one ever sat down to index all of the clan tartans prior to the nineteenth century for the simple fact that there were none to record. There is a legend in tartan lore of a pattern stick — a stick on which was wrapped colored threads to record the warp pattern of the tartan. On these the weaver would preserve the “true and authentic” tartan of the clan, and the sticks would be guarded and passed on from generation to generation. Suffice to say this pious legend is no more than that — legend. Such sticks have never been found, and in any case an actual piece of the woven tartan would provide a much more accurate record than a stick wrapped with string.

The first large-scale manufacturer of tartan cloth was the firm of William Wilsons and Sons of Bannockburn, begun sometime around 1765. One will note that this falls in the middle of the years of Proscription, when the wearing of tartan and Highland Dress was banned in the Highlands. Operating in Bannockburn, Wilsons was outside of the jurisdiction of this Act. Furthermore, when they secured position as the supplier of tartan cloth to the Highland Regiments, they ensured success as a major producer and supplier of tartans. To fill orders for large quantities of cloth, and to ensure consistency in the designs and colors from one order to the next, a degree of standardization was required. There is evidence that Wilsons was using standard patterns and colors by the late 1780s. And when you are using standard designs, you need to be able to identify them.

So the first real record we have of many of our tartan are the pattern books of this weaving firm. But these were far from collections of clan tartans! Wilson at first assigned his tartans numbers, not names. One would place an order for twenty yards of pattern number 12 because one liked that pattern, much like one would order a style of shirt from a catalog today simply because one favors that style.

But by the end of the eighteenth century Wilsons began to identify their tartans by names, as well. But this was not an attempt to claim that the tartan belonged to, or was in any way restricted to, the family whose name it now bore. It was simply another way of identifying the tartan. We do the same thing in modern American society. The helicopter is not called “Apache,” nor the Jeep called “Cherokee,” because we believe these Native American tribes actually developed or originally operated these vehicles. They are simply fancy (by which I mean “fanciful”) names.

(As a side note, we do the exact same thing even with other aspects of Highland Dress without giving it a thought. I have seen offered in catalogs Sherrifmuir doublets, Argyll jackets, Inverness capes, and Edinburgh cloaks. We have two styles of bonnet, the Balmoral and the Glengarry. Yet no one so far has suggested that these garments are only to be used by people from these locales, as has happened with tartan).

So, in Wilsons’ early record books (the most famous being their 1819 Key Pattern Book), we continue to find tartans identified by numbers, as well as names. Those names may be of clans and families, but are just as likely to be city names, or other fancy names such as Waterloo, Wellington, Regent, Rob Roy and Waggrall. These were popular names, inspired by the personages, events, and culture of the day and were meant only to be a tool in selling cloth.

Sometimes Wilsons themselves seemed unsure of why certain tartans were given particular names. In their 1819 Key Pattern Book, they include a tartan called “Logan” bearing this remark, “Note: Can get no information how this pattern was named Logan. Most probably it was after a Merchant called Thomas Logan who made or procured for us a number of new patterns…” Later, about 1830, a piece of this same tartan is labeled “Skene” in their records.

Nevertheless, these pattern books provide us with some of the earliest records of what would later become established clan tartans. There seems to be evidence that in addition to designing their own tartans, Wilsons also collected and reproduced tartans from locations all around Scotland. Regardless, when the first collections of clan tartans were made, Wilsons was one of the primarily suppliers.

And one of the first, if not the first, such collections was that of the Highland Society of London in 1815. This society, and others like it, was founded in the latter part of the eighteenth century in an attempt to revive and restore Highland Scottish culture in the aftermath of the Act of Proscription and subsequent repression of the Highland way of life. The London society, begun in 1778, was a kind of Scottish ex-patriates club (perhaps the prototype of the later Caledonian Clubs and St. Andrews Societies that would form across the globe wherever Scots settled).

So what occurred between the repeal of the Proscription Act in 1782 and 1815, when the Highland Society made the first attempt to collect all the “clan tartans?” This is a span of more than 30 years, a full generation. Why was there no interest in collecting clan tartans immediately after Proscription was lifted?

We don’t really know the answer to that question, but several factors come into play. First of all, the uprising of 1745 was a distant memory, and was already starting to be romanticized. The government no longer feared a rebellion from the north, so interest in Highland Scotland was now “safe” to pursue. The Highlands were beginning to attract tourists. The plight of the Highlanders during and after the Clearances (both those who left and those who remained) had taken hold in the public conscience. Lowlanders no longer feared association with “those barbaric Highlanders” and since the tartan industry had effectively moved into the Lowlands during Proscription, tartan was now seen as “pan-Scottish.” Take all that into account with the formation of the first Highland Societies in Scotland and England, intent on reviving Highland culture (or their version of it), and all the ingredients are in place.

