Tales of Tartan – Volume 2

5 May 2023


On June 25th we will be hosting talks by world-renowned experts in tartan and historical dress, Peter MacDonald and Rebecca Olds. To kick off this fantastic event we will be releasing a blog in four installments. Volume 1 was all about our speakers. This week we start on Volume 2 and travel back over 100,000 years to start talking tartan.

Portrait of a Jacobite Lady, Cosmo Alexander c 1745. Photo Credit: National Trust for Scotland, Culloden Battlefield & Visitor Centre

Portrait of a Jacobite Lady, Cosmo Alexander c 1745. Photo Credit: National Trust for Scotland, Culloden Battlefield & Visitor Centre

Portrait of a Jacobite Lady, Cosmo Alexander c 1745. Photo Credit:  National Trust for Scotland, Culloden Battlefield & Visitor Centre

As a student of history, I have always believed the more we discover about our past, the more we understand ourselves and see our future.  The ancients understood this too.  They passed down the histories and thus the collective knowledge of our people through the art of storytelling.  Not hard to imagine them gathered around the crackling fire on soft animal skins wrapped in tartan, the howling winds of a dreich winter night rapping the thatched roof while the rush lights flickered in the draught of the round house. The low hum of chants rising with the smoke while the storyteller sang songs about the hunts in days gone by and the ways of the plants and animals of the ancient Caledonian forests.   I’d be willing to bet what made those stories memorable was how they were told as much as what they saidOne of the greatest joys in my life has been having the opportunity to pass stories on through living history interpretation in the laundry of Bannockburn House.  While I’m not as good at singing as our Iron Age friend, I can sure talk your ear off and squeeze in a good story.  The only thing the laundry is missing is round walls and a good fire.   

Bannockburn House Laundry. Photo Credit: Bannockburn House Trust & Mark Leslie Photography

Bannockburn House LaundryPhoto Credit: Bannockburn House Trust & Mark Leslie Photography   

Bonnie Prince Charlie’s Room. Photo Credit: Bannockburn House Trust & Mark Leslie Photography

Bonnie Prince Charlies RoomPhoto Credit: Bannockburn House Trust & Mark Leslie Photography 

Ambiance and character are something the house has in spadesIt is an easy place to tell memorable stories about the past, especially in period clothing. It has a history as exciting, rich, and curious as any good novel you’d curl up with by the winter fire in your modern square house.  Although I’d wager, we’re all better off not dealing with smell of a rush light soaked in tallow.  As much as I love literally living history and barbeque, I’ve got a weak spot for good smelling Yankee Candles and not six-week-old steak grease on fire.  This means we have all the elements of a good story, minus the rush lights of courseThe question in my mind for some time has been what story to tell and how to tell it.   

Iron Age Roundhouse Reproduction. Photo Credit: Chiltern Open Air Museum

Iron Age Roundhouse Reproduction. Photo Credit: Chiltern Open Air Museum 

That decision was a lot easier than I expectedIt all kind of just happened by accident.  First, I wandered into the Museums of Scotland, and by some freak coincidence happened across a group of fellow Yanks.  They all love tartan, historical costuming, and bringing history to life just like me.  Of all the gin joints in all the worldThen quite by chance sometime later I agreed to come along with my neighbor who had booked a tour of the houseAfter listening to the tour and seeing the passion the volunteers had for the place, I was soldAs I mulled over the house’s connections to the Jacobites and the Wilsons of Bannockburn, somewhere in the Victorian addition coming down the staircase it all added up in my headThe light bulb clicked on, the solid hum of electricity charged my mental machete, and just like that my intellectual thicket was cleared.  What better way to celebrate a wonderful part of Scotland’s history than to tell the story of tartan at Bannockburn HouseI’m no tartan expert, so I’ve procured as many experts as I can find, and some good ole fashioned gumption.  This is the first step in what will be a wider series of connected blogs and events, each supporting the latterTogether they will provide a platform for our experts, Peter MacDonald and Rebecca Olds, to share the epic Tales of Tartan at our first event.  I’ll be learning along with all of you and who knows, in the process maybe together we can discover more about Scotland, Bannockburn House, and even ourselvesAfter all, the Tales of Tartan is the tale of us.

