Posts tagged ‘tartan’

Aug 20, 2018

Tartan Slaves

Oh, thought I, how interesting when I learnt that some Caribbean slave owners dressed their slaves in tartan but looking into it further I discovered that tartan cloth was a fabric like any other so my initial wonder more or less fizzled out. This is what I discovered.

tartan (1)

Plantation owners were obliged to supply clothing or fabric annually to their slaves; primarily for reasons of modesty and also for health. Much of the cloth bought in came from factories in Europe which was shipped out to the colonies and could be striped, checked or plain, sometimes dyed and sometimes not. The colour or design might represent a plantation – a means of identifying human property with a particular plantation – or master’s house  – but as for surprise that slaves were ever attired in tartan, well, these were designs woven into fabrics and not so different from any others chosen by other slave owners.

Slaves were people kidnapped and forced to work for someone till death without pay, kept in the meanest of circumstances – not so different from domestic stock on a farm. Children of slaves were enslaved at birth – every opportunity that life offered other people removed from them with their first breath. They were owned. They were property. Property with a value.

Having property that was potentially mobile, might try to escape, meant clothing could have another function – to identify where an escapee should be returned to if caught; the uniform or livery specific to a plantation.

The livery of house slaves was of better quality than that supplied to field workers for the house slave was visible to family and guests so in a sense represented the household. Plantation slaves were provided with most basic cheap clothing but something that was expected to last until it was replaced the following year. If someone’s clothing wore out within the year and it did because the quality was so poor then the person was reduced to covering up as best they could with the rags remaining. Quality of the cloth also varied according to the skill of the recipient and men, women and children were allocated different amounts of cloth or clothing. Women were provided with less clothing than the men they worked alongside but could be given extra if they had children – providing the estate owner with extra hands. They might also get additional clothing for providing those in charge with ‘sexual favours’ i.e. allowed themselves to be raped or sexually exploited.

The uniform of a male house slaves might consist of a coat, waistcoat, breeches, shirts, cravats, hose and shoes, mostly made up into garments whereas female slaves were often expected to make their own clothes from lengths of cloth supplied to them. House slaves might be given cast-offs by members of the family to save on the expense of clothing.  Women field slaves were dressed in skirts or dresses and men in breeches and shirts while children were given only a short gown until nearly grown. These garments could be made from all kinds of materials, fine and coarse: wool, linen, cotton, calico – patterned such as plaid (tartan) or plain and unbleached such as Osnaburg, a rough linen, like sacking, naturally brownish and produced in Osnabrück in present-day Germany or something similar manufactured in Virginia in America. On the subject of America there were sumptuary laws in some areas which prohibited people from dressing above their station which meant slaves were always supplied with the roughest fabrics available. Another rough fabric, a coarse heavy woollen material called Pennystone was imported from England. 

Many Scots became plantation owners in the West Indies and parts of America and made huge fortunes from what was basically farming, something most of them were familiar with, only without the nuisance of paying for the help. Britain was industrialising and the demand for products to trade around the world and feed the growing population in the UK was huge. Sugar, cotton, tobacco, tea plantations – whatever the product worked by slave labour mainly supplied from West Africa but also closer to their own homes guaranteed easy and immense profits. A surprising number of Scots in the Caribbean did not choose the life but had it imposed on them – transported there  because of decisions of Scottish and English courts. Some were criminals (crimes were pretty wide-ranging then) or political and religious rebels whose death sentences had been commuted to transportation. Nearly 1,000 Jacobites who weren’t butchered were rounded up and shipped out as plantation slaves. Yet more Scots were kidnapped, shipped overseas and sold into slavery. The case of Peter Williamson, kidnapped along with a large number of children in Aberdeen is well-documented and this kind of human trafficking went on throughout Scotland, certainly the northern part. Some children and adults were sold to estate owners as indentured servants – forced into slavery for a specified time then freed sometimes with a small land holding – a better future than African slaves were given. Against this barbarity the dressing of a plantation owner’s property in his clan tartan is small beer.

tartan (2)Governments working hand-in-glove with plantation owners – they were often the same people or at least members of the same families who used whatever means at their disposal to pull in labour – all the better for them that they didn’t have to pay, other than the cost of shipping to the West Indies or America.

The West Indies became a home-from-home for Scots, enforced and otherwise, when native place names were replaced with ones more familiar to them e.g. in Jamaica and Montego Bay these included Aberdeen, Alva, Berwick Castle, Clydesdale, Dundee, Dunrobin, Elderslie, Elgin Town, Farquhar’s Beach, Glasgow, Inverness, Kilmarnoch (sic), Perth Town, Roxborough (sic), Sterling Castle (sic), Stewart Town, Tweedside and Culloden – a stark reminder of how men and boys were separated from family and exported like meat carcasses.

‘The Highlander was an object of hatred to his Saxon neighbours…a filthy abject savage, a slave, a Papist, a cutthroat, and a thief.’ They were also vilified by Lowland Scots. A Highlander taken before a court stood little chance of judicial leniency. England post-Culloden, it was reported, hated Highlanders with a passion and were out for vengeance. Slaughter on the battlefield was followed by slaughter in homes across the Highlands and on the scaffold, proscription of a way of life and confiscation of land and the humble tartan on the streets of London led to outbursts of angry reaction for long after the ’45 and presumably tartan was not produced for long after then.  

Check or plaid material, tartan, if you like, was later manufactured in India for export to the West Indies. A red and white check or plaid also came to be made in Britain. It was called Bandana or Madras cloth and used in dresses, blouses and women’s head wraps – Bandanas. Checked material became commonly distributed for clothing so it is perhaps not surprising that Scottish plantation owners would decide to have checks that matched their own clans’ plaid not least to register their all-powerful state against the utterly powerless impoverished chattel. Likewise in other estates the uniform might not be of tartan or plaid, it might have no colour whatsoever yet be distinctly part of a plantation’s identity. Where clothing was not very different from other estates an owner’s initials sewn onto field clothes was used to mark his property or his men, women and children might be forced to wear a lead tag inscribed with the owner’s name around their necks. These were variations on a theme of marking human beings as marketable property.

There we have it then some slaves were dressed in tartan while others were dressed in plainer cloth which might be shipped out from Scottish mills (Wilson & Son of Bannockburn was one), Irish, Welsh, English, German or perhaps American. Huge quantities of cloth was imported annually to plantations, some was imported straight off the loom as broadcloth and some made up into clothing – breeches, jackets, skirts, hose, shirts etc but no shoes for field workers.

Meaner slave owners recycled old sheets and curtains to clothe their slaves or cut them up for patching and mending. Such was the experience of Robert Craig, an indentured weaver from Scotland bought by Londoner, Colonel Joseph Ball, a slaver who emigrated to Virginia in 1661 who thoughtfully left named slaves to members of his family on his death.  

The estates’ head driver who oversaw field work with liberal applications of his polished staff with its pronged end and his whip should raise far greater condemnation than the choice of decorative garb allocated to the poor souls worked into their graves by this monstrous system of exploitation.

Innovative engineering companies such as McKinnon’s in Aberdeen made fortunes exporting machinery to the colonies to better exploit the raw materials, crops and natural resources required for Britain and for export around the world. Interestingly that while machinery for processing mono-crop cultures imposed on colonies such as sugar, coffee, rice etc were essential tools in the profitability of slave plantations the enterprise and invention behind them offers a buffer to their association with human exploitation that went with the territory of slaves in tartan cloth.

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.