Time to put an end to the tartan terrors

Unless we call a halt to the riot of garish new designs threatening our national dress – such as the luminous Incredible Hulk tartan – we risk losing the collective pride in our plaid.

Tartan has been rooted in Scotland’s heritage for centuries. The history of the fabric goes back to the checked and striped garments worn by the Celts in the country that would become Scotland.

But tartan as we know it really came to the fore in the fifth century when the Scotti tribe from Ireland arrived and gave this land its name, along with a fabric that would become woven into our very identity.

The Highlanders adopted the plaid as a symbol of their clan allegiances and by the start of the 17th century, patterns or setts became standardised, giving each clan an instantly recognisable identity.

Tartan became such an important symbol of life in Scotland that when Bonnie Prince Charlie was defeated at Culloden in 1746 it was banned by the British Government, along with the playing of bagpipes and the carrying of a claymore. The only way a Scotsman could wear his national dress was to join the British army where kilts and trews were permitted.

The Black Watch were the first to adopt a ‘government tartan’ with other regiments then choosing to adopt clan patterns.

Sir Walter Scott brought tartan to the masses when he organised a tartan pageant in Edinburgh for King George IV in 1822. The first monarch to enter Scotland for over 170 years arrived dressed in a kilt and tartan suddenly became de rigueur.

But I wonder what Scotland’s most famous novelist would make of tartan today? Of a world where every wedding with even a fleeting connection to Scotland is awash with plaid, where every second tourist dons a see-you-Jimmy hat, where fashion houses reive tartan collections for inspiration. This is not what tartan should mean to Scotland.

Our national textile has become a cheap facsimile that is no longer worn as a proud badge of family allegiance but has become a cash cow for manufacturers of cheap tartan tat. Our national icon has lost its authenticity.

The Scottish Register of Tartans was launched by the Scottish Government in 2009, the then Minister for Enterprise, Energy and Tourism, Jim Mather, explaining that ‘the register will make tartan more accessible than ever before. It means people across the world will be able to use the register as an online resource to research or design their own family tartan and have it woven in Scotland – tartan’s spiritual home.’

And that is exactly what has happened. Today there are 7,329 tartans registered with the Scottish Register of Tartans, 1,565 of which have been registered since 2009. Each year around 200 new tartans are designed by businesses, charities, families and any other Tom, Dick or Jimmy who might fancy getting in on the act.

The criteria for registration of a new tartan are hardly strict. According to the Scottish Register of Tartans, ‘a new tartan must meet the definition of tartan contained in the Scottish Register of Tartans Act (2008), it must be a new design, unique to the register and there must be
a clear link between the person registering the tartan and the proposed tartan name.’

The fee to register a tartan is £70 and all you need supply is a threadcount, image and name in order for your application to be considered.

The definition of tartan, according to the Scottish Register of Tartans Act is: ‘A tartan is a design which is capable of being woven, consisting of two or more alternating coloured stripes which combine vertically and horizontally to form a repeated chequered pattern.’

So, if I wished to design a magenta and luminous green tartan and have it woven in China (someone has, it’s called The Incredible Hulk tartan), I could then have my tartan registered alongside the setts of old; patterns that have graced the hills, glens and buttocks of Scotland for centuries.

Indeed, tartans that have been registered since 2009 include that for the Clan MacEvil Incarnate, Clan Inebriated, the Yamaguchi Tsutomu tartan (transforms the nuclear hazard sign into a radiant symbol of hope for a nuclear-free future) and the World Peace tartan.

Celebrities to have their own tartan include Santa Claus, Madonna, Elvis, and Bee Jay the family dog. There’s even a tartan for Thomas Newcomen’s Combustion Engine, Blue Peter, The Da Vinci Code, K9 from Star Wars, Batman, Coca Cola, The Golden Gate Bridge, Peter Rabbit, Fibonacci, and the bloody Wombles.

And here in Scotland we are just as guilty of creating hideous new versions of tartan. Who can forget the lurid orange, pink and bright blue aberration that was the Scotland uniform for the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow in 2014? At a time when the eyes of the commonwealth rested on Scotland, we chose not to use a traditional Scottish tartan, or even to create a sett that would have given a respectful nod to our forefathers, instead dressing our athletes up like a right dug’s dinner.

It’s time for Scotland to take tartan in hand and stop the onslaught of new designs which only serve to dilute the beauty of this textile.

It’s time to ensure that tartan remains something that Scotland can be proud to have as the basis for its national dress.

(This feature was originally published in 2016)