The idea was at this time just starting to gel that the names born by the tartans represented an actual association with the clan. The fact that people knew so little information about this supposed clan tartan system was seen to be a result of suppression. In an attempt to “preserve” what he thought was an original clan tartan system before it was lost, in 1815 Col. Alasdair MacDonell of Glengarry began to urge all of the clan chiefs to submit a sample of their authentic tartan to the Highland Society of London.

This, of course, threw many clan chiefs into a tizzy, who by and large had no idea of what their “clan tartan” was supposed to be, nor had ever given it much thought. Many of these chiefs were just as ignorant of history as anyone else, and if enough people insisted that they once had a clan tartan, who were they to argue? The chief of the Robertson Clan set about asking all the older men in Atholl what the true clan tartan was. Many claimed they knew, but they all suggested different designs! The tartan ultimately submitted by the chief to the Highland Society is what we know today as Hunting Robertson, which was the tartan originally worn by the Loyal Clan Donnachie Volunteers (a kind of home guard) raised in 1803. Like most military tartans, it is based on the blue, green and black “government sett” — the Black Watch tartan — with colored stripes added.

It would seem that many chiefs simply wrote to the main supplier of tartan cloth, Wilsons of Bannockburn, asking them to send out a sample of “their” clan tartan. Looking back through Wilsons’ pattern books can unveil amusing stories regarding many of these “authentic” clan tartans’ origins. Perhaps most illustrative is the tartan that began life simply as “No. 43” in Wilsons’ record books.

When Wilsons began to assign names to their tartans, it was given the romantic name of “Caledonia” — the old Roman name for the northern part of Great Britain. When Wilsons sold cloth in this pattern to a man surnamed Kidd, on the east coast of Scotland, it was recorded in their pattern books as “No. 43 or Kidd.” Later, the same pattern was sold to a man in the West Indies named MacPherson, and his name was also added to their records. So when the chief of Clan MacPherson asked Wilsons to supply him with a sample of “the MacPherson tartan” it was their No. 43 pattern that they sent. He submitted to the Highland Society, and this is still the standard tartan used by the MacPherson clan today.

One characteristic that makes the Highland Society collection such a landmark in the story of tartan is that it sought its tartans directly from the clan chiefs. “What do you consider your authentic tartan to be?” was the question being asked. Each tartan in their collection bore the seal or signature of the chief. This established a very important principle in tartanology (if we may coin that word). What makes a tartan truly authentic is not age or antiquity. A clan tartan becomes such strictly by the approval of the chief. And the Highland Society of London collection was the first attempt to record what the chiefs considered their clan tartans to be.

Between 1815 and the modern day, we find many “databases” of tartans. These include privately held collections of tartan samples, as well as published resources attempting to catalog the tartan designs. None of these were “official” collections, and the great majority of them relied upon established resources such as the Highland Society collection and Wilsons of Bannockburn. We will not attempt to detail each and every one, but do intend to list the major important works and collections that one is likely to encounter when studying tartan.

One of the earliest private collections was that of Gen. Sir William Cockburn of Cockburn, who collected tartans from 1810 until about 1815 and was a member of the Highland Society of London. One can only imagine he was heavily involved in assembling that society’s collection. His private collection remains the earliest source that we have for many popular clan tartans.

Public interest in tartans really took off in the wake of King George IV’s visit to Edinburgh in 1822. Engineered by Sir Walter Scott and Gen. David Stewart of Garth, this Royal Visit was a veritable “tartan-fest.” Each Highland chief was expected to turn out in his “proper clan tartan,” — despite the fact that many had no idea what that tartan was supposed to be! Doubtless many tartans were either invented or re-named for the occasion. But after the fact, the idea was firmly established in the public’s mind that in order to even be a tartan, it had to be a named tartan.

Wilsons’ business boomed. One letter in Wilsons’ archives from this period is from a merchant, no doubt seeking a tartan to fill a client’s order. “Please send me a piece of Rose tartan,” he writes, “and if there isn’t one, please send me a different pattern and call it Rose.”

