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The Clan Tartans and Family Tartans of Scotland
From a catalogue by John Catto of Toronto

The antiquity of the Tartans is a subject which has given rise to much research amongst scholars, and some speculation amongst their critics.

Some scholars find evidence that chequered cloth was not peculiar to the Scottish Highlanders, but is really a survival of a trait common to all the great branches of the Celtic race. Logan quotes a Roman author to show that the bright patterns shown in the dress of the ancient Gauls had been noticed and admired by their conquerors. On the other hand, some critics go the length of saying, that while Tartans in themselves may be old, the distinctive patterns to which clan names are attached, are only an affair of the day-before-yesterday and cannot be traced further back than the early part of the present century.

This view is too absurd to require refutation.

While jewels, on account of their intrinsic value, and arms and armour, by reason of their associations with prominent members of noble families, have been handed down as heirlooms and so preserved for centuries, clothing has very seldom been considered worthy of preservation, so that it is only by some accident that articles of dress, having any claim to antiquity, have been preserved. When King Robert the Bruce, in the tight at Dalree, lost his plaid or mantle, and with it the jewelled brooch which fastened it; the brooch was at once considered a rich prize, and has been preserved through the many vicirsitudes of five hundred and eighty years. It is now the famous "Brooch of Lome," but no thought was given to preserve the plaid. It need not be a matter of surprise, therefore, to find that comparatively few specimens of ancient Tartans are in existence, yet there are sufficient to show the antiquity of Clan and Family Tartans.

Some of the Tartans worn by Prince Charlie are still preserved, likewise a plaid worn by one of his followers, Murray of Tullibardine, which for fineness of texture cannot be surpassed by the best productions of woollen manufacturers of the present day.

The "Jacobite" Tartan of this catalogue is from a specimen made not later than 1712, and was designed to be different from any known Tartan of that period, having a considerable proportion of orange.

The chief of the Clan Macpherson, Cluny of Cluny, has Tartans in his possession at least 200 years old. One of these is almost identical with the "Makanphersonis " described in the "Vestiarium,"

The "Vestiarium Scoticum" is a description of seventy-five Tartans, divided into —Highland, Lowland, and Border Clans recalling the almost forgotten fact that clans were not confined to the Highlands and Islands. The M.S. is supposed to have been written in the latter part of the 15th or the early years of the 16th century. The author, in an "Envoi," calls himself "Schyr Richard Urqvharde, Knycht." He seems to have been a gentleman and a soldier of fortune, well acquainted with

"Heravltrye and armovris
Cvrtlye gvys and tovrnai,
Hunter craft and forestrye."

He has had a remarkable facility in describing in words the characteristics of the different Tartans, borrowing for this purpose a few terms and phrases from the kindred subject of heraldry — "fields, lists," etc.

That his descriptions do not correspond with many of the Tartans of the present day should cause no surprise; it is more than 300 years since his book was written; Scotland has seen many changes in that time, the clan system has disappeared except in the case of but a few of the most powerful. The risings  in favour of the old Stewart line in 1714 and 1745 did much to bring to a close that ancient form of society. The chiefs became poor—were outlawed if they were so fortunate as to escape the headman's axe. The wearing of the ancient dress was made a criminal offence. Is it surprising that the knowledge of some Tartans was quite lost, and that consequently some of those which were revived were not quite the same as formerly?

Indeed it does not require any special reasons to account for changes in such a long stretch of time. It is well known to all who take an interest in Tartans that there is a constant tendency to produce slight variations in the pattern, and great care is needed to keep this tendency down. The Tartans now worn by the Highland regiments shew this in a very marked manner take any of these regiments, and it will be found that the officers' plaids are very different in the shades of colour from their kilts, while those of the rank and file are still further removed from the shades of the plaid, yet these are all the same Tartan.

You can also view the pdf scan of this book here!

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