An officer and sergeant of a Highland Regiment, Samuel Hopper c. 1786. Photo Credit: National Galleries Scotland

An officer and sergeant of a Highland Regiment, Samuel Hopper c. 1786. Photo Credit: National Galleries Scotland 

Alexander Macdonald, 1st Baron Macdonald, Sir George Chalmers c 1720. Photo Credit: National Gallery of Scotland

Alexander Macdonald, 1st Baron Macdonald, Sir George Chalmers c 1720Photo Credit: National Gallery of Scotland 

Alexander Macdonald, 1st Baron Macdonald, Sir George Chalmers c 1720. Photo Credit: National Gallery of Scotland

The world is crazy for tartan! The rise in popularity of this iconic textile is undeniableIts popularity today crosses boundaries between aesthetic and personal style to the embodiment of a national identityYet, as much as we see tartan as synonymous with kilts, shortbread tins, and everything Scottish, its story is far darker and more powerful than the trinkets in the tourist shopsScratch the surface and you find tumultuous tales full of intrigue, politics, and some would argue a form of cultural appropriationWhile this dark past is not the full story of tartan, what comes before is shrouded by the veil of time and a forgotten way of life distant from our modern waysIt lies as far back in history as our own beginningThe Tales of Tartan is the tale of us.  From the comforts of hearth and home to a lifesaving tool to protect travelers from the sting of a frozen windy moor, tartan has been there for thousands of years through every facet of our lives.  As common as a tea towel and as exotic as a Met Gala red-carpet gownIt has swaddled us, walked us down the aisle, and gone with us to the eternal sleep for millennia.  I love to study and recreate historical clothing and life in eras past for the very reason that it inherently brings you to close to these intimate moments in the lives of the pastThe study of historical garments provides such intimate detail about our ancestors, right down to their sweat.    

Helen Murray, Catherine Reid c 1756.  Photo Credit: Crieff & Strathearn Museum

Helen Murray, Catherine Reid c 1756.  Photo Credit: Crieff & Strathearn Museum 

Before we embark on our journey, let’s get some basics out of the way.  When I say tartan, I’m using the definition as outlined by the Scottish Register of Tartans Act (2008), “For the purposes of this Act, a tartan is a design which is capable of being woven consisting of two or more alternating-coloured stripes which combine vertically and horizontally to form a repeated chequered pattern. “[1]  When I refer to plaid, I mean as defined in Merriam-Webster (2023),“a rectangular length of tartan traditionally worn over the left shoulder as part of the Scottish national costume.” [2] This is a blog and is by no means an exhaustive literature review or scientific paper, but I will strive to provide sources and a transparent chain of logic.  Enough of the T’s & C’s! Time to start asking the tough questions.   

If we are going to tell the story of tartan, we need to ask, when did the use of tartan start and where did it come from?  I’d wager there’s a Phd in it for someone who can answer that!  That doesn’t mean we are hopelessly lost already though.  If the definition above holds, then we need to know when people started weaving multicolored textiles in checkered patterns.  That requires a few things to accomplish.  You need to have a desire for textiles, the time and energy to invest in making them, the materials to make them, and have a place or method to make them.  This includes getting materials from the raw form into useable weaving material.  Anthropologists have been trying to answer the question of when we started wearing clothes.  The theory of Kittler et al. 2003, is that the body louse evolved differently from the head louse when we started wearing clothes all the time. [3] Their conclusion is that we started wearing clothes 72,000 (+/- 42,000) years ago.  That seems a reasonable assumption to make given that it is very roughly when we began Northward migration.  I guess the Adam & Eve fig leaf had to fall out of fashion eventually.  Thank goodness because my fig tree isn’t all that keen on Scottish winters and there’s only so far I’ll go for the sake of historical accuracy.   

Ötzi the Iceman (c.3230 BCE) Reconstruction. Photo Credit: South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology

Ötzi the Iceman (c.3230 BCE) Reconstruction. Photo Credit: South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology 

However, this was not evidence of weaving clothing, only wearing clothing.  Somewhere along the line we started making clothes out of plant and animal fibers as well as animal skin and we developed the ability to weave these fabrics.  This suggests a need to have a regular supply of materials, so perhaps looking more towards the dawn of agriculture we will find the first fiber textiles.  A 2015 study by Snir, et al. found cultivation of “proto-weeds” as early as 23,000 years ago by hunter gathers in Israel. [4] Although that predates the start of the Neolithic when humans began to farm in earnest, roughly 10,000 years ago give or take a few thousand years. It is still interesting we may have possibly had the capacity to start mass producing and using plant fibers that early. 

Denisovan Needle (c. 50,000 years ago).  Photo Credit: Vesti- Siberian Times [14]

Denisovan Needle (c. 50,000 years ago). Photo Credit: Vesti- Siberian Times [14]

Needles have been found and dated to a whopping 50,000 years ago were made by another species of human, the Denisovans.[5]  The Venus of Lespugue which dates to the Upper Paleolithic, around 25,000 years ago, is depicted wearing a woven grass skirt.[6] Certainly the tools and supplies we needed to start making textiles were developed by this point, even if fabric as we know it today was still a long way off.  Perhaps some textiles had ceremonial value at this point, but it seems the lay of the land was really about survival.  That means our clothes had one main job to doIt is hard to argue our ancestors had significant fashion concerns enough to weave tartans in the middle of the last Ice Age with cave lions, dire wolves, and saber-toothed cats roaming about.  It makes our round house seem as modern and comfy as my square house, rush lights or not.    