Onto the scene came James Logan, son of an Aberdeen merchant and a student of law and of art. For a time he was secretary of the Highland Society of London. In 1826, he began to travel the Highlands of Scotland, collecting tartan specimens, and talking with members of the older generation who claimed to remember traditional Highland practices. He published his findings in The Scottish Gael in 1831. His history suffered from the major flaw that he assumed every “traditional” Highland practice he found was rooted in the ancient past and had been kept miraculously preserved by the sheer isolation of the region. Though his history cannot be relied upon, his collection of tartans is important.

His is the first scholarly book that attempted to record the patterns of tartans. He did so by means of tables giving the measurement of the depth of the colors in the tartan pattern. This is not an entirely accurate way of recording a precise tartan pattern, but it laid down the foundation of tartan recording that others would build upon. Some fifty-four tartans were included.

At the same time that Logan was traveling the Highlands, two other important tartan “cult figures” were on the scene — John Sobieski Stuart and his brother Charles Edward Stuart. Born John and Charles Allen, these two were supposedly the grandsons of Prince Charles Edward Stuart (“Bonnie Prince Charlie”), and made quite a living touring the Scottish Highlands and living off of their famous reputation. Part of the mystique that they created about themselves was the claim to have in their possession copies of an original manuscript dating to 1571 detailing seventy-five clan tartans.

Eventually they would claim to have three copies of this manuscript, which they edited and published in 1842 under the name Vestiarium Scoticum: from the Manuscript formerly in the Library of the Scots College at Douay; with an Introduction and Notes. This book contained actual pictures of the tartans it described, illustrated through the use of the machine painting process invented by William and Andrew Smith of Mauchline. Charles is credited with the art work, and since the descriptions in the manuscript are rather vague (for instance, the MacFarlane tartan is described as having “thre stryppis quhite vpon ane blak field”) many of the tartans were no doubt designed by him in order to fit the descriptions.

Though originally accepted as authentic, in later years the manuscripts on which the brothers based their work were proven to be forgeries. Nevertheless, by that time many of the tartans recorded in the Vestiarium had come into common use and were firmly established — especially the many Lowland tartans which appeared here for the first time.

Also in the 1840’s, James Logan released his second work dealing with tartans, The Clans of the Scottish Highlands, illustrated by R. R. McIan. This two volume work was released between 1845 and 1847, containing information on the history of a number of the clans, with a portrait showing a figure in the proper tartan for each one. In the introduction, it was claimed, “Accurate data will be furnished on the clan tartans… Those will be given which are acknowledged by the present chiefs and clans…”

McIan’s artwork has been criticized, but they remain some of the most famous portraits depicting Highland dress. His figures were supposed to show all manner of Highland dress, from the noble to the poor, the ancient to the contemporary. But his knowledge of historical clothing was fanciful, to say the least, and his depictions cannot be relied upon for accuracy. The tartans shown on these figures also led to some inaccuracies, but for another reason. The method of illustrating them was to lithograph the outlines of the figures and then have other artists color them in. This resulted in some differences in the color details from one book to another, which can lead to some very different interpretations of the tartans depicted. Inaccurate as many of them were, the tartans depicted in this book were used by many weavers and in some cases remain in use today.

(One particular example is the Shaw tartan, from the figure who is supposed to depict Farquhar Shaw clad in the regimental tartan of blue, black and green with a red stripe in the middle of the blue. A fading of black to blue in one instance gave rise to the common Shaw tartan, which was never accepted by the clan. In 1969 the chief of the Shaws adopted a more historically correct tartan, but the one from the McIan portrait continues to be popular).

In the year 1850 two important books on tartans were published, Authenticated Tartans of the Clans and Families of Scotland by William and Andrew Smith and The Clans of the Highlands of Scotland by Thomas Smibert. Both books set about to record tartans as accurately as possible, and both have widely been accepted as doing a good job at the task. The Smith’s work relied largely on the findings of George Hunter, an Army clothier who toured the Highlands in search of tartans prior to 1822, and other trade sources. Their work contained sixty-nine tartans. Smibert’s book was based upon both Logan’s and the Sobieski-Stuart’s works, as well as original records of Wilsons of Bannockburn, and contained fifty-five tartans.

These books on the market, the need for tartan references was seemingly satisfied for a full generation. The next work dealing with the subject was James Grant’s Tartans of the Clans and Septs of Scotland in 1886. The seventy-two tartans illustrated in this book were said to come from specimens in use at the time. Many of them were identical to the tartans found in the Smiths’ publication. Tartan scholar James Scarlett says, “This is the prototype of the majority of the pocket-sized tartan picture-books that fill the bookshops in tourist areas of Scotland today, and while it is a classic and a collectors’ piece, it has as little to say about tartan as any of them.”

