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Friday, April 15, 2005

Welsh Tartans

Ok, so there is this business called the Welsh Tartan Centre in Cardiff. They are designing and producing tartans for various Welsh families. "Tartans for Welsh families?" you might say. "I thought tartans were for Scottish families." And you'd be right.

Not that tartans must only be for Scottish things, mind you. Many US states, all the Canadian provinces, and other places like Ireland, Australia, even Japan have tartans. But these are, of course, all more modern than the traditional Scottish tartans most of us are familiar with.

So what about these Welsh tartans? People have asked me for my opinion and I say they are fine. They look a little non-traditional (the warp is a completely different design from the weft in most cases), but this is probably done to distinguish them from the Scottish tartans. I tell people these are fashion tartans, designed by this business, and have no official standing with any of the Welsh families whose names they bear. In that regard they are merely fashion designs that have been named for those families. If that doesn't both you, then go ahead and wear them. No problem.

Not that there is anything wrong with that. The Irish County tartans that were designed in the mid-90s by the House of Edgar woolen mill likewise are merely fashion tartans with no official standing. They have proven quite popular among Irish ex-pats.

But someone showed me today an article from the Welsh Tartan Centre's page, giving the "history" of Welsh tartans. Boy, oh boy... There are some doozies there, and while I don't object to people designing new tartans, I strongly object to people fabricating a false history for them in order to mislead the consumer and sell more products. Here is what I'm talking about:

The Welsh wore fashion akin to kilts two thousand years ago, probably with a form of leather trousers or leggings...

Er... excuse me, but no. What these people are most likely referring to is a simple knee-length tunic that was common to just about all Celtic peoples (as well as Norse, Germans, you name it) during that time period. A kilt, by definition, is a masculine style of skirt, a pleated garment worn from the waist to the knee. A tunic is a shirt, and by no stretch of the imagination can be called a kilt -- worn knee length or not.

This form of dress remained a feature of Welsh society confirmed by the discovery of a 9th Century stone carving depicting a man wearing a kilt. This evolved through the centuries into the woollen garment we are familiar with today. Initially this would have been made from raw coarse wool and undyed.

Since they don't tell us what stone carving they are talking about here, it is impossible for anyone to take a look at it to see if, in fact, it does show a man wearing a kilt, but I would feel most confidant in saying that it does not. People have attempted to make the same claim regarding early stone carvings found in Scotland and Ireland. Inevitably what the carving actually shows is a man wearing either a tunic belted at the waist, or an acton (a type of quilted shirt worn as armor) that extended to the knee.

The fact of the matter is that the kilt developed, quite organically, in Scotland. The first type of kilted-garment we have is the belted plaid, first found described in the late sixteenth century, that seemingly developed from the large mantle worn as an outer garment in the Gaelic Scottish Highlands. From this evolved the feileadh-beag (the lower half of the belted plaid, or feileadh-mhor), and from this was born (at the end of the eighteenth century) the tailored kilt. But to suggest that the kilt evolved in Wales and has its origins some 2000 years ago is patently absurd! Where they get the idea that the original kilts were undyed is anyone's guess.

The clan designs of Scottish Tartans have a long traditional history, but there is little historic evidence of clan named tartans in Wales.

Finally, some truth! Or is it really... the very next sentence reads:

Wales did however have regional tartans.

Argh! Again, where this information comes from is beyond me. And it is beyond frustrating! People have attempted to show that tartan identity in Scotland was first regional and second familial. But the reality of it is that "district" tartans and "clan" tartans seem to have developed side by side in Scotland. But in Wales? Absolutely not, there is no evidence of this. In fact, the first Welsh tartan on record anywhere is the "Welsh National Tartan" designed in 1967 by D. M. Richards, using the colors of the Welsh flag.

They make some amusing comments regarding a "Welsh sporran" as well, which I will get to in a moment. I'm being paged as we speak. More anon!


Glenn McDavid said...

Matt -- The link you posted was

I think you want (n in tartan).

With that correction it is easy to see the howlers there :-)>

Matthew Newsome, FSA Scot, GTS said...

Thanks, Glenn. Should be fixed now!

