In my family, we love to think of ourselves as Scots. At least the men do. The women are a little bemused. All that stomping through the gorse, and hammer-throwing, and drinking of whiskey. We have a family tartan. This is it.
On the other hand, this could be it. Because there are at least two Murray tartans.
In fact, the concept of family tartan is apparently, well, created. Fairly recently. There is no such thing as a true, through the mists of time, since history began, tartan of your clan.
The History Of The Modern Tartan
I did not know this until last week. I called my father the professor on the phone, and asked him which Murray clan we were. I was looking for the family crest, in fact, and was hoping it was the one that featured a mermaid with a mirror in her dexter hand. Dexter means right, in heraldry. I liked the idea of a family crest featuring a creature half of the sea, half of the earth, looking into her face to find her true self.
My father told me that family tartans were a 19th century invention. I thought he called them an infernal 19th century invention, but he insists not.
Apparently Scots all wore tartan until the mid-1700’s. This was traditional Scottish dress. Not clear that the tartans were strictly associated with clans . Then Charles Stuart was soundly and savagely defeated in his attempt to win the English throne at the Battle of Culloden, at which point the English forbid the Scots to wear tartan at all. This lasted until 1822, when the historical novelist Sir Walter Scott so entranced George the 4th that George came to Scotland and lifted the ban.
So began the tartan, and the kilt, as we now know it.
My father did not make this up. As a professor, and in particular as a professor of English from a previous century, and a self-identified Scot to boot, he’s not prone to making things up. Especially about Scotland. I looked it all up. An historian named Hugh Trevor wrote a book called The Invention of Scotland: Myth and History which details this story, among others. The New York Sun wrote an article about the essay.
Must We Sadly Abandon The Concept Of Tartan?
On the other hand, this is America. We’ve only been a country since 1776. A family tradition that’s been in place since 1820 is ancient, in our terms. And we love an entrepreneur. Apparently the reinvention of the tartan coincided with Queen Victoria’s love of all things Scottish, the establishment of Balmoral, and an early form of tourism. Including souvenirs. Capitalism at its best. So let’s drink to enterprise. I’ll have a single malt so peaty your hair turns dark from imagined smoke. And I call the mermaid crest. Identity can and should be reinvented where necessary.