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Tartan Day by Dr Michael S. Newton

Due to the Covid-19 pandemic the 700th Anniversary celebrations in Arbroath of the signing of the Declaration of Arbroath on 6th April 1320 were cancelled. Lesley Riddoch made a film - The Declaration of Arbroath - but it went almost completely unreported by mainstream media in Scotland. I created my own webpage to promote Lesley's film to the extent that I could by tweeting and emailing friends.

Michael's paper, which follows, then reminded me that the letter to the Pope began by relating the origin legend of the Gaels and equated Scotland with Gaeldom. However, even here in Scotland, modern retellings of the story of the Declaration of Arbroath rarely mention or explain the Gaelic dimension, even though it forms the very bedrock of the argument to the Pope. Michael goes on to highlight the appropriation of Gaelic symbolism by the British state from the end of the 18th century.

Michael remarks were made during the Tartan Day Forum/Debate, co-hosted by the Antigonish Highland Society and the Celtic Studies Department of St Francis Xavier University on 6 April 2011.

Michael wrote ....
"When discussing tradition, it is important to recognize that all traditions were invented by someone at some time to meet certain needs. Although traditions are constantly changing, we shouldn’t assume that all changes are equal. We need to ask who or what is driving the change, and who and what benefits. With these critical questions in mind, let me briefly recount the origins of the major symbols and rituals now used to represent Scottish and/or Scottish Highland culture.

Medieval Scotland was not a single nation but two and this is arguably still the case: one nation, located roughly speaking in the Highlands and Western Isles, spoke Gaelic and could be characterized as Celtic; the other nation, located roughly speaking in the Lowlands of southern and eastern Scotland, spoke a form of English and could be characterized as a branch of Anglo- Norman culture, even if it absorbed or developed features specific to Scotland.

The Gaels saw themselves as the aboriginal inhabitants of Scotland who had been dispossessed by the incoming anglophones, and the anglophones of the Lowlands looked down on the Gaels as an inferior race. It would be wrong to ignore the exchanges and influences that resulted from all manner of intercourse between them, but we must still recognize that these were two essentially distinct and separate societies, united mostly by mutual hatred and suspicion.

Tartan and kilts certainly have their origins in Gaelic culture and they may indeed be useful visual markers for maintaining some awareness of Highland tradition, maybe even a tactic in strategic ethnicity. However, tartan has a long and complicated history which makes it difficult to stand for anything specifically Gaelic or even Highland.

After the Battle of Culloden in 1746, civilian males were forbidden from wearing tartan and kilts, and tartan clothing was made the exclusive privilege of soldiers serving in British regiments. This was the start of a long trend of the British élite appropriating elements of Gaelic culture to serve their own purposes within the Anglo-British empire.

By the late 18th century, very few Highlanders continued to wear tartans and kilts. When King George IV visited Edinburgh in 1822, he was fitted in a tartan suit which brought about a popular revival for Highland clothing, and was part of a wider trend in romanticizing Highland culture. But again, the problem with these developments is that these selected elements were taken out of a Gaelic cultural context and exploited by the Anglophone élite to enhance their prestige in the empire. Common Highlanders did not benefit politically or economically from this popularity; it simply increased the gulf between the external romantic image and the reality of poverty and oppression that Gaels experienced. It is no wonder, then, that tartan, a fabric which few real Gaels could afford, dropped out of currency in Highland culture, becoming largely a item of ritual and fantasy worn mostly by people who were not members of the Gaelic community.

All of this was taken one stage further by the invention of clan tartans in the mid-19th century, the idea that a given surname belonged to a particular clan and should wear a certain tartan. This fabrication met the needs of a growing urban middle class wanting to purchase some symbol of a culture with which they were actually losing touch, and industries eager to find markets. Again, this worked to further estrange Highlanders from their heritage and retrench the ownership of their cultural assets in the hands of the Anglo-British establishment.

In short, clothes do not make the man. Putting a kilt or tartan on a man does not make him a Gael, any more than putting a beret on a man makes him French. Tartan and kilts can complement the image of the wearer, and perhaps even inspire interest in some aspect of Highland culture. But a Gael who takes off his kilt is still a Gael, while an Anglophone is still an Anglophone regardless of what he is wearing. Tartan and kilts can be a supplement, but are not a substitute, for understanding and participating in Gaelic culture.

Similar problems surround the other popular rituals and symbols associated with Scottish Highland tradition. It is commonly assumed that Highland Games are some kind of organic evolution of traditional Highland festivities. In reality, the first event of this type was held in 1818. Although the early Highland Games, and the Falkirk Trysts that preceded them, initially supported Gaelic-oriented activities, these were almost always discontinued after a short time in preference for athletic and musical events and tartan spectacles.

