This 16th-Century Cloth Is Scotland’s Oldest-Known Tartan

According to recent research, a fabric discovered in the Scottish Highlands in the early 1980s is believed to be the oldest surviving tartan, possibly originating from the 16th century.

The village where it was found, known as Glen Affric, is a bog with low-oxygen environment where it survived because it was buried in peat. Tartan, which is a patterned cloth featuring interlocking stripes, is traditionally associated with Scottish kinship groups known as clans.

Peter MacDonald, the leader of research and collections at the Scottish Tartans Authority (STA), a non-profit organization committed to promoting and conserving tartans, explains in a statement that “it is uncommon to find existing instances of ancient fabrics due to the unsuitable soil conditions for their preservation” in Scotland.

The Stuart monarchs, including Mary, Queen of Scots, and her father, James V, occupied the Scottish throne at that time. Carbon dating has helped narrow down the creation of the tartan to a period between 1500 and 1655, with the most likely range being 1500 to 1600. The cloth predates the 1750s, as no artificial or semi-synthetic materials were found in the four colors used to dye the tartan (green, brown, and possibly red and yellow) during the dye analysis and radiocarbon testing commissioned by the STA to determine the age of the Glen Affric tartan.

Glen Affric tartan
Radiocarbon testing suggests the tartan dates to between 1500 and 1600. Alan Richardson Pix-AR

MacDonald states that the outdoor working attire is a more probable option. The plaid pattern, due to the cloth’s rustic quality, is not typically linked to royalty or individuals of elevated standing.

Sally Tuckett, an art historian at the University of Glasgow’s CBC Radio, tells Jason Vermes that this piece, which predates the tartan clan mania of the 19th century, is incredibly unique and not worn or used by ordinary individuals. It is rather rare and does not originate from any clothing or fabric from the 16th century that belonged to nobility or royalty.

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MacDonald states that the Glen Affric tartan, with its “various hues and multiple lines of varying widths,” does not qualify as an authentic tartan compared to the fragment, which showcases a more straightforward checkered design created using natural-colored yarn. However, the fragment, originating from the third century, is widely recognized as Scotland’s oldest existing tartan, also known as the Falkirk tartan. This small piece of fabric was discovered in a container along with nearly 2,000 Roman coins in 1933.

The Scottish Tourism Authority (STA) announced the results of its analysis ahead of the opening of the new “Tartan” exhibition at V&A Dundee. The show includes over 300 objects, showcasing the global history of textiles, with one of them being the Affric Glen tartan.

The tartan kilts that is captivating and inviting. The combination of vibrant colors, intricate design patterns, and the unique garment itself creates a celebratory atmosphere that entices people to participate. STV News’ Felicity Clifford reports that “Outlander” actor Graham McTavish, who is also an ambassador for the exhibition, emphasizes the allure of tartans and their ability to draw people in.

A painting of the 1746 Battle of Culloden, featuring eight Highlanders clad in tartan
A painting of the 1746 Battle of Culloden, featuring Highlanders clad in tartan Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

In the mid-19th century, tartans that were specific to different Highland clans became associated with becoming designs. It was only in the 19th century that tartans returned to favor, after being banned by the English government even for Highlanders, following the Battle of Culloden in 1746. According to the Scottish Tartans Heritage and Museum Center, tartan attire became synonymous with the Scottish Highlands in the 17th and 18th centuries.

The MacDonald clan states that red dye, which was likely featured on the cloth, can be considered a symbol of “status” for Gaels. The creation of the tartan was later found under the control of the Chisholm Clan, where it was discovered in the bog at Affric Glen.

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“According to MacDonald, it is incredibly important to understand the modern derivation of tartan from textile traditions. The Affric Glen tartan exhibit deserves national preservation and attention, as it is a remarkable discovery from this period of history. There is no other known surviving piece of tartan from this age.”

In 2017, Joshua Levine penned an article for Smithsonian magazine stating that earlier findings encompassed butter preserved for thousands of years in bogs and ancient cadavers found in bogs, which, when preserved remarkably, appear as if they have been compressed into a rubber doll. These remarkable archaeological discoveries are just a few examples of the many occasions when Northern Europe’s peat-filled wetlands, commonly referred to as bogs, have yielded valuable findings.

“Tartan” is currently being exhibited at V&A Dundee in Dundee, Scotland, until January 14, 2024.

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