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Friday, March 23, 2007

"International Tartans" At It Again

Oh dear.... International Tartans, specifically the man behind that company (David McGill), is at it again. If you recall, he's the gentleman who brought us the North and South Carolina tartans that I wrote about in this past blog entry.

Well, I've recently been made aware of a complete redesign of his web site. (Which was desperately needed -- the old one was simply impossible to navigate). And he seems to be promoting his new tartans with full force. His new site, however lovely it looks, also serves to generate some more confusion.

For instance, the "Prayer for Tartans" that he gives on his main page he tells us was "composed by Andrew Hill, Minister of St. Mark’s, the home for Unitarians in Edinburgh." Then he tells us that it is an old Gaelic poem that dates to the mid-eighteenth century. Then he tells us it was "translated by the late John Macdonald of Kyles, North Uist." So, already I am confused. Is it a traditional 18th century Gaelic poem later translated by John Macdonald? Or was it composed by this Unitarian minister? Or what? No matter -- one can't let the facts get in the way of great poetry (and the kind that sells tartan to boot!)

For tartan is for all clans,/ For all races,/ For all nations,/ People without end,/
Everywhere! Everywhere!/ Everywhere!

Classic. But the really fun stuff is deeper in his pages. For instance, he has this page, which is oddly enough entitled "Health Warning." On it, he warns "Those who value democracy should always be on the lookout for organisations who claim be an 'authority' on tartans, or people who try to tell you what is an 'official' tartan." Now I'm not saying that tartan is not a contentious subject for some, but to claim that those who claim to be authorities on tartan are somehow endangering democracy may be overstating thing slightly... hmmm? (And how is this supposed to be hazardous to our health?)

But he goes on: "At the moment no-one, other than you as a member of the general public has any 'authority' over tartan, and there is no agreed definition for what is or is not official." Well isn't that good to know! Only you, gentle tartan wearer, have any authority over tartan. No one can tell you what is an official tartan other than you. If you think the Buchanan tartan would make a better MacGregor tartan than the ones that such dubious "authorities" as the clan chief would have you wear, go for it! When the Buchanans complain that you've stolen their tartan, tell them that you are the only authority! Viva la revolucion!

Is McGill's Protestantisation of the Tartan tradition really a call for general kilted anarchy or are his goals more specific? Read on, for he writes: "Public bodies, by adopting a tartan such as, for example a US State, are not making that tartan official or exercising any authority, they are merely making it a State symbol in the same way as they make a reptile or flower a State symbol." Aha! He's not so much talking about clan tartans as he is district tartans, specifically US State tartans. You see, some US states have been uppity enough to go and pass legislature adopting tartans on their own, with complete disregard to the ones that McGill has so generously designed for them! Shame on them! And what gives these states the idea that by merely adopting a tartan as a state symbol they somehow have the "authority" to make it the "official" state tartan?! Don't they realize that only you, the individual tartan wearer, have that authority???

Mr. McGill, please tell us more: "The Scottish Tartans Society, including its branch and museum in North Carolina, which was at one time universally recognised as the unofficial 'authority' on tartans, is now defunct." Allow me to suspend my thinly-veiled sarcasm at this point to interject some facts. Yes, the Scottish Tartans Society (STS) was at one point effectively recognized as the unofficial authority on tartans by virtue of the fact that they were the only organized, central body attempting to collect and maintain any kind of public register of tartan designs. Yes, they are now no longer operating in any meaningful way. However, their "branch museum in North Carolina" is anything but "defunct." The Scottish Tartans Museum of Franklin, NC, has for some time maintained operations quite independently of the STS and continues to do so. I know. I'm the general manager (and probably the cause of Mr. McGill's ire). We are doing quite well, despite Mr. McGill's claims to the contrary. Please come see us! Unlike International Tartans, which lists only a PO Box in Edinburgh and doesn't seem to have a physical location beyond the internet, our brick-and-mortar museum is open to the public year round, six days a week. Moving on....

The last "health warning" that McGill gives us is this: "The Scottish Tartans Authority was also established in the wake of the Scottish Tartans Society. They are a membership organisation which is effectively controlled by commercial interests. They provide the 'Scottish Tartan Index' on their website." First of all, it's called the International Tartan Index, not the "Scottish Tartan Index." If you are going to criticize someone, at least get their name right. (Of course, in the paragraph before this he praises the "Scottish World Tartans Register " which is actually called the "Scottish Tartans World Register" -- but how important can minor details such as names be?) Frankly, the criticism that the STA is "controlled by commercial interests" is getting a bit stale. I mean, yes, their membership is composed of most of the major tartan producers in the industry. But tartan is an industry. How on earth someone could try and maintain any kind of body or organization devoted to tartan and not involve the people producing it is beyond me. Historically speaking, tartan has always been an industry -- first as a textile produced in weavers' cottages on a local level, and then progressing up to larger scale production. But it has always been a commodity and so much of the "tartan lore" that we take for granted now has been industry driven. To try to completely separate "tartan academia" from "tartan industry" is absurd.

And the STA has its fair share of tartan academics among members, as well -- Peter MacDonald, author of The 1819 Key Pattern Book: 100 Original Tartans, and recognized expert on Wilsons of Bannockburn and nineteenth century tartan; Jamie Scarlett, regarded by many as the world's foremost living expert on tartan, author of numerous books on the topic; Phil Smith, long time advocate of tartan studies in the USA, and author of Tartan For Me and co-author of District Tartans. Point being, take a tour through the STA's pages and see for yourself who looks more vested in commercial interests, the STA or "International Tartans."

It is ironic that while he seems to be heavily critical of "commercial interests" McGill's web site is itself really just an on-line store. He lists all the tartans that he has designed, advertises himself as a tartan designer, and gives a price list for products you can buy in his tartans. It's all set up to sell tartans. Which is just fine. Goodness knows there is no shortage of web sites out there selling tartans. Our museum's gift shop site is one of them -- if we did not have the ability to sell tartan products, our museum could not be funded. So rather than be critical of "commercial interests" as McGill is, I have no problem with people trying to make a living from tartan cloth.

And under ordinary circumstances I'd commend Mr. McGill and give him my support! For someone to design a corpus of their own tartans, and then have those tartans produced in various goods, and make them available to the public -- well, that's quite an enterprise and it takes someone with a lot of creativity, design skills, marketing skills, and also involves significant financial risks, I imagine. So I'd say bravo to him. So why, then, do I cringe every time I hear of "International Tartans?" It is because I hold some of his methods to be, frankly, misleading at worst, and dishonest at best.

Let's look at some of the tartans he has designed. Starting in Scotland, he has produced an Ayrshire district tartan. You can see it here. He designed it in 1999, according to him, at the request of the Provost of the South Ayrshire Council. Nothing wrong with that, right?

Not until you realize that Phil Smith designed an Ayrshire district tartan in 1988 at the request of the Clans Cunnigham and Boyd (both Ayrshire clans). Look at it. Now, the tartans are not identical, but they are close enough in design that, if I were Phil Smith, I'd be more than a little upset. Both have equal portions of green and blue, separated by a darker color (black in McGill's brown in Smith's), with yellow lines on the green. In Smith's there are red lines on the blue while McGill uses purple. Like I said, not identical, but just very similar. And were I to design a tartan for a district when there was already a preexisting tartan for the same place, I'd try and make it as different as possible to avoid confusion. McGill obviously thinks otherwise.

While some of McGill's tartans are unique, in many cases he has seen fit to design tartans where one already exists. For example, he has designed a new Fife district tartan, despite the fact that the Fife (Duke of Fife) tartan has been around for nearly 130 years. He's designed a US Navy tartan, despite the fact that the Edzell tartan (designed in 1986) has been widely accepted as a tartan for the US Navy for years. He's designed a German National tartan, despite the fact that Doug Ikleman designed a German National tartan in 1995.

Technically, McGill is perfectly within his rights to design these tartans. Neither the US Navy tartan, nor the German National tartan, for instance, have ever been formally recognized by the bodies that they are supposed to represent. So McGill, or anyone else for that matter, is perfectly free to design a different tartan and call it the same thing. But when a tartan has been around for a while (for well over a century in the case of the Fife tartan!) and is widely available (both the Fife and US Navy tartans are produced by major Scottish tartan mills and supported from stock), one has to wonder if it is a prudent thing to design another tartan of the same name? Or are you just adding to the confusion?

