Tartan is as alien in Orkney as are kilts. In popular imagination tartan was and is the traditional dress of the ‘Highlands and Islands’ of Scotland, roughly the Gaelic speaking part, or Gaidhealtachd of which Orkney and Shetland were never a part. Nor was clan culture ever a feature of Orcadian society whereas it was the bedrock of Highland society. Tartan is culturally no more relevant in Orkney than it is in Japan, where teenage girls delight in adorning their Little Bo Peep outfits with it. Modern tartan is as Scottish as chicken tikka masala is Indian, and the contemporary view of Highland dress a comparatively modern construct along with the whole branglement of tartan taxonomy. Here's why.

Orkney remained glaciated till ca. 15,000 B.C. Earliest hints of human presence in Orkney date from ca. 7,000 B.C. The first certain evidence of humans in Orkney places them at The Holm of Paplay around 6,700 B.C. Some may have arrived from ‘Scotland’ but were certainly not Scots; the latter were Irish and had not at that stage established the foothold in Argyll that would be known as Dalriada from around the 6th century AD. [All dates hereafter A.D.] Emerging from the prehistoric Mesolithic, and Neolithic, the first historic occupants of Orkney were referred to by others as ‘Picts’. Picts came to dominate much of ‘Scotland’, or Alba as it then was, from ca. 300-843. Naomi Tarrant states in the Oxford Companion to Scottish History; “There is very little visual, material, or documentary evidence for clothing worn in Scotland for the period before 1500, so that it is difficult to determine exactly what Scots wore... The evidence from the Highland areas is even sparser.” [Lynch 2001]. And yet what some Picts wore is suggested on many fine stones throughout Pictland, at least one of which shows a female on horseback, and a superb stone found on the Brough of Birsay in Orkney shows three men, one of higher status, wearing tunics and bearing swords, spears and shields. For more on the Pechts as they were formerly called and an image of the Birsay Stone see The Picts in Orkney.

Orkney hood

One of Britain's most famous garments comes from Orkney - the so-called Orkney Hood, radio carbon dated to between AD 250-615, making it the earliest example of woven fabric found in Britain and, pre-dating the arrival of the Vikings, almost certainly of Pictish manufacture and lacking in any hint of tartan. Both fabric and garment display a level of expertise that suggest its creation derives from a long-established tradition and skill-set, and further contradicts Tarrant's statement above. The Picts seem to have been no match for the Vikings who arrived in force in Britain from ca. 780 but they had probably been trading, slaving, settling and generally making a nuisance of themselves for a century or so before that. Early Viking colonisers of the Northern Isles were in the main avoiding trouble ‘back home’ i.e. predominantly Western Norway as far as Orkney was concerned. The prevailing dress-code in Orkney after the Norse occupation would presumably have been Norwegian. The Northern Isles were eventually claimed by Norway in the person of King Harald Harfagri ca. 900 with the establishment of the first earldom of Orkney and Shetland bestowed on Sigurd I. Thereafter Norwegian sovereignty went unchallenged. The Picts and any other native inhabitants become increasingly obscured by the all-enveloping miasma of Norse language, culture and law to the extent that not a single Celtic place name survives in Orkney, and the Picts slowly fade from view altogether, as would the Norse after The Impignoration in 1468. Before that Norway had her own troubles and, along with Sweden, was subsumed under Danish sovereignty by the Union of Kalmar in 1397. Although Denmark was top of the food chain, Orkney was still acknowledged by Denmark as belonging to Norway. Thus it was that Orkney, albeit a possession of Norway's ‘since time immemorial’, came to form part of the dowry of King Christian I's daughter Margaret, a Danish princess, when she married King James III, a Scot, in 1468.

The dowry was agreed at 60,000 Rhenish florins which King Christian did not have. All he could apparently muster was 2,000 florins - and there is scant evidence that even that was actually paid. For the balance, Orkney was impignorated or pledged for 50,000 florins, yet still Christian was still shy of 8,000 for which Shetland was impignorated the following year. The whole transaction is referred to as The Impignoration. The redemptory sum for Orkney, while fixed at 50,000 florins of the Rhine (equivalent to £24,166, 13s. 4d.) was without interest and for an unlimited period. It was specifically stated, and subsequently reaffirmed by both parties on several occasions, including Scotland later on, that sovereignty over Orkney and Shetland remained Norwegian and that Norse Law was to prevail. Dress-code presumably also remained ‘Scandinavian’.

