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Braveheart — the Story of Tartan

Sarah Baker Tartan

Tartan extrait de parfum was one of the earliest luxury fragrances offered by the house, directly inspired by the unique beauty of the Scottish Highlands and created by nose Sarah McCartney based on her own research of this unique terrain. In celebration of Burns Night, we're raising the quaich—the cup of friendship—and offering you a special deal of 20% off on 50ml bottles of Tartan until Monday, January 29th. Use code: BURNSNIGHT

We also want to tell more about the story of Tartan and why we created a unique fragrance that taps into this singular Scottish textile tradition. This story is not only about our gorgeous extrait but also about how tartan became one of the world's most recognizable textile motifs.

SARAH BAKER Tartan still life
Sarah Baker's still life for Tartan, 2016

Tartan is beloved of luxury fashion, the European aristocracy and millions of ordinary Scots and their descendants around the world. For a woolen textile with humble origins, it’s come a long way and daily captures new fans despite its long, long history. But, just how long that history is, exactly, can be hard to tell. The story of tartan is never straightforward. 

The House of Edgar, a heritage tartan producer founded in 1783, recently announced that they are bringing the world’s oldest known tartan back to life from the grave…well, from the peat bog, actually.

Designer Emma Wilkinson and Scottish Tartans Authority expert Peter E Macdonald with the original and recreation. Photograph: Alan Richardson/House of Edgar/V&A/PA
Designer Emma Wilkinson and Scottish Tartans Authority expert Peter E Macdonald with the original and recreation. Photograph: Alan Richardson/House of Edgar/V&A/PA

The oldest tartan in the world—certified as a true tartan by the Scottish Tartans Authority—was found in a peat bog in Glen Affric in Scotland’s Highlands about 40 years ago. The particular conditions of peat bogs are well known for preserving ancient things, including people, that would otherwise biodegrade. 

Not only have experts confirmed that the tartan dates from between 1500 and 1600, but they have even been able to recreate its natural dyes made from local minerals and plants. The artefact—about the size of a pillow case—was unveiled as part of the Victoria & Albert Museum Dundee’s ‘Scottish Tartans’ exhibition that opened last year. And, good news: this historic piece of tartan will be remaining in Scotland. The V&A Dundee will become its contemporary home when the exhibition is over. 

However, you don’t only have to view it in a museum. With the House of Edgar bringing it back to life, you really will be able to don a kilt or a pair of chic trousers tailored not only in the highest quality tartan, but also the oldest surviving tartan pattern in the world to boot. 

With Burns Night upon us, millions of Scots, their descendants and fellow travelers around the world will be digging out their kilts or sashes, almost always in a tartan they know they have an ancestral or personal right to wear and play their part in keeping the traditions of the clans alive. The baird (or bàrd in Gaelic)—what Scots call a poet—will recite the words of Robert Burns and the quaich—the friendship cup filled with whisky—will be passed around before the haggis is sliced with a sgian dubh, that little double-edged dagger traditionally carried by Highlanders, a kind of prototype pen knife that comes in handy out in the big country. And, after the eating and definitely more drinking of whisky, people will start to share cultural stories and anecdotes, especially to any non-Scots who have been invited to attend. 

Inevitably, some of the stories will be true and some of them far less so, or almost impossible to either prove or disprove. This is often the case of things said about tartan on such occasions. It’s probably as it should be, because Scotland, like other Celtic nations, is a nation of storytelling; a nation of myths and legends. Why else would its de facto national day be the celebration of the life and work of the nation's greatest poet, the immortal Robert Burns?

Tartan is utterly a product of the Scottish landscape and more particularly the rugged geography of the Highlands & Islands. The harsh climate and rocky terrain made arable farming difficult, especially way back in the mists of time with limited technology. But, sheep could thrive well enough, producing both meat and wool. And, the early Highlanders learned to weave simple woolen fabrics and to dye them with materials they found at hand in the natural world, such as woad—for greens or blues—and other plants and minerals that would give them an earthy palette of ochres, browns, russets and greys. 

