As It Happens

World's oldest-known surviving Scottish tartan has 'more to tell,' says researcher

Dye analysis and radiocarbon testing suggests a fragment of tartan measuring 55-by-43 centimetres dates back the period between 1500 and 1600. It will go on display as part of the Victoria and Albert Museum Dundee’s tartan exhibition next month. 

Dye analysis, carbon testing dates the fabric to between 1500 and 1600

Three men wearing light blue latex gloves look at a placard with tartan on it.
John McLeish, left, and Peter MacDonald, right, of the Scottish Tartans Authority, examine the Glen Affric tartan — Scotland's oldest-known true tartan — with James Wylie, a curator at the Victoria and Albert Museum Dundee. (Alan Richardson/Victoria and Albert Museum Dundee)

Peter MacDonald had a hunch that a piece of fabric found in a bog decades ago predated any tartan he'd seen before.

Now, thanks to dye analysis and radiocarbon testing, the fragment measuring 55-by-43 centimetres is believed to be the oldest-known surviving Scottish tartan dating back to the period between 1500 and 1600, researchers say.

"No other piece of tartan survived from before … the 1700s, the 18th century," said Peter MacDonald, head of research and collections at the Scottish Tartans Authority, in an interview with As It Happens host Nil Köksal.

"It's a hugely important piece because it's so early, because it's, if you like, a transitional piece that talks to us about the development of tartan in Scotland."

The tartan — which was likely red and yellow or tan, with thin green and black or brown stripes but has stained over time — will go on display as part of the Victoria and Albert Museum Dundee's tartan exhibition next month. 

"I'm delighted the exhibition has encouraged further exploration into this plaid portion and very thankful for the Scottish Tartans Authority's backing and support in uncovering such a historic find," said James Wylie, a curator for the museum, in a press release announcing the discovery.

Gloved hands hold a placard with a piece of tartan on it.
The Glen Affric tartan is believed to date between 1500 and 1600. It was likely likely red and yellow or tan, with thin green and black or brown stripes (Alan Richardson/Victoria and Albert Museum Dundee)

The "rustic" look and loose weave of the fabric was MacDonald's first clue that the tartan predated the 18th century. Surviving tartans from the 1700s were of higher quality, he said.

It was the tartan's colours that gave the next indication of its age. A dye analysis confirmed there were no artificial or imported dyes in the fabric, which dated it to a period before 1770.

Subsequent carbon dating — a process that took 14 weeks to remove peat staining and involved multiple acid and alkali baths — placed its origin to even earlier, between 1500 and 1600. 

"Any cloth or clothing from the 16th century that is not from royalty or nobility is pretty rare, and so to have this piece which predates the clan tartan mania of the 19th century, worn or used by an ordinary person, is pretty incredible," said Sally Tuckett, a senior lecturer of dress and textile history at University of Glasgow, by email. Tuckett is also a trustee for the Scottish Tartans Authority.

Preserved by peat

MacDonald says the tartan has been in the authority's possession since 1995, when it was inherited from a separate, and now defunct, tartan preservation society.

Smiling, grey-haired man holds up a placard with a fragment of tartan on it.
Peter MacDonald is head of research and collections at the Scottish Tartans Authority. (Alan Richardson/Victoria and Albert Museum Dundee)

It was discovered at Glen Affric, in northwestern Scotland, 10 years earlier by someone working in forestry. Little more is known about its origins, including who found it and where in the glen it was uncovered, MacDonald said.

"It's quite peaty, the land up there, and so when they were digging the trenches … this piece was excavated," he said. 

"Other than being washed and put away tidy … it's been in the collection. I've known about it, but it's not really seen the light of day."

Glen Affric's peat, which prevented oxygen from deteriorating the woven fabric, is what kept the tartan in such remarkable condition for centuries. 

"This fragment could be a vital piece to the puzzle, which would tell us what dye stuffs were used [and] where they came from. It might even be possible to determine what type of wool was used," Tuckett said.

The fabric's selvedge indicates it could have been part of a larger garment, such as a cloak. 

But who owned it remains a mystery. Clan-specific tartan didn't appear until the 19th century. And Glen Affric was a transitory route, meaning it could've been owned by someone local — or someone just passing through. 

Landscape photo of a lake in the foreground and highland peaks in the background.
The tartan was uncovered in Glen Affric, Scotland. It came into the Scottish Tartans Authority’s possession in 1995. (Ulmus Media/Shutterstock)

Based on the colours and pattern, however, MacDonald speculates the tartan could have been made for someone of higher social standing or for special occasions.

"The amount of work involved in producing colour and then making patterns like that, it's not something that you do and then just wear effectively for farm work," he said.

Researcher will recreate

Questions about the tartan's origins remain — including whether it was intentionally buried — but MacDonald acknowledges that much will be left to speculation. 

What the discovery proves, the researcher says, is that the tartan tradition has continued from at least the 16th century to today. 

MacDonald's next steps are to recreate the tartan, matching the colours to how they would've appeared centuries ago.

"This is a story that has much more to tell us," he said.

Interview with Peter MacDonald produced by Arman Aghbali