Peat Bog Yields Oldest Known Scottish Tartan Fabric
A thin but intact square of old fabric removed from a Highland peat bog four decades ago is likely the oldest tartan ever found in Scotland, a new battery of tests has revealed. It is estimated that the piece of fabric, with its distinctive combination of crisscrossing patterns of different colors, was manufactured sometime in the 16th century. This would make the tartan more than 400 years old. To date, no other recovered cloth found in Scottish territory has been dated to before this time.
The Glen Affric tartan is the oldest Scottish tartan discovered to date. (Alan Richardson / V&A Dundee)
High-Tech Tartan Testing Finally Reveals the Truth
The 22-inch-by-17-inch (55 by 43 cms) fabric square was fished out of the Glen Affric peat bog in the rugged Affric Highlands of West Central Scotland in the early 1980s. Until now, no one was sure exactly how old the tartan was, as tests that could reveal this information had never actually been performed.
Seeking a resolution to this intriguing historical mystery, the Scottish Tartans Authority (STA), a nonprofit organization dedicated to the preservation of Scotland’s most well-known type of cloth, commissioned a series of tests they were certain would accurately date the old fabric.
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Using high-resolution digital microscopy, STA researchers were able to identify four original colors included on the tartan: green, brown, red and yellow. A dye analysis showed that no artificial or semi-synthetic dyestuffs were used to make it, which led the researchers to conclude that the fabric had been woven sometime before the 1750s.
Overall testing results, which incorporated radiocarbon dating procedures along with dye analysis, suggested the textile had likely been manufactured between the years 1500 and 1600, establishing the cloth as the oldest tartan ever found on Scottish soil.
Based on its design pattern and texture, the experts believe this square piece of cloth came from a garment worn by someone who worked outdoors. The fabric does have a few small holes in it, but overall is quite well-preserved and in good shape, demonstrating a hardiness appropriate for outdoor labor.
Who Wore the Ancient Tartan? No One Knows for Sure
According to Peter MacDonald, who is head of research and collections at the STA, the testing process took about six months to complete. He confirmed that his organization was delighted with the final results, which were aided by the cloth piece’s medium of preservation.
“In Scotland, surviving examples of old textiles are rare as the soil is not conducive to their survival,” explained McDonald in the Hackney Gazette. “The piece was buried in peat, meaning it had no exposure to air and it was therefore preserved.”
John McLeish, the chair of the STA, noted that the tartan likely dates to either the reign of James V, Mary Queen of Scots or James VI. This would mean it was made and worn sometime between the years 1513 and 1625, making it anywhere from 400 to 500 years old.
At that time Clan Chisholm, a Norman family that likely came to Britain with William the Conqueror in the 11th century, was in control of the region of Highlands were the cloth was found. However, the researchers are careful to say that the cloth cannot be specifically linked to that group, or to any specific owner.
There is no doubt about the cloth’s identity as a true tartan. It has multiple colors and stripes, making it clear the cloth would have been made to mimic the traditional design. It features the color red quite prominently, and that is a color that is considered a status symbol by Gaels, who continued to occupy the Scottish Highlands even after Scotland had increasingly come under the control of the Normans in the Middle Ages. This suggests the tartan may have belonged to someone of Gaelic background and not necessarily to someone from Clan Chisholm.
Oldest tartan found to date back to 16th Century https://t.co/7IqxyDbF0a
— BBC News (UK) (@BBCNews) March 26, 2023
A Proud Display of Scottish Tartan Tradition
The remarkably old tartan cloth will soon be available for scrutiny by interested members of the public. This unique item will be put on long-term display by V&A Dundee, Scotland’s most prestigious design museum, starting on April 1, 2023, and continuing through January 14, 2024. Interestingly, it was plans to open a tartan exhibit at the V&A Dundee that led to the tests that proved the cloth piece’s surprisingly ancient origin.
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“We knew the Scottish Tartans Authority had a tremendous archive of material and we initially approached them to ask if they knew of any examples of ‘proto-tartans’ that could be loaned to the exhibition,” explained V&A Dundee curator James Wylie. “I’m delighted the exhibition has encouraged further exploration into this plaid portion and very thankful for the Scottish Tartans Authority’s backing and support for uncovering such a historic find.”
As Wylie points out, there is a line of continuity that connects the ancient tartan fabric with current versions of Scotland’s most distinctive type of cloth. “To be able to exhibit the Glen Affric tartan is immensely important in the understanding of the textile traditions from which modern tartan derives, and I’m sure visitors will appreciate seeing this on public display for the very first time,” the curator concluded.
Top image: The oldest piece of tartan ever found in Scotland was created in the 16th century. Source: Alan Richardson / V&A Dundee
By Nathan Falde