The last attempt to record tartans made in the nineteenth century was by Donald William Stewart. He was involved in the firm Romanes & Patersons, a tartan dealer on Princes Street in Edinburgh. Stewart’s Old & Rare Scottish Tartans was published in 1893. Rather than being about clans and merely illustrated with tartans, his book was actually about tartan. He includes forty-five designs, chosen because of their particular age or their rarity (as the title implies). What is perhaps most innovative about this book is that it was illustrated by means of mounting actual specimens of the tartans, woven in silk, and therefore was able to provide an exact record of the sett pattern. In the silk specimens, great care was taken to match the colors of the original samples of tartan he was using. Though in a few cases the color was later shown to be somewhat off, in general this method was a success.

The tartans found in these references, of course, were (with the exception of the tartans designed by the Sobieski-Stuarts) based on actual samples. While some collections resided in private hands, like those of James Logan, Provost McBean of Inverness (another nineteenth century tartan collector), or Gen. Sir William Cockburn, the majority no doubt came from commercial suppliers. Tartan was becoming ever more popular. As people were reading about it, they were also purchasing it! The firm D. W. Stewart was involved in, Romanes & Patersons, had a collection (put together perhaps as early as 1830) of some sixty-nine tartan samples of both Highland and Lowland clans. Another Edinburgh firm, Stewart Christie & Co., maintained a tartan pattern book of a similar date.

The twentieth century saw a continuation of private collections of tartan. Between WWI and WWII a collector named MacKinlay recorded tartans he found by coloring in patterns on strips of paper with colored pencils. Many other individuals were collecting tartans at this time, but perhaps no collection was as large as that of John McGregor Hastie. Between 1930 and 1950, he amassed a collection of some 960 tartans, many of his own weaving. (Note the growing number of named tartans at this time. Though Wilsons 1819 Key Pattern Book contained some 250 tartans, only about 100 of them were named. All of the nineteenth century books on tartan contained far less than 100 tartans.)

And the twentieth century had its share of tartan books, as well. The first to be printed was The Tartans of the Clans and Septs of Scotland, written by Henry Whyte and published by W. & A. K. Johnston in 1906. This was actually an enlargement of a previous work written by Mr. Whyte in 1891. Of this work, James Scarlett writes, “Many tartans made their first appearance in this, including ‘Stewart, black and white,’ but there is no information as to their origins. Otherwise, it is the mixture as before.”

In 1908 Frank Adam published his The Clans, Septs and Regiments of the Scottish Highlands. This was a major work on the subject and is still being reprinted today. Later editions were edited by Thomas Innes of Learney (later the Lord Lyon King of Arms), so much so that joint authorship could be claimed. About one hundred tartans were illustrated in this book, with some brief comments.

Innes himself would later author The Tartans of the Clans and Families of Scotland in 1938. This work illustrated 116 tartans, mainly taken from James Grant’s earlier work. In the same year, Robert Bain published his The Clans and Tartans of Scotland. This was the first book on tartan that utilized the photographic half-tone process to reproduce actual woven specimens of tartan, and so the illustrations are more realistic than in many of its predecessors. It established what is now the standard format of many tartan books aimed at the tourist — a color plate of the tartan with a brief history of the corresponding clan on the opposite page.

Perhaps the most important book on tartans published in the twentieth century was authored by D. W. Stewart’s son, Donald Calder (or D. C.) Stewart. He is said to have had none of his father’s interest in tartan until he picked up a copy of Bain’s book to read on the train while traveling home to Waterford from Inverness. By the time he got home, he had decided that if someone were going to write a book about tartans, they might as well do it correctly! And so he set himself to the task.

In 1950 his landmark reference, The Setts of the Scottish Tartans, was first published. Like his father’s Old & Rare Scottish Tartans, this was actually a book about tartans, rather than simply a “clan book” with pictures of tartans in it. Most importantly, this book included historical background and thread counts for two hundred and sixty-six tartans, including many obscure and rare patterns along with the more well known setts. In addition to the thread counts, Stewart also provided “color strips” to illustrate the tartans. These were narrow bands of color, meant to illustrate the lay-out of the sett in warp only. This created a very convenient way to compare one tartan to another and find similarity in design and motif. The Setts of the Scottish Tartans was reprinted in 1974, and today can be obtained in CD-ROM format from Scotpress. Because of the importance of this volume, D. C. Stewart has been called by James Scarlett, “the founder of serious tartan research.”

