Tales of Tartan Volume 3

24 May 2023

WE ARE EXCITED TO ANNOUNCE A VERY SPECIAL EVENT TO CELEBRATE TARTAN AND ITS CONNECTIONS TO BANNOCKBURN HOUSE!

On June 25th we will be hosting talks by world-renowned experts in tartan and historical dress, Peter MacDonald and Rebecca Olds.  To celebrate we’re releasing a 4-part blog examining some of the history surrounding tartan. You can find the previous episodes here:  VOLUME 1 & VOLUME 2.

The Oyster Girl by Philip Mercier (1689/91-1760). Photo Credit: Christie’s.[10]

The Oyster Girl by Philip Mercier (1689/91-1760). Photo Credit: Christie’s.[10]

In our last episode, we discovered that the origins of what would develop into our modern tartans go almost as far back as the history of our species.  Humans decided to start wearing clothes, learned how to sew, and by the Neolithic were weaving thanks to advances in farming.  That brought big changes in the way humans lived including the relationship they had with their clothes.  Not exactly Primark, but the clothing industry was born.  Well, the industry might not be exactly the right word.  Think of replacing ye ole loincloth with a rough woven tunic, not Givenchy at Paris Fashion Week.  Maybe not very glamorous, but there were choices in textile fibres, colours, weaves, and styles.  Traditions of fine weaving arose, and as in the Hami and Hallstatt fragments, these traditions became part of local and regional cultures.  These lifestyle changes hit in a way that we scarcely could understand today.  With choices came also the vast amounts of time-consuming hard work.  Nothing happened without first growing the resources, processing the fibre, and then making the item.  Let that sink in.  Imagine a world where virtually nothing, except becoming dinner for a predator, happened instantaneously.
Lion

Photo Credit: Chester Zoo (chesterzoo.org – 2010)

Nostalgia for the good old days is just that, a dream.  Life was brutally hard, time was measured on a seasonal scale, not in minutes, and we were still passengers on a ride we had little control over.  Things were changing though.  We had choices, and with choices came self-expression.  Then with self-expression came cultural identity.  The start of what tartan embodies today had come in earnest, but with that sense of identity came politics, strife, and eventually the Empire.
Chapter 3: Aliens & Iron
A little drop of water clung onto the reed, which was unevenly laid in the roof overhang, sticking out next to the door of the roundhouse.  It fought against the wind to hold onto the angled rough tip of the plant stem, the only lifeline before plummeting to the puddle below.  Mesmerized to distraction by this little drop, the boy sitting on the rough-hewn bench hadn’t noticed his father had stopped humming and his mother was calling to him from across the room.  He was intently perplexed by this little drop of water that still hadn’t fallen.  Surely, it would want to join the other drops in the puddle.  Then mysteriously the wind stopped suddenly, as if the gods stopped to take a breath. Just as the stillness settled, the little drop slipped and fell with a great plonk into the waiting puddle and the fierce wind started again.  The strangeness of the stillness and disappearance of the drop broke his concentration, and he finally heard his mother’s agitated voice.  He turned to look at her but was met first with his father’s most annoyed gaze.  The look was all the motivation he needed to peel back the checkered wool blanket and stand up.  He reached down into the pile of small branches and grabbed a handful.  His sister giggled as he walked over and placed them on the fire.  Just as he was about to turn and go to his mother, who was seated at the loom, a shout came from outside.  He didn’t recognize the voice and based on his expression of worry, neither did his father. 
Round house at Castell Henllys. [9]

Round house at Castell Henllys. [9] 

Moving without hesitation he ran over to the doorway and peeled back the thick auroch hide flap.  The blowing rain and darkness made it difficult to see the path across the enclosure.  He waited intently holding his breath for the voice again.  The fire cast some light out into the wet darkness and just as he started to take a breath, a tall figure emerged quickly from the darkness.  The stranger was wrapped in a thick mantle of checkered wool pulled up over his head with his large bare ankles and feet sticking out of his checkered leggings.  The stranger clearly knew his father and they exchanged a happy greeting, but the stranger’s face was still riddled with an urgent anxiety.  The boy’s father asked him to stoke the fire again and fetch their guest a skin of refreshment as he gestured for the man to come in and sit by the fire.  The monotony of the long dark winter tasks all but forgotten, the family gathered round the fire to listen to the man. 

