In the last issue of The
Family Tree was an article which truly shows that myths, once in
print, have "a life of their own." The article, clipped from another
paper, repeated the myth that the number of colors in a tartan denoted the
rank of the wearer. Nothing could be farther from the truth.
There are no references to tartan in
Scotland before the 1500’s. The first that specifies colors is the feu
duty (rent) imposed by the king on a MacLean in 1587 which details only
three colors – black, green and white. Early literature describes the
"wild Scots" in long shirts in a brownish yellow color now known as
"saffron" but certainly not dyed from that flower. Check your spice rack
in the grocery store for the current price!
Tartan began to appear in the
1500’s, perhaps since the introduction of sheep from which it was easier
to harvest wool than to produce linen. Wool is easier to spin and weave
than flax which requires hard beating and continual soaking. Wool also
takes dye better than flax as well as having the advantage of being water
resistant. However, there are draw backs to weaving with hand spun wool.
Hand dyed wool varies in color from strand to strand. The weaving of a
large piece in a single color with hand dyed thread can look blotchy when
finished. This may be why the Scots hand weavers took to making tartan. In
any case, the myth that the number of colors denoted the rank of the
wearer simply will not hold up.
The earliest portrait that we know
of that shows tartan is of the Countess of Lennox, daughter of the Earl of
Angus, and mother-in-law to Mary, Queen of Scots. Her tartan has four
colors, two of which are shades or red. By the mythical scale she should
have a tartan of at least five colors. Portraits exist of at least three
dukes, slightly above the rank of earl and now reserved for men who marry
into the royal family. Each wears tartan in just two or three colors. In
th early 1700’s numerous clan chiefs sat for portraits dressed in tartan,
most of which are two colors, red and black. Flora MacDonald, a commoner,
was painted wearing five colors – but that was "late in the Game", post
It may be that the color red carried
with it some indication of rank or wealth. Red thread was hard to come by
– as was yellow – and used sparingly except for tartans of men of stature.
In any case, the number of colors certainly did not indicate rank.
Another myth related to color is the
use of a secret code known as "Color Ogham" woven into the sett telling
what clan the tartan belonged to. The proponent of this theory has used
post-1745 – actually post 1845 – to advance his theory. This idea has been
discredited with the proponent publicly challenged to use his knowledge to
read a dozen tartans, six from pre-1745 and six from post 1746. The
challenge has never been accepted. There is simply not a "Color Ogham"
system – nor is there truth to the myth that the number of colors
indicated the rank of the individual.
In 1592 Angus Macintosh was killed
whilst leading a raid on Ruthven Castle in Badenoch. His assailant crept
out under the shelter of ruins and "… levels his piece at one of the Clan
Chattan clothed in a yellow warr coat (which amongst them is the badge of
Chieftaines or heads of Clans)…" and fired. This is a clear reference to
the saffron shirt – of only one color -- which identified his rank (History
of the Gordons, MS in the National Library of Scotland cited in J. T.
Dunbar, The History of Highland Dress, Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd,