Tartan Setts and Pattern Sticks

Jim Pattison

My mother, Margaret Brown Pattison (nee Gibson), was born in Fisherow, Musselburgh in 1925. She left school at 14, and before beginning nursing training at 18, she worked at Stewart Christies in Edinburgh as an apprentice tailoress under the guidance of master tailor Jimmy Robertson from Leith. It was during the four years there that she gained the kilt making skills that she has employed many times since. Whenever my mother makes a kilt I am always intrigued by the different stages involved and enjoy watching her draw the pattern assuredly onto the tartan with tailors chalk, cut the pieces out and begin the skilful and time consuming processes of pinning, pattern matching and assembly.
My mother has often asked me if I’d like her to make me a kilt, but for one reason or another I’ve never taken up this offer - partly because the family name Pattison doesn’t have a tartan of its own (but can use Lamont). Talking to my mother again recently about kilts and tartan (and to Professor Murdo Macdonald) has prompted me to look at ways in which tartans are, and have been recorded and assigned, and to consider ways in which it might be possible to design personalised tartans using information from my family history and from my own DNA.

Originally, tartan cloth was coloured using natural dyes, hand woven, usually supplied locally and the designs were unnamed - certain colors and patterns may have been more common in some areas than others but there is no evidence of any regulated or defined "clan tartan" system. At the end of the eighteenth century, large-scale commercial weavers began producing tartan - the most notable of these was the firm of William Wilson & Sons of Bannockburn and, because they were producing cloth in such large quantities, they developed standard colors and patterns. At first they used numbers to identify the patterns and later, as a marketing method, began to assign names to identify one tartan pattern from another. In 1815 the Highland Society of London began the naming of clan-specific tartans and prior to the visit of King George IV to Edinburgh In 1822, which was partly organized by Sir Walter Scott, each clan chief was asked to come to greet the King in their own clan tartan. At this time some clans still did not have an assigned tartan or appeared to have lost theirs during the 36-year tartan proscription and had to refer to suppliers such as William Wilson for advice - new tartans were no doubt created, or renamed, for the occasion! From this point on the idea was firmly established that in order for a tartan to be a proper tartan, it had to have a name.

It was around this time, and in this context, that the Sobieski Stuart brothers began work on Vestiarium Scoticum. The Vestiarium Scoticum (full title, Vestiarium Scoticum: from the Manuscript formerly in the Library of the Scots College at Douay. With an Introduction and Notes, by John Sobieski Stuart) was first published by William Tait of Edinburgh in a limited edition in 1842. The Sobieski Stuarts claimed that it was a reproduction, with colour illustrations, of an ancient manuscript of the clan tartans of Scottish families. It was printed using a new printing method invented by William and Andrew Smith from Mauchline on shiny paper with aniline dyes and presented a bright, new and dramatically different depiction of tartan.
Shortly after its publication, however, it was denounced by some as a forgery and the claim of the "Stuart" brothers, to be the grandsons of Bonnie Prince Charlie, were viewed with similar suspicion. Nevertheless, the role of the book in the history of Scottish tartans and in their portrayal is hugely significant, with many of the designs reproduced passing into the realm of "official" clan tartans.

“ The luminosity we associate with tartan is a product of that mid- nineteenth-century transformation of dyes abetted by the printing processes of the period perhaps similarly to the manner in which our colour sensations and sensibility were altered a century later when Technicolor changed a spectrum of film images and post-war colour plates changed not only reproductions, but our expectations, regarding works of art. Walter Benjamin's epochal article "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" first published in Zeitgchrift fur Sozialforschung in 1936 argues that a mode of existence, for works of art and for human beings, can be changed by means of reproduction in what he calls "the adjustment of reality to the masses and of the masses to reality." Benjamin was thinking primarily of the sequence of mechanical reproduction from lithography to photography, but his principle applies to colour work as well. His conclusion that "mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual," likewise speaks of what happened to tartan in the 1840s - the same decade of photography's emergence, also largely in the fertile soil of Scotland (James Clark Maxwell) - as the sanction of a ritualized past became transmogrified into the documents of a modernist process of reproduction. Not only did the specific documents of tartan history shift by this printing process, but also the extended reach of the tartan phenomenon. “
Transmutations of the tartan: Attributed meanings to Tartan design - Richard Martin.

