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'Tartan and Kilts' by Dr Clifford Smith


Ulster has its own 350-year old tartan, which has an intriguing history.  On 28 April 1956, the Coleraine Chronicle reported the discovery by a farm labourer of ragged clothing dug out of an earth bank on the farm of Mr William Dixon, in the townland of Flanders, near Dungiven, County Londonderry.
 The find consisted of a woollen jacket or jerkin, a small portion of a mantle or cloak, trews or tartan trousers, and leather brogues.  This was the style of clothing worn by men in those parts in the 16th or early 17th century.
 Archaeologists from the Ulster Museum were invited to analyse the discovery.  A block of peat containing fragments of the clothing was examined by Mr A G Smith of the Department of Botany at Queen�s University, revealing a high concentration of pine pollen.  Scots pine had been introduced into Ireland in the 1600s.  The likelihood was that the tartan cloth was at least that old.

 Peaty loam destroys flesh and bone while preserving fabrics like wool and leather.  No body was found, though it is possible that the site marked a grave.
 Audrey Henshall from Edinburgh�s National Museum of Antiquities examined the  woollen cloth, which had been well preserved.  Its reddish brown staining was due to its being buried for hundreds of years in peat.  The trews had been made up from tartan woven in the Donegal style, in strips varying in width and distance from each other.  The remaining items were also subjected to rigorous analysis.
 Audrey Henshall concluded that while the mantle was Irish, the trews almost certainly originated in the Highlands.  The logical explanation was that tartan cloth woven in Donegal had been exported to Scotland.  There the material had been made up into tartan trews, which was the fashion in the Highlands.  These trews started off as clothing for some wealthy person.  When they were unearthed in the soil at Flanders townland, the trews were covered in patches.  The large variety of materials used indicated that the trews had been passed from one person to another, adding to the mystery.

 The textile expert supported the soil analysis, dating the find to between 1600 and 1650.  The original colours proved very difficult to distinguish, which was to be expected, given that the tartan had been buried for centuries.  However, Audrey Henshall�s specialist techniques enabled her to extrapolate what the original colourings in the cloth would have been.  Having identified the colours red, dull green, dark brown and orange or yellow, the antiquarian stated that the ground consisted of wide blocks of red and green, divided into squares of about one inch by groups of narrow lines of dark orange, dark brown and green.
 A hand-loom in the Belfast College of Technology was used to re-create the Ulster tartan, based on the colours of the rags in the earth bank.  In 1958 a tailor�s model, dressed in the mantle, jacket, trews and brogues, graced the entrance hall of the Ulster Museum.
 The tartan was registered with the Scottish Tartan Society in the early 1970s as �weathered Ulster Tartan�.  Later a second pattern, based on Audrey Henshall�s reconstructed colours, was also registered with the Society.  This restored version is known as �red Ulster tartan�.  The Society accepted that both tartans were genuine.

 The story of tartan would be incomplete without the story of the kilt.  In the 19th century, Newtownards had a flourishing tartan weaving industry.  However, it was the enthusiasm for pipe bands in Ulster which created a local market for kilt-making.  There was a time when there were 34 pipe bands in Belfast, and that�s a lot of kilties.  The family firm of Essey has opened up markets worldwide for a range of kilts in modern fabrics such as lace and leather, as well as recently-devised tartans for Wales and the Irish counties.  Another kilt-maker, Jim McClenaghan of North Belfast, who designs new tartans, is renowned for the fine quality of his tailoring.
 Some authorities state that the modern kilt �evolved� from the belted plaid, giving an aura of scientific respectability to the notion that the short kilt is modern.  Contemporary histories of the small kilt (the philabeg) claim that the kilt was invented by Englishmen.  The following quotation puts matters succinctly:
�The precise origin of the kilt has been a source of some controversy.  In so far as it has been discussed at all during the 18th century, it was generally accepted to have been devised by an Englishman named Rawlinson who worked in Lochaber in the 1720s.  Many subsequent (non-contemporary) writers have disputed this, although no reliable evidence of the kilt�s use prior to the early 18th century has surfaced, and it is hard to escape the impression that there would not be an argument at all had the supposed inventor not been an Englishman.�
 Stuart Reid, Highland Clansman 1689 � 1746,
 Osprey Warrior series

