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Tartan Ferret


by Allan Ramsay 1686-1758

Alan Ramsay 1686 - 1758









Ye Caledonian beauties, who have long
Been both the muse and subject of my song,
Assist your bard, who, in harmonious lays,
Designs the glory of your Plaid to raise :
How my fond breast with blazing ardour glows,
Whene'er my song on you just praise bestows.
Phoebus and his imaginary Nine,
With me have lost the title of divine;
To no such shadows will I homage pay,
These to my real muses shall give way:
My muses who on smooth meand'ring Tweed,
Stray through the groves, or grace the clover mead;
Or these who bathe themselves where haughty Clyde
Does roaring o'er his lofty cat'racts ride;
Or you, who on the banks of lofty Tay,
Drain from the flow'rs the early dews of May,
To varnish on your cheek the crimson dye,
Or make the white the falling snow outvy;
And you who on Edina's streets display
Millions of matchless beauties ev'ry day:
Inspir'd by you, what poet can desire
To warm his genius at a brighter fire!

I sing the Plaid, and sing with all my skill,
Mount then, O fancy, standard to my will;
Be strong each thought, run soft each happy line,
That gracefulness and harmony may shine,
Adapted to the beautiful design.
Great is the subject, vast th'exalted theme,
And shall stand fair in endless rolls of fame.
The Plaid's antiquity comes first in view,
Precedence to antiquity is due :
Antiquity contains a certain spell,
To make ev'n things of little worth excel;
To smallest subjects gives a glaring dash,
Protecting high-born idiots from the lash:
Much more 'tis valu'd, when with merit plac'd,
It graces merit, and by merit's grac'd.
O first of garbs! garment of happy fate!
So long employ'd, of such an antique date;
Look back some thousand years, till records fail,
And lose themselves in some romantic tale,
We'll find our godlike fathers nobly scorn'd,
To be with any other dress adorn'd;
Before base foreign fashions interwove,
Which 'gainst their int'rest and their brav'ry strove.
'Twas they could boast their freedom with proud Rome,
And, arm'd in steel, despise the senate's doom;
Whilst o'er the globe their Eagle they display'd,
And conquer'd nations prostrate homage paid,
They, only they, unconquered stood their ground,
And to the mighty empire fix'd the bound.
Our native prince who then supply'd the throne,

In Plaid array'd, magnificently shone:
Nor seem'd his purple, or his ermine less,
Tho' cover'd by the Caledonia dress.
In this at court the thanes were gayly clad,
With this our beauteous mothers veil'd their charms
When ev'ry youth, and ev'ry lovely maid
Deern'd it a dishabille to want their Plaid.

O heavens! how chang'd! how little look their race!
When foreign chains with foreign modes take place;
When East and Western Indies must combine
To deck the fop, and make the gewgaw shine.
Thus while the Grecian troops in Persia lay,
And learn'd the habit to be soft and gay,
By luxury enerv'd, they lost the day.
I ask'd Varell, what soldiers he thought best?
And thus he answer'd to my plain request:
"Were I to lead battalions out to war,
And hop'd to triumph in the victor's car,
To gain the loud applause of worthy fame,
And columns rais'd to eternize my name,
I'd chuse, had I my choice, that hardy race
Who fearless can look terrors in the face;
Who 'midst the snows the best of limbs can fold
In Tartan Plaids, and smile at chilling cold:
No useless trash should pain my soldier's back,
No canvas-tents make loaden axles crack ;
No rattling silks I'd to my standards bind,
But bright Tartanas waving in the wind:
The Plaid alone should all my ensigns be,

