The Royal Celtic Society's annual lecture series for the period 2019/20 began on Wednesday 12th September, when renowned tartan historian Lt Col Peter Macdonald spoke on Tartan as a Jacobite Symbol, in the magnificent surroundings of the Dome Room in Edinburgh's New Register House.
Peter, Head of Research for the Scottish Tartans Authority, has made a lifelong study of Highland dress and brings his experience as a talented handloom weaver in his lectures, providing his audience with an understanding that is intensely practical as well as historical. Tbis knowledge has uniquely enabled him, for example, to recreate ancient patterns from merest scraps of cloth which have survived, and to date these patterns from his deep knowledge of spinning, weaving and dyeing techniques through the ages.
For this lecture, his emphasis was on surviving artefacts and portraiture from the 18th century, which he skilfully used to identify tartan as both aristocratic and Jacobite - in sharp contrast to the widely held perception that the gentry's fondness for tartan began only with Kind George IV's decision to wear the kilt during his ground breaking visit to Edinburgh in 1922.
Peter brought with him a piece of the famous Moy Plaid, still at Moy Hall and gifted by Prince Charles Edward to Lady Macintosh, one of many gifts of tartan made by the Prince to his supporters. Using family portraits still in existence, Peter demonstrated the fondness of the Scottish aristocracy for their ancient dress throughout the 18th century, and including during the period of proscription after 1747. The cloth was used by both Jacobite and Hanoverian lairds, who deployed it as a status symbol, particularly by wearing tartan that was predominantly red in colour, irrespective of their location or clan: red dye, manufactured from imported cochineal, was very expensive and used by the rich as a badge of their wealth.
Following the failure of the '45 Rebellion, tartan was increasinly used by the Jacobite chiefs as a symbol of their politics and particularly by Jacobite ladies, where it is often combined with the white Stuart rose. This is evident, for example, in the very well known portrait of Jacobite heroine Flora Macdonald, painted by Sir Allan Ramsay. Surprisingly, though, tartan containing Stuart iconography was in common use not much more than 30 years after the '45. This is evidenced by the tartan coat of the Caledonian Society of London, recently purchased by the Scottish Tartans Authority with the Royal Celtic Society's support, which has Stuart roses woven into the cloth. It is significant that such obvious Jacobite symbolism was acceptable in polite society so soon after the rebellion, perhaps a signal that the establishment no longer saw Jacobitism as a threat.
This was a fascinating and wide ranging lecture that took its audience on an amazing journey through the 18th century. We are most grateful to Peter for giving so generously of his time and knowledge.