The work in this series has evolved from a personal and an intuitive response to tartan, as experienced, initially, through the wide range of designs and colours that my mother has made kilts from over the years, and has progressed in response to the problems of finding an “authentic” assigned tartan (as demonstrated by Vestiarium Scoticum!) into an investigation of alternative possible ways of producing a personalised named tartan.
Four distinct themes have emerged as this work has developed: Vestiarium Scoticum: Maide Dealbh, Family Tartans, Genetic Tartans and Markers.

Vestiarium Scoticum: Maide Dealbh

Maide Dealbh, or Pattern sticks, were once thought to be an ancient method of recording and preserving traditional tartan designs on which the exact number of threads for each colour were wound to record the pattern. Since none of them still exist and given that all that is needed to remember a specific pattern is a half repeat of the design, the idea of this memory aid has long since been discredited and is now seen as part of tartan lore.

I have combined two pieces of tartan myth in this series of 75 paintings.
The paintings borrow the form of the fictional pattern sticks to record the half repeat patterns that would be required to weave the mainly fictional tartans from Vestiarium Scoticum. The thread counts for the half repeat patterns are derived from the plates from Vestiarium Scoticum, via Wikipedia, and the format of the paintings also make reference to the colour strip method developed by Donald Calder Stewart in his book ‘Setts of the Scottish Tartans’ to define and record tartans.

Family Tartans

The designs marked * are tartans that are specific to me – Lamont is the tartan assigned for Pattison, Gibson/Lamont combines my parents assigned tartans and Gibson/Naysmith/Lamont/Swankie combines my grandparents assigned tartans.
With further research into my family history it would obviously be possible to incorporate assigned tartans from earlier generations, which would produce increasingly complex patterns.

· Gibson (My mother’s and maternal grandfather’s assigned tartan)
· Naysmith (My maternal grandmother’s assigned tartan)
· Lamont (for Pattison)* (My own, my father’s and my paternal grandfather’s assigned tartan)
· Swankie (My paternal grandmother’s assigned tartan)
· Gibson/Naysmith (My maternal grandfather’s and maternal grandmother’s assigned tartans overlaid)
· Lamont/Swankie (My paternal grandfather’s and paternal grandmother’s assigned tartans overlaid)
· Gibson/Lamont*(My mother’s and father’s assigned tartans overlaid)
· Gibson/Naysmith/Lamont/Swankie* (My maternal and paternal grandparent’s assigned tartans overlaid)

The Family Tartans archival digital prints and those from Genetic Tartans are printed using the same dimensions and format as the colour plates from Vestiarium Scoticum.

Genetic Tartans

I first had the idea of using information from my DNA to design tartans after noticing the formal similarity between the Colour Strips method of recording tartans as developed by Donald Calder Stewart, and the strip notation used to describe genetic markers.
Genetic markers are genes or DNA sequences with a known location on a chromosome that can be used to identify individuals or species.

These designs are based on information from my own genetic ancestry.
Practically, I sent a sample of saliva in a test tube to 23 and Me - a personal genomics and biotechnology company that provides genetic testing. A personalized analysis of my DNA taken from the sample revealed aspects of my ancestral origins and lineage. I then translated some of this information via a system of colour coding into bar charts, which I used as half repeat patterns to design these tartans.

