Siol nan Gaidheal


Myth Debunking or Destruction of Identity

It is popular today to mention well-known aspects of Scottish identity - kilts, tartan, heather, bagpipes - in order to get a crowd of Scots to fall into instantaneous laughter. The magic formula of those words spoken together is enough to provide instant mirth and lead the company into jokes about tourists who travel great distances - particularly Americans - to see these things in the country best known for them.

But why should this be so? Particularly as young Scots of today, and especially those most apt to laugh at the notion of an American looking for tartan, are probably more inclined to sport out-of-date American fashion and indulge in obsessive nostalgia for the U.S. trends of yesteryear than any self-respecting Yankee would get away with. Is there not something ironic in a native of Glenrothes dressed entirely in replica cowboy gear (complete with gun and holster) going to his/her "Line-Dancing" nights out, or another dressed in replica "Rebel without a Cause" kit, sneering at the visitor from Michigan who has journeyed to Caledonia to hear bagpipes among the heather?

Scots are also tourists. When we go abroad, we expect to see something different from what we know at home and are just as apt as any other people to go to Spain in expectation of bull-fights and castanets: to Japan expecting kimono and sumo-wrestling: to Wyoming ready to soak in an atmosphere of John Waynish Marlboro country.

How many of those same Scots who object to heather seekers on the grounds that they're not getting the "Real Scotland" of Drumchapel are anxious to deplete their own savings in an effort to have a week of "housing-scheme touring" in the peripheries of Bilbao? Would they really prefer that to running the bulls in Pamplona? If a Scots couple travel to Hawaii for a holiday, do they make a fuss and object every time they see grass-skirts swaying to a ukelele band simply because they know perfectly well that most Hawaiians today dress in the same style as folk in Troon on a hot day?

We have therefore been subjected to many years of 'anti-tartan' propaganda from both the left and the right of the British/English establishment. More surprisingly, this nonsense has become part of the stock-in-trade of the would-be Scottish Left as well. A while ago, Arch-Tory Sir Hugh 'Hitler-Diaries' Trevor-Roper played the role of the Wicked Witch of the South in his obsessive attempts to discredit virtually every aspect of Scottish Culture. His absurd claim that tartan and kilts are 'Victorian Inventions' is entirely unfounded, but he knows full well that the mere use of the word 'Victorian' is enough to get the trendy 'Lefties' all stirred up; to them, 'Victorian' is as clear a signal as 'heretic' to an Inquisitor.

Even before the ban was lifted, visitors to Scotland often mentioned the banning of tartan as a terrible assault upon the Scottish People by the Anglo-British authorities. The terms used in the poetry, though certainly symbolic to some extent, should be read by anyone who feels inclined to pass comment upon the significance and history of tartan. Tartan as a typical Scottish fabric has survived to this day; so has the English prejudice against it. Only recently, with Scotland so full of English settlers and Anglo-British control over Scotland's media and Cultural institutions, has the negative image of 'tartanry' become part of Scotland's own self-perception. And that brings us back to the Trendy Left.

In an almost frantic effort to appear 'cosmopolitan', Scottish people have taken to imitating those in charge; the English and the Americans. Even those who claim to despise them and try at every opportunity to ridicule them can only ape their 'betters'. The same difficulty occurs among other suppressed cultures, such as the African-Americans. The underdog's cry of "I'm as good as you!" can be heard as "I'm just the same as you!" when there is no longer a strong cultural foundation to provide a sense of unique self-worth.

Donald Dewar, Brian Wilson and other lickspittles of the Labour Party have ever used the word 'tartan' in reference to the SNP. Until recently they totally ignored anything that smacked of "Scottishness" in their approach to the electorate, preferring instead to follow the English theme, yet because of rising support for the Nationalists who openly support 'tartan' and the usage of Gaelic, have now done a complete turnaround and have the barefaced cheek to have their tedious party slogans now blazoning the stage of their conferences, in Gaelic.

In a past essay in 'Scotland on Sunday' a member of a neo-folk Rock band described his tour of America as if he were on an almighty crusade to have tartan banned the world over. He began the piece by announcing that he arrived in the U.S. wearing "Harley-Davidson" braces, (an American would call them 'suspenders') and that he had never worn a tartan tie! Throughout the following three pages, he tears and rages about tartan and "American Misconceptions" with an obsession that would call for psychiatric treatment were the entire piece not so utterly trite. We've read it all so many times before. The 'Scotch Tartan Myth Debunking' article has become so standardised by now that anyone with a word-processor and a few minutes to spare can write their own without a moment's preparation knowing that the punters will all agree because the format is so well established. 'Debunking the Tartan Myth' is a Sacred Cow in contemporary Scotland. Of course, the author of the 'Scotland on Sunday' piece tries so desperately to be American himself, and so clumsily exposes his own misconceptions, that he may be dismissed as an utter fool. He is however far from uncommon. (where is the group in question these days in any case?)