He came from a tribe farther to the south near the great river that ran into the sea on the way to the gathering hill.  He had been out by the river catching fish as a strange boat arrived on the shore.  Several men and women climbed from the boat looking dishevelled and hungry.  They told their story of escape on the sea from a great army who had made war on their people.  An army who called themselves Romani.  Everyone gasped and his father’s brow, tense, ruffled in concern.  The man went on with his story.  Not only had the Romani come ashore in the far south many harvests ago, but they had begun to move farther to the north and attacked a sacred isle destroying the forests and people there.  The refugees told him of the atrocities on a scale so large it was almost unspeakable.

Later that night as the boy lay on his bed trying to close his eyes and sleep, he thought about the story his father’s friend told them.  He’d never seen a Romani before and didn’t understand why they would burn the sacred trees.  There were so many questions flying around in his head it was making it hard to sleep.  The uncertainty and fear were like a heavy bone chilling mist creeping in.  He thought to himself, the world is changed.  Even though he couldn’t see it yet, he could feel it.  Something was different, something was happening.  Like a shadow lurking in the forest.  He could sense it.  The unease made it hard close his eyes.  He fought hard to hold on, just like the little rain drop.  He pulled up his blanket tight to his chin to comfort himself and listened to his mother hum his sisters to sleep.  He could hear his father’s voice softly as he talked to man and the rhythmic crackles of the fire.  The comfort, warmth, and familiarity of the brightly checked blanket eventually made his eyes get heavy with sleep.  His mother made this blanket for him with his favourite colours.  Slowly sleep began to win over the worry of the day’s events and he finally gave in and drifted off to darkness….     

Antefix roof tile showing the badge of Legion XX Valeria Victrix, from Holt, Clwyd, Wales (2nd - 3rd cent CE). British Museum, Accession No. PE 1911,0206.1.

Antefix roof tile showing the badge of Legion XX Valeria Victrix, from Holt, Clwyd, Wales (2nd – 3rd cent CE). British Museum, Accession No. PE 1911,0206.1.

The coming of the Romans to Britain sometime around 55 BCE must have been a mixture of abject terror and slow burn anxiety for the tribes of Iron Age Scotland.  They almost certainly would have already known about the slow progression of the armies northward before they arrived in Scotland with Agricola in the period 70-80 CE.  Certainly, trade and political alliances would have been happening in the decades prior.  However, Agricola’s campaigns into Scotland must have brought the sight of the overwhelming numbers, completely foreign way of speaking, strange religions, odd clothing, foreign economic systems, alien motivations, and shovelfuls of hubris.  The terror of a race of aliens, massive in number, making their way through the countryside, armed to the teeth, and bent on conquering must have been beyond distressing for our roundhouse family.  I can only imagine the anger and contempt they felt as their way of life changed with Roman disruption of their economy.  There must have been disagreement about how to deal with the Romans, infighting and divided opinions which probably made everyone’s anxiety and anger that much worse.  Although not this quick and simple, imagine for one moment what it would be like if aliens in spaceships started to move in slowly all over the world.  The “little green men” exit their spaceships, claim the land, and then build a wall.  If the pandemic is any indication of how we would cope, you could count on division and using magazines for loo roll again.  Uncertainty creates anger and anxiety.  It drives us to hold on to what defines us and reminds us of the security of home.  Anyone who has moved to another country like me is acutely aware of this.  You hold on that much tighter to things that remind you of home.  I like to think that the people living here when the Romans came took great pride in the things that symbolized their culture like their fashion and textiles and held them close.  

Just as we do today, the Romans had numerous names and nicknames for various peoples.  Generally, the Celtic peoples of the Iron Age and Roman Period included the Gauls (in what is now mainland W. Europe-FRA, BEL, NEL, LUX, SWISS, GER, N. ITL) and the Britons (in what is now the bulk of the UK- ENG, SCOT, WALES). The Romans termed the Gauls “Gallia” (not the same as Gaelic from Western Scotland), although they also had specific names for regions of distinct Celtic cultural identities.  The Britons were also made up of several distinct tribes and cultural groups which they named as well.  A tribe in what is now Fife who were called “Calidones/Calidonii”.  The Romans appear to have applied this name to most of what is now modern Scotland calling it “Caledonia”.  Although Caledonia included numerous tribes which the Romans named, the make-up, tribal boundaries, and names changed over the centuries that they interacted with the Romans.  During the centuries of Roman influence in Britain, the Caledonians were influenced by the Romans and vice versa.  We roughly know what the ancient Celts (of Gaul and Briton) may have worn based on the writings of a Greek historian, Diodorus Siculus [1st century BCE] and Pliny the Elder [23/24-79 CE].  Sometime between 60 and 30 BCE Diodorus wrote the following description: 