Venus of Lespugue (c. 26,000-24,000 years ago). Photo Credit: Musée de l'Homme

Venus of Lespugue (c. 26,000-24,000 years ago). Photo Credit: Musée de l’Homme 

Just less than 12,000 years ago the ice retreated and shortly after humans ushered in the NeolithicWe made advances in farming techniques which led to readily available sources of food and fiber on a large enough scale to maintain more permanent settlementsIn short, cultivation led to civilization.  This included growing grasses and domesticating livestock.  Our sheep friends were first domesticated about 10,500 years ago.[7] It made substantial changes in the way we lived, how we perceived ourselves, and structured our societiesIn step with those changes came a change in our relationship with clothes.  We spent less time fighting cave bears and more time fighting with each other.  We claimed land and hoarded valuable goods resulting in a hierarchical societyWe also developed religion and created elaborate funerary monuments burying people with their wealth. 

The Tarkhan Dress (c. 3482-3201 BCE). Photo Credit: Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology

The use of hemp and flax dates back over 6,000 years ago. [8][9] The Tarkhan dress found in Egypt is one of the oldest (if not the oldest) clothing items that has survived to us.[10] Woven in linen, it was made about 5,000 years ago.  A remarkable find, this dress was placed into a royal tomb as a grave offeringThe weaving technique produces a grey stripe which suggests that by this time some sort of decorative aesthetics existed and inches us closer to tartan. [11]  

Hami Fragment (c. 1200-700 BCE)– Plates 13A&B from Barber (1999)[12] 

Enter the Tarim mummies and the proto-Celtic Hallstatt cultureThe Tarim mummies are about 2,000-5,000 years old and were found in the dry cold basin in China.  Their level of preservation was so astounding many of the textiles buried with them surviveThese extraordinary fabrics demonstrate expert craftmanship beyond simple weaving of grass.  They used numerous types of materials, including a rough outer hair coat of sheep called kemp as well as various weaving patterns requiring more than simple weaving tools.  We finally find what we will recognize as a multi-colored tartanesque pattern!  In the picture 13A from Barber (1999) of the Hami fragment, you can clearly see the twill weave with the brown and delicate blue color. [12] Barber reports this fabric dates to between 1200 – 700 BCE.  Yet, the colors look like you would find it sitting on a shelf at the Edinburgh Woolen Mill with half dozen other Harris Tweed productsThere is something timeless about the aesthetic of itThe twill weave is certainly familiarPerhaps it is the faded brown and blue which remind me of earth and sky that appeals to my humanityCertainly, our first clue about what makes tartan so popularIt appeals to our human ability to identify hidden patterns and symbolism.   

Hallstatt Fragment (c. 800-1200 BCE).  Photo Credit: Naturhistorisches Museum

Hallstatt Fragment (c. 800-1200 BCE)Photo Credit: Naturhistorisches Museum  

What I find even more curious is that 4,000 miles away in Austria about the same time, the Hallstatt people were making very similar fabrics.[13] The scrap of bi-color tartan at the Naturhistorisches Museum in Vienna is a remarkable find.It is strikingly like the Hami fragment in several waysThe Hallstatt peoples were part of an early group who would eventually become the CeltsThey lived in the Alps mining salt and were among the earliest to work iron.They grew wealthy trading with other tribes and their royal burials indicate considerable wealth.The similarities between the Hami and Hallstatt fragments found half a world away from each other suggest a wide tradition of advanced weaving.Perhaps they traded with the same peoples, perhaps there is more to the story we don’t know yet.What is clear is that these scraps of fabric with humble beginnings were already becoming more. Their existence and inclusion in elaborate burials shows us clothing as a mark of status had arrived.

Reproduction of a Neolithic warp-weighted loom in Ischia, Italy. Photo credit: Psalakanthos

Reproduction of a Neolithic warp-weighted loom in Ischia, Italy. Photo credit: Psalakanthos 

As a modern human who (if not for my recently acquired historical sewing hobby) wouldn’t be able to mend a hem much less darn a sock, I am in awe of what these people did with no machinery.  Most of us today are so far removed from the process of making clothes, we wouldn’t even know where to start if it doesn’t come straight off the shelf in the right size. I believe that is our second clue about the popularity of tartan todayIn some small unconscious way, it reminds us of where we came fromA time we have long since forgotten, but our instincts have notThe farther removed we get from balance with the natural world and being present in the basic duties of life, the more some of us feel the pull to return. Tartan whispers to me in that way and reminds me to think of the ways of our ancestors.  The checks and stripes which highlight the weave and dyed threads literally make me imagine someone a thousand years ago raising the sheep, collecting the wool, spinning, and weaving their own clothes.  I don’t even have to close my eyes to imagine it. These qualities are inherent in these small scraps of fabricThey embody the story of usFrom the start of wearing clothes to the advent of the loom. These little scraps are the physical sum of one of humanity’s earliest achievements. That is why the Tales of Tartan is the tale of us 

