Posts tagged ‘Judith Watt’

Nov 4, 2013

London Fashion – Highland Rape – style over substance


The late fashion designer Alexander McQueen raised the pulse of the London fashion world with his Highland Rape collection in 1995. Now this all passed me by until looking through this weekend’s Financial Times Style page in its Life and Arts supplement which featured an article on ‘The new tartan army’ with references to the McQueen collection of sixteen years ago.  Accompanying the piece were some pretty pictures of pretty young people dressed to kill in yards and yards of tartan.

The pictures were fine but the text proved a further demonstration of woeful ignorance about Scotland south of the border.

McQueen tartan

According to Vogue at the time, McQueen’s original collection was said to mark the ‘English slaughter of his Scottish ancestors’.  Fair enough that was his point of view and perhaps this is the time to explain that McQueen was London born and bred.

The ‘rape’ alluded to by McQueen was the British government’s brutal containment of the Scottish highlands after the 1745 Jacobite rebellion. The indiscriminate thuggery and raping meted out to men, women and children for many years after the uprising was as sickening as anything happening to people suffering under brutal regimes around the world today. It is good that McQueen felt that horror from his reading of histories even though the culprits were surely British rather than English.   

As he is dead McQueen cannot be blamed for the jumbled commentary on this latest tartan extravaganza written by Mark C. O’Flaherty in the FT November 2/3 2013.

Sadly reminiscent of the previous weekend’s FT where the words ‘it doesn’t get (much/any) more Scottish than’ – on that occasion it was smoking fish over ‘whiskey’ barrels – and you will all know that it is Irish whiskey that is spelled with an ‘e’ and Scottish without – we are reminded how  marginalised Scotland is and that it is indeed a foreign country of which they know little.

O’Flaherty is awfully confused. In between his references to Chanel and Stella McCartney, Jean Paul Gaultier and Versace readers are told ‘tartan’s roots are firmly planted in violent rebellion’ – that will be aerial roots?

Tartan is an arrangement of coloured threads woven into cloth as squares and stripes and as such has been worn in Scotland for many centuries.  Early tartans would have been more dowdy than today’s bright and garish chemical-induced colours. When only plant dyes were available to highland dyers the effects on thread would have been far more subtle. Nor were there distinct tartans attributed to clans but assorted shades and patterns worn together through necessity and preference.

Quoting ‘a definitive and candid study of his work’ by a fashion historian called Judith Watt, O’Flaherty writes, “Tartan was crafted to give identity to the diaspora of the Scottish clans. Highland Rape was all about the Highland Clearances by the English in 1745. It was a story  about the rape of land and heritage. The tartan that Lee used was a MacDonald tartan, developed from a plaid that had been outlawed and buried by one of his ancestors.”

Where to start with this nonsense.

It is true that tartan was ‘crafted’ during the late 18th century and certainly through the 19th century with the invention of clan tartans, specific to families and the notion certain people were entitled to wear them but I do not think this is what Watt and O’Flaherty are referring to. The suggestion is that tartan provided a collective identity to highlanders ravaged by – well what? We have mention of the Clearances and the ’45 in the same sentence.

It is surely all too easy to confuse the Clearances which can be said to have begun in the later 18th century with the Jacobite risings of 1715 and 1745 especially if you haven’t the faintest idea what you are writing about. The banning of tartan through the Act of Proscription and the earlier Disarming Act, introduced after the first Jacobite revolt, had little to do with the Clearances other than some of the same people were affected, or generations of their families.

The article continues its downward projection. ‘In fact, 1970s punk wasn’t the first time since the Clearances that the confrontational aspects of tartan had been utilised to inject fashion with a certain frisson’ and tells how the French, terrified by a tartan-clad Highland regiment (it has it as singular) at Waterloo – yes the Scots did fight during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars despite what you might read in books – and so took to wearing what we now call tartan themselves.

‘Tartan has nothing to do with rock’n’roll or the violently oppressive English monarchs of the 18th century…’ we are told although in reality the monarchs of the period mentioned were by then British (in a manner of speaking, Hanoverian more precisely, but scarcely English).


The idea that tartan was created to give identity to a people is preposterous. It has been identified with the people of Scotland but that is not the same thing. Those impoverished and terrified people wrapped in plaid who were bribed and/or burned from the lands of their ancestors were not wearing tartan as a symbol of revolt. By the time most of the Clearances were occurring the Proscription Act had fallen into abeyance and the checks of the plaid/tartan had become de rigueur as the uniform of oppression – think of its adoption into Highland regiments and the preposterous strutting of that most un-Scottish/British/German monarch George IV as he entertained Edinburgh with the spectacle of his royal corpulence draped in a kilt over gaudy pink tights.


The British government’s decision to adopt tartan for the uniforms of Highland regiments, where would the British empire have been were it not for the cannon fodder provided by young highlanders?  This cynical act helped create the idea of distinctive tartans associated with specific areas of Scotland and so from the backs or should that be the backsides of Highland troops emerged modern tartans – not in the form of the traditional plaid or trews (easier to ride ponies and worn by chiefs and tacksmen)  but the short kilt which soon took on the very essence of highland accessories. Promoted by Colonel David Stewart, founder of the Celtic Sociery of Edinburgh, vouched for the authenticity of the short kilt, the féileadh-beag , once a hitched up piece of plaid tucked into and secured by a leather belt which had been appearing before the ’45 and with other plaids, however worn, were outlawed and dangerous to wear until approaching the latter quarter of the century.  The same Colonel Stewart endorsed the existence of specific clan tartans  and in an extravaganza of tartanry and flag waving he and Walter Scott created a Scotland as authentic as the White Heather Club.

There followed a scramble for tartan – to clothe well-heeled new-born Highlanders from wherever they came.

Step up the Sobieski brothers. Fly guys claiming Bonnie Prince Charlie as their grandfather, cashing in on the clamour for all things Scottish. Their Vestiarium Scoticum of 1842 alleged to show ancient tartans, genuine from the peat bog and before you could say och I the noo clan tartans were born.


It was bogus but lapped up by Anglicised clan chiefs. Clans had their individual tartans. It was all very lovely and colourful and so so fake. Highland dress in the form of permanently stitched folds was given an ancient pedigree and the Scottish nobility, royalty and pseudo-Scots promoted their fine Highland dress , the more kitsch and showy the better, as if a continuum of olden, golden Scotland when whisky didn’t have an ‘e’ and every loch worth a name had its own monster.

Doubts any might have over the accuracy of this renaissance of tartanry need only enquire as far as the evidence produced (created) by the  Sobieski  brothers. The wily two found especial favour with the Frasers of Lovat and were provided with their own highland hame near Beauly. They were buried, not before time, in St Mary’s churchyard at Eskadale.


Given the confusion which surrounds tartan perhaps we shouldn’t blame the Financial Times and some fashion writers for their silliness and given the pervasive invisibility of Scotland as far as our national press is concerned then it may be we should be grateful when we do get a look-in, however erroneous.  On second thoughts, no it is just not good enough.