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Is Your Family Tartan Authentic?

In my family, we love to think of ourselves as Scots. At least the men do. The women are a little bemused. All that stomping through the gorse, and hammer-throwing, and drinking of whiskey. We have a family tartan. This is it.

(The Murray of Athol tartan. My name is not Murray. Let’s just say that if my last name was Smith, someone existed whose name was something like Joe Murray Smith.)

On the other hand, this could be it. Because there are at least two Murray tartans.

(Murray of Tuillibardine)

In fact, the concept of family tartan is apparently, well, created. Fairly recently. There is no such thing as a true, through the mists of time, since history began, tartan of your clan.

The History Of The Modern Tartan
I did not know this until last week. I called my father the professor on the phone, and asked him which Murray clan we were. I was looking for the family crest, in fact, and was hoping it was the one that featured a mermaid with a mirror in her dexter hand. Dexter means right, in heraldry. I liked the idea of a family crest featuring a creature half of the sea, half of the earth, looking into her face to find her true self.

My father told me that family tartans were a 19th century invention. I thought he called them an infernal 19th century invention, but he insists not.

Apparently Scots all wore tartan until the mid-1700’s. This was traditional Scottish dress. Not clear that the tartans were strictly associated with clans . Then Charles Stuart was soundly and savagely defeated in his attempt to win the English throne at the Battle of Culloden, at which point the English forbid the Scots to wear tartan at all. This lasted until 1822, when the historical novelist Sir Walter Scott so entranced George the 4th that George came to Scotland and lifted the ban.

So began the tartan, and the kilt, as we now know it.

My father did not make this up. As a professor, and in particular as a professor of English from a previous century, and a self-identified Scot to boot, he’s not prone to making things up. Especially about Scotland. I looked it all up. An historian named Hugh Trevor wrote a book called The Invention of Scotland: Myth and History which details this story, among others. The New York Sun wrote an article about the essay.

Must We Sadly Abandon The Concept Of Tartan?
On the other hand, this is America. We’ve only been a country since 1776. A family tradition that’s been in place since 1820 is ancient, in our terms. And we love an entrepreneur. Apparently the reinvention of the tartan coincided with Queen Victoria’s love of all things Scottish, the establishment of Balmoral, and an early form of tourism. Including souvenirs. Capitalism at its best. So let’s drink to enterprise. I’ll have a single malt so peaty your hair turns dark from imagined smoke. And I call the mermaid crest. Identity can and should be reinvented where necessary.

15 Responses

  1. So all the years I have given my father cashmere scarves in the Buchanan clan tartan are pretty much arbitrary? Hmmmm. I don't think he needs to know that.

  2. So we'll be tossing back some Laphroaig? Or would you prefer a few fingers (and maybe a thumb) of Lagavulin?

  3. Interesting. I always wondered how tartans came to be. I would def want the coat of arms with the mermaid! :)

  4. I used to have PJs from Victoria secret that looked so close to the first plaid. And tartans should be back, because plaids are "in" ;D

  5. Great post! My husband's family is Scottish- clan Munro. And yes, we have plenty of the clan tartan at our home. Those Munro's are quite proud of their roots. I swear that talking to them, you would think they are new to the coutry. But no, the Munro's settled Daufuskie Island, South Carolina in like 1772!Crazy Scots.

  6. I think if you're Scottish you spell it 'whisky' rather than 'whiskey' … In my 20s I found out our clan can wear Black Watch tartan, which thrilled me rather a lot at the time.

  7. Thanks a lot for this interesting information Lisa.

    In the last years I frequently met Scots wearing the tartan at occasions where the national or traditional dress was the suggested dress for those who wouldn't want to wear a smoking. Amongst the ones wearing their own dress, they certainly stick out and it's great to see them wearing it proudly. The tradition thus still has some occasions to survive.

    Recently I also learned that in Britany (France) there are some areas where a tartan is worn too.

  8. I'll join you in the single malt, as both my grandmothers are of Scots-Irish descent.

    While we have Aberlour, Lagavulin, Oban, Glenmorangie and Dalwhinnie (my hands-down favorite) in the liquor cabinet, I'll toast you with some Talisker, since we're doing a peaty one.

  9. Whisky. Yes. I knew the women in my family were bemused by all this. My father would not have gotten it wrong. BTW, I am a firm believer in letting people hold onto harmless beliefs that make them happy. I do it all the time. Laphroig, which is in my pantry, helps. However these other brands sound wonderful. Cheers. We can raise a glass in celebration of all peoples who find their clans. And wear plaid as a result, or not.

  10. I'll definitely have the single malt, the more peat the better. My family, being an all-round American mix, albeit a heavily wasp-oriented one, claims descent from 5 clans. My father, a historian, told us that family tartans were a 19 century invention and our families all came to this country before that time. He loved to debunk the myths of history we learned or absorbed in school and popular culture.

  11. My own Scottish forebears would have raised a glass to the capitalist origins of this "tradition". In fact, it would only have improved their view of the fashion!

  12. You would have enjoyed our honeymoon. And our newly enlarged Whisky collection for that matter. Though since I lean towards smoky, and he leans towards peaty, it's not terribly surprising that our whisky collection leans towards… smoky. So you'd be out of luck there.

  13. Oooh I love the tartan. I've always been drawn to it and didn't know why until my dad one day reminded me that his mom was a MacPherson. Unfortunately the MacPherson tartans (even the hunting one) are sorta ugly. Even my rehearsal dinner invites were tartan trimmed. My favorite is Black Watch Plaid (Ralph Lauren is very fond of this one too).. Your Murray tartan (the 1st one) is gorgeous. I'd love it if that were the MacPherson plaid. You ought to see the tartan all over my house. I have the Christmas tartan (Royal Stewart) dishes that I found in London one year. I hauled back 12 placesettings in my luggage and didn't even report it to Customs..shhhh)…One of the reasons I love the Christmas season so much is it brings out a lot of tartan. Great post! :)

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