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Friday, November 18, 2005

Irish Tartans: Scottish tartans in disguise?

Recently there has been some discussion of Irish tartans on the "Scottish attire" mailing list I am on. Someone pondered why the Irish felt the need to appropriate what has always been considered a Scottish symbol. The point was made (nearly simultaneously by myself and Todd Wilkinson) that most of these "Irish" tartans are actually designed, produced, and marketed by Scottish tartan manufacturers!

When people say "Irish tartans" what most readily springs to mind are the very popular Irish county tartans. These were designed by The House of Edgar in 1996. The House of Edgar is a Scottish tartan firm, located in Perth. In addition to all of the Irish county tartans, they also have designed the popular Irish National tartan. Lochcarron of Scotland, located in Galashiels, has designed tartans for all of the Irish provinces, as well as three different "All Ireland" tartans. Taken together, these two Scottish companies probably supply most of what people consider to be "Irish tartans" today.

Even historical Irish tartans seem to have at least some Scottish connections. The most famous is the Ulster tartan, taken from a suit of clothing, c. 1600, that was unearthed on a Dungiven farm in 1956. Textile experts believe that the tartan cloth was most likely woven in Donegal, Ireland, but shipped to the Highlands of Scotland to be made into trews!

But the real reason for this post has to do with many of the so-called Irish name tartans. While there are some that are legitimately commissioned and/or created by Irish families for use by those of the name, many of them seem to have been designed merely for fashion purposes (or perhaps even to fill an order from an Irish-named customer), and based off of pre-existing Scottish tartans.

One famous example is the Tara tartan, also sometimes called Murphy or O'Keefe. Like many of the Irish tartans on record, it was thought to have been included in the book Clans Originaux, published in Paris in 1880. However, recent research undertaken by the Scottish Tartans Authority has shown this work to be a tartan sample book of sorts, containing no Irish tartans whatsoever. Discounting this, the next earliest date we have for this tartan in 1967, when it was being sold to Irish customers by The Kilt Shop, in Edinburgh! It is interesting to note that this tartan is simply a color change of the MacLean of Duart. Both tartans are shown below for comparison.

Tara/Murphy tartan

MacLean of Duart tartan

Another example of the same sort of thing is the Clodagh tartan. The Scottish Tartans Society had a woven sample of this tartan, dating from 1970, from D. C. Dalgliesh of Selkirk. In 1979, a bagpipe maker from County Tyrone wrote to Alex Lumsden, researcher for the Scottish Tartans Society, saying that this tartan came from the Bog of Allan in southern Ireland. However, no other evidence of this being an "artifact tartan" has surfaced.

Another curiosity is that this same tartan was supposed to have been recorded as "Dowling" or "Bowling" in the Clans Originaux, c. 1880. But, as I stated, we now know that there are no Irish tartans in the Clans Originaux. STA notes also say that the woven sample in the STS records is from 1980, not 1970.

An important thing to note here is that this tartan is essentially a color change of the Royal Stewart. While it very well could be possible that this is what the Royal Stewart may look like after being buried for a couple of hundred years in a peat bog, and the man who unearthed it was named Bowling or Dowling, and therefore his name became associated with the tartan, I personally doubt it. There seems to be a tendency to create "Irish" named tartans by simply altering the colors of pre-existing Scottish tartans. My gut feeling is that this is simply another fashion tartan originating in the 1970s.


Royal Stewart

Changing traditional Scottish tartans to create new Irish ones seems to be a common practice that continues today. The Royal Stewart tartan seems especially popular. Other Irish tartans that have been designed as Royal Stewart variants are the O'Farrell and the Shaughnessy. The latter was designed by Scotch Corner, a company from Gateshead, England, that has designed many Irish family tartans, apparently on spec to meet customer's requests.



The final "Irish" tartan we will look at is the MacCormick tartan. This one dates to 1985 and was designed, apparently, by Pendleton Woolen mills in Oregon. Once more, it is the same sett as a pre-existing Scottish tartans, with a simple color change. In this case, it is a Campbell tartan that is being altered (though a shortened version of the usual Campbell sett -- this one has been recorded as Campbell, 42nd, and Sutherland and is included in Wilsons of Bannockburn's 1819 Key Pattern Book).



Before I close, I want to reiterate that there are indeed some Irish tartans that were designed by Irish people and are recognized as legitimate within Ireland. The most notable of these would be the Cian tartan, which was registered with the Chief Herald of Ireland in 1984 and is accepted and used by the Clan Cian Society. But one does have to admit that many of the so-called Irish tartans were created by people outwith Ireland, and actually have their origins in pre-existing Scottish tartans.

One final note: All images of tartans on this site are courtesy of the Scottish Tartans Authority. The settings of the different tartans are different sizes in most cases, and the images show only a portion of the tartan. Ideally all the images would be the same size and show the same portion of the design for comparison purposes, but that is a task beyond the time I have allotted for this post!


Alainn said...

Hey, i'm of irish blood. Our family has a tartan though i've never seen it (me grandpa has it somewhere). They say that it is really an irish tartan and i really want to find out more about it. Me surname's Allen. Can anyone find out 'bout it?

John McDaniel said...

I am confident that Mr Newsome is correct in his assessment of the origin of the Irish tartans he cites. However, from a historical perspective, the frequent use of adaptations of the Royal Stuart (not Stewart)may result from the broad Irish support of King Jamie Stuart at the battles of The Boyne and of Aughrim in 1690 and 1691. Facts may be true without representing truth when they are taken out of context.

Iain Guth MacIan, Domhnullach
The MacDonnell Of Leinster Association

Brian Carpenter said...

Matt, what do you know or speculate about the Forde tartan? It is also one of the "Irish family" tartans previously attributed to "Clan Origineaux."

Matthew Newsome, FSA Scot, GTS said...


Yes, this is the case. The Forde tartan was always dated to 1880 and attributed to the Clans Originaux book. However, when the STA was recently allowed to examine the contents of that book, they found 185 Scottish tartans included, but not a single Irish one. So the real origins of the Forde tartan remain a mystery!

Anonymous said...

My name is Scott Matthew campbell. I feel the meaning to the tartan was based on fortification and it a method of multipication.

Anonymous said...

Hey All,

Being 100% Irish, I can confirm that there really isn't any such thing as an 'irish tartan' (emphasis on the 'tartan').

There are no 'family tartans' in Ireland, and the 'county tartans' are very much the modern invention of irish-americans.

Kilts, however, are the 'national' costume of the gaelic/celtic people, and are not specifically Scottish by any stretch of the imagination. The dress uniform of many groups in the irish army, for example, include kilts, and every celt is 'entitled to' wear one as a mark of his pride!

The difference, however, is the tartan pattern, or absence there of. Irish kilts are just kilts: - the colour and/or pattern does not matter, or signify anything, and there are just fashion statements.

We Irish are adaptive people, so if you've got a kilt - tartan or otherwise - wear it with pride, and dont worry about what the scots will say!


Ross said...

Some 15 years ago I found a book of Irish tartans in Belfast Central Library. This was more comprehensive than the fairly cursory volumes available now on the subject and would have pre-dated the county tartans designed in 1996. It was at least 20 years old at the time but it is no longer in the library cllection and I have not been able to find it since. Does anyone know a possible identity of this book?

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Dating Rule Book said...

In addition to all of the Irish county tartans, they also have designed the popular Irish National tartan.