Perhaps there is some excuse in condemning tartan when it is mass-produced and overtly commercial. But - is rayon tartan any more shoddily commercial than a plastic baseball cap? Or 'Harley Davidson braces' on a Scot? As for the 'Working Class can't afford it' argument, the ubiquitous Hilfiger sweatshirts, Nike shell suits or black leather jackets represent far more expense than any kilt. If there is anything comical in the fact that there are Americans of Scottish descent who wear tartan and sing Scottish songs, then it must be hysterically funny that Scotland has had ersatz 'Cajun' bands with such names as 'Swamp Trash' and 'The Critter Hill Varmints'. Why should we expect the Americans to take these bands any more seriously than we would take the 'Bonny Loch Haggis Band' from Louisiana, if such a thing exists?.

Learning to appreciate how others see us would be of far greater value to the Scottish People than our exhausting attempts to be like other people. Least of all those who have dominated us for so long. We too have cliched ideas and potted notions of what other peoples' cultures are like. If we could learn to understand the origins, the richness and the depth of our own culture, we will have taken a very mighty step toward understanding the nature of other cultures and peoples. Clothing our own ignorance of our own heritage in the pretence that it has no value makes us appear small and silly to all Mankind.

Although in typical English fashion, Sir Hugh uses no Scottish source material in his 'research' on the subject, and his claims have been thoroughly discredited by academics far more capable than he, his 'Victorian Invention' Theory has passed into contemporary Scottish popular lore via the media. It now provides an excuse for Scots who have lost track of their Cultural Heritage to harass those who have not.

But why so much fuss over a type of fabric and a garment customarily made from it? The symbolism dates back a very long way indeed; long before Queen Victoria was around. Whereas in England and the Low Countries woollen cloth was generally dyed after it had been woven, Scottish weavers, as in other parts of Europe, usually wove cloth from already coloured threads. As dye pots tended to be small, especially in the highlands, and amounts of dye in any particular shade were limited, the natural tendency was to weave in stripes in order to achieve a balance of colour across a web of cloth. The 'twill' method of weaving not only provided a particularly fine, tight woolen cloth, it also meant that stripes going in opposite directions were equally visible and could be used to make elaborate patterns of squares and lines. Although the weaving of such patterns is common to other nations, Scotland excelled in the production of tartan cloth for centuries. As Scottish people not only wore tartan cloth but also exported it in great quantities, it grew to become the symbol of the nation itself.

Although the wearing of tartan cloth was originally natural and un-selfconscious, after the Treaty of Union the idea of a Gaelic-speaking clansman swathed in tartan became a potent symbol of Scottish identity; it was patently un-English. Of course, Highlanders actually did customarily dress in tartan at that period, often from head to foot. Particularly striking was the great plaid; many yards of tartan cloth worn as an outermost garment. Although this was by then a distinctly 'Highland' feature, it had previously been worn by the Lowlanders as well.

For a Lowlander to wear a tartan plaid in the early years of the 18th century was therefore taken as a declaration of anti-British sentiments. Therefore, the Jacobite Army of 1745 quite deliberately wore tartan as a uniform for Highlander and Lowlander alike; a statement of Scottish identity. The symbolism of this was so clear that the British/English Parliament passed an act in 1747 forbidding any male in Scotland (not, significantly, in England, Wales or Ireland; nor women) from wearing tartan cloth. The Act bore the xenophobic hallmark of those passed a century earlier which banned the characteristic Irish form of dress. Although impossible to enforce entirely, it was not repealed until 1782.

The making and wearing of tartan cloth never died out. It continued to be used for women's clothing, for household furnishings, and by many men who were in Government service, who were specifically exempt from the ban. An exemption cynically and characteristically exploited by the Anglo-British establishment. An establishment which now seeks to discredit it this time on the back of cringe-laden and trendy posturing. Fashions change, the enemies of Scotland remain.

Return to top Return to Index

On-Line Copyright © Siol nan Gaidheal 1995 - 2020, All Rights Reserved