“The clothing they wear is striking — shirts which have been dyed and embroidered in varied colours, and breeches, which they call in their tongue bracae; and they wear striped coats, fastened by a buckle on the shoulder, heavy for winter wear and light for summer, in which are set checks, close together and of varied hues.” 
(Diodorus Siculus, Book V:30:1)[8]

This description provides us with some tantalizing evidence of how the early Celts dressedIt describes tartan-like leggings or hose and a cloak or cape, but the story gets even stranger.  The cloak described may be a “Gallic cloak, a garment worn by the Gauls and famously worn by the Roman Emperor Caracalla. Caracalla’s given name was Lucius Septimius Bassianus [188 CE – 217 CE]He was the son of Emperor Septimius Severus and Julia DomnaHe and his father both campaigned in the British Isles and led brutal campaigns in Caledonia during the 1st century CE.          

Caraculla (c 212-215 CE, Photo From: Museo Nazionale Romano, Palazzo Massimo)

Caraculla (c 212-215 CE, Photo From: Museo Nazionale Romano, Palazzo Massimo) 

The Severan Tondo depicting Septimius Severus, Julia Domna, Bassianus (Caracalla), and Geta. Note ‘Damnatio memoriae’ on one of the brothers. (c. 200 CE, Acession No. 31329, Photo From: Staatliche Museen zu Berlin)

The Severan Tondo depicting Septimius Severus, Julia Domna, Bassianus (Caracalla), and Geta.  Note ‘Damnatio memoriae’ on one of the brothers. (c. 200 CE, Acession No. 31329, Photo From: Staatliche Museen zu Berlin)

Based on the following excerpt of Epitome De Caesaribus, the name Caracalla derived from the Gallic hooded cloak or tunic he is said to have worn. 

 “But since he had brought very many garments from Gallia and had made ankle-length tunics and forced the urban population to enter dressed in such clothing for the purpose of saluting him, he was from this garment given the cognomen Caracalla.” 

(Section 21, Epitome De Caesaribus, attributed to Sextus Aurelius Victor) [2]

Caracalla is pictured wearing one of these Gallic cloaks astride a six-horse chariot on a triumphal arch in North Africa.  Only a fragment of this bronze statue survives, part of the Emperor’s cloak.  It is decorated with his supposed victories and shows a stereotypical Caledonian warrior in leggings that have a checked tartan-like pattern.  In the words of Morpheus, “Fate it seems is not without a sense of irony.”.   

Caledonian Warrior from the Arch of Triumph, Volubilis. (Photo Credits: Museum of History and Civilizations, Rabat, Morocco) [3]
Caledonian Warrior from the Arch of Triumph, Volubilis. (Photo Credits: Museum of History and Civilizations, Rabat, Morocco) [3]
Caledonian Warrior from the Arch of Triumph, Volubilis. (Photo Credits: Museum of History and Civilizations, Rabat, Morocco) [3]

Caledonian Warrior from the Arch of Triumph, Volubilis.  (Photo Credits: Museum of History and Civilizations, Rabat, Morocco) [3]

The Arch of Triumph, Volubilis (c. 212-215 CE, Photo Credit: Guy Hunt & Dan Taylor, INSAP/UCL) [4]

The Arch of Triumph, Volubilis (c. 212-215 CE, Photo Credit: Guy Hunt & Dan Taylor, INSAP/UCL) [4]

The triumphal arch is in the Moroccan city of Volubilis.  Morocco isn’t exactly the first place I think of when I think of tartan, but here we are.  Even more remarkable is the great lengths the Roman sculptors went to making this sculpture, showing the patterns and textures.  It has various inlays that give a detailed representation of the textile.  The leggings have a different pattern on each leg.  Thanks to the great skill of these craftsmen, you can see how the warrior wore them, tightly.  It speaks volumes how the artists chose to represent the captive warrior.  They would have wanted something that was instantly recognizable as a person from this part of the world.  On the surface it seems that by the time the Romans got to what would become Scotland, a checked pattern we associate with modern tartan was synonymous with the people here.  Across time from the Hallstatt people in Austria to the tribes of Iron Age Scotland, weaving something close to modern tartan and wearing it developed over the millennia as a strong cultural identity.  I would argue given the use of it in this sculpture that the Romans felt that way too.  Anytime you can identify a group of people with a symbol, you can use that to good or bad effect laying the grounds for use of it as political tool. Perhaps when the carnyx sounded at Mons Graupius in 83 CE, our little roundhouse boy stood proudly next to his father and Calgacus in a pair of checked “tartanesque” leggings like those pictured a century later on Caracalla’s arch. 