· Neanderthal 2.7%
· 99.8% European 0.2% unassigned
· 90.6% Northern European, 9.2 Non Specific European, O.2% unassigned
· 26.4% British and Irish, 0.2% Scandinavian, 64% Non specific Northern European, 9.2% Nonspecific European, 0.2% unassigned
· Haplogroups - Maternal Line H11a2
· Haplogroups - Paternal Line R1b1b2a1a2f
· Maternal + Paternal Haplogroups (1)
· Maternal + Paternal Haplogroups overlaid (2)

In molecular evolution, a haplogroup is a group of similar haplotypes that share a common ancestor having the same single nucleotide polymorphism mutation in all haplotypes. Because a haplogroup consists of similar haplotypes, it is possible to predict a haplogroup from haplotypes.


Around 1825 William and Andrew Smith from Mauchline developed a pantographic machine for printing tartan onto paper. Vestiarium Scoticum was printed using this innovative print process in 1842, as was the Smiths’ own publication, The Authenticated Tartans of the Clans and Families in Scotland, in 1850.
The Smith brothers also produced Mauchlineware which often incorporated tartan, printed using the same process, on holiday souvenirs, book coverings, decorating accessories, home furnishings and jewelry. These objects brought the new analine dye based tartans to an even wider audience and became hugely popular by the late 1840s.
In these six paintings I used designs from my Genetic Tartans to decorate bookmark forms. The decorated bookmark was a popular Mauchlineware souvenir and makes a link here to genetic markers.

" The pattern we call history is not in the past, but in ourselves." - Anthony Burgess.

Tartan ~ its History and Symbolism
Brian Wilton MBE
First published in ‘Bespoke’ in May 2014

To talk of the Biblical King Saul and the Apollo 12 moon landing in the same breath may seem bizarre . . . but they are indeed linked by one of the world’s greatest national brands from a tiny country in the north Atlantic. At the time that Saul was plotting to put David to the sword, the world’s first recorded tartan was being woven and worn by brown-haired Caucasians in Chinese Turkestan.

3,000 years later that rudimentary art form had assumed cult status and Commander Alan Bean, pilot of the lunar module Intrepid, landed on the surface of the moon carrying with him a woven piece of his clan tartan. Brought back to earth, gifted portions of it were viewed almost as religious relics. That act, celebrating one of modern Man’s greatest achievements, typifies the global symbolism of tartan to many of an estimated 40 million Scottish descendants around the world.

But how did it travel from Saul to Alan? Once early craft workers had discovered how to dye sheep wool and enjoyed the aesthetically pleasing result of alternating colours in both warp and weft, the journey had started. On its way, that early clothing was remarkable enough to attract the attention of contemporary Greek and Roman commentators who described it in a variety of ways to compensate for there being no known word for that generic art-form. As those Celts expanded their empire north and west, their progress was finally halted by the Atlantic Ocean and they settled on those shorelines where, to this day, the Celtic influence permeates so much of the modern culture in Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Brittany and north west Spain.

How did tartan survive in Scotland to become this tiny country’s instantly recognisable national brand? Rugged coasts, deep long glens, inhospitable mountains and a fiercely independent and hardy race defending their Highland territory - defending it successfully even against the all-conquering Romans. Left alone and without the diluting effects of invading cultures, tartan hung on and at the end of the first millennium started to acquire territorial significance. Families - or clans - tended to occupy specific territories and would wear the output of their local weaver which would soon become associated with that locality and later - with the clan that lived there.

Argument still surrounds when exactly the different patterns assumed clan significance but it probably started sporadically in the 1500s and slowly increased pace to a gallop by the early 1800s. The disastrous Battle of Culloden in 1745 was over, the Young Pretender, Charles Edward Stuart (Bonnie Prince Charlie) had escaped to Europe after a series of romanticised escapades that left his countrymen to face the music - ruination, deportation and at worst the macabre dance on the gallows. A year later, the wearing of tartan clothing in Highlands was banned, not because it was a ‘weapon of war’ like the bagpipes, but because it was a symbol of the Scottish Chiefs’ power that saw clansmen’s loyalty to the Chiefs take precedence over that to the monarchy.

