The Royal Mile – the main thoroughfare of Edinburgh’s Old Town running downhill between the city’s old Castle and Holyrood Palace – makes history seem very recent.
Worn granite buildings line the cobbled street of old Edinburgh, off which lead narrow medieval alleyways. A dark, glowering sky and the skirl of bagpipes from a kilt-wearing piper lend a suitably ancient soundtrack to the atmosphere. Another kilted and blue-faced warrior strides by, bearing a massive claymore, a reminder that much of this front is a deliberate catering to the tourist trade.
The first stop for many of those visitors is the Tartan Weaving Mill, just off the castle’s famous Esplanade. The giant shop sprawls over five floors, with a giant loom weaving tartan cloth in the basement and the option to buy souvenirs that range from Loch Ness Monster freezer magnets to a full-blown set of bagpipes for £1,000 or more. Lots of room is given over to a display of clan tartans for every surname. In its photo studio, I watch a group of Spanish visitors have their photos taken in full tartan regalia against a backdrop showing a romantic Highland scene, while a loop of electro-bagpipe music provides the background track.
The history of tartan is told with a set of quaint mannequins dressed in the changing styles through the centuries. I learn that “plaid” is the name for a long length of tartan cloth, not the tartan itself, which was originally pleated or “kilted” to make a garment that was fastened at the waist with a belt. The extra length was wrapped around the upper body for warmth or around an arm in a sword fight to shield it.
“The early kilt was a Feileadh Mòr (great plaid) and the Victorian kilt is a corruption of it,” says David Withers, who spends most of his working days in a kilt as a guide for a Highland tour company. “Tartans for every clan are another Victorian invention; no one wore a clan tartan at Culloden. They also used natural dyes and colors, so their colors would have been much less flamboyant. In the Lowlands, they wore trousers of course.”
The kilt has come a long way since those days, with the late Alexander McQueen, among others, putting it on the catwalk. No other country is so indelibly linked with a piece of cloth as Scotland is with tartan, and a kilt is its most evocative image. “(Writer) Sir Walter Scott had his hand in creating this Disneyland image of a Scotland of tartan, kilts, shortbread and whiskey,” says David. “It did a lot of good for Scotland and tourism, of course, but he created many myths as well.”
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