Thursday, July 24, 2008

The Authenticity of Scotland


In a new book by the late historian Hugh Trevor-Roper, the fantasy of Scotland's historical identity is laid bare. The New York Sun's Adam Kirsch writes in a review that as Trevor-Roper
points out with ill-concealed glee, tartan and kilt, those universal badges of Scottishness, are about as authentic as Disneyland. Until the 18th century, no one north of the Tweed had ever seen a kilt; nor did the clans, as legend has it, distinguish themselves by the pattern of their tartans, until they were taught to do so by an enterprising clothing manufacturer. The Scottish costume is, Trevor-Roper shows, simply the latest example of an ancient national habit: the forging of tradition.
But wait, it gets worse: "Sad to say, the kilt was invented by an Englishman." Thomas Rawlinson was the English manager of a Highland ironworks in the 1720s. Kirsch explains:
Rawlinson observed that while the actual native costume of the Highlanders — the long belted cloak called the plaid — might have been suitable for rambling over hills and bogs, it was "a cumbrous, inconvenient habit" for men working at a furnace. So he hired the tailor of the local army regiment to make something more "handy and convenient for his workmen" by "separating the skirt from the plaid and converting into a distinct garment" — the kilt. This symbol of Highland tradition, as Trevor-Roper notes, was "bestowed ... on the Highlanders, not in order to preserve their traditional way of life, but to ease its transformation: to bring them off the heath and into the factory." As with so many of the tales Trevor-Roper has to tell, the truth may not be as romantic as the legend, but its irony makes it no less compelling.
The tartan above is the "Flower of Scotland," a late and non-clan addition to the vast catalogue of Scottish tartans.

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