by SRB

From Tartan to Tartanry

December 3, 2012 | by SRB

From Tartan to Tartanry

Ian Brown (ed.)

Edinburgh University Press 2012

ISBN: 9780748664641


In the mid 1990s I was a semi-professional Scotsman attached to a university at what was once the edge of empire (western division). As such, I was on the speed dial of various local and national chat show hosts who were occasionally inclined to talk about Scotland.

These televised chin wags had a predictable format. I would be asked first why I wasn’t wearing a kilt. Practiced responses ranged from the state of my knees to my Irish heritage to the fact that, as a former denizen of Scotland’s only two time winner of the ‘most dismal town’ award, wearing a kilt would once have put me in the same relationship to the local neds as an escaped budgie is to a murder of crows. The first two were usually dismissed with a chuckle, the third greeted with blank incomprehension.

The interviews generally clustered around Burns and St Andrews Day and could feature clockwork haggis or a manic party of Scottish country dancers. If I got the call at any other time of year, it was usually to discuss some ‘quaint’ Scottish story that had fluttered by: how the now largely forgotten push to have people of Scottish descent return to their homeland could be used to ship out some unpopular Canadian politicians for instance, or what I knew of a motion in the Scottish Parliament to get the village where the ‘real’ Macbeth was born exposed to the tourist gaze.

It seemed back then that kilts and tartan furth of Scotland were part of a package designed to ensure that we were not to be taken seriously. The release of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi undid some of that; the current debate about independence might finish it off for good.

The exceptions, even in the 90s, were the universities, both in Scotland and away, that took tartan very seriously indeed. The reissue in paperback of From Tartan to Tartanism, first published in 2010, suggests that this is still the case.

The introduction to the book quotes BBC commentator Andrew Marr as saying ‘the deconstruction of the tartan cult is itself in danger of becoming a cult’. Editor Ian Brown takes issue with Marr’s use of the word ‘deconstruction’ though the general point seems about right and Brown’s book may even attest it. From Tartan to Tartanry is as comprehensive an assessment as they will find on the subject, with essays examining not just the history of tartan, but any number of cultural perspectives from tartan in film to tartan in comedy, rock music and the national football team’s Tartan Army.

If indeed there is a cult of a cult of tartan, then its origins can be traced directly to the work of Hugh Trevor Roper (Lord Dacre) who suggested in an ‘invention of tradition’ essay that the modern kilt was created in the 18th century by an Englishman.  Dacre died in 2003 his reputation tarnished, ironically enough, by his ‘authentication’ of bogus ‘Hitler Diaries’ which were subsequently published in the Times newspaper. His view on the ‘inauthentic’ Scots is finally laid to rest here first by historian Murray Pittock who questions why Dacre had so much influence ‘despite [his] obvious lack of acquaintance with Scottish history or Gaelic scholarship’ and then by Ian Brown who declares Dacre’s evidence on the origins of the modern kilt ‘notoriously shaky’.

The question of Dacre’s influence is still an interesting one given that much of what has happened since in the tartan debate proceeded from his original mischievous sally. Diasporic Scots who wore their kilts with pride queried his analysis from the start and are now congratulating themselves on their perspicacity. Home based Scots, on the other hand, embraced the ‘inauthentic’ as if it explained any number of things beyond kilts. From Tartan to Tartanry does not pay much attention to Dacre (which is probably as it should be by now) though it is conceivable that it would not exist without him.

Clearly things have moved on. Glasgow University academic Alan Riach begins his contributing essay with an anecdote about his parent’s golden wedding anniversary. His young sons wear kilts patterned on ‘The ancient Rangers tartan’ and ‘The ancient Celtic tartan’ and are congratulated on their contribution to world peace. Another academic is persuaded to wear a kilt to his daughter’s wedding and is glad he did or he ‘would have looked like a penguin in a flower garden’.

The ubiquity of kilts and the obvious willingness of Scots to constantly reinvent them (rather than dismiss them as being invented) has academia peddling furiously to catch up and is already proving fruitful ground for a fresh planting of ‘translations’ and ‘tropes’.  However, those outside university confines finally seem inclined to ditch the hang-ups about kilts in favour of hanging one in the cupboard. 

Come Christmas and New Year they will be taken down and worn all over the place in every sense. Last February The Scottish Register of Tartans registered a ‘Christmas’ tartan in green, red and yellow with the colours representing the gifts of the three Kings in the nativity story.  It is woven in South Africa so if you want to be kilted as Christmas as well as for Christmas, you had better get your order in. On the other hand, if you would rather continue the debate then From Tartan and Tartanry should be peeking out the top of your stocking.

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