It’s posited that early precursors of tartan would have been very simple, perhaps involving only two or three colours. Over time the evolution of these simple geometric or chequered and grid-like patterns became more complex, in much the same way that dynastic families elsewhere in Europe developed coats of arms and liveries. Just as coats of arms served the function of uniting people under a social identity and, more practically, identified who was on your side in the frenzy of battle, tartans served the same function in Scotland when extended families united with others and grew into clans united under individual chieftains who led them in their struggle for dominance over territories.

One of the legends about tartan that can never be proven, but should certainly never be lost, is the old tale telling how new tartans were created. According to the oral history passed down from generation to generation, when important members of two different clans married, on their wedding night, when they retired to commence married life, they would hang their individual clan tartans, superimposed, over the window, backlit by candlelight. Outside, the weavers would note down the new pattern arising from this superimposition of two tartans and create a new tartan based on the union of two clans. 

It's hard to tell whether this has any factual evidence to support the retelling or whether it is simply lyrical legend. But, what can certainly be proven is that Romanticism and tartan have a long and close history.

Clash of the Tartans

Since the mid-19th century, the relationship between Britain—and later the world—and tartan is heavily bound up in romantic notions. From films like ‘Braveheart’ (1995) to popular TV series such as ‘Outlander’ (2014), the representation of the passionate drive of the Scots for autonomy is tied up in tales of courage and sacrifice. And, they’ll usually be wearing tartan in the starring roles, whether Liam Neeson and Jessica Lange in ‘Rob Roy’(1995), Mel Gibson in ‘Braveheart’ (1995) or even Billy Connolly playing John Brown, the alleged Highland lover of widowed Queen Victoria, portrayed by Judi Dench in ‘Mrs Brown’ (1997). 

Mel Gibson discovers his inner Scot in 'Braveheart' (1995)
Mel Gibson discovers his inner Scot in 'Braveheart' (1995)

Yes, we need to acknowledge that the cliché has moved on: in the 2019 film, ‘Robert the Bruce - King of Scots’ starring Angus Macfadyen, who actually featured in ‘Braveheart’, there’s no tartan in sight, accurately mirroring historic research about exactly who wore tartan and when.

This conveniently leads us into this truth: the equation of Scottishness with tartan wasn't always a given. Tartan is a textile that originated in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland; historically a peripheral zone. Another way to put it would be to say, that if auld Scotland were the present-day USA, tartan would have originated in the swamps of Louisiana or the Appalachian Mountains of Kentucky, not the corridors of power in Washington D.C. or the sophisticated zip codes of NYC.

In many ways, tartan was, at best, a bit of an embarrassment to the leading lights of the Scottish Enlightenment of the 18th-century living in the Scottish Lowlands and Edinburgh, that sophisticated “Athens of the North”. At worst, it was a sordid reminder of the failed Jacobite cause that had initially adopted it as a symbol of Scottish rebellion in exile in France and Italy. 

The Jacobite cause was supposedly dealt a death blow with the Acts of Union, passed by the English and Scottish Parliaments in 1707, which led to the creation of a united kingdom named “Great Britain” on 1 May of that year—also incidentally where the name of the United Kingdom (UK) arises. Of course, part of the reason for those with vested interests in this newly enlarged nation treating tartan with scorn is that even the Acts of Union never entirely put down Scottish resistance to being fused with England. Uprisings occurred sporadically, a pesky inconvenience for Scottish scientists seeking royal patronage from the monarch of the United Kingdom in London.

In simplistic terms, much of the 18th century saw the intelligentsia and wealthy populations of Scotland’s capital and pro-Union centres wanting little to do with tartan. It was the stuff of the wild, uncouth clans of the Highlands, those mad, whisky-swilling warrior rednecks who’d hold a cèilidh if their raiding parties were particularly successful in stealing cattle and sheep from a landowner’s estate…

The Actual Story of Tartan

The tipping point in the destiny of tartan came in 1822 when George IV became the first British king to visit Scotland. George IV was of the relatively recently arrived German dynasty that had ascended to the throne after the Scottish Stuart dynasty—which had ruled in England after the heirless death of Elizabeth I— itself died out without issue. Obviously, this had not been without resistance in the form of the Jacobites and their famous Bonnie Prince Charlie. So it’s easy to understand why Hanoverian monarchs preferred to stay away from Scotland.