Orcadian sovereignty and the Earldom were two different things. At first the Earldom was an appointment conferred by the King of Norway on a subject, but the earldom gradually morphed into a hereditary title ending ultimately in the hands of John Harraldson, the last Norwegian earl. When he was assassinated in 1231 he died heirless. A boatload of hopefuls [the gæðingaskip] departed Orkney to plead their various cases with King Haakon before being dismissed to await the king's decision. Returning to Orkney from Norway their ship sank ‘with all hands’ which pretty much concludes events covered by the Orkneyinga Saga. The closest surviving heir was a Scot, the Earl of Angus, whose claim through his mother was eventually acknowledged by King Haakon and thereafter the earldom remained with the house of Angus till 1320 when, after a brief spell under the Earls of Strathearn, it was inherited in 1379 by the Sinclairs. Sinclairs were from Saint Clair in Normandy and accompanied William the Conqueror to England. The temptation is to think of them as ‘French’ but France did not exist as such any more than did Scotland, and William of Normandy, himself the grandson of a Viking, and the next dozen monarchs who succeeded him to the throne of England were all ‘French’. In early documents Sinclairs are Saint-Clair or St Clare. Sir Henry Sinclair claimed the Earldom through his mother, Isabella of Strathearn, and his title was confirmed by King Haakon of Norway in 1379. Whether French fashion became de rigeur is unclear, but there is certainly no hint of tartan.

The earldom remained with the Sinclairs till after The Impignoration. At this point, 1468, the King of Scots ‘owned’ Orkney but not the earldom. To tidy that up James III ‘excambed’ [swapped] the Orkney earldom held by Sinclairs for property in Ravenscraig, Fife - an oversimplification but will have to suffice! However, as the last family to hold the earldom independently of the crown, the Sinclairs are significant to this tartan tale, as theirs is supposedly the tartan appropriate to be worn by Orcadians even though the Sinclairs were ‘French’, and the vast majority of Orcadians, even those called Sinclair, bore no blood relationship to the Sinclairs. Nor is there anything at this stage to connect Orkney Sinclairs with ‘their’ or any other tartan.

arms.jpg Not only did tartan and the kilt not feature in the Northern Isles but both appear to have been anathema in Caithness, Orkney's nearest mainland neighbour and for many centuries joined at the hip with Orkney through the earldom. The very word kilt is neither Scottish nor Gaelic, but English and the pipe tune ‘The Carles Wi the Breeks’ refers to the men of Caithness who wore breeches rather than kilts. When, in 1931, the Convener of the County Council of Orkney, having by Petition unto the Lyon King of Arms ... Represented that the administrators of the said County of Orkney have used certain Ensigns Armorial from a period anterior to the passing of the Act of Parliament 1672, cap 47, but that the same have never been recorded in the Public Register of All Arms and Bearings in Scotland had their application approved, the matriculation certificate called, among other things, for “supporters two Udallers habited of the fifteenth century” who are depicted [image above] in their ‘braws’, unadorned by tartan but representing what the ‘natives’ wore at the time of The Impignoration. Since the original registration of the Orcadian arms, the Udaller sinister has fallen by the wayside and been replaced by a unicorn, the beast of Scotland - but no still tartan. [A udaller is one whose ownership of property is alloidial - i.e. owned outright without acknowledgement of any higher authority. In orkney, the law until 1468 was entirely Norwegian. Thereafter, according to the terms of The Impignoration, Norse law was to be upheld and prevail, but Scottish administrators, both lay and church, constantly sought to undermined the Norse law, to the extent of even burning the Orkney Law Books, and replace it with feudal law. Udal law, or odal law south of the Pentland Firth, was a basic tenet of Norse property law whose most important difference from feudal ownership is that property is owned outright and independent of any superior such as a monarch. Udal law is still relevant in Orkney. When pipe lines were first installed to pump oil from the North Sea to the terminal on Flotta the Crown claimed payment for use of the foreshore. This was challenged successfully, as the Crown does not own the foreshore or littoral under udal law.]

Gunnister Man Some support for the attire ascribed to the two heraldic udallers in the above grant of arms is to be found on the remains of a man found at Gunnister in Shetland in 1951, when the body of a fully clothed man was discovered by peat cutters. From the style of his clothes and the presence of Dutch and Swedish coins found with the body the remains were dated to ca. 1700. Who he was, how he died, why he was buried in a bog plus other questions remain unanswered but what is beyond per adventure is that there is no vestige of either tartan or kilt. This in itself could be explained were the man's nationality found to match the coins, but as yet this is not proven.

