Greetings from Scotland. I write this from a room I’m staying in that’s right over a bar. Apparently it’s quite common here that a bar or a venue will buy out the floors above it and rent them out as cheap Airbnbs to avoid noise complaints.
This bar downstairs has a tropical theme, where the tattooed staff serve Mai Tais and daiquiris and vegan fast food. It’s great, you’d like it there. The rooms upstairs also have a tropical theme, and so my hallway is full of plastic foliage and bright Hawaiiana memorabilia.
Still, even amidst this island of pacific kitsch in downtown Edinburgh, a pervading sense of Scottishness cannot be discarded. At the foot of my guest bed is a neatly folded blanket, which stands out in the brightly colored room, because it’s brown. And it’s plaid. At my head are two plaid pillows. Out on the street, tourists snap pictures of bagpipers busking in plaid regalia, and the store windows are brimming full of cheap kilts (as well as plaid socks, plaid scarves, and anything else you can put a plaid on, which is to say everything).
Actually, the proper name for a twill fabric made by varied colors of intersecting warp and weft thread is a tartan, not a plaid. It’s ok to call it a plaid, but no one in the U.K. does. A “plaid” is technically a length of tartan-patterned fabric, which Scottish Highlanders used to wrap around themselves almost like a sari. It was a sturdy cloth, which could also be used as a blanket, if a herder or a hunter had to sleep out in the Scottish hills.
Adam Smith was a Scot. Three-fourths of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were of Scottish descent, and the document itself was based on the Scottish Declaration of Arbroath. The log cabin is a Scottish invention. The Appalachian accent is a variation of a Scottish one. Someone I met at the tropical bar downstairs told me his wife is from the same town as Andrew Carnegie, where there is also a Carnegie Hall (so that’s another way to get there).
Scottishness seems immensely valuable to North American identity—perhaps as a way for white people to racialize ourselves, and claim some sense of identity separate from Englishness. I speculate, as a person with not a drop of Scottish blood, that it must feel richer to claim a connection to a rebellious, rugged little country, rather than the behemoth British empire, which has been forever painted (both in history class and in the Star Wars franchise) as the ultimate bad guy.
This interest in Scottish heritage really makes itself known at the National Records of Scotland, which I went to visit yesterday. There were computer labs absolutely filled with people from all over the world. Most of them were elderly, and most of them were from the United States and Australia, and they had come to research their Scottish heritage, scrolling though the government-funded genealogy site www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk. And some of them were looking through Scotland’s National Register of Tartans, looking for their ancestral family plaid by searching through https://www.tartanregister.gov.uk
The panda at the Edinburgh Zoo has its own tartan. Volkswagen as a tartan. University of Alabama has a tartan, UC Riverside has a tartan. Almost every American state has its own tartan. Almost every African country has its own tartan. The Scottish Society of Japan has one. Nike has some. There’s even a tartan for the Scottish Register of Tartans.
You too can register your own tartan for £70. If you want a frame around your certificate of registration, it will cost you an extra £30. You do, however, need a justification for your own tartan. The design has to be unique and the colors ought to mean something, since your design will be subject to scrutiny by a board of Scottish experts. The Register of Tartans gets about eight applications a week for new tartans.
Of course, clan tartans have traditionally been assigned according to last names, and there are tartans for MacDougal, MacDuff, Macquarie, Macallan, etc. While the clans themselves can claim a long and ancient heritage, their tartans cannot. Most clan tartans were established around the 1800s, when the clan leader just sort of picked his favorite colors.
Famously, British historian Hugh Trevor-Roper gave tartans quite a lambasting in his 1983 article, “The invention of tradition: the Highland tradition of Scotland,” where he basically wrote that tartans were a bullshit tradition invented to perpetuate some false idea of nationhood during a time of increased secularization and industrialization. This isn’t unique to Scotland. Around the nineteenth century, a lot of nations were romanticizing simpler times. This is when Germans got really into Lederhosen, and Americans got really into cowboys (even though they’re from Mexico). Countries were grasping at rugged, outdoorsmen archetypes of their “true” selves—as nations. They elevated forms of national food, song, tradition, and dress—all which had roots in the nations’ histories, but were cobbled together in a somewhat recent past.
This “reveal” is not that scandalous. Most Scots know that specific clan tartans are a relatively young construct. They’ll gleefully tell you, like they’re letting you in on a secret, that clan tartans are “only” two hundred years old. They will then go on to talk about how meaningful theirs is. The clan is still real, even if its specific tartan was arbitrary and artificial.
After England took over Scotland, the British Crown got very into tartan (look at any portrait of Queen Victoria and she is wearing a tartan sash). On the Silver Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth, in 1977, the Sex Pistols released Nevermind the Bollocks and performed in ripped and repurposed tartan. As punk fashion rippled across the U.S., Grunge took up the mantle of plaid flannel shirts, which also harkened back to the American lumberjacks and cowboys (many of whom descended from Scotsmen who had fled to the colonies).
The all-American manliness of the flannel shirt has been subverted many times over throughout the twentieth century: gay men on the streets of the Castro, old school L.A. gangbangers with buttoned up Pendleton shirts, and lesbians and queers pretty much everywhere. And though tartan has different associations for different groups, different clans, and the different individuals who will pay to register one, no single entity can ever really own it, as a fabric. After all, it’s just a pattern of threads overlapping.