 The writer does not help his case, because Rawlinson was the host:  it was his guest Parkinson, a military tailor by trade, who allegedly produced the modern kilt.  In 1858, the Ulster Journal of Archaeology published a lengthy article which threw down this challenge to those who questioned the view that the short kilt is a modern invention.  William Pinkerton wrote:  �There is neither literary notice nor pictorial representation of the kilt, previous to an advanced period in the last (18th) century�.
 Evidence refuting Pinkerton�s statement has been discovered, but first it may be helpful to review the Lochaber tale.
 In 1727, a fierce storm raged around Inverness and Maryburgh.  Parkinson, who supplied uniforms to General Wade�s troops, was caught out in the downpour.  While travelling in the Highlands, Parkinson, a Londoner, had made the acquaintance of a Quaker and fellow-Englishman called Rawlinson, the manager of an iron ore smelting works near the Bridge of Garey.  Parkinson sought shelter in Rawlinson�s cottage.  One of Rawlinson�s Highland labourers was sitting by the open fire attempting to dry himself.  Parkinson wanted to know why the Highlander did not throw off his brechan, the old-style blanket kilt, and dry off properly.  Rawlinson explained that the labourer could not dispense with his giant wrap because without it he was naked.  The story concludes:  �The English tailor solved the problem;  with his shears he cut off the lower portion of the plaid that belted round the waist, and formed permanent pleats in it with a needle and thread�.  Parkinson�s tailoring re-fashioned the giant wrap into the modern kilt.
 Another version of the story gives Tyndrum in Perthshire as the location.  There is a further problem:  the belted plaid was generally worn on top of a loose linen shirt called the leine.  This was a shorter, simplified version of the linen garment, pleated at the shoulders, which 6th century Scots had brought from Ulster to the land of the Picts.  Would the workman have been naked without his plaid?
 If the Rawlinson-Parkinson story is accepted, then Gaelic oral history, which laid claim to the short kilt as part of the traditional garb of Highland people, has to be jettisoned.

 Now let us examine fresh evidence.  This source material is an ink engraving credited to E Back of Hamburg in 1690.  The engraving is a political cartoon published at the time of the Williamite Wars.  The cartoon, entitled �The Irish Monster�, shows a Scottish warrior in a short kilt.  It predates the Lochaber episode by around 37 years, establishing the earlier existence of a short kilt, and confirming the Gaelic oral tradition.
 When the German print is compared with Michael Wright�s painting of Mungo Murray in the National Galleries of Scotland (1666) and the illustration of a warrior in Highland Clansman (1997), there are striking similarities, though the modern illustration appears to have been inspired by Michael Wright's 17th century portrait.  For example, the figures in all three pictures wear similar headgear, stockings or hose and footwear.  Their weapons are also comparable.  Given that the engraver in Hamburg was accurate in so many details, it is reasonable to assume that his representation of a warrior in a short kilt was also true to life.  Another remarkable feature is that the jerkin worn by the Scot in the Hamburg engraving is not unlike the jerkin unearthed on the Dixons� farm.
 Earlier in the century, Protestant soldiers from Scotland had fought in Germany during the Thirty Years War.  Could the engraver in Germany have been drawing from real life?  We must also allow for the possibility that the military tailor may have been familiar with some form of Highland uniform which included a short kilt.  Did Parkinson reproduce a garment with which he was familiar?  John Aston was an Englishman who witnessed the Scots Army camped at Dunse Law in 1639.  He described the Highland troops as wearing a �fantastique habitt�.  Later historians ridiculed any interpretation which suggested that this literary reference indicated the existence of a short kilt.  Back�s engraving supports those who insisted that John Aston�s �fantastique habitt� referred to a short kilt.
 The awakening interest in our Ulster-Scots identity and the desire to have a better understanding of the struggles and the triumphs of our forebears calls for a re-evaluation of Ulster�s contribution to the story of tartan and the wearing of the kilt.  The next time you thrill to the skirl of the pipes or watch a pipe band marching through the streets, remember that the colourful pageantry is part of Ulster�s story and Ulster�s future too.