Sinclair of Ulbster The only photographs I have seen showing kilts in Orkney are those of relatively modern pipe bands with the single exception of Lord Birsay - and he was a southerner from Auld Reekie. When the regiment of Orkney Fencibles was created by Sir John Sinclair of Ulbster ca. 1794, long after the Sinclairs had ceased to be earls of Orkney, the uniform he required stipulated, inter alia, white pantaloons with no mention of kilts. The fine portrait at left of Sir John Sinclair by Henry Raeburn shows Sir John in the uniform of the Rothesay and Caithness Fencibles of which he was Colonel Commandant. This was the first regiment raised by him in 1794 and embodied at Inverness. For some reason the trews were of Gordon rather than Sinclair tartan, presumably for the simple reason that the latter had not yet been invented. This first regiment was disbanded in 1799 and a second, with the same uniform, was raised in 1795 and embodied at Forfar with a strength of 1000 men. This regiment then became known as the Caithness Highlanders. Sir John was born and bred in Caithness, Orkney's southern ‘island’. Fine upstanding man that he was, being one of the first agronomists in the modern sense of the word and first to employ the word and science of statistics in Britain with his pioneering Statistical Account of Scotland [in 21 volumes, 1790-9, Orkney being compiled from 1795-8] as far as I know Sir John never set foot in Orkney.

George IV by Wilkie Tartan as we know it today is a modern and still evolving fabric whose birth can be found in the successful rehabilitation of disaffected Highlanders following the crushing of the last Jacobite rebellion. Jacobitism and the Clan system received their death-blows on the battlefield of Culloden in 1746, following which wearing highland dress and carrying arms, a requirement of Highland dress, were outlawed in 1747 by the Act of Proscription until 1782 when the Act was repealed. One ironic consequence of the Act was that in defining what it was that identified Scots as the enemies of the English served as a starting point for the establishment of Scottish national identity through their costume, culminating in 1822 when George IV, to demonstrate he was not only King of England but Scotland as well, paraded himself in Edinburgh attired in what he mistook for a chieftain's dress. So when Naomi Tarrant declares: “There is no tradition of folk dress in Scotland similar to that found in most of the rest of Europe where clothing was deliberately developed as an expression of national culture. In Scotland the development of Highland dress cannot be compared to folk dress, although it is seen in a similar light by some commentators” [Lynch 2001] that was precisely the sartorial outcome of the King's Jaunt; where not just tartan but Highland dress with all its accoutrements, or accessories as they would doubtless be called today, were “deliberately developed as an expression of national culture.”

Before the Act of Proscription was repealed, the culmination of James Macpherson's literary efforts appeared in 1765 entitled ‘The Works of Ossian’. Translated into every European language and acclaimed enthusiastically across the English speaking world, Macpherson's impostures, for such they proved to be, paved the way for the apotheosis of Scottish romanticism in the hands of its ultimate champion, Sir Walter Scott, who was to become the guiding spirit behind the King's Jaunt. Previously inaccessible, not to say inhospitable, parts of Scotland were ‘opened up’ and Scotland emerged from its chrysalis of savagery to astonish the world with the imago of Scotia resplendens, Enlightenment thinkers, and the apotheosis of vernacular writers, Robert Burns, painters of the callibre of Ramsay and Raeburn, all contributing to Edinburgh's well-deserved sobriquet ‘the Athens of the North’. Jacobitism, from having been treasonable became fashionable, even respecatble, as evidenced for example by the publication of James Hogg's ‘Jacobite Relics of Scotland’ in 1819, dedicated to the “most noble and honourable president and members of the Highland Society of London” in which Hogg conferred upon the king the ultimate compliment of being - a Jacobite! And then there was Scott.

Keen to steer King George IV, and especially his latest mistress the Marchioness Conyngham, well away from the forthcoming Congress of Vienna, the Earl of Liverpool, abetted by Lord Melville and subsequently Robert Peel devised a state visit to Scotland as a suitable diversion. Sir Walter Scott was appointed ringmeister. It was Sir Wattie who was responsible for the ultimate absurdity of a German prince parading himself in public, in Scotland, in 1822, wearing Highland garb that would have seen any other man doing the same thing imprisoned and possibly executed not many years earlier. The tout ensemble cost the royal exchequer £1,354 18/- This absurd charade and display of sycophantic, tratan-draped hypocrisy was performed before a backdrop of wholesale highland clearances of the very people required as adoring extras. Others of George IV's less compliant Scottish subjects had been executed two years previously for ‘Radicalism’, more evocatively described by Scott as “democratical scoundrels.” Those who avoided hanging were transported. Thousands emigrated, and continued to do so until afforded some protection towards the end of the century by the Crofters Act 1886. The Radicals had plenty of grounds for complaint; e.g. in Orkney, out of a population of about 23,000, only 7 people were entitled to vote in the election in 1758. At the forefront of the Scottish Insurrection were the weavers whose earnings had halved between 1800 and 1808 and were the very people who might ultimately have gained the most following the tartan renaissance had their situation not been caught between the Scylla of the Industrial Revolution and mechanised weaving and the Charybdis of artificially high prices as a direct consequence of the Corn Laws. By 1820, in the wake of the slump in trade following the Napoleonic Wars there was widespread poverty and unemployment among all the artisan classes - shoemakers, smiths, and wrights as well as weavers. ‘Radicalism’ supplanted Jacobitism as the rallying point for the discontented and came to a head in 1820 with the Radical War, or Scottish Insurrection as it is sometimes called, and, heralded the year before by its English counterpart, the Peterloo Massacre, culminated in the Battle of Bonnymuir.