For a period of 36 years the tartan ban was in force in the Scottish Highlands but the very government that had banned it, had been and was, using it for its own means. After the earlier failed Jacobean uprising of 1715 centred on Bonnie Prince Charlie's father, the British government had raised a number of regiments called the Black Watch whose dark tartan has become one of the world's favourites. Ironically, ahead of that tartan for popularity is the Royal Stewart which pays homage to the very dynasty that the government sought to destroy.

Outside the Highlands and unaffected by the ban, the clacking looms and shuttles of tartan weavers large and small were struggling to keep up with the demand from nearby Edinburgh high society and distant Caribbean slave owners. The ban was repealed in 1782 by which time the power of the Highland Chiefs had been crushed forever with the alleged loss of many traditional tartans. Paradoxically however, there arose a surge of interest in the culture of the 'Highland savage' which reached a crescendo in 1822 when King George IV visited Edinburgh to a rapturous national welcome orchestrated by Sir Walter Scott.

The Chiefs and their retinues descended upon the capital city robed in all their Highland finery to be greeted by the King himself proudly dressed in the national costume of his Highland subjects. This masterstroke of public relations from Scott was the Cape Canaveral of tartan, the launch pad for its acceptance back into society. Genuine and spurious research gathered momentum and clans that had lost their tartans during the ban were miraculously reunited with them. Leading families outside the Highlands who had never had a tartan, suddenly became proud owners thanks to commercially minded weavers and imaginative historians.

The young Queen Victoria's assent to the throne just 16 years later heralded the age of Romanticism and nowhere was that more evident than in her overpowering love of Scotland and its culture. She and her Prince Consort husband Albert established their Scottish base at Balmoral Castle whose public and private rooms she decked in tartan - principally the Balmoral Tartan which Albert had designed and which is still the unique preserve of today's Royal family.

So there we have a potted - if slightly irreverent - history of a fabric design that has, in the closing centuries of that 3,000 year gap, become one of the world's favourites.

But why should that be? What alchemy has been spun into this textile that promotes such persistent reincarnation in the haute couture collections of the world's leading fashion designers? With what fairy dust has it been sprinkled that arouses such passion, pride and loyalty amongst its global devotees?

Looking at the archetypal Highlander from the 16th century onwards who has become the romanticised warrior figure beloved of Hollywood and pulp fiction novels, he was swashbuckling, he was brave and he’s still with us today in one form or another, twirling his be-tartaned partner at Highland Balls or tossing cabers at Highland Games.

Leaving aside that mix of fact and fiction, look now at the amazingly disproportionate contribution the Scots have made over the centuries to the development of the modern world. They left their home country in tens of thousands seeking opportunities in almost every country - as mercenaries, missionaries, explorers, doctors, educationalists, engineers, administrators and entrepreneurs. Their military regiments, resplendent in tartan and led by the primitive and evocative wail of the bagpipes, were famed for their fighting prowess. Stirring tales of their battle bravery made Scots swell with pride wherever they might be. As a measure of the input of those Scots to the development of North America alone, over 30 US States now have their own tartan as do all the Canadian provinces. At one time in Russia over 400 surnames were derived from those of the early Scottish settlers and etymological remnants remain to this day throughout Europe and Scandinavia.

Unlike traditional clan tartans where the only design rationale might have been adding an extra distinguishing line to the tartan of a related clan, modern tartans give great potential for the incorporation of meaningful design elements that can commemorate past events or create the ‘history of tomorrow.’ One very simple example is that of the City of New York tartan. After the terrible tragedy of 9/11 the tartan was redesigned by its Scottish weaver to include two black lines - one for each of the Twin Towers. In a hundred years time those lines will still be there to remind new generations of the unspeakable horror of that event. A sad example to use but one which clearly highlights the diversity and adaptibility
of tartan.