Is tartan a symbol of national identity – or does it represent all that is false and sentimental about Scottish culture?
Does the national obsession with tartan mean something or is it, at heart, empty?
About a dozen years ago my late father (born 1907) was asked if he would be wearing a kilt to a grandson’s wedding. He replied, “I’m a Lowlander, I’ve never worn a kilt in my life”. Fair enough, but almost all the young men, and many of the middle-aged ones too, at that wedding would be wearing the kilt, though most of them were Lowlanders also.
Things have changed over the last hundred years. When Fergus Lamont, the nationalist poet who is the eponymous hero of Robin Jenkins’s novel, wore the kilt in the streets of his Lowland town, small boys mocked him and whistled at him. Now, in this wide-ranging collection of essays on the subject of tartan, Alan Riach, Professor of Scottish Literature at the University of Glasgow, tells of taking his young sons to a kilt-hire shop to get kilts for their grandparents’ golden anniversary party. The boys made their choice: one kilt was the Ancient Dress Rangers, the other the Ancient Dress Celtic. Ancient?
Tartan itself is certainly ancient, even if most tartans are not. The “garb of old Gaul” has become the brand of Scotland, recognized worldwide, though much of the tourist tartan tat on sale throughout the country is labelled ‘Made in China’. The cult of tar-tanry is kitsch. Few can deny this and for a hundred years at least there have been Scots who deplored it. David Goldie, in his essay ‘Tartanry and its Critics’ quotes Christopher Grieve (Hugh MacDiarmid) railing against “the false trail of the kailyard and Harry Lauder school” which “demonstrably falsify and cheapen” the Scottish psychology; then sensibly observes that Grieve was himself a Lowlander, “born closer to Sunderland than Sutherland”, who himself assumed a Highland nom-de-plume and regularly, and, one might add, self-consciously, wore the kilt. This was perhaps evidence less of hypocrisy than of confusion.
This is not surprising. Confusion runs through the whole debate about the authenticity or inauthenticity of the tartan cult. It has been used both to bolster Scottish pride and sense of national identity and to subvert this and even mock it. Macaulay wondered how it was that tartan which before the Union of 1707 would have been regarded “by nine Scotchmen out of ten” – an exaggeration – “as the dress of a thief” had come to be recognized as the national dress. Yet Macaulay himself was an Anglo-Scot whose own grandfather had been a bare-legged Highlander.
Some have blamed Walter Scott, and especially his management of George IV’s visit to Edinburgh in 1822, when as the impresario of the occasion Scott flooded the capital with kilted warriors, or pseudo-warriors. His usually admiring son-in-law John Gibson Lockhart disapproved of this “celtification of Scotland”. For Scott himself this tartan pageantry not only appealed to his Romantic imagination; it also gave visible expression to what he attempted in his great Scottish novels: that reconciliation of the different and frequently opposed strands in Scottish history and society which would foster the emergence of a unified national identity. As Murray Pittock puts it in his essay ‘Plaiding the Invention of Scot-land’, Scott was offering “an elaborately paradoxical presentation of the country as completely loyal to the Crown and the British state, while being dressed in the garb which had once denoted their fiercest enemies. This was not an invented tradition: it was the re-inscription of Jacobite patriotism as the discourse of Scottish particularity, a particularity circumscribed by the death of its ancient loyalties and their replacement by support for the Crown”.
Tartanry preceded Scott. Tartan had been a mark of Jacobitism. The exiled Duke of Perth had presented the two Jacobite boy princes, Charles Edward and Henry, with Highland outfits. The Jacobite army of the ’45 was regularly described as a Highland and tartan army, even though a large part of it came from the north-east Lowlands. If Bonnie Prince Charlie was to become a figure on the shortbread tin and whisky bottle, the iconography spoke of both the authenticity of tartan as an expression of the nationalist element in Jacobitism and also of its playacting element, tartan as masquerade, later to be evident in the music-hall (Harry Lauder to Jimmy Logan and Andy Stewart) and pop culture (the Bay City Rollers and football’s Tartan Army).
Tartan marked out Scottish distinctiveness. The Scottish regiments, permitted to wear tartan even when it was banned after Culloden (a ban that was not strictly enforced for long), were part of the British Army, and yet differentiated from other regiments and made recognizably Scottish by the wearing of the tartan. Trevor Royle remarks that in time even Lowland regiments would sport tartan trews as their dress uniform. This distinctiveness replicated, and offered visible evidence, of Scotland’s place in the Union, which, despite its official name, was less the United Kingdom than the United Kingdoms. Royle observes that recruitment figures in Scotland for the “Volunteer craze”, Victorian forerunner of the Territorial Army, “were twice the United Kingdom average, a figure which was undoubtedly assisted by the creation of units with Highland affiliations, most of them in the central belt”. (In the Regular Army, that great fighting regiment, the Highland Light Infantry recruited principally in Glasgow.) The Volunteers, “with their panoply of kilts, tartan trews, ostrich feathers, ornate sporrans and pipe bands….came to represent self-conscious nationalism or what the military historian John Keegan has described as ‘a force for resistance against the creeping Anglicization of Scottish urban life.’”
This surely goes to the heart of the matter. Scotland had lost – surrendered or chosen to lose – political independence. Lowland Scot-land, from the time of the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, was in danger also of losing its individual identity, to the social, political and economic forces which promoted assimilation with England and uniformity throughout the island of Britain. So Lowland Scots took over Highland traditions, notably the wearing of tartan, and made these the symbol and distinguishing feature of a pan-Scottish identity. Signifi-cantly it is only in the past thirty years, as globalism has diluted national distinctiveness still further, that the wearing of the kilt on formal occasions, for weddings and dances has become common among all social classes in Scotland, whether these kilts are authentic clan tartans or modern inventions like those chosen by Alan Riach’s sons.
Criticism of the tartan cult from, for instance, MacDiarmid, and more recently Colin McArthur and Tom Nairn, who wrote of “the tartan monster”, has been sharp. It projects a false, sentimental picture of Scotland and serves, it is argued, as a means of evading the realities of politics and economics. It has been employed to keep Scotland and therefore the Scottish people, in a mythical never-never land, a Brigadoon. It would be foolish to deny that there is some truth in the charge. Several of the contributors to this book tackle it head-on, with varying success.
There is a degree of make-believe and escapism in tartanry, but this is undercut by the element of masquerade and conscious irony. Nowhere is this more apparent than in popular culture. The Scotch comics simultaneously celebrated and sent up their Scottishness. The vaunt – “Wha’s like us? Bloody few and they’re a’ deid” – can scarcely be uttered with a straight face, no matter how much whisky has been drunk.
Football’s Tartan Army, examined in an engaging essay by Hugh O’Donnell, exemplifies this. The fans are fully conscious that they are giving a performance. They are playing at being “wild Scots”, even while, to distinguish themselves from the sometimes genuinely wild and violent English supporters, they make a point of being notably friendly to the people of the host country, and even self-disciplined. They offer a parody of the old Highland horde, while at the same time displaying what we like to think of as the characteristic Scots virtues expressed by Burns in his great hymn to human equality ‘A Man’s A Man For A’ That’. It may be said of course that the Tartan Army became a comedy turn only when it grew evident that the Scotland football team’s performances more often invited resignation than celebration and were themselves an occasion for self-mockery, but that is another story.
We have long needed a serious study of tartanry and all its complexities, and this collection of essays provides it. Some are spoiled by an excess of academic jargon – too many “signifiers” and such like – but there is not a single essay that does not offer insights and provoke reflection; reflection which will sometimes lead to healthy disagreement. It is certainly a publication to be welcomed.