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16 Nov 2021

Tartan: exploring Scottish identity in art

Written by Brenda Morrison, postgraduate student at the University of Glasgow in MLitt History of Art: Dress & Textile Histories
Internationally recognised as a symbol of Scotland, tartan conjures up a vision of wild rugged mountains, bagpipes and clan kilts. But are these symbols romantic invention or reliable expressions of Scottish identity? These works explore the hidden identities and meanings of tartan in Scottish portraits.

Cosmo Alexander (1724–1772), Portrait of a Jacobite Lady, 1745

Culloden Battlefield and Visitor Centre

Showing her support for the exiled Stuart King James II, Jenny Cameron of Glendessary references her political allegiances and elite status through her choice of clothing: a riding habit in rarely seen Murray of Tullibardine tartan, a thistle in her cap, and Scottish white rose in her hand. A devoted Jacobite, she single-handedly raised several hundred clansmen and led them to Glenfinnan in time for the rising of the standard by Bonnie Prince Charlie on the 19 August 1745.

| On loan from the Drambuie Collection with kind permission of William Grant & Sons.

Wassdail, Prince Charles Edward, ‘The Young Pretender’, 1745

Fyvie Castle

The Prince Charles Edward Stuart tartan and dark beret, pinned with the Scottish white cockade, affirms ‘The Young Pretender’s’ Scottish identity, a symbol of both political rebellion and sophistication. A blue sash and star of the Order of the Garter – the highest chivalric orders in Scotland and England respectively – define his princely status.

Pompeo Batoni (1708–1787), Colonel William Gordon, 1766

Fyvie Castle

Characterising military dress of mid-18th century Scotland was the belted plaid: a single piece of cloth wrapped around the waist, belted, and then slung over the shoulder to trail down the wearer’s back. A signifier of Scottish cultural identity abroad, entitlement to wear the plaid was only permitted for soldiers in royal service, typical attire for the European Grand Tour portrait.

Denis Deighton (1792–1827), John Wilkie of Foulden, 1822

House of the Binns

Raised in 1676, the Royal Company of Archers claimed the right to act as the Sovereign’s bodyguard in Scotland from 1822. Tartan became the symbol of patriotic identity and duty to the Crown. Adopting the green Government tartan or ‘Black Watch’, the uniform included a coat with Elizabethan-styled slashed sleeves, braiding, and tartan trousers cut in the contemporary Regency style. A Balmoral bonnet with insignia, an eagle feather, and bow completed the ensemble.

James Currie, George and Hugh Brodie as Children in Highland Dress on a Moor, 1846

Brodie Castle

Young brothers Hugh and George Brodie wear full Highland dress in the Brodie Dress tartan, identifying them as future heirs to the family title and estates. Featuring red and black with a yellow stripe, variations of this check, as worn by ancient Brodie clansmen, later became known as ‘Rob Roy’ or ‘MacGregor’ tartan due to the Victorian romantic attachment to the Highland outlaw.


John MacLaren Barclay (1811–1886), Hugh Brodie, 23rd Laird, 1873–1886

Brodie Castle

Hugh Brodie, seen above as a child with his younger brother George, is depicted as the 23rd Laird, a courtesy title usually assigned to landowners of long-established Scottish estates. Brodie’s identity and status is on display: his kilt and plaid in green-and-brown Brodie hunting tartan makes reference to man’s control over nature and territory, and his faithful collie ‘Arran’ at his feet symbolising loyalty.

Frank Percy Wild (1861-1950), Archibald Kennedy, 3rd Marquis of Ailsa (1847-1938), 1870-1932

Culzean Castle and Country Park

Originally used as a way of identifying where you came from, tartan also signified an individual’s status. As Chief of the Name, Archibald Kennedy, 3rd Marquis of Ailsa, wears the Kennedy modern tartan, a design commonly worn post-1860. Traditionally, the function of the Clan Chief was to lead his clansmen into battle on land or sea, his identity recognisable from the tartan he wore. Nowadays, Clan Chiefs maintain identity as figureheads with no responsibility over others.

Alfred Edward Chalon (1780-1860), Elizabeth Brodie, Wife of the 5th Duke of Gordon, 1813-1814

Brodie Castle

An oil painting of a lady with short brown hair (in ringlets), seated outside, wearing a white gown with a navy blue shawl wrapped around her.

Painted in the same year as her marriage to General George Gordon, 5th Duke of Gordon, Elizabeth Brodie wears a plaid shawl draped over the back of her head and around her body, reminiscent of the style of a Highland clanswoman. Contrasting with her white (a colour conveying her elite social status) high-waist empire style dress, the Gordon tartan is suggestive of her future identity as the 5th Duchess of Gordon.

George Jamesone (1587-1644), Self Portrait of the Artist, his Wife and Child, 1610-1644

Fyvie Castle

Evoking the style of the Madonna the artist’s wife, Isabella Tosche, is wearing a traditional long rectangular tartan cloth, known as an arisaid, draped over her head and shoulders. Holding pink roses – a signifier of joy and happiness – the importance of her identity as wife and mother is emphasised by her central position in the portrait and, by extension, in family life.