Alan Ramsay's Shop

This army from such banners would not flee.
These, these were they, who naked taught the way
To fight with art, and boldly gain the day."
Ev'n great Gustavus stood himself amaz'd,
While at their wond'rous skill and force he gaz'd.
With such brave troops one might o'er Europe run,
Make out what Richlieu fram'd, and Louis had begun.
Degenerate men! now ladies please to sit,
That I the Plaid in all its airs may hit,
With all the powers of softness mixt with wit.
While scorching Titan tawns the shepherd's brow,
And whistling hinds sweat lagging at the plow:
The piercing beams Brucina can defy, 1
Not sun-burnt she's, nor dazzl'd is her eye.
Ugly's the mask, the fan's a trifling toy,
To still at church some girl or restless boy.
Fix'd to one spot's the pine and myrtle shades,
But on each motion wait the umbrehian Plaids,
Repelling dust when winds disturb the air,
And give a check to every ill-bred stare.
Light as the pinions of the airy fry,
Of larks and linnets who traverse the sky,
Is the Tartana, spun so very fine,
Its weight can never make the fair repine,
By raising ferments in her glowing blood,
Which cannot be escap'd within the hood:
Nor does it move beyond its proper sphere,
But let's the gown in all its shape appear;
Nor is the straightness of her waste deny'd
To be by every ravish'd eye survey'd.

For this the hoop may stand at largest bend,
It comes not nigh, nor can its weight offend.
The hood and mantle make the tender faint;
I'm pain'd to see them moving like a tent.
By heather Jenny in her blanket drest,
The hood and mantle fully are exprest
Which round her neck with rags is firmly bound,
While heather besoms loud she screams around.
Was Goody Strode so great a pattern, say ?
Are ye to follow when such lead the way ?
But know each fair who shall this surtout use,
You're no more Scots, and cease to be my muse.
The smoothest labours of the Persian loom,
Lin'd in the Plaid, set off the beauty's bloom;
Faint is the gloss, nor come the colours nigh,
Tho' white as milk, or dipt in scarlet dye.
The lily, pluckt by fair Pringella2, grieves,
Whose whiter hand outshines its snowy leaves:
No wonder then white silks in our esteem,
Match'd with her fairer face, they sully'd seem.
If shining red Campbella's 3 cheeks adorn,
Our fancies straight conceive the blushing morn;
Beneath whose dawn the sun of beauty lies,
Nor need we light but from Campbella's 4 eyes.
If lin'd with green, Stuarta's 5 Plaid we view,
Or thine, Ramseia6, edg'd around with blue;
One shews the spring when nature is most kind,
The other heav'n, whose spangles lift the mind.
A garden plot enrich'd with chosen flowers,
In sun-beams basking after vernal showers,

Where lovely pinks in sweet confusion rise,
And amaranths and eglantines surprise;
Hedg'd round with fragrant brier and jessamine,
The rosy thorn and variegated green
These give not half that pleasure to the view,
As when, Fergusia7 , mortals gaze on you;
You raise our wonder, and our love engage,
Which makes us curse, and yet admire the hedge;
The silk and tartan hedge, which doth conspire
With you to kindle love's soft spreading fire.
How many charms can every fair-one boast!
How oft's our fancy in the plenty lost!
These more remote, these we admire the most.
What's too familiar often we despise,
But rarity makes still the value rise.
If Sol himself should shine through all the day,
We cloy, and lose the pleasure of his ray:
But if behind some marley cloud he steal,
Nor for some time his radiant head reveal,
With brighter charms his absence he repays,
And every sun-beam seems a double blaze.
So when the fair their dazzling lustres shroud,
And disappoint us with a Tartan cloud,
How fondly do we peep with wishful eye,
Transported when one lovely charm we spy
Oft to our cost, ah me ! we often find
The pow'r of love strikes deep, tho' he be blind
Perch'd on a lip, a cheek, a chin, or smile,
Hits with surprise, and throws young liearts in jail.
From when the cock proclaims the rising day,

And milk-maids sing around sweet curds and whey
'Till grey-ey'd twilight, harbinger of night,
Pursues o'er silver mountains8 sinking light,
I can unwearied from my casements view
The Plaid, with something still about it new.
How are we pleas'd, when with a handsome air
We see Hepburna9 walk with easy care?
One arm half circles round her slender waist,
The other like an ivory pillar plac'd,
To hold her Plaid around her modest face,
Which saves her blushes with the gayest grace
If in white kids her taper fingers move,
Or unconfin'd jet thro' the sable glove.
With what a pretty action Keitha10 holds
Her Plaid, and varies oft its airy folds ;
How does the naked space the spirits move,
Between the ruffl'd lawn and envious glove
We by the sample, thro' no more be seen,
Imagine all that's fair within the skreen.
Thus belles in Plaids veil and display their charms,
The love-sick youth thus bright Humea11, arms,
And with her graceful mien her rials all alarms.
The Plaid itself gives pleasure to the sight,
To see how all its sets imbibe the light;
Forming some way, which even to me lies hid,
White, black, blue, yellow, purple, green, and red.
Let Newton's royal club thro' prisms stare,
To view celestial dyes with curious care,
I'll please myself, nor shall my sioht ask aid
Of crystal gimcracks to survey the Plaid.

