What’s the “official” word about tartans?
By Matthew A. C. Newsome
Curator of the Scottish Tartans Museum, USA
published in the December 2004 issue of the Scottish Banner
So you’ve decided you are going to “bring forrit the tartan” and proudly display Scotland’s cloth with a kilt, scarf, sash, or some other form of clothing. Congratulations! You are now participating in a great part of Scotland’s cultural heritage.
You’ve probably selected a tartan based on your last name, or the last name of someone in your family, that reflects what clan your ancestors presumably hailed from. Or perhaps you have chosen to wear a district tartan that honors a part of Scotland that your family lived in, or a Canadian province, Irish county, or an American state. Maybe you selected a tartan based on your occupation, such as the “Leatherneck” tartan for the USMC, or the “clergy” tartan for the ministry. Perhaps you simply selected a tartan because you liked the colors and found the design appealing (a very traditional way of choosing a tartan, by the way).
As you encounter people wearing tartans of all stripes at the games, sometimes arguing vehemently about what is “correct” and “proper,” you may begin to wonder, just who decides this stuff, anyway?
And so you find someone at a booth that is giving out tartan information. They look like an authority, and their group has an authoritative sounding name. You ask them some of your questions, and quickly find out that the more you learn, the more questions you have. You only ever see one tartan for your clan for sale in the shops. Why does their computer list five? Where did these come from? How “authentic” are they?
Your questions become compounded when you find a different group of people at another festival, who sound just as authoritative, and yet their computer has seven tartans for your clan, and their information doesn’t seem to line up with what the other people told you. Who are these guys, anyway?
It can all be horribly confusing. Take it from someone who has been to more Highland Games and Scottish festivals than he cares to count, and who has talked to thousands of people who all want to know, “What’s my tartan?”
LET’S MEET THE PLAYERS
The Lord Lyon
Let’s be blunt. The Court of the Lord Lyon has no authority over tartans. Many people operate under the assumption that the Lord Lyon registers tartans, and for a tartan to be “authentic” it must be approved by the Lyon Court. The Lord Lyon will indeed record a tartan, but has no authority over them. This is because tartan is not heraldic. What does that mean?
Heraldry (coats of arms, crests, etc.) is a system that grew out of medieval Europe by which a person (usually a member of the nobility) is identified graphically by some picture or symbol. For the most part, heraldic arms were unique to an individual and identified only that individual. This is why the “family coat of arms” myth is so wrong. There are no “family arms” in Scotland. The arms of a particular clan belong to the chief of that clan, and serve to identify him or her. It is not appropriate for an ordinary clansman to display those arms. It would be like claiming to be the chief! While there are some heraldic devices that can be used communally (by more than one person) to denote affiliation or membership, this is the exception and not the rule.
Tartan, on the other hand, has a very different history and a very different purpose. Tartan has been worn for a very long time in Scotland, as the historic record indicates. But specific tartans did not acquire meaning until more recently. People used to wear tartan for fashion much the same way that you and I wear clothing styles today. You select your clothing based on what is available to you, what you can afford to buy, and what you like. The same was true of ancient tartan.
In the pre-industrial era, all tartan was hand woven by individual artisans and therefore a wide variety of designs existed. Industrialization of the weaving industry made it possible for regular tartan designs to be repeated in mass production, and these designs soon acquired names. These named tartans very rapidly became associated with the clans, families, and districts whose names they bore and people would select a tartan to wear based on those affiliations. Today, the tradition of tartan has evolved to such that tartans now represent something and when you wear a tartan you are identifying yourself with what that tartan represents. But the choice of tartan remains entirely personal. With the very rare exception of restricted tartans, anyone can choose to wear whatever tartan he or she likes – very unlike heraldic arms.
The Court of the Lord Lyon may have existed as early as the twelfth century, but was formally reestablished in the seventeenth to be the sovereign body of all things heraldic in the Kingdom of Scotland. This is why the Lord Lyon is rightly called the King of Arms. Tartan was never part of this court’s jurisdiction. There is no “King of Tartans.” However, at the request of the clan chiefs, the Lord Lyon will record their tartans, though it never has claimed to have any authority over those tartans. According to Mrs. C. G. W. Roads, MVO, present Lyon Clerk and Keeper of the Records, in addition to their heraldic duties, the Lyon Court also records “probative deeds in Lyon Court Books – Writs Section, and once that probative deed is recorded that is the official record of what the Chief believes his tartan to be . . . [But] it is for the Chief to determine what his tartan might be.”
The Scottish Tartans Society
In the 1960’s a group of tartan scholars and Highland dress historians pooled their collections and knowledge and formed the first group dedicated solely to the study and promotion of Highland dress, the Scottish Tartans Society (STS). It was officially established in 1963 at the initiative of the Lord Lyon at the time, Sir Thomas Innes of Learney. In Scottish law, the STS is a “recognized charity” which corresponds to a non-profit organization in the US. It has been granted the status of an Incorporation Noble in the Noblesse of Scotland by the Lord Lyon King of Arms, and was granted armorial bearings in 1976. It is governed by an elected council and membership is open to individuals as well as corporations.