An unwitting catalyst of the unrest was the Presbyterian Church of Scotland which, imbued with egalitarian principles and respecting the rights of the individual to make his own mind up on ethical matters, unwittingly encouraged disputatious habits and preoccupation with “rights” as well as fostering the Scottish education tradition which achieved more widespread literacy at the time than any other European country. The small artisanal workers, working on commission, could set their own hours and were thus able to make time for a great deal of reading and more time to debate what they had read with likeminded friends.

Ultimately the objective of the King's Jaunt, to engage the unrepresented masses in the political process rather than fomenting violent opposition, has to be counted a success. At the suggestion of Walter Scott, unemployed weavers from the west of Scotland were put to work paving a track round Salisbury Crags in Holyrood Park adjoining Arthur's Seat which is known as the Radical Road to this day. The King's Jaunt itself was supposedly recorded for posterity by Sir David Wilkie. Lacking the artistic integrity of a later Royal Limner, Stanley Cursiter [1887-1976], who would only paint what he saw which, as a result of such delicate artistic scruples, probably cost him a knighthood. Wilkie chose to ignore the fact that King George IV chose to exhibit himself dolled up in something more closely resembling a mini-skirt than a kilt, a gaffe compounded by the attempt to disguise the over-exposure of his fleshy lower limbs by encasing them in pink tights, resembling not at all what Wilkie painted but looking very much “like a great sausage stuffed into the covering” as Sir David Wilkie himself chose to describe the King's appearance some years later. Tartan madness did not stop with the king, but proved contagious. A contemporary observer, James Smart of Dunearn, remarked: “Sir Walter [Scott] has ridiculously made us appear to be a nation of Highlanders, and the bagpipe and the tartan are the order of the day.” and Scott's own son-in-law referred to the royal pageant as “Sir Walter's Celtification of Scotland.” Scott issued an instruction manual, ‘Hints Addressed to the Inhabitants of Edinburgh and Others in Prospect of His Majesty's Visit’ by “An Old Citizen” in which, among much else “Those who wear the Highland dress must, however, be careful to be armed in the proper Highland fashion - steel-wrought pistols, broadsword and dirk.” There were dissenting Scots. Alasdair Ranaldson, also known as MacDonell of Glengarry or just plain Glengarry, protested on a number of occasions. Writing about the Celtic Society to the Edinburgh Observer; “There may be some very good and respectable men amongst them, but their general appearance is assumed and fictitious, and they have no right to burlesque the national character or dress of Highlanders, against the continuance of which, so mortifying to the feelings of all real Highlanders, I, for one, formally protest.” Rather than the mockery of Wilkie's version, Glengarry probably had in mind those of contemporary political cartoonists whose views of the King's highland attire were less reverential.