Anonymous said...

the stone figure that the welsh tartan centere refers to, according to a mueseum in Cardiff, is described as clearly being a man in a belted tunic. I am Welsh my self and very proud of that. I went to Welsh events and saw examples of what we wore in the past and they all looked great to me. no big reason to use a Cilt. I try to be distinctive and authentic as I can be. CYMRU RHYDDID CYMRU AM BYTH!!!

THRyder said...

I understand what you mean, concerning the comment about 'alleged' Welsh "kilts" from 2000 years ago.

The point is. They DID exist (And please avoid saying "" again?? :P) They DID.

Scotland - Luckily and ADMIRABLY have pursued, cherished and SAVED, what was once a unilateral Celtic normality.

Welsh (Or should I say "Celts"? Lets I must remind you of the ONLY remaining truly Celtic Nation on guessed it, it starts with W... :P) Well, the Celts were once intertwined, culturally. I'm sure you were well aware of that.

Please don't sleight Wales, or indeed Scotland, by suggesting such a monumental 'culture clash' originating at a time when the Celts were ONE. Thanks, there.

Matthew Newsome, FSA Scot, GTS said...


What can I say, but, "Ummm... no!" I appreciate the intent being your comment, but you do make some blatant historical errors that need correcting.

First off, you claim that Wales is the only remaining "truly Celtic" nation. I wonder what you believe qualifies them to such a grand title, above Scotland, Ireland, the Isle of Man, etc.?

The truth is, all of these places (and more) are Celtic, or have a Celtic past. But the truth also must be recognized that there never was such a thing as a unified Celtic culture or nation. "Celtic" is a very broad term, just like "Native American" is. While no-one would suggest that all pre-Columbian Native Americans were united in a single culture, we do it with the ancient Celts all the time. Truth is, this is as much an idea of the nineteenth century Celtic revival period as anything else.

But the main point is that all of this (while interesting) is really not relavant to the question of the Welsh kilt. You claim, with no proof, that the Welsh wore kilts 2000 years ago. But the reality is that we can show, historically, quite clearly how the kilt developed in Scotland from the late sixteenth century to the present day. This happened in Scotland, and only in Scotland -- not Wales, Ireland, or any of the other "Celtic Countries."

The fact that some of these other ethnic groupd have taken to modern kilt-wearing does not change the fact that the kilt, in its origins, is a Scottish garment, and those origins lie about 400 years ago, not 2000 years ago.

Please see my article on the history of the kilt here:

Angela Murray said...

Thank you for these comments! I have read this and that about the "Irish kilt" and other Celtic nations wearing kilts. I have only found a few places where one can get acurate information.

When you attend an "Irish" festival and see these guys wearing what they call "Historic Irish" dress, I just dont know what to say! Some of these guys take it very seriously too!

I think there is nothing more manly than a guy wearing a kilt! especially if that guy happens to be a Celt.and why not? but dont try to pretend that it is a traditional mode of dress.

Anonymous said...

Hi, This Williams is about to marry a Murray... a genuine Murray of Atholl. It would have been oh so nice to wear a Williams tartan wedding garter - but there's no such thing - a genuine Williams tartan, I mean. Instead, I'll hold my head high and be honoured and proud to wear the Murray tartan as a new member of a wonderful and distinguished clan. Best wishes, Lyn Williams

StitchMarine said...

For what it's worth, when I looked today (19 Dec., 2007) there was no longer an sort of section on the "history" of the welsh kilt/cilt or welsh tartans.

davison/mussared said...

i would like to tell you about something my grandfather once told me (he was from the rhondda,) that his family had a shawl worn over the shoulder with a belt and worn with trousers and there is a tradition of the welsh shawl that is handed down through the family which is worn with the welsh costume which is usually light ground colour with a pattern very simular to tartans. on my fathers side we are all descendants of the scottish davisons so i have a tartan and a welsh shawl, to be honest i dont know why the welsh companies are calling them tartans, they are welsh shawls as far as i know! no doubt there is a welsh name for them.

Donald Reid said...

There is very little recorded about Welsh clothing and what has been written is very vague. Please check out the link and tell me what you think, I'd be grateful for your opinion

Anonymous said...

It's official. "Welsh men do not have a national dress, although attempts have been made in recent decades to 'revive' a Welsh kilt which never in fact existed!"

Extracted from