The STS is charged in its constitution to “study the origins, history and development of tartans and to record these tartans in a Register of All Publicly Known Tartans.” The maintenance of the Register, the first of its kind, is the primary work of the STS. The Register currently contains over 2700 unique tartan designs and is comprised of museum artifacts and specimens from private collections, as well as newly designed tartans. This historic database serves to inform the general public, assist clan chiefs in settling controversies about the history of their tartan and to settle trade disputes among tartan manufacturers. In 1992 this Register was computerized and is now available on line at www.scottish-tartans-society.org at no charge to members and non-members alike [Ed. note: as of the Spring of 2005, this site is no longer active]. Pictures, a brief history, and thread counts for all recorded tartans are provided free of charge.
The STS also operates the Scottish Tartans Museum Trust, which consists of two museums dedicated to Highland dress; one in Keith, Scotland, and one in Franklin, North Carolina. Both Scottish Tartans Museums maintain exhibits on the history and development of Scottish clothing, with samples dating back to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The Keith museum is open half the year and has close ties with the Keith Kilt Making School there. The Franklin museum is open year round in the scenic Smoky Mountains and works with local schools and organizations to promote awareness of Scottish heritage in the US.
The Scottish Tartans Museum, US extension, also maintains a Scottish import and Highland clothing gift shop in order to generate operating funds. The museum and gift shop are on line at www.scottishtartans.org.
In recent years there have been some controversies among the leadership of the STS in Scotland. In the year 2000, this resulted, unfortunately, in the (hopefully temporary) closing of the Hall of Records, where the Register of All Publicly Known Tartans is housed. To date, the Hall of Records collection remains in storage. Since the Register has been inactive, many presume that the STS as a whole is inactive. However, the two Scottish Tartans Museums continue to operate, and today represent the most active parts of the STS. Meanwhile, work is continuing among the STS Council to reopen the Register as soon as is possible. [Ed Note: It would seem that as of 2005, the STS is completely inactive.]
The STS is represented at Highland Games in America largely by members of the Friends of the Scottish Tartans Museum (a support group based in Franklin, NC) and members of the museum staff. They answer questions about tartan, provide color tartan prints from the Register’s database for donations, and promote the activities of the STS and the museums. They do not handle registration or recording of tartan themselves.
The Scottish Tartans Authority
In 1996, many former members of the Scottish Tartans Society who had left over conflicts with the STS leadership formed a group called the Scottish Tartans Authority (STA). STA membership is comprised mostly of people in the tartan weaving industry (Lochcarron, Strathmore, Macnaughton, Ingles Buchan, Johnstons of Elgin, to name a few), as well as tartan scholars such as Peter MacDonald and James Scarlett, among others. Membership is open to any interested party.
The STA has much in common with the STS. It maintains its own database similar to the STS Register, called the International Tartan Index (ITI). The main difference between the two databases is that the ITI currently has more than twice as many entries as the STS Register. The reason for this is twofold. Firstly the STA has recorded many newly designed tartans since the year 2000 when the Register was put on hold. And secondly, the 6000 or so tartans in the ITI contain many mistakes or duplications, which although marked as “deleted” remain in the official index for documentary purposes.
About 3500 of these tartans are available on the STA’s web site (www.tartansauthority.com). This smaller number is due to the removal of all of the “deleted” entries, as well as the paring down of some of the clans and families with multiple tartans, for the sake of simplicity. While limited access to the ITI on line is free, information such as thread counts are only available to subscribing members.
Their web site reads, “there is no statutory or official register of tartans in Scotland and the Scottish Tartans Authority is the only credible body that undertakes to record all new tartans.” They further state that their index “is the nearest that Scotland has to an official register.”
The STA is represented in America largely by the Tartan Educational and Cultural Association (TECA). TECA was formed in 1982 and was one of the founding members of the STA in 1996. TECA members represent the STA at American Highland Games where they answer questions, sell tartan print outs from the ITI, and train people in their Tartan Certificate program.
This program is designed to ensure accuracy when people give out tartan information at Highland Games and other Scottish events. Membership in TECA is a requirement for the certificate, and when the program was started in 2002, there was some talk of Games coordinators requiring anyone giving out tartan information at their event to be certified. This, of course, would prohibit anyone not affiliated with TECA from answering questions on tartan! To date, no such “requirement” has been established, and indeed could hardly be enforceable. In response to certain criticism this has generated in the US, Mr. Brian Wilton, STA Administrator, has provided the following statement.
“TECA – whist closely affiliated to us – is a much older organization than the STA and enjoys complete autonomy in the USA. Whilst both bodies have a huge raft of common interests and work hand-in-hand in many matters, TECA has its own aims and objectives and obviously one of those has been to introduce a means of grading ‘tartan workers.’ This is not necessarily the route that we would have followed, but we respect the right of TECA to pursue what it sees as its role in tartan affairs in the US.”
