While plaids are certainly an ancient Scottish tradition,the idea of clans having their own tartan is surprisingly modern. In 1829 John and Charles Allen, fraudsters who claimed to be descendants of Bonnie Prince Charlie, approached the Scottish antiquary Sir Thomas Dick Lauder saying they were in possession of a late 15th century manuscript known as the Vestiarium Scoticum, which detailed all the various identifying tartans of the Highland and lowland clans.
This was at a time when there was a huge interest in reviving Scottish history and folklore, and some saw the Allen brothers as the rightful Stuart heirs to the throne, championing the ancient rights and customs of Scotland.
Lauder was impressed but needed further proof – after all, he had been shown what was said to be an inferior 18th century copy of the original. So he wrote to Sir Walter Scott, the eminent Scottish historical novelist. Scott was less impressed, pointing out that there was absolutely no evidence that lowland clans had ever even worn tartan, and noting that even the title of the book was bad Latin.
Finally their publication of a version of the book, and another book outlining their claim to the throne, drew an anonymous attack in the Quarterly Review (now known to have been written by professor George Skene), which demolished the scholarship of the Vestiarium, page by page. The author pointed out that it was a fantasy, a book that everyone would like to have existed but which was clearly a forgery. As even the romantic Sir Walter Scott put it, the “idea of distinguishing the clans by their tartans is but a fashion of modern date”.
With their reputation in ruins, the Allen brothers moved to the continent. twenty years later, and now very poor, they returned to London, where it was said they could be seen daily in the British Library, researching their claims, and carefully making notes using pens surmounted with miniature golden coronets.
About Vestiarium Scoticum
Vestiarium Scoticum was published in 1842, the work of the Allen brothers who, by that time, were calling themselves John Sobieski Stuart and Charles Stuart. A compendious work, edited by John and illustrated by Charles, the Vestiarium was based upon a supposedly sixteenth century document and some copies of the same which the brothers claimed to have in their possession and contained, as its most important element, descriptions and coloured drawings of dozens of tartans, many of them previously unheard of.
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.