April 16, 2006

Colorado's tartan is more authentic than the Scots varieties

Back, MacGregor! Down, Campbell! I have an historical point to make here.

Today's Denver Post, as part of a Colorful Colorado Quiz, includes a question about "Colorado's official state garment."

No, it's not a synthetic fleece jacket or a Western shirt from Rockmount. What they meant was the Colorado state tartan, which is a pattern "of primary blocks of forest green and cerulean blue separated by broad dividing bands of black, with the forest green checks containing two pairs of tram tracks consisting of lavender and white."

Long ago, Scottish tartans were more attached to places than to families--although the two were more nearly synonymous than now. As is well know, wearing tartans was prohibited after the 1745 Jacobite rebellion.

A generation earlier, a Lancashire Quaker named Thomas Rawlinson had tried to start an iron smelter in Glengarry. Watching the Highlanders try to work while wearing the traditional belted plaid (essentially a wool blanket wrapped around a man's waist, belted, and the excess tossed over one shoulder), he invented a new garment for his workers--just the skirt part, or the kilt as we now know it.

A Scottish member of Parliament, David Stewart of Perthshire, served in the West India Rangers and was then asked in 1817 to write a history of the Black Watch regiment. Sir Walter Scott was writing his novels romanticizing Highlanders then too, and Stewart felt that imbuing Scotsmen with military pride would provide the British Army with a core of strong regiments (which it did).

Stewart founded a "Celtic Society" (soft C, I'll bet), and promoted Highland games and Highland dress, all in the service of empire--including the new-style cut-down kilt. When King George IV visited Edinburgh in 1822, the kilted Celtic Society provided a guard of honor, and the king wore a kilt too.

In his two-volume book on Scotland, Stewart claimed that Scottish clan chieftain had worn distinctive "setts," or tartan patterns. This was all Romantic moonshine, but the idea caught on. During the royal visit of 1822, the clan chiefs were told to wear their setts, and most had no idea what they should be, but they set out (pun) to find some. Two English brothers, Charles and Ian Hay Allen, self-appointed experts on all things Scottish, also involved themselves with providing the correct patterns for each clan.

So now when you see maps of Scotland with the "correct" tartan applied to each clan's home district, know that a Scot from 1700 or earlier would be astonished at them.

Our saying that any Coloradan can wear the Colorado tartan is every bit as authentic as what David Stewart and the Allen brothers concocted. Buy the necktie or the scarf and wear it proudly. It doesn't matter if your name is Salagovic or Morelli or C de Baca, assuming the color scheme suits you.

(My history is summarized from the chapter "How Myths are Made" in Witches, Druids and King Arthur, by the excellent historian Ronald Hutton of the University of Bristol.)


Unknown said...

Fun post. I saw that, too, though in the paper it looked like Blackwatch.

Now I really have to attend the Highland Games in Estes Park this year, to see how many people are wearing the Colorado Tartan. I will be.

I can wear MacLachlan, too.

Chas S. Clifton said...

Based at what I have seen at the Estes Park Highlad Games and the Colorado Springs Burns Nicht, everyone there is a firm believer in the whole early 19th-century "clan tartan" business.

They would not want to know that their precious kilts were promoted by a Quaker (!) English (!!) mill-owner (!!!).