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A Highlander And His Books


A Chat with James D. Scarlett, MBE
Frank R. Shaw, FSA Scot, Atlanta, Georgia, USA

Jamie Scarlett
Jamie Scarlett

Q: Welcome, Jamie, from the readers of The Family Tree. I have always spoken highly of your wifeís book In The Glens Where I Was Young. Is it true that there is now another printing of Metaís book available to the public? Please tell us the cost and how to order a copy.

A: Not quite true. The printers gave us quite a lot of loosely sewn page sets with the original bound copies. When the hardbacks ran out, I found I had 12 packets of ten unbound and got these bound as paperbacks with a new cover. Copies can be ordered from me and, for those who can pay in sterling, are priced at £13; the bank charges £5 to convert dollars to pounds, making it $30 in round terms, so if anybody who does not have access to sterling wants a copy, it might be worth investigating getting a sterling draft at your end. Unicorn are putting the book on CD, and I expect it to be available in this form in the fall. This is not my favourite way of reading a book, but it is better than nothing and will keep it in being. I have supplied amended pages, as for a second edition, but do not know if Unicornís system will permit use of them. I also have a project for binding six copies in silk in Metaís own tartan that I designed for her, but that is another story, and they will not be for sale. I certainly want a second edition and there is a need for it, but I find publishers almost impossible to deal with; they are dilatory to the point of discourtesy and appear to think that if they sit on a letter for six weeks and then send an irrelevant stock reply, I will think that they have given the matter some consideration. Of the two who responded to my approaches, one asked for a copy of the book, which he did not acknowledge, and the other told me that it was "only of local interest", which was why it was written in the first place. "Local interest" has actually extended from Australia to Zululand, and many of the letters in between.

Q: What prompted Meta to write this beautiful book about her growing up in the Highlands of Badenoch?

A: She loved her homeland and was deeply rooted in it, the continuance of people who had been there as long as the rocks. Meta was almost a compulsive writer and had been gathering material for years with the idea of putting something together in honour of the people of Badenoch. There had been no particular thought of publication, but it happened that Dr. Grant, who had founded the Highland Folk Museum in Kingussie, came upon the manuscript of a series of quite prestigious lectures she had given long ago at a time when a publisher I was working with was complaining that he could not get material worth publishing. We brought them together and the first fruit of the co-operation was Along a Highland Road. This covered Strathdearn, which straddles the A9 from Slochd to Daviot, and paralleled what we were doing for the next stretch of the road to the south. This seemed a promising start to a series, and we thought we could find people who could stretch the coverage north and south, so we began to plan for publication. But it did not work out, and after much delay and frustration at the hands of publishers, we decided to go it alone. The result has been very gratifying, and it has become a classic.

Q: What has been the response to your recent book on military tartans? What feathers did you ruffle among the "old guard" about their sacred tartans?

A: Virtually none. One reader pointed out an error in the caption to the inserted picture on page 15, rifles not having been invented in 1731, but that is all. The old guard will be totally complacent in their belief that they know all about it and will not wish to consider any new research. I am not really bothered; the research has been done and will keep. Some day, someone will pick it up and carry on where I left off, as I myself have done with the work of my predecessors. The biggest hurdle I have to jump always is the public resistance to the truth about tartan. Attempts to put the record straight or even to point out the weaknesses in the tartan tales are met with disbelief or hostility.

Jamie and Frank at the Macintosh Memorial in Moy
Jamie and Frank at the Macintosh Memorial in Moy

Q: Why were Black Watch soldiers Farquhar Shaw and the two McPhersons singled out to be executed in 1743 at the Tower of London? Why just the three of them?

A: I donít think there has ever been any suggestion that they were anything but scapegoats. The Black Watch mutiny has had most publicity, but I think all the permanent Highland regiments had mutinies as a result of the Government breaking faith with them or being believed to have done so. Probably there was some language difficulty and some high ranking English officers who frequently failed to realize that the men they were dealing with were their equals or better, socially and intellectually, but it added up to the same thing.