To help him in compiling the tartans for this reference, Stewart invented a filing system called “Sindex” (short-hand for “sett index”). Information for each tartan was recorded on a single 8” by 5” index card. The color strip for the tartan is filled in along the top edge. Just below that, to the left, is the name of the tartan, and to the right, the “Slog” (“sett log”), an indexing code giving information on the pivots of the particular tartan. The tartans in the Sindex were filed according to their Slog, and in this way one could take any given specimen of tartan and identify it in the Sindex according to its pivots. Beneath this information, a full thread count, cross references, source information, and any other pertinent information on the tartan was included, carrying over on to the back of the card if necessary.

This method of tartan indexing, originally created simply to reference the two hundred plus tartans in D. C. Stewart’s research, would serve as the basis of all future tartan recording efforts.

It would be beneficial to pause at this point and review how a tartan thread count should be read. Tartan thread counts are listed in the form of letters followed by numbers. The letters represent colors, and the numbers indicate the number of threads of that color. This pattern is to be followed in the laying out the warp of the cloth. As most tartans are symmetrical, the pattern is repeated in reverse when one comes to the end. Some asymmetrical tartans (indicated by an ellipsis at the end of the thread count) repeat without reversing. The same pattern is followed in the weft of the cloth to create the tartan design.

As an example, we will give the thread count for the very simple MacDonald of Sleat tartan. It is listed as: R72 G4 R10 G32. This means that there are seventy-two red threads, followed by four green, ten red, and then thirty-two green. The pattern is then reversed, going next to ten red, four green, and seventy-two red again. The Slog for this particular tartan would be RGR:GRG. For more information on reading a tartan thread count, one should reference any of the books available today on tartan weaving, including The Setts of the Scottish Tartans.

But perhaps the greatest event of the twentieth century, in regards to tartan recording, was the establishment in 1963 of the Scottish Tartans Society. In the words of D. C. Stewart, who served on their advisory panel, the idea for the Society began in 1962 when “Capt. T. Stuart Davidson… gathered a group of enthusiasts to undertake an information service on questions relating to tartans. The news soon spread, and the libraries and collections of the founder members were scoured for answers to inquiries coming from all over Britain and beyond the Atlantic.”

Prior to this formation, it must be understood, if someone from overseas wanted to make contact with a body in Scotland to get information on tartan, there was no centralized organization in place. The Lyon Court’s advice was most often sought, but as tartan is not heraldic, the Lord Lyon has absolutely no authority over them! He would agree to record, for a clan chief, what that chief accepted as his tartan, but unless tartan was specifically used as an element in someone’s heraldry, he had no jurisdiction over it. Not that the to-be-formed Scottish Tartans Society or any other group did have jurisdiction, mind you. But many people assumed that the Lord Lyon did, and simply put, it just was not his specialty. To better serve the purpose of providing tartan information, in July 1963 Sir Thomas Innes of Learney, Lord Lyon King of Arms, inaugurated the Scottish Tartans Information Centre, which later would become known as the Scottish Tartans Society (STS).

One of the principle aims of the STS was to establish a single master-database of tartan for reference purposes, the Register of All Publicly Known Tartans. Their archives were made up of many private collections, with McGregor Hastie’s being chief among them. The Sindex system devised by D. C. Stewart was used to maintain the files. The attempt was not merely to record the “correct” clan tartans, as approved by the chiefs, but to create a record of every tartan — new or historic — that was woven. The number of tartans included soon rose to four digits.

One of the early consultants of the STS was Jack Dalgety, a man with an expansive knowledge on the subject of tartan. He would later on consult with Tony Murray of Stirling to place the STS Register on computer, making the information on tartans it contained more easily accessible to the general public than ever before.

The original STS was made up of tartan scholars, collectors, and others who had a vested interest in the subject. It was registered as a charitable association and was operated by a board of directors. However, as time went by, “tartan politics” were to play an issue. Some long-time members, including many of the academics as well as members from the tartan production industry, had strong disagreements with the STS leadership. Some of the differences derived from professional differences of opinion about the direction of the Society, while others had to do more with conflicts of personality. The end result, however, was the founding, in 1996, of a separate group, the Scottish Tartans Authority (STA).