The years from the arrival of Agricola and the withdrawal of Caracalla in 212 CE were a time of constant strife with the Romans performing a series of advances and withdrawals. Invasions by the Irish tribes of Scots and further excursions south of Hadrian’s Wall later must have led to lots of instability and insecurity in the political, economic, and social structure of the time.  When the going gets tough, the tough make a deposit.  No Bank of Scotland commercials needed, no appointments, just get a shovel.  If you’re worried you can’t protect your possessions, you bury them.  Nobody will ever know right?  Well, that is nobody for about 1,700 years.  That is exactly what happened in 1933 when workmen were digging foundations for a building where the bingo hall is today in Bells Meadow, Falkirk.  They happened across an earthenware jar roughly 400 metres NW of the Antonine Wall site with some 2,000 Roman denarii in it.  Lying in the jar on the coins was a scrap of tartan-like fabric.  The coins range in date from 38 BCE to 230 CE and based on wear and the latest coins the hoard was probably buried sometime around 240 CE.[5]  It is most likely the accumulated wealth of Roman bribes to a Falkirk family.  The owner buried it and never returned. 

Falkirk Hoard (c. 230 CE, Photo Credit: CB, National Museums Scotland)[6]

Falkirk Hoard (c. 230 CE, Photo Credit: CB, National Museums Scotland)[6]

Falkirk Tartan (c. 230 CE, Accession No. 000-100-036-743-C, Photo Credit: National Museums Scotland)[7]

Falkirk Tartan (c. 230 CE, Accession No. 000-100-036-743-C, Photo Credit: National Museums Scotland)[7]

The Falkirk Tartan is a checked woollen fabric made with two tones of undyed yarn in a 2-over-2 weft chevron twill.  This gives a herringbone pattern that exemplifies the Celtic weaving traditions of the pre-Roman Iron Age and the shades of the wool used are like those in Soay sheep.[5]  It is not exactly clear where the fragment was made, but it certainly wound up in a jar in the dirt in Scotland.  It is possible it was from a Gallic cloak or similar garment, but it is not entirely clear given the size of the fragment and its condition.

I can just see the story unfold in my head.  A skirmish erupts, they grab the pot from its normal place, rip a bit of fabric and stuffs it in the top of the jar.  Running outside in the dark of night they bury it quietly and quickly near their house at a location they can landmark and then never to return.  I’ve often wondered what happened to them.  Did they die in the fighting?  Maybe they were taken as a slave or wounded and died later?  Or could they have fallen ill? Was their family killed?  Could they have told no one?  Did they steal it from someone who was killed and hid it, and then died never to return?  What was the bit of fabric from?  A cloak or bedding? Maybe their own clothes?  Could they hear the fighting nearby as they dug?  Or was this a careful plan done before panic?  If only I could have been a midge on the wall.  Even with so many questions, what this bit of fabric does tell us is a story of violence, conquest, bribery, and fear.  Yet even through all the upheaval, change, and destruction, the person who stuffed that bit of fabric in the jar had hope.  They made the deposit which must have given them a glimmer of hope for a future that held something better.  That sense of hope is one of the most inherent characteristics of humanity and remains undimmed by time.  It reminds me that the Tales of Tartan are the tales of us.

Patrick Grant [1713/14-1824] in 1822, by Colvin Smith [1795-1875]. Photo credit: National Galleries Scotland.

Patrick Grant [1713/14-1824] in 1822, by Colvin Smith [1795-1875]. Photo credit: National Galleries Scotland.

Stay tuned for our next and final instalment!  I’ll be talking about early medieval tartan in our last episode before the big event on June 25th.  You can access the speaker biographies in Volume 1 and the history of tartan as a prehistoric textile in Volume 2. 

Seating is limited and tickets are selling out.

