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Vestiarium Scoticum

Vestiarium Scoticum – property of Gordon Nicolson

What is the Vestiarium Scoticum?
In short, The Vestiarium Scoticum is an 1842 manuscript detailing the roll of clans and the tartans associated with them. There is also information on Highland dress and it’s possible origins.
The Vestiarium Scoticum finds it’s beginnings in the late 1820s, when the Sobieski-Stuart brothers began collecting documents and information containing tartan patterns. They shared this with Sir Thomas Lauder, hosting them in Moray, Scotland, at the time. This document is known as the Cromarty MS and is dated 1721 bearing the title “Liber Vestiarium Scotia”. The brothers said the work had been obtained from a certain John Ross of Cromarty, and was, as said by the brothers, an inferior copy of an even earlier manuscript.
The preface of the 1842 Vestiarium Scoticum is based primarily on other work, including the Douay MS, with a claimed date of 1571. The Douey MS was supposed to have come into the possesion of Charles Edward Stuart himself during his time in Scotland throughout the ’45 Jacobite Rising.
It is worth mentioning that the 1822 visit of George IV and the extensive romantic Scottish narratives in art, literature and poetry created by the likes of Sir Walter Scott had hugely re-invigorated the appetite for Scotland…what better time than this for a book all about tartan…by 1842 the manuscript was published by William Tate of Edinburgh priced at 10guineas.
Clan Chiefs and weavers excitedly seized this book and all it had to showcase. At the time, very few questioned it’s contents, it was widely accepted – of course not by all, but again, widely accepted. It wasn’t until 140 years later that questions began to arise and the book was studied by D.C. Stewart and J.C. Thompson. Their findings – these tartans perhaps weren’t so deeply rooted in clan history as the book claims through its “1571” resource…but instead from the imagination of Charles Sobieski-Stuart, the brother responsible for illustrating the designs in the early 19th century. Was this book simply a hoax played on the gullible consumer of all things Scots at the time?
“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.” – D.C Stewart and J.C. Thompson “Scotland’s Forged Tartans”
“Deep forgeries” may be…a wee bit harsh. Who’s to say at least some of the 75 depicted clan tartans weren’t informed by early samples the brothers may have encountered or true earlier recordings?
Walter Scott was an early sceptic of the document. He never quite got his head around why all of a sudden lowland clans had such definitive tartan patterns…
Despite it’s dubious reputation there is a place both in history and in the present for the work contained in the Vestiarium Scoticum. A new Queen following it’s publication and her German consort took on all things Scotland with an open heart…including it’s new tartans, made up or not.

Vestiarium Scoticum – property of Gordon Nicolson

Who were the Sobieski-Stuarts?
Rumours about Bonnie Prince Charlie fleeted around Scotland right the way through the 18th century whether he was young, old, bonnie…or not so bonnie as time went by… Lets focus on one whisper that spread across Scotland – This particular rumour supposed that a son was born to him in 1773 by his wife Princess Louisa, of Polish ancestry. Now, history accounts something slightly different – Charles was 51 when he married 18 year old Louisa by proxy likely in a bid to get his more or less skint hands on a wee pension…the childless marriage ended in 1780 and Charles recognised his illegitimate daughter Clementina as his heir, who nursed her newly un-estranged father until his death. But, lets say the rumours were true…the couple feared their baby would be harmed by the Hanovarians still on high alert of another Jacobite rising, and so the baby was whisked from Italy to England and brought up as the son of Admiral John Carter Allen. This “royal” foster son then married and produced two sons – John Hay Allen and Charles Hay Allen who later settled in Scotland and took on the Scot’s spelling of their name, Allan. Scot’s society revelled in the idea that the supposed grandsons of Bonnie Prince Charlie were among them, and the bothers neither confirmed nor denied their rumoured lineage no doubt enjoying the doors, minds and bank accounts this rumour opened up for them….work began on the Vestiarium Scoticum and they styled themselves as the Sobieski-Stuarts – names associated with both Princess Louisa’s Polish ancestry and Charles Edward Stuart.

What’s in the book?
The Vestiarium Scoticum begins with a “brief” introduction to itself and it’s origins followed by the Roll of Clans then an introduction. It then details the setts, stripes and colours of the clan tartans. There are then 75 metal plates on tartan designs stating which clan they belong to. John Sobeiski-Stuart wrote notes and edited the manuscript while his brother Charles illustrated it.
The designs in the Vestiarium Scoticum are still in use today. They appear on the Scottish Register of Tartans, in swatch books, as kilts. They were widely accepted, adopted and put into production…to this day, despite studies discrediting the authors and their work.

Every time I am lucky enough to look through the Vestiarium Scoticum I am met with a feeling of sheer luck. I am so grateful, in my place of work, to have access to a piece of history that has caused controversy, in many ways aided the changing face of tartan in the early 19th century and has such a fascinating tale behind it. This is, without a doubt, a hugely important artefact in the story of tartan in Scotland, irregardless of who it was written by or why. It documents tartan in a way, nearly 200 years later, we can still read, understand and reference.

Information gathered from Gordon Nicolson, Vestiarium Scoticum, “Scotland’s Forged Tartans” by D.C. Stewart and J.C. Thompson, and the Scottish Tartans Authority website.


Published by alifeintartan

Textile designer, embroiderer and kiltmaker from Edinburgh.

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