World’s Oldest Known Tartan Fabric Is Discovered in Scottish Bog

Oldest Discovered Tartan Fabric Discovered in Scottish Bog

The tartan dates from around 1500-1600.(Photo: Alan Richardson Pix-AR, V&A Dundee)

Little is more Scottish than tartans. These checked fabrics have a long and proud history. A series of cross-hatched lines in different colors (a sett) on a solid background create unique patterns specific to family or military associations. Official tartans—both ancient and newly created—are registered with The Scottish Register of Tartans. Experts believe the tartan dates back to at least the 15th century, and by the 18th century it had become a symbol of Scottish rebellion—even to the extent of it being criminalized by British law. While fabric is one of the more ephemeral artifacts of history, luck can sometimes result in extraordinary preservation. Recently, a stretch of tartan discovered in a highland peat bog opened a window into a sartorial past, and it is currently thought to be the oldest extant tartan.

The piece of fabric was recovered from a peat bog in the Scottish highlands region of Glen Affric. Discovered 40 years ago, its true import could not be realized without modern technology. Testing of the fibers revealed green, yellow, and red natural dyes were used to tint the fabric. Such dyes would be made from woad, indigo, and other natural materials. More testing revealed its age to be a whopping 500 years old. The tartan was woven in the 16th century, and according to Peter MacDonald, of the Scottish Tartans Authority, “It is likely to date to the reign of James V, Mary Queen of Scots, or James VI.”

According to a Smithsonian Magazine piece on bog bodies, “Over thousands of years, layers of sphagnum moss accumulate, eventually forming a dome fed entirely by rainwater. A raised bog contains few minerals and very little oxygen, but lots of acid. Add in low Northern European temperatures, and you have a wonderful refrigerator.” These same factors contributed to the preservation of the organic materials of the tartan. The tartan has now come to life anew, however. Tartan historians and designers at the House of Edgar collaborated to recreate the tartan for modern sensibilities. Enthusiasts of all things Scottish and historical can even purchase the tartan. While this historic garment was likely a working outfit, there are endless ways to wear today's modern renditions.

Scotland is famous for its tartans—colorful plaid fabrics that signify different clan and military associations—and now the oldest piece of tartan fabric has been identified.

Oldest Discovered Tartan Fabric Discovered in Scottish Bog

John McLeish (left) and Peter MacDonald, tartan historian, of The Scottish Tartans Authority, with the Glen Affric tartan and curator James Wylie. (Photo: Alan Richardson Pix-AR, V&A Dundee)

This tartan fabric was discovered in a Scottish bog and dates back 500 years.

Oldest Discovered Tartan Fabric Discovered in Scottish Bog

That traditional cross-hatch pattern survives. (Photo: Alan Richardson Pix-AR, V&A Dundee)

h/t: [BBC]

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Madeleine Muzdakis

Madeleine Muzdakis is a Contributing Writer at My Modern Met and a historian of early modern Britain & the Atlantic world. She holds a BA in History and Mathematics from Brown University and an MA in European & Russian Studies from Yale University. Madeleine has worked in archives and museums for years with a particular focus on photography and arts education. When she isn’t writing, she enjoys hiking, film photography, and studying law while cuddling with her cat Georgia.
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