A small fragment of Scottish tartan uncovered in a bog in the Scottish Highlands may be the oldest Scottish tartan, as defined in modern times, according to researchers. The fragment may be as old as 500 years old, which survived due to the conditions in which it was preserved. The sample, discovered in a peat bog in the Glen Affric valley brings to light new details in how the tartan has developed in the last centuries.
It is believed to have been made in the 16th century around the time of the reign of Mary, Queen of Scots, according to dye analysis and radiocarbon testing commissioned by the Scottish Tartans Authority and released this week.
What is the Glen Affric Tartan?
The Glen Affric Tartan Fragment is a small piece of tartan that was discovered in the early 1980s in the Glen Affric region of Scotland. The Glen Affric region sits in the highlands near Loch Ness and historically were the lands of Clan Chisholm and Clan Fraser of Lovat.
The tartan fragment was discovered by a local archaeologist who was exploring the area, and it quickly became clear that it was a valuable find. Found in a peat bog, the tartan was preserved for centuries before its discovery.
In preparation for a Tartan Exhibition at the V & A Museum, the design museum in located in Dundee, Scotland, the Scottish Tartan Authority sponsored a scientific investigation on the tartan fragment to determine an origin. Long known to be of ancient manufacture due to the lack of synthetic dyes or materials, the Scottish Tartan Authority conducted a dye analysis as well as completing radiocarbon testing to confirm beliefs. They discovered somethng that surprised them.
What was discovered?
According to the Press and Journal, Peter MacDonald, head of research and collections, said: “The testing process has taken nearly six months, but the effort was well worth it and we are thrilled with the results. In Scotland, surviving examples of old textiles are rare as the soil is not conducive to their survival. As the piece was buried in peat, meaning it had no exposure to air, it was therefore preserved. The tartan has several colours with multiple stripes of different sizes, and so it corresponds to what people would think of as a true tartan."
Researcher identified four dye colours including Red, Green, Brown and Yellow. No artificial dyes were detected, and the radiocarbon dating pinned the Fragment to 1500-1600s. If this date holds, it will represent the oldest surviving Scottish tartan. While an older cheque pattern exists, known as the Falkirk Tartan, which was found in a roman jar from 260 AD, hat fragment, does not bear the characteristics of a modern tartan with varying thread counts. It is a simply cheque pattern. According to the Scotsman, that "fragment, believed to be the oldest piece of tartan found on British soil and held in the National Museums of Scotland, is estimated to be around 1,700 years old and was found close to the Antonine Wall at Bell’s Meadow, near Falkirk, in 1933."
Unusual Dyes and new discoveries
The red dye surprised researchers the most. Per Macdonald, "“The potential presence of red, a colour that Gaels considered a status symbol, is interesting because of the more rustic nature of the cloth. This piece is not something you would associate with a king or someone of high status; it is more likely to be an outdoor working garment.”
Per Macdonald, "“The potential presence of red, a colour that Gaels considered a status symbol, is interesting because of the more rustic nature of the cloth. This piece is not something you would associate with a king or someone of high status; it is more likely to be an outdoor working garment.”
The presence of red indicates that weathered, muted, or drab tartans are not "more authentic". In fact, ample evidence suggests that most tartans had many colors. The "Jacobite" tartan, that is based on tartan found in Culloden shows a Mardi-Gras array of colors.
For the Jacobite tartan, the Scottish Tartan Registry states "...the authors state that this pattern was taken from a silk scarf or plaid manufactured in 1712 but for which they offer no evidence beyond the family tradition of the unnamed lady said to have owned it when they were writing in 1850. Apparently based on the Smiths’ claim, W & AK Johnston state (1896), again without any evidence, that this tartan was adopted by the Jacobites prior to the ’15."
Which Clan Tartan is it?
Returning to the Glen Affric Tartan, in regard to which "to which Clan it might belong", Macdonald advised against creating a false history. He stated that “Although we can theorise about the Glen Affric tartan, it’s important that we don’t construct history around it. Although Clan Chisholm controlled that area, we cannot attribute the tartan to them as we don’t know who owned it."
Well-meaning amateur historians have created a host of fake traditions the have attempted to pass off real history. While research should never be discouraged, some individuals have created false traditions such as Clan Battle cries and plant badges that never existed in Scotland. (The Clan Baird has faced this as well and stay tuned for a future myth busting article.)
All of this is groundbreaking for the history of tartan which has been poorly studied. It also gives us a chance to reflect on Baird/Beard/Bard tartans. In the next Gryphon, we are going to share some unique facts about the Baird tartan and reveal the lesser-known Baird/Beard/Bard tartans and Baird/Beard/Bard color schemes. Join today! Find out why Ancient and Modern tartans exist and why muted tartans are so fashionable today!