Things get even worse when we come to the US State tartans he has designed. Some of them are for states that previously have had no tartan. For instance, Missouri. To the best of my knowledge, there is no other preexisting Missouri tartan. But McGill gives very little information about this on his site. He simply says it was "Commissioned by Bonbright Wollens of Woodland Hills, CA." One has to ask, was anyone from Missouri actually involved in the design? Did anyone from Missouri ask for it? Are any efforts being made to get the tartan recognized by the Missouri government? I suspect not. Todd Wilkinson, Public Information officer for the Scottish St. Andrew's Society of Springfield, Missouri, forwarded to me an email he received from Mr. McGill looking for someone who might be interested in using "Missouri's tartan" in their next Kirkin' of the Tartan ceremony. Interesting that the Public Information officer for the St. Andrew's Society in one of Missouri's major cities would have never have heard of "Missouri's tartan." (Just for the record, I know Todd. He's a well-informed guy, extremely active in the Scottish-American community. If Missouri had a tartan, I'd expect him to be the first to know.)

This reminded me of a confused phone call I received some time in early 2004 (if memory serves) from a woman working at the North Carolina Museum of History in Raleigh (our state's capital). They had been displaying the Carolina tartan for years, she said, but a "man from Scotland" had recently come by and dropped off samples of material that he said was "the North Carolina tartan" and left people there horribly confused. "This tartan doesn't look anything like the Carolina tartan we are familiar with," she told me. "Is there another tartan for North Carolina that we didn't know about? Have we been wrong in showing the Carolina tartan?"

No, I assured her. The Carolina tartan was formally adopted by the State of NC in 1991 and is the correct tartan for the state. I told her I had never even heard of this other tartan, and being a museum, in North Carolina, dedicated to tartan, you'd think we would have known about it. You'd think people in the Raleigh museum would have known about it, as well.

I did a little on-line research after that and found David McGill's previous web site promoting his tartans, where he claimed to be able to issue "a Certificate of Right and Obligation in his capacity as Custodian of the designs and appoints the bearers (and wearers) of the tartans and checks Armigers," and that the North Carolina tartan was "registered… for the sons and daughters of the state…, their heirs and successors, and all those people who are granted association with the state."

My main problem with all this at the time was simply that North Carolina already had an officially recognized state tartan, the Carolina tartan, adopted in 1991. By creating and promoting this new "North Carolina" tartan, with utter disregard for the fact that North Carolina already had an official tartan, he was doing an injustice. Furthermore the language that he was using on his web site, while signifying absolutely nothing, was so high-falutin' (to use a North Carolina term!) that it made it sound as if the North Carolina tartan he designed had more status than it actually did. This was the main complaint I made in a March, 2005, article I wrote for the Scottish Banner newspaper.

The article wasn't really about McGill at all, but rather about the fact that some tartans have been officially recognized and others have not, and I used as an example the official Carolina tartan v. the unofficial North Carolina tartan towards the end of the article. In response, I received a very long, very incoherent, and (to be frank) somewhat disturbing letter from Mr. McGill, which I commented upon briefly in this blog post of June 11, 2006. I chose to ignore the letter and move on.

Well, it seems with his new updated web site, Mr. McGill is changing his tune a little. On his page promoting the North Carolina tartan, he readily admits that the Carolina tartan is the one that has been officially adopted by the state legislature. However, he claims that this tartan is "mysteriously named and even more mysteriously provenanced" (whatever that means), and he tells us that he was commissioned to design this tartan by "the late Charles of Flatbranch, NC" who was "dissatisfied with the fact" that the Carolina tartan has been adopted by the state and wanted to "provide the state with its own symbol."

In other words, someone (whose last name isn't even given) from NC didn't like the tartan that the sate legislature selected and so had another one designed to suit his own fancy. And we are supposed to buy into this why? McGill tells us why! Because his tartan "was created to strengthen the bonds of kinship between the peoples of Scotland and the State of North Carolina, and for the benefit and well-being of the people of the State of North Carolina." So you see, it's all for our benefit and well-being! It's for our health, I suppose!

