Ulster's Invisible Icon

Dr Clifford Smyth celebrates the newly-recovered Ulster Tartan

Scanning the tartan gift shops in Edinburgh as the city prepares for Christmas, the eye is caught by a new tartan. The reason is obvious: this tartan is being heavily promoted. Windows are given over to pretty little dresses, mohair scarves, ladies’ faux kilts, and the more prosaic table mats. The shop assistant explains that this new ‘very feminine’ tartan is leaping off the shelves, and no wonder. Described as the ‘Princess Diana Memorial Tartan’, the fabric taps into the late Princess’s continuing appeal, while offering support for charity.

Recovered VersionEver since the early 19th century, when enthusiasm for tartan swept Scotland as part of a wider literary and cultural revival, the Scots haven’t been averse to turning this aspect of their historic past into hard cash.

Brian Wilton of the Scottish Tartan Authority explained to me why tartan fabric is so unusual:

‘It’s the only textile known which makes a statement about who you are, or where you come from, or which of the national rugby teams you support’.

Yes, you’ve guessed it: the Scottish Rugby Union has its own official tartan, and the kilt-maker in his shop in the shadow of Edinburgh castle explained to me that SRU tartan was among the top ten best sellers, as fans rushed to girdle their waists in Highland garb before the next international kick-off.

When I wore my kilt to a conference in Jerusalem, orthodox Jews at the gathering suggested that Joseph’s coat of many colours was made of tartan cloth. ‘How fanciful’, I thought.  But in those days I was ignorant. I knew nothing of the find of tartan cloth that archaeologists had made at Urumchi on the western edge of China.

The tartan cloth looks identical to the kinds of tartan to be found in a Highland gift shop today, the only difference being that  the tartan was found on the bodies of  Caucasian  mummies, the remains of nomads who had been following their flocks in those far away  places between the 11th and 7th centuries BC.

Yes, though tartan cloth can be traced back to antiquity, Ulster boasts one of the oldest finds of tartan in the whole of the British Isles, perhaps even older than any tartan found in Scotland. There is a find in Scotland dating from the Middle Ages, but the Tartan Authority does not accept the material as a true tartan, classifying  the ‘Falkirk Tartan’ as a check. What can be said about Ulster tartan is that after its discovery in Co Londonderry in 1956, the tartan was subjected to the most rigorous scientific analysis.

What amazes me is that this remarkable cultural icon remains unknown. When I’m wandering about in my kilt, folk stop me and say, ‘Is that the Stewart tartan, or is it the MacGregor?’ ‘No’, I reply, ‘This is the Ulster tartan’. Invariably the enquirer seems puzzled and needs further information, which involves telling them a fascinating story of loss, discovery, analysis and restoration. These are the enduring themes of the human condition, which recur again and again, in the story of Joseph in the Old Testament, or in folk tales, or Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings.

I have been to Flanders Townland near Dungiven, where the find was made in 1956, only to discover, to my delight, that eyewitnesses to the uncovering of the tartan material are still alive today and are able to give a first hand account of what happened.

It wasn’t too long after the find that Old Bleach Viyella at Randalstown went into production with tartan cloth based on the material that had been unearthed. This Ulster tartan consisted of muted mustard, red, black and brown colours and was reproduced in ladies’ fashions, ties, carpets, and even kilts for a pipe band, but this Ulster tartan subsequently fell out of favour.

Meanwhile, Audrey Henshall, of the National Museum of Antiquities in Scotland, had been one of the experts called upon to analyse the find. Audrey Henshall stated that the tartan had been woven in Donegal, but, more than that, she claimed that it would be possible to restore the tartan to its original colouring before it had been covered by soil and had suffered so much deterioration.

Restored VersionThe restored version of the tartan is the one I wear. To me it is a hugely symbolic cultural icon that speaks of loss and recovery – more, of resurrection.

People readily recognize the Black Watch tartan, or the Dress Stewart tartan, on which the Princess Di tartan is modelled, exchanging a white background for that of pale blue. Yet, here we are in Ulster where ordinary folk have suffered so much pain and distress, where loss has been a shared experience, and we possess this powerful, eye-catching icon that speaks of hope and return and new beginnings, and we do not recognise it or value it.  Let’s make our tartan feel at home;  after such a long absence the prodigal deserves a welcome. Surely this is Ulster’s icon for the 21st century!

You can read the Ulster-Scots version of this article by clicking on the related item below.

The Arts Council of Northern Ireland has made an award to Clifford Smyth, enabling him to develop a writing project on the cultural significance of the kilt and Ulster tartan.