Jane Devine: Tartan worldwide mark of Scottishness

The tartan was ridiculed by Labour and Tory politicians for choosing grey to represent Scotland's future.
The tartan was ridiculed by Labour and Tory politicians for choosing grey to represent Scotland's future.
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WE MAY find tartan’s image embarrassing, but it’s a symbol of Scottishness known all over the world, writes Jane Devine

Last week, the Yes Scotland campaign team registered the Yes Scotland tartan with the official tartan registry, the Records of Scotland. With over 13,000 tartans registered, Yes Scotland are part of a big trend of people who rate tartan, but when anyone, anywhere can register a new tartan for just £70, are we running the risk of overusing something that is a great asset to us, and as a consequence, diluting its value?

The fact that tartan is associated with us at all is interesting, as tartan is not ours. Textile historians will point to central European cultures that wove an early version of tartan in 400BC and others have claimed that 3,000-year-old mummies have been found shrouded in tartan. In truth, tartan in its current form has only been with us since the middle of the 19th century.

The fact that it remains associated with us is also interesting because we have an odd relationship with tartan. We claim it as part of our heritage, as something instantly recognisable as Scottish, but we recoil when we see it trotted out along with the bagpipes and haggis in the displays of tourist-destination high-street shops; and get frustrated when it is proffered along with misty landscapes, heather and whisky as part of the iconography of our nation.

So, at home, we might shy away from its naff image or even be embarrassed that all things Scottish seem to have to be tartan, but away from Scotland and for visitors to Scotland, tartan IS Scotland. And that’s hugely important and valuable.

What other country in the world has an insignia that no matter its form, colour scheme or design is as instantly recognisable and as immediately identifiable with a people, a culture and a nation as tartan is with Scotland? Whether it is pink, green or red, on a tea-towel, mug, kilt or scarf, tartan is intrinsically Scottish.

And, at the moment, it is hugely popular. From classic Vivienne Westwood catwalk collections, to Nike training shoes, tartan is everywhere, but more, everyone seems to want their own. We now have tartans for every football team in Scotland and beyond, a Disney-Pixar Brave tartan, a papal tartan, an Algarve tartan (presumably for expats) and now a tartan for the pro-independence lobby.

At £70 a pop, are we making it too easy for people to have a tartan? Are we over-exposing it? Will we dilute its value to us? No.

The value to business, tourism and politics of having a symbol that instantly connects to the country they are trying to promote is immense. And, we can be precious about this all we want to be, but tartan now isn’t the same as the tartan which was outlawed in the 1700s. It is a modern invention. It is something that has evolved with time and fashion and use. And it will continue to evolve.

So while we have it, while its useful and while it’s still ours, let’s use it.