Universally associated with Scotland, almost to the exclusion of its popularity elsewhere, tartan has not had such an easy ride in the past. While now it is generally regarded as pan-Scottish, its origins lie in the Gaelic culture of the Highlands and Islands where, in the aftermath of the final Jacobite rising in 1746, it was banned along with the kilt, the pipes and other such totemic items. Virtually reinvented by Walter Scott for the royal visit of George IV to Edinburgh in 1822, tartan in its many and various patterns has since become linked to individual clans and, in the form of the kilt and plaid, is now seen as central to the national costume of the country as a whole. Equally central to that, but as material for jackets and waistcoats, tweed takes its name from the border river. However, this is believed to have come about as a misreading of the word tweel, the Scots term for woollen twill. Manufactured in both Scotland and Ireland, tweed is principally associated with the Borders and the Outer Hebrides, where the Isle of Harris has given its name to the particularly distinctive herringbone pattern. Both fabrics have thus been subject to misinterpretation – tweed in the acquisition of its name; tartan in being seen as representing Scotland as a whole.
The First Recorded Case
by Magi Gibson
The owner of the Highland Guesthouse
on the Banks of the Bonny Braes
– not a Scot by birth –
first dipped his toe, so claims his spouse,
as a marketing device, intended to entice
the tourists in. After all, he said, it works
for oatcakes, rugs and haggises,
for Edinburgh Rock and haberdasheries.
He started with the curtains, a tasteful ancient
Robertson. American guests were wowed.
Soon he’d papered every room, each in a different clan –
modern, hunting, dress. Oh how he beamed
when guests from far Japan, bowed down, impressed.
His wife hoped it would stop right there.
But no! What better, he declared, than tartan
carpet underfoot on every floor and stair?
And when soft furnishings failed to satisfy –
he turned to clothes and underwear.
He couldn’t see himself in what he called
a man-skirt, but tartan trews to match the dining room
would do the trick. Seamlessly he slid from
harmless predilection to full hardcore addiction.
And then, one night, his wife, off-season, knitting
in the lounge, disquieted by a muffled sound,
looked round and saw, hovering disembodied,
(against the Clan Macgregor Ancient Dress)
her husband’s pale moon face, his startled hair
as he became half-man, half-tartan chair.
by Mandy Haggith
Its rough, red-flecked, silk-lined softness
hangs only in memory. I cannot try it on.
She offered it to me once. My sister too.
Ever tidy, she must have put it to a sale.
So now, although I hunger to shrug it over my shoulders,
put my hands into her pockets, maybe find a 20p,
a tissue to touch or a hankie to hold onto,
there’s only a wardrobe to empty
and then a train to catch
back north over the border river
to where that soft-rough fabric came from,
where the big round buttons belong.
Magi Gibson’s poetry collections include Graffiti in Red Lipstick and Wild Women of a Certain Age. Poems in Modern Scottish Women Poets (Canongate), Scottish Love Poems (Canongate), The Edinburgh Book of Twentieth Century Scottish Poetry, (EUP). The Senile Dimension won the Scotland on Sunday/Women 2000 Writing Prize. A new collection, Washing Hugh MacDiarmid’s Socks will be published in March 2017 by Luath.
Mandy Haggith is a writer and environmental activist who lives in Assynt. Her two poetry collections are letting light in and Castings. As poet in residence at the Edinburgh Royal Botanic Gardens, she celebrated the Gaelic tree alphabet and the result was a tree poetry anthology, Into the Forest. She also writes novels and plays. Her website is at www.mandyhaggith.net
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