Post by Catherine Bradley
Catherine is a member of our history team and provides the living history interpretations in the kitchen and laundry via the wash tub time machine.
Catherine Bradley.<br />

REFERENCES: 

  1. “Legio Aeterna Victrix” from Ben-Hur. 2016. Directed by Timur Bekmambetov, Written by Keith Clarke and John Ridley, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Lightworkers Media, Hivemind.
  2. Section 21, Aurelius Victor (attributed) (translated by Banchich, Thomas M.)   Epitome De Caesaribus, Canisius College Translated Texts, Number 1, Canisius College, 2nd edition.  Buffalo, New York.  Accessed on 15 May 21, 2023, Available at: http://www.roman-emperors.org/epitome.htm-  Copyright (C) 2009, Thomas Banchich. This file may be copied on the condition that the entire contents, including the header and this copyright notice, remain intact.
  3. Caledonian Warrior from the Arch of Triumph, Volubilis, Morocco (c. 212-215 CE). Photo by: Museum of History and Civilizations, Rabat, Morocco. Available at:  https://fnm.ma/musees-ouverts/musee-de-lhistoire-et-des-civilisations/
  4. The Arch of Triumph, Volubilis, Morocco (c. 212-215 CE). Photo by: Guy Hunt & Dan Taylor for INSAP and UCL Accessed on: 20 May 2023.  Available at:  https://sitedevolubilis.org/
  5. The Falkirk Tartan. Bailey, Geoff B. 2019. A History of Falkirk in 10 ½ Objects: Object 4.  Accessed on 21 May 2023.  Available at:  https://falkirklocalhistorysociety.files.wordpress.com/2019/02/object-4-falkirk-tartan.pdf
  6. Falkirk Tartan and Hoard. (c. 230 CE), Hoard Photo Credit: CB, National Museums Scotland. More information at: Clarke, D.V., Breeze, D.J., and Mackay, G. The Romans in Scotland. An introduction to the collections of the National Museums of Antiquities of Scotland. Edinburgh: National Museum of Antiquities of Scotland, 1980, p 54.
  7. Falkirk Tartan and Hoard. (c. 230 CE), Tartan Photo Credit, Accession No. 000-100-036-743-C, National Museums Scotland) More information at: Clarke, D.V., Breeze, D.J., and Mackay, G. The Romans in Scotland. An introduction to the collections of the National Museums of Antiquities of Scotland. Edinburgh: National Museum of Antiquities of Scotland, 1980, p 54.
  8. Book V, Volume III, Section 30:1 p175-177. Diodorus Siculus. 1939. The Library History of Diodorus Siculus, Loeb Classical Library. Accessed on 21 May 2023.  Available at:   https://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Diodorus_Siculus/5B*.html
  9. Castell Henllys Roundhouse. https://www.pembrokeshirecoast.wales/castell-henllys/
  10. The Oyster Girl (n.d.). Philip Mercier (1689/91-1760).  Sold at Christie’s Auctions 19 Sept 2013, Live Auction 1186: The Collection of Professor Sir Albert Richardson, PRA. Accessed on 21 May 2023.  Available at: https://www.christies.com/en/lot/lot-5714611
Chase away the Winter Blues!

Chase away the Winter Blues!

Peach Tree Greenhouse Week in, week out, the garden team can be found, working on the various areas of the surrounding garden. Often, we are digging or weeding, cutting back overgrown shrubs or decaying trees and sometimes we tackle a new section of the neglected...

Snowdrops

Snowdrops

February Fair Maids Snowdrops are not native to Britain but originate from mainland Europe and the common variety, Galanthus nivalis  (Galanthus -‘milkflower’, nivalis - ‘of the snow’) is believed to have been introduced around the beginning of the 16th century,...

A Happy New Year to all our Readers

A Happy New Year to all our Readers

A Happy New Year to all our Readers!   On the Bonfire It’s always a good feeling after the Christmas and New Year excess to get back out into the garden and begin a new growing season. January is a good time to clear out dead and diseased branches from...

Highlights of 2023

Highlights of 2023

Highlights of 2023 Now that we have reached the Winter Solstice, the turning point of the year, it is good to look back on the past twelve months from the comfort of a warm, cosy armchair. We had six weeks of drought in May and June, weeks of rain in February, August...

Tales of Autumn

Tales of Autumn

Tales of Autumn Drummond, our rescue cat has started to follow us about when we are working in different parts of the garden. Last week he actually followed us into the polytunnels for the first time.  Almost immediately, he began to run this way and that,...

BOOK NOW