New research suggests a piece of fabric found in the Scottish Highlands in the early 1980s is the oldest surviving tartan, likely dating to the 16th century.
A patterned cloth featuring interlocking stripes, tartan is traditionally associated with Scottish kinship groups known as clans. The newly analyzed example—known as the Glen Affric tartan after the village where it was found—survived because it was buried in a peat bog with a low-oxygen environment.
“In Scotland, surviving examples of old textiles are rare as the soil is not conducive to their survival,” says Peter MacDonald, head of research and collections at the Scottish Tartans Authority (STA), a charity dedicated to the promotion and preservation of tartans, in a statement.
To determine the age of the Glen Affric tartan, the STA commissioned a dye analysis and radiocarbon testing. Researchers studying the four colors used to dye the tartan (green and brown and possibly red and yellow) found no traces of artificial or semi-synthetic materials, indicating the cloth predated the 1750s. Carbon dating further pinpointed the tartan’s creation to between 1500 and 1655, with a most probable range of 1500 to 1600. At the time, the Stuart monarchs—including Mary, Queen of Scots, and her father, James V—were on the Scottish throne.
Given the “more rustic nature of the cloth,” the tartan “is not something you would associate with a king or someone of high status,” MacDonald says. “It is more likely to be an outdoor working garment.”
As Sally Tuckett, an art historian at the University of Glasgow, tells CBC Radio’s Jason Vermes, “Any cloth or clothing from the 16th century that is not from royalty or nobility is pretty rare, and so to have this piece which predates the clan tartan mania of the 19th century, worn or used by an ordinary person, is pretty incredible.”
The so-called Falkirk tartan, a scrap of cloth found in a pot containing almost 2,000 Roman coins in 1933, dates to the third century and is often hailed as Scotland’s oldest surviving tartan. But the fragment, which features a simpler checkered pattern woven with undyed yarn, isn’t a “true tartan” like the Glen Affric one, which boasts “several colors with multiple stripes of different sizes,” according to MacDonald.
The STA announced the results of its analysis ahead of the opening of “Tartan,” a new exhibition on view at V&A Dundee. The Glen Affric tartan is one of more than 300 objects included in the show, which traces the global history of the textile.
“There’s something about [tartans],” “Outlander” star Graham McTavish, an ambassador for the exhibition, tells STV News’ Felicity Clifford. “There’s something about that combination of color, design pattern, the garment of a kilt that invites people to join in a celebratory experience. It’s not a garment. It’s not a pattern that pushes you away. It draws you in.”
According to the Scottish Tartans Museum and Heritage Center, Inc., tartan attire became synonymous with the Scottish Highlands in the 17th and 18th centuries; the English government even banned Highlanders from wearing tartan after the Battle of Culloden in 1746. It was only in the mid-19th century that tartans returned to favor, with specific designs becoming associated with different Highland clans.
At the time of the Glen Affric tartan’s creation, the bog where it was later found was under the control of Clan Chisholm. Though the cloth likely featured red dye, “a color that Gaels considered a status symbol,” MacDonald says it can’t be definitively attributed to an individual clan.
“To be able to exhibit the Glen Affric tartan is immensely important in understanding the textile traditions from which modern tartan derives,” MacDonald adds. “There is no other known surviving piece of tartan from this period of this age. It’s a remarkable discovery and deserves national attention and preservation.”
This is far from the first time that Northern Europe’s bogs—wetlands made up of decayed plant matter known as peat—have produced impressive archaeological finds. Previous discoveries include millennia-old bog butter and ancient bog bodies, whose eerily preserved corpses end “up looking like a squished rubber doll,” as Joshua Levine wrote for Smithsonian magazine in 2017.
“Tartan” is on view at V&A Dundee in Dundee, Scotland, through January 14, 2024.