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.
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.
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.]
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; e.g. he could have been a ‘native’ returned home from abroad.
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.
© 2018 Duncan Linklater