NO CLOTH has more romantic connotations or become so closely linked with a country’s national identity.
The dazzling colours of tartan materials are recognised globally as the uniform of Scots everywhere. For years it was assumed the distinctive reds, blues, yellows and purples on which modern designs are based came from dyes derived from native Scottish plants.
But a new scientific study has nailed that view as a myth. Sophisticated tests carried out on dozens of 18th-century tartans have proved the vibrant colours were provided by exotic foreign dyes.
The research confirms what many scholars have long suspected: that dyes from native plants were too dull and in too short supply when demand boomed before the Jacobite rebellions. As a result, they were replaced by brighter dyes from the Americas and India, even though the price could be four times as high.
One example is a sliver of tartan from the Highland suit worn by Bonnie Prince Charlie in 1743 and which is now on display at the National Museums of Scotland, which carried out the research.
Analysis of the dyes used shows the red is cochineal, made from crushed South American beetles, indigo from India, and Old Fustic, a yellow flowering plant from North America.
Samples from another 48 18th-century examples also show that the use of imported dyes was commonplace.
Anita Quye, the NMS’s analytical chemist, said: "The myth is that tartan of this age was coloured by plants native to Scotland. The perceived wisdom is that there was a wee Highland cottage industry producing these dyes.
"It is now clear that Scotland was importing good quality dyes, probably from well before the start of the 18th century and these were all very bright."
The Scottish Tartan Authority, the charity which keeps the International Tartan Index, said the research was a valuable attempt to improve knowledge of one of Scotland’s "great assets".
Secretary Brian Wilton said: "One of the inferences has been that good, wholesome tartan from this time was always made from good wholesome dyes from native heathers and lichens. If that is not accurate then we need to know what the true picture is. Research of this quality is immensely useful."
The 49 samples were taken from the Highland Society of London’s Book of Certified Tartans dating from 1812. The bound volume, kept at the museum in Edinburgh, is believed to be the first official attempt to link tartans with certain clans.
It includes samples from the Stewarts, Colquhouns, Frasers, Macdonalds, Gordons and McPhersons among others, and became the definitive Tartan ‘bible’ of the time. Many of the designs became the template for the 5,500 tartans now on the STA’s index, the closest thing to an official register.
Quye expected to find that the reds in the woven designs came from native flowering plants such as Ladies’ Bed Straw. In fact, all the samples tested revealed they were cochineal.
"Cochineal was present in all of them, and although it was four times the price of native dyes at this time, it was a very specific, bright colour that didn’t fade easily. One of the problems with native dyes was that they tended to fade in sunlight and became very muted."
Blues used in tartan cloth originally came from the native plant woad, which was also used as a form of ceremonial face and body paint by ancient Scots. It was supplanted by indigo from India.
Yellow dyes from native lichens and tree bark were replaced by Old Fustic, a flowering plant, and quercitron bark, both from North America. Shipping records show it being imported into Greenock.
According to John Burnett, an NMS historian, the widespread use of imported dyes showed how sophisticated trade had become in Scotland by that time.
"Scotland was a poor country on the edge of the Europe but that didn’t mean it didn’t have commercial markets. Clan chiefs manufacturing their own tartans probably sent their servants to trading centres like Edinburgh and Glasgow to obtain dyes, or they got them from travelling peddlers or from country fairs. It was probably easier to buy the stuff rather than make it yourself."
Tartan dress has evolved over many centuries. The plaid, a large piece of cloth belted in the middle to form a combined kilt and upper garment, gradually developed into the kilt as it is known today.
The wearing of tartan north of the Highland Line - which ran roughly from the north of Glasgow through what is now Perthshire to the west of Aberdeen - was proscribed after the defeat of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s Jacobite army in 1745. But demand soared when the ban was lifted in 1782 and the cloth was popularised by romantic writers such as Sir Walter Scott.
Rehabilitation was complete when Scott engineered the visit of King George IV to Edinburgh in 1822 dressed in a kilt. Another official seal of approval came in 1852 when Queen Victoria’s husband plastered the walls, floors and furniture of Balmoral Castle, their new Highland residence, in a tartan of his own design. By this time natural dyes, imported or otherwise, had been replaced by synthetic versions.
Tartan experts say the skills of the early manufacturers have never been properly recognised because the cloth’s image has been subverted by "shortbread tin tourism".
"It is a wonderful, colourful material and tartan weaving should have been recognised as a Highland art form long ago," said Jamie Scarlett, author of the Tartan Weavers’ Guide.
Full details of the research into tartan colouring will be revealed at a lecture entitled ‘Scotching the Myth of Old Tartan Colours’ at the National Museum of Scotland, Chambers Street, Edinburgh, on January 20.
SECRETS OF THE KILT
A PIECE of tartan actually worn by Bonnie Prince Charlie (right) was among the 49 samples tested by the National Museums of Scotland. Here are examples of some of the foreign dyes discovered in the clan tartans analysed.
Colquhoun (red, blue, purple, white): cochineal (red), old fustic and indigo/woad (green)
Fraser (red, blue and green): lac (red), old fustic and indigo/woad (green)
Gordon (blue, black, green and yellow): old fustic and indigosulfonic acid (green), quercitron bark extract (yellow)
MacDonald of Clanranald (red, blue, black, green): lac (red), old fustic and indigosulfonic acid (green)
MacPherson (red, blue, black, green, yellow, white): lac (red), old fustic (green)
Menzies (red, blue, green, white): cochineal (red), old fustic and indigo/woad (green)
Stewart (red, blue, black, green, yellow, white): lac (red), old fustic and indigo/woad (green), quercitron bark extract (yellow)
Stewart (Hunting): lac (red); old fustic and indigo/woad (green), quercitron bark extract (yellow)