Above painting: Louis Jean Francois - Mars and Venus an Allegory of Peace
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Friday, May 7, 2010

Guest Author, Blythe Gifford - Behind the Plaid: Scotland and the Tartan

I am very exctied to have guest author, Blythe Gifford back with History Undressed.  She previously visited us, with her extremely intriguing article, Cross Dressing in the Middle Ages.  Today, she is gifting us with another tantalizing bit of history, Behind the Plaid:  Scotland and the Tartan.

HIS BORDER BRIDE, a May release from the Harlequin Historical line, is my first book set north of the border in Scotland. When my editor and I were first discussing the cover, she asked “Do you mind if we put plaid on the cover?”

Mind? I want to attract readers who love Scotland. Why should I object to signaling that to the reader?

Well, the answer, as my editor knew, is that I tend to be a stickler for historical accuracy. And in the 14th century Scottish Borders, tartan plaids are an anachronism.

Let me explain.

Scotland is two different countries. To most readers, “Scotland,” means the highlands. Clans and warriors. Highland hunks. My book is set in the Lowlands, so 90% of what most people know (or think they know) does not apply to my story. A Lowlander, I’ve been informed, wouldn’t be caught dead in a plaid.

But even if I had set it in the Highlands, the beautiful tartan pattern would have been out of place in my century.

There is one reference to “plaide” in the 14th century. (Believe me. I found it!) But a plaide, which means ‘blanket’ in Gaelic, was technically the cloth made into a blanket or worn over the shoulder. To quote Wikipedia: “Tartan as we know it today, is not thought to have existed in Scotland before the 16th century.” And not until the 1700’s, hundreds of years after my story, were plaids and families tightly linked. Earlier than that, weavers of a certain areas in the Highlands used consistent patterns that became associated with the area, but a Highlander might have worn many different patterns together, not one that belonged to his or her family.

Plaid fabric became a Scottish badge of honor when it was outlawed by the Dress Act of 1746. This was England’s attempt to reign in the clans by trying to obliterate their Gaelic culture. The law was finally repealed in 1782.

Ironically, though, it was an English king and a Scottish novelist who cemented the place of tartan in the Scottish pantheon. King George IV visited Edinburgh in 1822, the first reigning monarch to enter Scotland in 171 years. Sir Walter Scott, novelist and founder of the Celtic Society of Edinburgh, helped create the festivities. He urged his fellow countrymen to come "all plaided and plumed in their tartan array,” wrote Magnus Magnusson in Scotland, the Story of a Nation. The final effect, Magnusson goes on to write, was not universally admired. One contemporary writer called it "Sir Walter's Celtified Pagentry."

But the result was the invention of the Scottish tartan industry and clan tartans. In a book called Vestiarium Scoticum, published in 1842, brothers John Sobieski and Charles Allen Hay (who styled themselves as Stuarts) claimed to set out patterns found in an ancient manuscript they never produced. Other pseudo-history followed. When Queen Victoria and Prince Albert bought Balmoral Castle in the Highlands in 1848, they created their own Scots plaids, including the Balmoral, which is still used as a royal tartan today. Legend overwhelmed history. The tartan had developed a life of its own.

But I had modeled the kin of my 14th century heroine on a Border family that eventually became the Kerrs. Wanting to be cooperative while clinging to some sense of accuracy, I sent to my editor a picture of the Kerr tartan, thinking it would be ideal.

Nope. Even that idea was nixed. Why? Because, I learned, those lovely clan tartans are copyrighted and cannot be used without permission and, presumably royalties.

Somehow, I’m not sure the ancient weavers in the Highlands would have understood.

Would love to hear your comments on tartans. Love ‘em, hate ‘em, know what your families is? A copy of HIS BORDER BRIDE (complete with anachronistic, inaccurate plaid!) to a lucky commenter.

BLYTHE GIFFORD is the author of five medieval romances from Harlequin Historical. She specializes in characters born on the wrong side of the royal blanket. With HIS BORDER BRIDE, she crosses the border and sets a story in Scotland for the first time, where the rules of chivalry don’t always apply. Here’s a brief description:
Royal Rogue: He is the bastard son of an English prince and a Scotswoman. A rebel without a country, he has darkness in his soul.

Innocent Lady: Daughter of a Scottish border lord, she can recite the laws of chivalry, and knows this man has broken every one. But she’s gripped by desire for him—could he be the one to unleash the dangerous urges she’s hidden until now?

Her 2009 release, IN THE MASTER’S BED, has just finaled in the Readers Crown contest. Blythe loves to have visitors at www.blythegifford.com or www.facebook.com/BlytheGifford.