Old Edinburgh

How decent is the Plaid, when in the pew
It hides th' enchanting fair from ou er's view.
The mind's oft crowded with ill-tim'd desires,
When nymphs unveil'd approach the sacred choirs.
Ev'n senators, who guard the common weal,
Their minds may rove-Are mortals made of steel ?
The finish'd beaux start up in all their airs,
And search out beauties more than mind their pray'rs.
The wainscot forty-six's a-re perplext
To be eclips'd, spite makes them drop the text.
The younger gaze at each fine thing they see;
The orator himself is scarcely free.
Ye then who would your piety express,
To sacred domes ne'er come naked dress.
The pow'r of modesty shall still prevail:
Then Scotian virgins use your native veil.
Thus far young Cosmel read ; then stard and curst,
And askt me very gravely, how I durst
Advance such praises for a thing despis'd ?
He, smiling, swore and I had been ill advis'd.

To you, said I, perhaps this may seem true,
And numbers vast, nor fools may side with you;
As many shall my sentiments approve:

Tell me, what's not the butt of scom and love?
Where mankind all agreed to think one way,
What would divines and poets have to say?
No ensigns would on martial fields be spread,
And Corpus Juris never would be read:
We'd need no councils, parliaments, nor kings,

Ev'n wit and learning would turn silly things.
You miss my meaning still, I'm much afraid,
I would not have them always wear the Plaid.
Old Salem's royal sage, of wits the prime,
Said, " For each thing there was a proper time."
Night's but Aurora's Plaid, that ta'en away,
We lose the pleasure of returning day ;
Ev'n thro' the gloom, when view'd in sparkling skies;
Orbs scarcely seen, yet gratify our eyes
So thro' Hamilla's 12 open'd Plaid, we may
Behold her heav'nly face, and heaving milky way.
Spanish reserve, join'd with a Gallic air,
If managd well, becomes the Scotian fair.
Now you say well, said he; but when's the time
That they may drop the Plaid without a crime? Then I;
Lest, O fair nymphs, ye should our patience tire,
And starch reserve extinguish gererous fire;
Since heav'n your soft victorious charms design'd
To form a smoothness on the rougher mind:
When from the bold and noble toils of war,
The rural cares, or labours of the bar ;
From these hard studies which are learn'd and grave,
And some from dang'rous ridina o'er the wave:
The Caledonia manly youth resort
To their Edina, love's great mart and port,
And crowd her theatres with all that grace
Which is peculiar to the Scotian race ;
At concert, ball, or some fair's marriage-day,
O then with freedom all that's sweet display.

Alan Ramsay's House

When beauty's to be judg'd without a veil,
And now its pow'rs mete out as by retail,
But wholesale all at once to fill the mind
With sentiments gay, soft, and frankly kind;
Throw by the Plaid, and like the lamp of day,
Wien there's no cloud to intercept his ray
So shine Maxella13, nor their censure fear,
Who, slaves to vapours, dare not so appear.
On Ida's height, when to the royal swain,
To know who should the prize of beauty gain,
Jove sent his two fair daughters and his wife,
That he might be the judge to end the strife :
Hermes was guide, they found him by a tree,
And thus they spake with air divinely free,
"Say, Paris, which is fairest of us three?"
To Jove's high queen, and the celestial maids,
E'er he would pass his sentence, cry'd, "No Plaids."
Quickly the goddesses obey'd his call,
In simple nature's dress he view'd them all,
Then to Cyth'rea gave the golden ball.
Great critics hail! our dread ' whose love or hate
Can with a frown or smile, give verse its fate;
Attend, while o'er this field my fancy roams,
I've somewhat more to say, and here it comes:
When virtue was a crime, in Tancred's reign,
There was a noble youth, who would not deign
To own for sov'reign one a slave to vice,
Or blot his conscience at the highest price
For which his death's devis'd with hellish art,
To tear from his warm breast his beating heart.