John Blake MacDonald; ‘Lochaber No More' (1863) — Prince Charlie leaving Scotland
John Blake MacDonald; ‘Lochaber No More' (1863) — Prince Charlie leaving Scotland

But Scotland had an unlikely weapon in the form of the writer Sir Walter Scott whose romantic, swashbuckling novels had taken Europe by storm. Scott—he’s the one whose monument is that “pointy rocket” in Edinburgh— had published his novel ‘Waverley’, a romantic vision of the Scottish Highlands, in 1814. As a result of its huge success, he had subsequently been invited to dine with the future king, then still the Prince of Wales, in 1815. Clearly they got on. 

Queen Elizabeth

When it became known that George IV planned to visit Edinburgh, Scott was consulted on the plan for the celebrations. George had always had a reputation for being a party animal who loved a good spectacle and who had a taste for melodrama and luxury. So, Sir Walter Scott, planned a grand pageant in which Highland dress was a main theme. It went down very well.

Not only did George IV love the pageant, Scott even managed to persuade him that he was not only a Stuart prince, but also a Jacobite Highlander who could rightly wear a tartan. Shortly after the event, the king placed a substantial order for tartans with manufacturers George Hunter & Co and the long love affair between the British monarchy and tartans began, something that his descendant Queen Victoria would later take to new heights. 

But, there is complexity in this tale. Up until Sir Walter Scott—the man today largely acknowledged for inventing what is considered “traditional Scottish dress”—tartan had been a pariah, something progressive Scottish thinkers in the cities wanted to ignore, not only because of its problematic political connotations but also simply because they saw it as something intrinsically linked to the uneducated, feral clans of the Highlands. It was a fabric worn by hicks, those who were barely housetrained, whereas they were making scientific breakthroughs on practically a daily basis.

Sir Walter Scott’s “invention” of tartan as we know it today was almost pure fantasy. Certainly, you would hardly have ever spotted anyone fashionable wearing it in elegant Edinburgh of the early 19th century before his pageant. But that is also its beauty. Scotland is a nation of storytellers…so far we have a poet who is honoured each year on Burns Night, the kind of informal national day, and an early novelist whose bombastic memorial is writ large on Edinburgh’s skyline, if anyone is counting.

Audrey Tatou, playing Gabrielle Chanel, reaps lessons from tartan in 'Coco Before Chanel' (2009)
Audrey Tatou, playing Gabrielle Chanel, reaps lessons from tartan in 'Coco Before Chanel' (2009)

Ever since 1822, later ramped up by Victoria and Albert, that fascination with Scottish wool has continued to appeal to the imagination of cutting-edge designers around the world. Coco Chanel, during her tragic youthful affair with Arthur Edward “Boy” Capel, the man who bankrolled her first opportunity as a couturier, and her later more complex on-again-off-again relationship with Hugh Grosvenor, 2nd Duke of Westminster, developed a deep love of Scottish textiles; the tweeds and tartans beloved of the British huntin’-fishin’-shootin’ aristocracy. Why wouldn’t she?

Rapper Reese Laflare in Gucci, 2017

Despite its humble origins—perhaps something with which Gabrielle Chanel could identify— it was literally tailor-made for the tastes of the elite who also bought couture. And, like tartan itself, that fashion discourse has continued to gather layers of complexity, whether Vivienne Westwood’s punk riposte to its classic positioning or Alexander McQueen’s cockney-diasporan continuation of that line of thinking.

The Smell of the Weft 

In the early days of the House of Sarah Baker—technically before the house as such even existed—Sarah was continuing an artist's project that started with Leopard: an artist’s creation of haute parfumerie inspired by iconic high fashion textiles; what later became The Motif Collection. 