While the sassenachs were draping themselves in Tartan, eminent Scots such as James Boswell went back to school to learn how to talk English proper, and to eschew that most egregious of clangers, Scotticism whose inadvertent use were a frequent source of embarrassment to Boswell and an occasion for gleeful mockery by Dr Johnson. In spite of the inauspicious royal launch, once George IV had blazed a trail in his tartan mini-skirt and pink tights, Tartan became unstoppable. Scottish weavers proved themselves capable of producing whatever tartan challenge was thrown their way, and one such challenge was to produce tartan that complied with the strictures of Brothers Bogus or, as they styled themselves, the Sobieski Stuarts who were in reality born John Hay Allen and Charles Stuart Hay Allen. In 1842 they published Vestiarium Scoticum a lavishly illustrated bible of all things tartan compiled, it was claimed by the brothers, from ancient manuscripts in their possession detailing the origins and pedigrees of clan tartans - claims which were as well-founded as Macpherson's claims for The Poems of Ossian, the ancient manuscripts proving in both instances equally illusory. The Vestiarium was seized upon by Clan Chiefs and the weaving industry with equal fervour. Very few thought seriously to question the claims and it wasn't until almost 140 years later that an analytical study of the book was undertaken. The conclusion was that talented and ingenious though they were, the Sobieskis had perpetrated a fascinating and monumental hoax upon a gullible society and the vast majority of ‘old’ clan tartans came only from the fertile imagination of Charles the illustrator. The book jacket for that analytical study by D C Stewart and J C Thompson entitled Scotland's Forged Tartans says: “Despite the misgivings of a few, but potent, authorities, these tartans were eagerly accepted by a public desperate to wear its ‘authentic’ clan tartans and a trade equally desperate to sell them and they have remained with us, highly respected and totally unauthenticated. . . . beyond all doubt, the Vestiarium and its background material are complete forgeries.” [Scottish Tartans Authority website]

None of which matters one jot; as so often, the public were and remain more than willing to swallow hook, line and sinker the Sobieski Stuart tartan mythology. Further encouraged by the likes of The Highland Societies of Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Inverness, London and elsewhere, everyone wanted to dress up and Scottish weavers such as Wilsons Bros. of Bannockburn or John Callander & Coy. of Stirling, who wove the King's tartan, were not slow to pander to the insatiable demand. Tartan had of course been produced long before the Sobieski Stuart brothers reinvented it, but the book acted as a spur in the flanks of producers and consumers alike. Freed from the limitations of small local weavers whose products were constrained by the availability of whatever dyes were obtainable locally, Scottish weaving on an industrial scale proved equal to the task of satisfying not only the Scots and English, but the whole British Empire and much of planet earth, especially those parts whose cartography matched the colour of the King's tights. Not only the royals were gripped by tartan fever; the nouveau riche and middle classes willingly entered the tartan fray; keeping up with the Joneses no longer cut the mustard; they must be outshone. New and exciting patterns or setts were produced using colours many of which were as ostentatious and extravagant as the use of costly pigments such as ultramarine. “Madder from Rotterdam and Hamburg and later cochineal from Central America gave expensive but exciting and colourfast shades of red...” [Lynch, 2001] It was not simply a matter of pattern, but like the ragas of Indian classical music, the occasion and purpose of the apparel was taken into account. Thus there are ‘ancient’ and ‘modern’ variations, and ‘dress’ and ‘hunting’ versions, a plethora of choices guaranteed to keep the mills at work. All the tartan squares shown on these pages, for example, are variations of the Sinclair tartan.

In spite of visiting both Shetland and Orkney in 1839, well after the onset of tartanmania, it was not until Christian Ployen, a Faroese, reached Scotland that he was startled “to behold a man going about quite unconcernedly with a short petticoat and bare legs.” Being of a broad mind he was happy to concede that “nevertheless the Highland costume is very handsome, and becomes a well formed man remarkably well.” [Ployen, 1894] And so say all of us! but he was not startled by anyone “in short petticoat and bare legs” in Shetland or Orkney.

  • Clouston, J. Storer: A History of Orkney [Kirkwall 1932]
  • Fenton, Alexander: The Northern Isles: Orkney and Shetland. [John Donald, Edinburgh, 1978]
  • Lamb, Gregor: Orkney Family Names [Kirkwall 2003]
  • Lynch, Michael: The Oxford Companion to Scottish History. [O.U.P. 2001]
  • Picken, Stuart D.B.: The Soul of an Orkney Parish [Kirkwall Press, 1972]
  • Ployen, Christian: Reminiscences of a Voyage to Shetland, Orkney and Scotland in the Summer of 1839 [Lerwick, T & J Manson, 1894]
  • Smith, Adam: The Wealth of Nations [Oxford, 1976]
  • Thomson, Gordon: The Other Orkney Book [Northabout Publishing, Edinburgh 1980]
  • Thomson, William: The History of Orkney [Mercat Press, Edinburgh 1987]
  • Thomson, William: The New History of Orkney* [Birlinn, Edinburgh 2008]
  • Wainwright, F.T.: The Northern Isles [1962]
* Thomson wrote two separate histories of Orkney published some fifteen years apart.

× ORKNEY Orkney Boat People Orkney Picts Orcadian Sovereignty Sandwick 1795 Sandwick 1841 Peterkin on Sandwick Nether Benzieclett Ergo Tartan in Orkney Pomona Orkney Timeline Orkney Books Stanley Cursiter