The STA is also known for the books put out by its most visible member in the US, Dr. Phil Smith. Dr. Smith, a former member of the STS and an expert in tartans, is the author of Tartan For Me! and the more recent three-volume set of tartan pictures and thread counts, Tartans A-Z. Tartan For Me! is widely used because it contains more names than any other similar resource. However, it is not without errors and is constantly being revised. It is in its seventh edition thus far. Tartans A-Z is likewise not without errors, which will hopefully be corrected in later editions. Other references exist that one should use to double check the information found in these works.
According to their web site, the STA “now enjoys a reputation as the world’s leading academic authority and promotional body for tartan.” The use of the word “authority” is cause for much confusion. The average American of Scottish descent, asking who has authority concerning tartan, is asking who has authority over tartan, rather than who is an authority on tartans. This is a very important distinction to remember.
In a statement published in 1996, in Scottish Field, the Unicorn Pursuivant of the Court of the Lord Lyon made the following comment about the (then newly formed) Scottish Tartans Authority. “It should perhaps be mentioned that this title is a self-awarded one, and no such authority in fact exists. Unlike heraldry … tartan is under no such authority apart from that of usage and custom. It is generally accepted that the chief of a clan is the person who may decide what is the tartan of his particular clan. But there has been such an explosion of tartans in the last century that the system is virtually out of control.”
Scottish Tartans World Register
Finally we must address the newest player on the scene. In the year 2000, upon the closing of the STS Hall of Records, Keith Lumsden, former Hall of Records officer, took the electronic records of the STS and created the Scottish Tartans World Register (STWR). In a letter sent out to many in the tartan industry, he explains his disdain over the apparent conflicts between the STS and the STA each having their own database, and the fact that neither organization has any authority over tartans from an outside governing body. He further proposed that the new Scottish Parliament step in and once and for all create or select a single body that would have authority to maintain an official tartan register.
In the absence of such a move by the Scottish government, however, his solution to there being two tartan registers was to create a third. This is a private endeavor, operated by him as Tartan Registration Ltd., a registered company and recognized charity. It neither has nor claims to have any authority over tartans at all. It is simply a list, initially based on the STS Register, with whatever new tartans Mr. Lumsden has added in recent years.
The STWR is available on line, free of charge, at www.tartans.scotland.net. The information provided includes pictures, but no thread counts.
The Final Authority
The truth of the matter is that none of these groups has any authority over tartans at all. One can compare and contrast their research, record keeping, and “tartan philosophies,” but one cannot say that one is “official” and the other is not. Years of study and research can make one an authority on tartans – and individuals involved with all three organizations can claim that – but no number of experts can make any of these groups an authority over tartans.
So who has the final word? The simplest answer is that the final authority over a tartan is the governing body of whatever that tartan represents. For a clan, this would of course be the chief. However, tartans today represent all sorts of things. For a state tartan, it would be the state legislature; for a corporate tartan, the CEO. You get the idea.
So why bother recording a tartan at all? Having your tartan recorded on a recognized index provides some safe guards. For instance, it can be compared to tartans already recorded to prevent you from inadvertently copying a pre-existing tartan. It also provides an official record of your tartan to prevent someone from later on proposing that same tartan for his own group. It’s also the best way to inform others about your new tartan. If you don’t record it anywhere, no one is going to know about it, whether it is “official” or not.
A LOOK TOWARDS THE FUTURE
At the time of this writing, there is a movement in Scotland to put a bill before the Scottish Parliament to establish an office of “Keeper” of tartans that would have the power to formally establish the first official, governmentally sanctioned register of tartans. Should the Scottish government decide to go forward with such a project, many of the above-discussed issues would be put to rest. The public would at last have an answer to who has the “official” register of tartans.
I will close with this final thought. Tartan is a tradition that has grown and changed greatly during the past centuries and it will continue to evolve. It is a living tradition, and organic growth should be recognized. I talk to people all the time who are seeking help in determining which tartan is best for them to wear. When helping them make such decisions, the question of “who is this tartan registered with?” doesn’t even arise.
In the end, tartan remains a fascinating aspect of Scotland’s cultural heritage, but not one worth waging wars over. However, history bears witness to the fact that Scots love to fight, and if they cannot find a common enemy to unite against, they are happy feuding amongst themselves. Perhaps we should all be grateful that some people can find nothing better to argue about than the cloth covering their haunches!
For me, as long as people keep wearing it, I’ll be happy. So I’ll close with the motto that appears on the arms of the Scottish Tartans Society, and encourage us all to “Bring Forrit the Tartan!”
This page ©1997-2010 Matthew A. C. Newsome.
Last updated 4/2/10
Certain art used on this site from Ars Priscus
This is the private web site of Matthew Newsome and does not represent the opinions or positions of any other group or individual in any way, shape or form.