Roughly within that time frame, she and Andy took a trip to the Scottish Highlands. Staying in a bed & breakfast that was also home to an artisan restaurant in a remote glen, they were struck by the olfactory experiences that surrounded them, perhaps unaware that the particular microclimates of the Highlands have a way of trapping and amplifying aromas. The moss, the mist, the roaring fire, the whisky…

Sarah Baker Perfumes, Archival Motif Collection: Tartan, Greek Keys, Lace, and Leopard

After returning to London, Sarah knew that tartan was a textile she wanted to include in the art project she was developing with fragrance. She opened a conversation with nose Sarah McCartney, who had been undertaking her own olfactory research in the Highlands for some time. Not too long after, Tartan was born. 

It was the fragrance that first drew me to the house. And, I confess, I still get a bit huffy if I smell it on anyone else. I consider it my fragrance. It remains that essence of the beauty of the Highlands & Islands in a bottle, where loch meets sea or the dense mist lifts to reveal infinite blue sky, all around in the bastard, unforgiving terrain; the invigorating aroma of damp moss and dew-drenched heather out on the hills, inside, the warming magic potion that is a single malt…

Feel the Burns

Each year during these dark winter months—yeah, I’m going to resist the temptation to talk about the much older New Year traditions of Up Helly Aa that link Scotland with Scandinavia—Scots and diasporan Scots around the world celebrate Robert Burns, the unofficial national poet of Scotland. 

"And fare thee weel, my only luve

And fare thee weel awhile!

And I will come again, my luve,

   Though it were ten thousand mile."

-Robert Burns; from 'A Red, Red Rose'

Even if you don’t know who he is, chances are you know his work. For example, he wrote the song ‘Auld Lang Syne’... yeah, that song everyone fakes their way through at New Year—or Hogmanay as we call it—without actually knowing the lyrics. 

Undoubtedly, my love of Burns Night was born of childish excitement. My father was a champion piper and, therefore, much sought after to “pipe in the haggis” as is traditional at many Burns Night celebrations. The haggis, the centrepiece of the meal, is led into the dining room by a bagpiper, preferably a good one, doing all kinds of fancy fingerwork.

Sarah Baker Tartan

But, it was only as I grew older that I truly appreciated the work of Robert Burns. Sure, everyone loves a sing-song at New Year or a cute poem about a little mouse. But there is something so naughty and primally ribald in his bawdy poetry that it remains shocking even in this day and age. Yet, on the other hand, there is also something so uniquely tender and poignant in his love poems that cannae be found anywhere else.

Something that is key to remember about the work of Burns is that it was written in a time of great upheaval in Scotland during which the consolidation of policy run from London forced thousands of young working Scottish men to leave because their traditional agrarian way of life was no longer viable. His empathy for these men, as they headed to build new lives in America, Canada or India, forced to leave their childhood sweethearts behind, is often the heart-rending reality behind many of his poems.

Burns is, understandably, Scotland’s unofficial national poet because he was one of the first—second half of the 18th century, remember—to write in a Scottish form of English. I’m not going to get dragged into the academic debate about whether this is a dialect, Scottish English or Standard Received English. In my opinion, he embraced all of those forms, in many ways he even invented the distinctions. More importantly, he was a fantastic writer and one of the few poets of whom I can think who actually have a big annual celebration in their honour.

I hope your Burns Night 2024 is as good as mine will be. Raise the quaich. Slàinte Mhath!

Text: Ken Pratt

Ken Pratt is a curator and writer whose work has often engaged with Celtic identity and, in particular its postcolonial and Celtic post-diasporan discourses. He curated the show ‘True North’ at Galería Fermay, Palma de Mallorca in 2023 that included a work by Sarah Baker and Andy Hsu. For Burns Night 2024, he will be wearing MacKinlay tartan, sipping a 1994 GlenDronach Speyside single malt aged in sherry barrels, and wearing SARAH BAKER's Tartan extrait de parfum.


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