Q: As far as you know, did Bonnie Prince Charlie ever wear a tartan or kilt before coming to the Highlands in 1745?

A: I donít know, but I doubt it. I would expect that he wore ordinary gentlemenís town dress until he found campaign dress was all that he could get to replace it and better, anyway, in the circumstances.

Q: How did you come to write The Tartans of the Clan Chattan? Why was it necessary to write a book regarding a confederation that all too few people know about?

A: It was all rather complicated. I had done several articles over the years about the tartans of the constituent Clans for the Clan Chattan Association Journal and then, as a result of various members of the Clan Mackenzie Society embarking on "research" into the Mackenzie tartan, I did a leaflet for them. This seemed a good idea, so I did a few more "on spec", but it did not catch on; then with the CCAís 70th anniversary coming up and wanting to pay some personal respect to the late Mackintosh, it seemed proper to combine all the ideas and previous work and give the CCA a book about its own tartans and patterns associated with them. The average clan society member has swallowed whole all the myths and outright lies about tartan and has no conception of how interesting the truth is, so I feel I have done them a service as well.

Q: Does Lord Lyon play a part in registering tartans or is that now done with a tartan association?

A: There is a great deal of mis-conception about this business of "registering" tartans. The Lord Lyon records sealed patterns for Chiefs, Heads of Families and certain Corporate Bodies only and they become the official patterns for the name. The Scottish Tartans Authority records every tartan that comes its way in an ongoing historical record. Neither record gives any protection to the pattern except that it is an offence under the law to deviate significantly from the Lyon Record, but the Authority does keep a record of patterns whose owners wish them to be kept private. Designers of new tartans frequently claim copyright on their designs, but I do not think this holds any water. Frequent revisions to copyright law intended to make it more comprehensible only make it less so, and my understanding is that it still applies only to "literature or works of art", and nobody has yet convinced the Law that tartan is Art.

Q: What part did the Highland Council play in publishing The Highland People?

A: They just published it. I had re-written Scotlandís Clan and Tartans as a "primer" for potential visitors to the Highlands by agreement with a well-known publisher who returned it unread when he found that I wanted four pages of colour. I then tried it on another, sending the usual return postage, and after 18 months received a letter of rejection and a demand for return postage; this provoked a fairly robust reply and, while I was wondering what to do next, a friend, a solicitor who works for the Highland Council, suggested that I should try the Tourist Board. They passed it to Peter Reynolds, Senior Reference Librarian who, all unbeknown to me, was working up a nice little operation on short-run publications on local matters by local authors, and off we went. The distributors we used let us down badly, and at this particular time the Highland Council was re-organising itself every couple of months. Peter got tired of re-applying for his own job and took early retirement, and his successor was of far lower caliber, so the books just gathered dust. The Tartans Authority was planning to take them over and actually got some, but there is only one man to do the work of a dozen, so things move slowly.

Q: What is on the back burner for you in writing another book? If there is another one, do you care to tell us what the subject will be?

A: I usually have a few things rolling around in the back of my mind, but that does not necessarily mean that I am doing something about them. I am working very happily with the Administrator of the Scottish Tartans Authority, helping to solve problems and make plans. As the last survivor of the old Scottish Tartans Society, my knowledge of what has gone before is valuable, and he does not suffer from prejudice against research, as do the purely "trade" sections of the Authority. There is quite a lot to be put on paper in various guises, and I am thinking about a little book on making a simple handloom for students who want to find out about the practical aspects of tartan, and perhaps another to show them how to do the weaving. One thing I can be sure of, and that is that something will turn up.

Q: Thank you for your cooperation and the courtesies you have extended to me during our chat. Is there a final word you would like to leave with our readers?

A: I once taught a lady in the south of England by correspondence to weave the material for a kilt for her husband, but I have never had a face-to-face conversation across a table as wide as this. Itís been fun. (7/17/03)

Jamie with his late wife Meta and Frank Shaw at the Tomatin Inn
Jamie with his late wife Meta and Frank Shaw at the Tomatin Inn

See Memorial to Jamies here!


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