Like tartans and kilts, Highland Games were orchestrated by the Anglo-British élite to promote a very narrow vision of Highland culture. These ritualized events reinforced the role assigned to Highlanders as fierce warriors defending and extending the British Empire. They were a means of performing and retrenching class and racial hierarchies, perpetuating a romantic image of Highlanders while continuing to exploit them as canon fodder and neglecting their language, literature and culture. They were, nonetheless, virtually the only kind of validation that Highlanders got in the nineteenth century, and also served as colourful social events. They began to be imported into North America in the 1830s, and gained wide popularity by the 1860s. Notice that I said that they were foreign imports. They were not an aspect of Gaelic folk culture known to Highlanders in Nova Scotia or elsewhere. Games served the purposes of those élite who ran them, allowing them to judge music and dance which they did not really understand, and to hijack and modify other elements of Highland culture.

Given this platform, the bagpipe tradition was dramatically transformed during the nineteenth century as well. The style and repertoire was changed to suit the tastes of the urban anglophone élite, and the old style only survived in those isolated pockets outside of their reach. Bagpipe bands were invented in the mid-nineteenth century in similar conditions. Proponents of the old Highland style in Scotland and Nova Scotia have recently begun to reconstruct and reclaim it, and now there is a lively movement of people reconnecting the bagpipe to the old Gaelic songs and vernacular style. This is now a serious challenge to the old establishment who cling to outdated stereotypes and dubious claims of authenticity. However, as far as I know, this advance is not yet reflected in any Highland Games.

So-called “Highland Dance” is another art form which was reinvented and radically transformed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. It’s not obvious that step-dance and Highland Dance come from the same root; Highland Dance is the result of that root being transformed by ballet aesthetics and restricted to ritualized athletic competitions. It is clear to any critical observer that Highland Dance is basically a moribund fossil serving no social purpose in Gaelic communities. So far, little has been done to reconnect it to its sources, and re-educate students and teachers about the Gaelic music and dance traditions from which it derives.

Now, I’m not saying that tartans, kilts, Highland Games, bagpipe bands and Highland Dance aren’t beautiful or valid on their own terms. These innovations have now become mainstream traditions which have many fans and participants. They are popular social events in many communities, such as this one. That’s fine. My point is that they have become so disconnected from Highland culture generally, and so distorted by the agendas and fantasies of non-Gaels, that it is disingenuous to claim that they have anything more than a vague connection to Highland tradition. There is virtually no overlap between real Gaelic communities and culture and the virtual reality represented by Highland Games.

There is plenty about Highland heritage to celebrate: the beauties of the Gaelic language, the oldest literary tradition in Western Europe, and a legacy of intellectual and cultural achievement of which any people would be proud. After Highland Games are wrapped up every year, after the entertainers and athletes go home and the tartan is removed, however, communities seem to be none the wiser and none the richer about their own history and culture. It is easy to parody this paradox, but Gaelic leaders need to step up to the plate with creative ideas and be part of the solution, rather than just grumbling about their exclusion.

Scotland is enjoying a taste of independence it has not had for 300 years; the Gaelic language is enjoying political, economic and social support it has not had for even longer; scholarship is bearing new materials about and insights into Gaelic culture and enabling us to challenge obsolete assumptions and stereotypes. This is a good time for Highland societies, which were set up for the express purpose of sustaining Gaelic culture, to decide what vision of Highland tradition they wish to encourage: are they content to stick to a nineteenth-century tartan Disneyland invented by a bygone British empire which held their own people hostage? Or are they willing to invest their resources in educating their communities about real Highland history and culture, thereby enriching them and allowing them to gain a deeper insight into the lives of their ancestors, and, as a side-benefit, enabling them to appreciate the plight of other marginalized minorities? If we hope to create responsible global citizens who can participate in their own heritage as well as understand the diversity of the world’s peoples, I think that the answer is clear."

YouTube has a video of Michael delivering his address following the introduction of the four speakers by the chairman

Dr Michael S Newton was awarded a Ph.D. in Celtic Studies from the University of Edinburgh in 1998 for his dissertation The Tree in Scottish Gaelic Literature and Tradition. He has given lectures and taught workshops on Scottish topics at venues such as the Smithsonian, the U.S. Library of Congress, Slighe nan Gaidheal in Seattle, and the Toronto Scottish Gaelic Learners' Association. He has written several books and numerous articles on many aspects of Gaelic tradition and history, including Bho Chluaidh gu Calasraid (1999), We're Indians Sure Enough: The Legacy of the Scottish Highlanders in the United States (2001), and Warriors of the Word: The World of the Scottish Highlanders (2009). His research interests and areas of expertise include Scottish Highland immigrant literature and history; ethnicity and identity politics; human ecology; dance traditions.

Michael runs a Highland Heritage school dedicated to reclaiming and revitalizing the authentic native culture, history, and traditions of the Scottish Highlands. His website is at