Fame told the tragic news to all the fair,
Whose num'rous sighs and groans bound thro' the air;
All mourn his fate, tears trickle from each eye,
'Till his kind sister threw the woman by;
She in his stead, a gen'rous off'ring staid,
And he the tyrant baulk'd, hid in her Plaid.
So when Aeneas with Achilles strove,
The goddess mother hasted from above,
Well seen in fate, prompt by maternal love,
Wrapt him in mist, and warded off the blow
That was design'd him by his valiant foe.
I of the Plaid could tell a hundred tales;
Then hear another, since that strain prevails:
The tale no records tell, it is so old;
It happen'd in the easy age of gold,
When am'rous Jove, chief of the Olympian gods,
Pall'd with Saturnia, came to our abodes
A beauty hunting; for in these soft days,
Nor gods, nor men, delighted in a chace
That would destroy, not propagate their race.
Beneath a fir-tree in Glentanar's 14 groves,
Where, e'er gay fabrics rose, swains sung their loves,
Iris lay sleeping in the open air,
A bright Tartana veil'd the lovely fair;
The wounded god beheld her matchless charms
With earnest eye, and grasp'd her in his arms.
Soon he made known to her with gaining skill,
His dignity, and import of his will.
"Speak thy desire," cry'd the Scotian maid,

"Nor let hard fate bereave me of my Plaid."
"Be thou the handmaid to my mighty queen,"
Said Jove, " and to the world be often seen
With celestial bow, and thus appear
Clad with these radiant colours as thy wear."
Now, say my muse, e'er thou forsake the field,
What profit does the Plaid to Scotia yield?
Justly that claims our love, esteem, and boast,
Which is produc'd within our native coast.
On our own mountains grows the golden fleece,
Richer than that which Jason brought to Greece:
A beneficial branch of Albion's trade,
And the first parent of the Tartan Plaid.
Our fair ingenious ladies' hands prepare
The equal threads, and give the dyes with care:
Thousands of artists sullen hours decoy
On rattling looms, and view their webs with joy.
May she be curst to starve in frogland fens,
To wear a fala15 ragg'd at both the ends,
Groan still beneath an antiquated suit,
And die a maid at fifty-five, to boot!
May she turn quagy fat, or crooked dwarf,
Be ridicul'd, while prinim'd up in her scarf;
May spleen and spite still keep her on the fret,
And live till she outlive her beauty's date:
May all this fall, and more than I have said,
Upon the wench who disregards the Plaid.
But with the sun let ev'ry joy arise,
And from soft slumbers lift her happy eyes;

May blooming youth be fixt upon her face,
'Till she has seen her fourth descending race
Blest with a mate with whom she can agree,
And never want the finest of Bohea :
May ne'er the miser's fears make her afraid,
Who joins with me, with me admires the Plaid.
Let bright Tartanas henceforth ever shine,
And Caledonian goddesses enshrine.

Fair judges, to your censure I submit,
If you allow this poem to have wit,
I'll look with scorn upon these musty fools,
Who could only move by old worm-eaten rules.
But with th' ingenious, if my labours take,
I wish them ten times better for their sake;
Who shall esteem this vain, are in the wrong;
I'll prove the moral is prodigious strong:
I hate to trifle, men should act like men,
And for their country only draw their sword and pen.

Edinburgh Castle

1. Bruce
2. Pringle
3. Campbell
4. Campbell
5. Stewart
6. Ramsay
7. Ferguson
8. Ochil Hills
9. Hepburn
10. Keith
11. Hume
12. Hamilton
13. Maxwell
14. A large wood in the north of Scotland
15. A little square cloth worn by Dutch women


Tartana, or The Plaid . . . an ode to tartan . . . was written by Allan Ramsay in 1718 and we include it here since it adds to our long-held perception that tartan - and indeed the concept of clan tartans - are very much older than conventional wisdom dictates. That ill-named wisdom has largely been coloured by the scorn which has been heaped upon the concept of early clan tartans for almost a century by commentators from within and outwith Scotland who ascribe their creation to Scott, the Sobieskis, Queen Victoria and the wicked weaving industry!

Research Associate Willie Scobie has written an incisive analysis in A Case for Clan Tartans.

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