Tuesday, July 11, 2006

A Rare Old Piece of Scots Tartan

One of my listings in my Ebay 'Scottish Home' Shop this week will be a wonderful old Scottish tartan shawl, something of a rarity, since most of these old shawls were eaten by moths, wore out, or were cut up and used for other purposes. But this one has survived with just one small hole - a textile miracle. Most Scots afficionados will know that named or clan tartans were an eighteenth century invention. Before that, natural dyes were used, and the wool would have been hand spun and woven, so although the Gaels were always fond of bright colours, structure and uniformity would have been impossible. Long ago, as I discovered when I was researching my new book 'God's Islanders, A History of the People of Gigha' (to be published by Birlinn in October) the Celts on both sides of the Irish sea favoured bright yellow plant dyes, to the point where, like the fate which befell tartan later on, the Irish were banned from wearing them. These were called 'saffron' dyes, although it is a moot point whether saffron was ever used, since there are a number of more readily available native plants which can be used to obtain the favoured yellow dye. When I was researching this subject, it occurred to me that for large parts of the year, the highlands and islands are covered with bright yellow gorse, so these saffron garments would have made excellent camouflage. (See my posting 'When the Gorse is in Bloom.')
Later, the old Scots plaid, the traditional and highly useful garment of the highlands and islands would have been hand woven in the simple checked pattern which is to be found worldwide, wherever climate dictates the need for a warm wrap of some sort. The wool of which these original plaids were woven would have been pretty much waterproof as well, so the plaid was a practical textile, having something of the outdoor coat, and something of the warm sleeping bag about it! It was only in the first half of the nineteenth century that the Scottish highlands became imbued with a certain romance, in the imaginations of the British public. George IV visited Scotland in 1822, and then Queen Victoria was positively obsessed with the place (although that could have had something to do with a certain handsome John Brown.) Suddenly tartan was classy and everybody seemed to want to get in on the act. At the same time the industrialisation of the dyeing and weaving processes made uniformity - and mass production - possible. Tartans began to be classified and the fashionable elite began to want to know what was the 'correct' tartan to attribute to a particular clan.
Ladies wanted to get in on the act as well, and it is probably to this period, the mid 1800s, that I would date the spectacular shawl, which I photographed hanging out in my garden to get a little genuine Scottish air. It is a huge rectangle, which echoes the large rectangles of traditional Scottish Paisley Shawls, which, in their prime, would have been used as outdoor wraps, over the voluminous crinoline shape. I'm pretty sure that this tartan probably had a similar fashionable purpose, rather than as a man's practical plaid. Sadly, no young man would have 'row'd' (ie rolled) his sweetheart in this plaid, as poet Robert Burns was wont to do, although those wonderfully romantic masculine textiles do crop up from time to time. But all the same, this huge mid nineteenth century tartan shawl is a real collector's item, and one with a multitude of modern uses as a throw or hanging, as well as a piece which you might occasionally like to wrap yourself in and imagine yourself as a Victorian heroine!

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