The bulk of the original membership of the STA was made up of tartan weavers and retailers, but many academics joined them. In the USA, they were joined by the Tartan Educational and Cultural Association, or TECA — a group with similar aims and goals who were founded in 1984, were once affiliated with the STS, but now constitute the American branch of the STA (in fact in 2005 they were officially renamed STA USA).

Like the Scottish Tartans Society’s Register of All Publicly Known Tartans, the STA seeks to record all tartans in their master database, called the International Tartan Index (ITI). Why the need for two such major databases, one might ask? The answer was to become apparant a few years later in the year 2000, when the STS, suffering from legal difficulties, was forced to close its Hall of Records and put a freeze on new entries into the Register. It was hoped that the closure would be temporary, but now five years later it would appear that the STS, as a tartan recording body, is defunct.

Keith Lumsden, former records keeper for the Society, established his own private company in that year named Tartan Registration, Ltd., and continues to record new tartans submitted by manufacturers to him in his Scottish Tartans World Register. This database is made up of the STS records at the time of their closing (some 2600 individual records), plus whatever new tartans Mr. Lumsden has added.

The STA, in the meantime, continues to record new tartans in its ITI. Its master index contains over 6000 entries, cataloging over 4000 unique tartans. (The reason for these two numbers is due to the fact that when an error in a tartan entry is found, that entry is marked ‘DELETED’ but otherwise left intact in the database, and a separate corrected entry is added. In this way an electronic “paper trail” is preserved so that later questions about tartan discrepancies can be more completely addressed.) The ITI is now undisputedly the most complete tartan database in existence, and as the STA membership includes major tartan weavers such as Lochcarron, Ingles Buchan, House of Edgar, Johnstons of Elgin, and Strathmore, it is undoubtedly the industry standard. The STA also has the support of leading tartan academics such as Peter MacDonald, James Scarlett, and Bob Martin.

If one were to seek information on a specific tartan today, one can easily get on the Internet and have access to all three of the databases just mentioned. In fact, comparison is never a bad idea, as the best of record keepers make mistakes, and with the sheer volume of tartans available today, mistakes are inevitable! In fact, not a few popular tartans owe their origins to mistakes in thread counts (Buchanan, for instance, or Ross Hunting).

It should be noted that the advent of the large-scale, computerized tartan databases has not done away with tartan reference books. Far from it! If anything, they have made such references easier to create and cross-reference. Much of 2004 was spent by myself and James A. Bullman in compiling the Compendium of District Tartans — a collection of over 450 individual district tartans for places in Scotland and abroad. This work would have taken years, if not decades to compile, and would have required many cross-Atlantic journeys, if it were not for the availability of these electronic databases.

We cannot make mention of every book on tartan written in the latter twentieth century — and many of them hardly warrant mention. But of the titles dealing with tartan per se (as opposed to just being illustrated with tartans), the major works published after The Setts of the Scottish Tartans include James Scarlett’s The Tartan Weaver’s Guide, published in 1985, and his Tartan; the Highland Textile, published in 1990. The latter is an updated and much expanded version of D. C. Stewart’s work, and if you are to only own one book on tartan, this had better be it.

Important for the sheer number of tartans it includes, if nothing else, is the three volume set, simply titled Tartans, written by Phillip D. Smith and William H. Johnson in 1999. This work includes illustrations and thread counts (but nothing else) for over 1400 tartans. Though, like any book on tartan, it is not without error, if someone were to desire a set of books with the most tartans actually illustrated, this would be it. Both men were intimately involved in TECA. Smith is the designer of over 70 tartans and author of the Tartan For Me! name reference. Johnson had perhaps the largest private collection of tartan samples in America, which was entrusted to the STA upon his death.

Lastly, it should be stated that none of the tartan recording bodies here mentioned is officially sponsored by the Scottish government. Presently, there is a bill before the Scottish Parliament to create an office of “Keeper of Tartan” that would establish or maintain some kind of official database of Scottish tartans. Whether one of the above pre-existing databases would be assumed, or a new one created is part of what is being debated. The idea has critics and supporters from all fields. Needless to say, we shall have to watch in the coming years to see how this develops.

As tartan is more popular now than ever before, it is not surprising to see both old tartans being rediscovered in museum collections (or often in people’s attics!), and new tartans being designed by the weaving industry. This is how it has always been, ever since the early days of William Wilson. The only thing new is the sheer scale. As more and more tartans are woven and worn, the need for an accurate and historical database for recording is essential to avoid confusion. Luckily, as I have hopefully illustrated, people have always come forward to meet this need.

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