Trousers, skirts, ties and even wallpaper – tartan is everywhere. As you begin the search around the house for the outfit you put on once a year to celebrate Burns’ Night, here’s a brief history of this colourful check clothing, which may help jog your memory…
For several centuries tartan was the material used for everyday wear by Highlanders. It was worn in other parts of Scotland, but in the Highlands your tartan was a symbol of your clan.
Tartan was of course used to make items of traditional Scottish dress, including the philabeg, or kilt, and of course the trews or trousers. The highly ornamented leather sporran worn in front of the kilt was a useful purse.
Early tartans were simple checks of just two or three colours. The colours were taken from dye-producing plants, roots, berries and trees, local to the immediate area and that pattern was worn by the people of the district, or the local clan.
As the quality and range of chemical dyes improved, weavers were able to introduce elaborate patterns including more vivid and varied colours. Newer clans evolved their own tartans by adding an overstripe onto the basic pattern by the parent clan.
This all came to an end after the Battle of Culloden in 1746. In an attempt to crush the rebellious clans the government in London passed an Act of Parliament banning the carrying of weapons and the wearing of tartan. By the time this Act was repealed in 1785 the Highlanders had lost all their enthusiasm for wearing tartan, many of the weavers had died and with them the old patterns.
All was not lost however. Tartan started to come back into fashion in 1822 when George IV visited Edinburgh and asked people to wear their tartans to official functions. The loss of the original patterns gave tailors free range to start again.
The craze for tartan increased when Queen Victoria and Prince Albert built Balmoral Castle and the Prince designed The Balmoral Tartan in red and grey and Queen created the Victoria tartan with a white stripe.
The Burns’ Check tartan is quite distinct. The request for a Robert Burns’ tartan originated with The Scotsman newspaper to celebrate the bicentenary of the poet’s birth. The first idea had been to base it on the Campbell – a clan connected with The Burns family, but it was eventually decided to base it on the Shepherd’s Check with a green overtone. In June 1959 the Burns Federation accepted the design on condition that all goods should be made in Scotland.
At Wivenhoe House we will be celebrating Burns’ night with a traditional four course dinner in the historic main house. Tickets are £44.50 per person and can be purchased by calling 01206 863666 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org