Wednesday, 22 April 2009

Highland Myth

Another thing from The Fashion Reader that I found fascinating was the revelation that the whole business about clans and tartans is complete garbage. One thing I'd not realised -- never thought about it, really -- was that the population of the western Scottish Highlands originally were the spill over from Ireland, which is where the Highlanders got their Gaelic, their religion and their culture.

Also as background, it is useful to know that the Jacobite risings by the Scots were aimed at getting the Stuart line (Catholics) back on the throne. They were gloriously unsuccessful and this resulted in a number or repercussions, amongst which was the Act of Proscription of 1746 which included a ban on wearing any kind of Highland costume; the main aim of this Act was to assimilate the Scottish clan chieftains and divest them of their authority.

Another result of the uprisings, but also in part due to the developing industrial age with its need for cheap labour and wool, was the clearances of the poorer people, tenant farmers and crofters, first in the Highlands and later in the Lowlands. Between the Act and the clearances, Scottish culture was pretty much wiped out, and masses immigrated to northern England and the North American colonies, leaving the Highlands populated with sheep instead of Scots. And, apparently, that would have been that.

About 1760, enter two Macpherson men, not related, but impressive con men who knew each other and were in cahoots all the same. James took Irish ballads that were around in Scotland and re-worked them into an 'epic' that he attributed to a Gaelic legend named Ossian, basically stealing Irish culture and claiming it for Scotland.

The Reverend John Macpherson, a pastor in Western Scotland, wrote a Critical Dissertation which basically gave credence to James' work and together they managed to raise the hitherto lowly status of the Highlanders, romanticising them as an ancient and noble race descended not from the Irish, but from the Romans.

The next part isn't very clear to me, but the author seems to convey that whilst 18th Century Highlanders did wear plaid woven fabric (which may have originated in Flanders), their meaning of a plaid was a cloth worn over the shoulder and belted, not the longer skirt that is recognised as a kilt today. That garment was possibly invented by an Englishman, an iron worker to went to work in Scotland. He took the belted plaid idea and had just the skirt part made with the pleats sewn in. Apparently his kilt design caught on. But that wasn't the most interesting part to me.

Evidence suggests that the wearing of a kilt was something the servants, the peasants, wore, not the chieftains. When the ban on wearing Highland costume was lifted in 1782, after a generation in trousers, that class of people did not return to wearing skirts. However, the middle and upper classes began wearing this costume, that is the new and improved version of the kilt. Highlanders had been successfully romanticised as a special and endangered species. Kilts were cool.

In 1788, the Highland Society of London was founded and two of its early members, surprise, surprise, were James and John (now Sir John) Macpherson. By the time of King George IV's 1822 visit to Scotland, Sir Walter Scott, the master of ceremonies for the event, turned his back on his own Lowland Scotland, recognising that the King would be pleased to see a handful of Highland chiefs at the gathering instead. I keep thinking there is something very strange about how the English on one hand attempted to eradicate a culture and then on the other were prepared to decide it was wonderful and adopt it as trendy. Fashion is just like that, isn't it?

Then along came the Allen brothers. I gather they were English but managed to change their name from Allen to Hay, to claim they were descendants of some Scottish Earl and to hang out with the aristocratic crowd in Scotland. Then in 1829 they revealed that they had in their possession an historic document, a manuscript called Vestiarium Scoticum or The Garde-robe of Scotland supposedly dating from 1571 -- or possibly earlier -- that depicted the specific clan tartans of Scottish families. Their claims were challenged by Sir Walter Scott. They invented a letter from their father chastising them for even mentioning this secret document as a means to escape further scrutiny.

Moving on, they found another patron, changed their names again to Stuart and became Catholics. They published their book of tartans in 1842 and made all sorts of claims about the verifications of its authenticity -- Scott now being dead -- and later published a new and improved colour version called The Costume of the Clans. It looked as though they were set to live the high life, rewarded by the success of their ingenious historical painting of Celtic Scotland as a part of cosmopolitan Europe prior to the Middle Ages, hanging out with the jet set of the day. Then they over-stepped themselves.

In 1846 they published their next work of fiction, which claimed to be another piece of historical documentation. In it they claimed that the Stuart line was not extinct, that an infant son that been given into the care of some Englishman and, surprise, surprise, they were his descendants. Very soon after, a hidden enemy published an anonymous article reviewing Vestiarium and revealing their attempted claim of royal blood.

It was all pretty much over for them then, in England. Their host kicked them out, and they spent the next 20 years wandering around in the eastern part of the now Czech Republic keeping up their royal pretensions. They died poor. The Macpherson's did better: James died rich and well, Reverend John became Sir John.

And that MacDonald or MacIntosh clan tartan you paid a fortune for in some shop on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh? It's just a woven pattern made up by the Allen brothers, or some more recent designer. you think that means my family probably doesn't really have a coat of arms either?


Anonymous said...

That was fasinating.

Anonymous said...

Very intesting. It makes you wonder about some of the other "history" you read.