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The Literary Myth took the form of creating an ancient literature for the Scots. The ­poems of the bard Ossian, Englished by James Macpherson in the early 1760s, were held to demonstrate that Scotland had produced great literature when England was still sunk in barbarism, and were therefore a source of pride to the Edinburgh literati conscious of the loss of national independence. It was, of course, only possible for them to celebrate the noble savages of Highland Scotland after the failure of the Jacobite Risings and the subsequent repression of Highland customs had rendered Lowland Scotland, whose hero was the Duke of Cumberland, not Prince Charles Edward, safe from these barbarians. Macpherson’s Ossian was largely, but not wholly, fraudulent. He did draw on authentic Gaelic poetry (translated for him, Trevor-Roper suggests, by his cousin Macpherson of Strathmashie). Its authenticity was soon successfully challenged, by Samuel Johnson among others.

Yet, even when it was no longer possible to argue that Macpherson had done no more than translate ancient Gaelic poetry, it remained a matter of Scottish pride that Ossian had conquered Europe. Napoleon was one of its chief fans, reading it in Cesarotti’s Italian translation, which is still in print. In any case, it was no great matter when belief in Ossian had to be abandoned, because a new and greater myth-maker had appeared in the person of Sir Walter Scott.

He played a major part in popularising the Sartorial Myth, which has made tartan and the kilt the symbols of Scottish national identity. Much of this section of the book is familiar: that the kilt as we know it (the short kilt) was actually invented by an English entrepreneur, by the name of Rawlinson, as a more suitable garb for his workers, and that the so-called clan tartans are a 19th-century invention, owing much to a pair of frauds, the Sobieski Stuarts, who claimed to be the grandsons of Bonnie Prince Charlie, and on whom Trevor-Roper spends too much time. Scott’s part in the popularising of tartan was more important, and his intention clear. It was a means of reconciling Highland and Lowland, and of affirming a distinct Scottish identity within Britain — one which did not challenge the Union. For more than two centuries, it worked very well.

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Ben Kemna
March 27th, 2012
8:03 PM
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