McGill's tartan, he tells us, is "The tartan for all true North Carolinians." Is he honestly suggesting that those of us that don't buy into his scheme to usurp the actual state tartan are not true North Carolinians! I'd be tempted to laugh if I wasn't aware that all too many people will read his words and take them seriously.

He goes on: "Although attempts have been made to discredit it by some with a vested interest in the Carolina tartan, the North Carolina was warmly welcomed by Secretary of State Elaine Marshall and has proved to be popular with ‘Tarheels’ everywhere." Ok, maybe it's just my ego, but I can't help but think he means me here. What my "vested interest in the Carolina tartan" is I have no idea. I certainly don't own stock in it! Our museum's gift shop does have a small amount of yard goods in cotton in the Carolina tartan. But that's it, and once that's gone there are no plans to weave more. If anyone wanted a kilt, or cloth in the Carolina tartan I'd be happy to provide it, but it would have to be custom woven for them. And I'm happy to provide that service for any tartan that is requested, so long as it is not protected by copyright.

And one good example of a copyrighted tartan that I could not provide is the North Carolina tartan, that is copyrighted by McGill. If anyone wants it, it has to be purchased through him. Talk about a vested interest! In fact, I did have one visitor to our museum want this North Carolina tartan. He knew it wasn't the official tartan of the state, but he wanted it anyway. He liked it, and that's just fine. I told him I couldn't get the cloth for him, that he could only order it through Bonbright Woolens in CA (which according to the International Tartans web site at the time, was licensed to sell McGill's tartans in the USA). I was happy to make the referral. I even let him use the museum's phone to make the order!

In fact I was standing right next to him when he called and was told that the fabric was in stock and would ship in two to four weeks. A couple of months later, when he still had not received it, he called again and was told that it was out of stock and there were no plans to reweave it, so his order was cancelled. Oops!

In any case, my only "vested interest" in the Carolina tartan is educational. The people of North Carolina should know that their state does have an official tartan, formally adopted as a state symbol, and they should be proud of that. They need to know that this latter "North Carolina" tartan is simply a fashion design and has no status whatsoever with the state. These are simply the facts. It doesn't matter to me what tartan people wear, but they ought to know the facts.

Laughably, McGill ends his write-up on the North Carolina tartan by quoting me, of all people! From the introduction to my Compendium of District Tartans, he quotes me speaking of a tartan becoming de facto "official" through "wont and usage." This is a term that is used to describe what can happen to a tartan, such as the Duke of Fife tartan, when it has been arouund for so long and in common use for so long that it is generally accepted as an official tartan, even though it may in fact have no official recognition. To apply this to a tartan newly designed in 2003, for a state that has had an officially recognized tartan since 1991, is just absurd.

Even though McGill claims that his tartan is "popular with Tarheels everywhere" I frankly have not seen the evidence of this. The confused phone call from the lady at the NC Museum of History and the single customer asking for the tartan, both of which I mentioned to you above, have been the only two people to ever ask me about this tartan in the four years since its inception. We are a tartan museum actually located in North Carolina, and we get to many of the Highland Games in our state and other Scottish events. I'm not saying that some people in NC are not using McGill's tartan. I'm just saying that if it was widely popular I'd probably know about it. The true Carolina tartan, on the other hand, is used by at least two pipe bands in the state (the Cross Creek Pipes and Drums, and the NC State Pipe Band), by at least one NC Scottish Society that I am aware of (the Catawba Valley Scottish Society), and I frequently see it worn by private individuals at various NC Scottish events. Last year the Carolina tartan was included in a book about the state published by the NC State department. If you want to speak of "wont and usage" these are all good examples.

And what about Secretary of State Elaine Marshall, whom McGill says "warmly welcomed" his new tartan? All I can say is that if you go to the Secretary of State's web site and look up the General Session of the State Assembly from 1991, you'll read this statement: "The Carolina Tartan is adopted as the official tartan of the State of North Carolina. (1991, c. 85, s. 1.)." And that's really all there is to it.

