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Tartan Ferret


by Jamie Scarlett MBE 3rd June 1995

The tartan was first illustrated in Authenticated Tartans of the Clans and Families of Scotland by William & Andrew Smith (makers of Mauchline Ware) in 1850. It was described as being taken from a portrait of the 2nd Viscount Dunblane, who died in 1729. The Smith brothers were careful workers and went to some trouble to authenticate their tartans; we can accept that they regarded this as a "family" pattern. A copy of their book is in the Scottish Tartans Authority library and in the Inverness Reference Library and is worth looking at for the illustrations, which were produced by a machine that drew fine, closely spaced, parallel lines in opaque ink on black paper, making a remarkably effective imitation of plain-woven cloth.

Dunblane Cathedral

W & A. K. Johnston's The Tartans of the Clans and Septs of Scotland (1906) also illustrates it, giving the lineage of the peerage (possessed by the Duke of Leeds since 1694), and adding that "The tartan is probably a district one, just as that of the Campbells of Cawdor is called the "Argyll District Tartan" At that time, the existence of any tartans other than Clan, Family or District patterns was not admitted and, when Pittendrigh McGillivray copied the 1819 Pattern Book, now lost, of William Wilson & Son, he omitted all the numbered patterns - about three-quarters of the book - which would have been lost to future researchers had not someone else made a full copy. The 'Argyll District Tartan' appears to have started life as the uniform of the Duchess of Argyll's School.

Donald C Stewart (The Setts of the Scottish Tartans) gives a thread count and a colour strip and the origin of the pattern, saying that it "seems to have been revived in 1822, doubtless on the occasion of the visit of George IV to Scotland, in anticipation of which there had been much hunting round for old tartans to wear"; I quote this verbatim, but without the colour strip, in Tartan: The Highland Textile . I worked closely with Stewart during the last twelve years of his life. He was not given to unfounded conclusions but I am sceptical of this one. It is true that there was much hunting around at the time of the Royal visit, but the tartan trade is not addicted to research and my experience has been it would not go to the length of extracting a sett from a painting. The pattern worn by the Earl was probably just something he liked the look of and, unless it remained in family use, the trade would be more likely to wait for the Smiths' illustration.

District Tartans (Teall and Smith) illustrates the pattern, states its origin and gives a thread count. In accepting it as a district tartan the authors have followed the trend but in my view the book falls seriously short on scholarship and should not be relied upon.

The pattern is a rather fussy one of five colours; a red block on which is centred a blue band with a central white line and a more complex green block in three approximately equal sections, the middle one consisting of three equal stripes, yellow, green and yellow, separated by white lines from the outer sections, which are green divided into a broad and two narrow bands with white lines.

The thread count for the half sett, which reverses each time it is repeated, is as follows:-
White 1
Blue 4
Red 30
White 2
Green 4
White 2
Green 10
White 2
Green 4
White 2
Yellow 10
Green 6

When the patterns are reversed and joined together, the end stripes become 2 and 12 respectively. The pattern would not be a difficult one to weave - no tartan is - but, being fussy, would demand concentration and does not have sufficient interest to hold it.

The pattern of a tartan being woven into the cloth and not superimposed, each stripe crosses itself and every other stripe. Where a stripe crosses another of the same colour plain colour results but, where it crosses another colour, a 50/50 mixture of the two occurs. Mixed shades occur in rapidly increasing disproportion to the number of base colours employed, so that a two colour check produces one extra shade, four colours produce six and seven, the normal maximum, twenty-one; Dunblane, with five base colours, has ten mixtures.

© J.S. Revised 3.6.95

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