Breaking flax during Anttila Harvest Market in Tuusula, Finland, 2004.  Photo Credit:  Anneli Salo

Breaking flax during Anttila Harvest Market in Tuusula, Finland, 2004. Photo Credit: Anneli Salo


Stay tunedIn the next instalment May 20th! We will go back to the Iron Age round house and talk about the Falkirk Tartan, strife, and the birth of Scotland. 
This is installment 1 of 4 parts leading up to the exclusive “Tales of Tartan” event on June 25th.  Our speakers are Peter MacDonald and Rebecca Olds, experts in the field of tartan, weaving, and historical dressFor more information, please see their speaker bios in the first installment and our booking page here. 


English and Scottish Dress from Meyers Konversations-Lexikon 1896.

English and Scottish Dress from Meyers Konversations-Lexikon 1896.   

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 />


  1. Scottish Register of Tartans Act 2008: Meaning of Tartan. Scottish Parliament (2008 asp7). vol. s2, 2008.   https://www.legislation.gov.uk/asp/2008/7/contents .  Accessed 27 Apr. 2023. 
  2. Merriam-Webster. “Plaid.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, 2023, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/plaid . Accessed 27 Apr 2023. 
  3. Kittler, Ralf et al. “Molecular evolution of Pediculus humanus and the origin of clothing.” Current biology: CB vol. 13,16 (2003): 1414-7. doi:10.1016/s0960-9822(03)00507-4. https://doi.org/10.1016/s0960-9822(03)00507-4 
  4. Snir A, Nadel D, Groman-Yaroslavski I, Melamed Y, Sternberg M, Bar-Yosef O, Weiss E. The Origin of Cultivation and Proto-Weeds, Long Before Neolithic Farming. PLoS One. 2015 Jul 22;10(7):e0131422. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0131422. https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0131422 
  5. Tennenhouse, E. “The World’s Oldest Sewing Needle Was Discovered in a Siberian Cave”.  Science Explorer, 2016.  http://thescienceexplorer.com/humanity/world-s-oldest-sewing-needle-was-discovered-siberian-cave . Accessed 27 Apr 2023. 
  6. Mussee de L’Homme. “Venus de Lespugue”. 2023.  https://www.museedelhomme.fr/fr/venus-de-lespugue  Accessed 27 Apr 2023. 
  7. Alberto, FJ, et al. “Convergent genomic signatures of domestication in sheep and goats”.  Nature Communications, 9:813, 2018.  https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-018-03206-y  Accessed on 27 Apr 2023. 
  8. Devkota, H.P. Hemp (Cannabis sativa L.)-Taxonomy, Distribution and Uses. In: Belwal, T., Belwal, N.C. (eds) Revolutionizing the Potential of Hemp and Its Products in Changing the Global Economy. 2022.  Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-031-05144-9_1 
  9. Jhala, Amit J., and Linda M. Hall. “Flax (Linum usitatissimum L.): current uses and future applications.” Aust. J. Basic Appl. Sci 4.9 .2010. 4304-4312.   
  10. Lobell, JA.  “Dressing for the Ages”.  Archaeology, May/June, 2016.  https://www.archaeology.org/issues/215-1605/trenches/4349-trenches-egypt-predynastic-period-tarkhan-dress   Accessed on 27 Apr 2023. 
  11. Landi, S. and Hall, RM.  “The Discovery and Conservation of an Ancient Egyptian Linen Tunic”. Studies in Conservation, 24:4, 1979.  https://doi.org/10.2307/1505776 Accessed on 27 Apr 2023. 
  12. Barber, EJW. “The Mummies of Ürümchi”.  1999. W.W.Norton and Company, New York, NY.  pp 61-65. 
  13. Barber, EJW.  “Prehistoric Textiles: The Development of Cloth in the Neolithic and Bronze Ages with Special Reference to the Aegean”.  1991.  Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ. 
  14. Siberian-Times. “World’s Oldest Needle Found in Siberian Cave that Stitches Together Human History”.  Siberian-Times. 23 Aug 2016. http://siberiantimes.com/science/casestudy/news/n0711-worlds-oldest-needle-found-in-siberian-cave-that-stitches-together-human-history/   Accessed on 27 Apr 2023.    
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