Cover Art used by arrangement with Harlequin Enterprises Limited. All rights reserved. ®and T are trademarks of Harlequin Enterprises Limited and/or its affiliated companies, used under license. Copyright 2010 ■ Author photo by Jennifer Girard

14 comments:

Professor Stacy said...

Absolutely love them!

Le Loup said...

That book cover doesn't some how have the period feeling!

Debra St. John said...

Hi Blythe!

Love the cover...love the story...love those men in plaid.

Susan said...

Thanks for the fascinating tartan lesson! I had no idea tartans didn't really exist prior to 16th century. My father had an old tartan that was passed down father to son, a green and white one. I adore tartans and have collected a few myself, including the Isle of Skye one, since I believe that's where my family was originally from. Your book looks great, Ms. Gifford. Will be adding it to my "to read" list.

Jody said...

Having just recieved my Wallace tartan skirt (not kilt) today, I found your take on this spot on. The bottom line with using tartan or plaid on the cover it is Iconic to Scottish romances. Having done lots of research on the Borders it would be nice to have an iconic symbol for a reader but there just isn't one for ones mindset that screams Lowlands because there are just too many areas of the "Lowlands' in Scotland.

What it is interesting about the emergence of the interest in family/clan tartans they were first produced commerically in the Lowlands of Scotland by the Pringle family and a few others, not the Highlands. Though clearly there were native weavers in the highlands its too bad that commercial venture didn't start there which might have provided them an industry.

Also the Dress act was such it applied to men and young boys not everyone, because it was seen as part of the "military uniform" of the highlands but there were those highlanders who fought with the British army against the Stuart cause who were allowed to continue to wear their plaide as were women. The plaide (shawl) being popular in Edinburgh and Glasgow and in the south were many were made was worn not just by the Gaels.

Blythe Gifford said...

Jody - You are such a wealth of information! Thanks for adding the wonderful detail on this subject.

TammiMagee said...

Hi Blythe,

I was interested in your post as I have touched on this subject on my blog recently, albeit in reference only to the use of plaid in the film Braveheart. My husband is Scottish and his mother's maiden name is Mclaughlin-I don't really know how to add a picture to a comment but his tartan can be found at http://s45.photobucket.com/albums/f54/alter69ego/?action=view&current=macback.jpg&newest=1. When me and my husband were married it wasn't possible for him to wear his clan's tartan as the shade of red didn't go with my dress! So he wore the tartan of the black watch instead-it's a lovely green colour. If you would like to have a look at my blog it can be found at www.histatic.blogspot.com

Great post, Thanks

Blythe Gifford said...

Tammi - I'll check out your blog and photos. And laughing about the wedding - fashion trumps accuracy, right?
Blythe

TammiMagee said...

most definitely! Thanks for the comment on histatic! Hope you visit my blog again!

Emma said...

I just wanted to say how much I enjoyed this! Especially the story about how the tartan went 'commercial.' Great fun!

librarypat said...

My husband has wanted a kilt to wear to the Celtic festivals we attend. He got a Utilitkilt in just a plain grey. We found the clan his family was a sept of, but neither one of liked the colors of the dress plaid. The hunting plaid wasn't bad. If I went back in my family, we ended up with an entirely different plaid. We finally found a place to get the Air Force tartan at a reasonable price. (Sorry, I am not willing to pay $600 to $800 for something that won't be worn that often and is just for fun.) I have a scarf and am looking for material to match so I can make a highland dress or skirt to wear to the festivals.
My husband is a rather serious person and used to roll his eyes at all the costumes I made. Now he is the one with the full Scottish attire and I'm playing catch up. He also has the leather leggings and ribbon shirt for our mountain man or Native American events and I haven't finished enough of my regalia to count. I always seem to be busy getting everyone else outfitted. I am now working on Civil War dresses for my daughter. Will probably never get mine done.

Thanks for an interesting post.

Anonymous said...

a wonderful posting...a manly man wears kilts :)

karenk
kmkuka at yahoo dot com

Anonymous said...

The Royal Stewart Plaid is the most widespread pattern in the world. The Red background Stewart is on more objects than any other pattern. I am speaking of distinctive named patterns, others are: Paisley, Fleur d'Lys, Star of David, Swastika. Those are classic patterns which are found around the world and thousands of years back into history. But the Royal Stewart is on every item of clothing, furniture, toys, bedding, towels, water bottles, etc., etc.
Why do you think this is?
I have gathered a few items, and have shirts: Royal, Dress (White background), and Hunting (Green background)Stewart, and one shirt with a Blue background.
Also, the proper Stewart is (I believe): Red Ground; Two White thin lines in the Center, Four Black lines making a box around the White cross, Two White and Two Yellow thin lines overlaid on Wide Black, Blue, and possibly Green lines on the outside.

plaid skirts said...

Absolutely love the cover!