And the end of the day, this is what I make of the new International Tartans web site. McGill seems to realize and finally admit that there is no provenance for his new North Carolina tartan. So he's changed his strategy from trying to convince people that his tartan is in any way official, and now is instead attempting to do away with the very idea that a tartan can even be "official." You, he says, the tartan wearing publc, are the only ones who have any authority over tartan. And it seems obvious that he wants you to use your "authority" in support of his designs.

I'm not impressed. The Carolina tartan is an official symbol of our state, like the dogwood flower, the cardinal (our state bird), or our flag. Having this man from Edinburgh design a new tartan, question the very validity of our state tartan, and attempt to supplant it with his own, is rather like a man from Germany deciding that the edelweiss should really be the state flower of North Carolina instead of that silly dogwood! Ridiculous!

The problem is that many people will be impressed with McGill's presentation simply because he is a Scot. But being Scottish no more makes you an expert on tartan than being an American makes you an expert on baseball. The fact is, David McGill is an architecht. He may be a very qualified architecht, I have no way of knowing. But this doesn't make him an authority on tartans, Scottish accent or not.

The truth that I hope everyone reading this takes with them is this -- there is, and always has been, horrible confusion in the world of tartan-lore. The few tartan scholars that are out there work long and hard (often for little or no reward!) to try to clear up these misconceptions. But new confusion is sewn, it seems, just about every day. Ultimately the serious wearer of tartan needs to take the responsibility to do his own research. Don't beleive everything you read. Double check the facts, and find out for yourself.

And if you find someone whom you believe is engaging in a campaign of misinformation, call them on it!


Anonymous said...

McGill also claims (on his "About Us"):
A writer and broadcaster, he has travelled expensively representing Scotland at international sport.
Note: "he has travelled EXPENSIVELY"
Is he an F1 fan that flies first class to a few races?
Wouldn't he mean "extensively" (many, many places)?

I've also seen the International Tartans table at some games (and talked to Matt about what I saw and my impressions-> IT gave away free haggis and repreatedly tried to hawk tartan it me as if it WERE official and he was doing ME a favor). Matt hit the nail RIGHT on the head!!!!!! It is NOT Matt's personal vendeta, just a headache that keeps returning, a tartan MIGRAINE!!!

I'll end with an "AMEN!!!!!"

-John Wages
South Carolina

Doc Hudson said...

I'm so sorry to hear you are defunct.

Ye were so young and vigorous the last time I saw you! Tis a shame.

Especially since I spent a lot of time recommending you as a kiltmaker earlier this week.

Rest in peace.

That McGill bird sounds like a real cuckoo. If I were forced to pick my tartan authority, I'd pick the one in Franklin, NC.

Doc Hudson

Matthew Newsome, FSA Scot, GTS said...


Thanks for your condolenses. You can leave flowers at the front desk. :-)

Thanks for reccomending us as your 'tartan authority.' You know, I think the trouble is that people use that word 'authority' in different contexts. If you mean 'tartan authority' as in someone who just is very knowledgeable about tartan, then sure I'll own that label. It's my job to know the subject, and I try and do it well.

On the other hand, someone else can speak of a 'tartan authority' as someone who has the power to rule over tartans, proclaiming this one to be 'authentic' and this other to be a 'poser'. The truth there is that there simply is no such over-arching 'authority' over all tartans. That authority lies (no, not with the general public, as McGill claims) but with whatever the individual tartan claims to represent. So the chief of the MacGregor clan is the 'authority' on what is and is not a MacGregor tartan. And the NC state government is the 'authority' on what is and is not the state tartan.

That's a lesson that McGill sorely needs to learn.

Brotherhood of the Kilt said...

Thanks for clearing that painful mess up. I can't believe he is trying to double-talk himself into riches by confusing everyone and making himself out to be the tartan extpert of all time!( ok, so I can believe it, I just don't want to).

I'll be sure that anyone looking for a real tartan expert heads you way.

The Brotherhood of the Kilt

Anonymous said...

Great blog Matt. This reminds me a lot of the "Bright Skye" tartan being sold in some of the tartan tat stores on the web.

Maybe McGill can offer his "official" tartans in one of the other fabrics to these shops. I am sure they would eat them up.