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Scotland's oldest tartan goes on show in history of fashion fabric

V&A Dundee curator James Wylie with the Glen Affric tartan, with STA's Peter MacDonald and John McLeish looking on
V&A Dundee curator James Wylie with the Glen Affric tartan, with STA's Peter MacDonald and John McLeish looking on Copyright Copyright - V&A Dundee
Copyright Copyright - V&A Dundee
By Saskia O'Donoghue
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The fabric, discovered in a peat bog in Glen Affric in the Scottish Highlands, is thought to date back to the 1500s - and will go on show at the V&A Dundee from 1 April.

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It’s official - the oldest ever tartan found in Scotland is more than 400 years old. New tests on a scrap of fabric found in a Highland peat bog in the early 1980s have concluded that the iconic checked material is likely to have been created in the 16th century.

Found around 40 years ago, in the bog in Glen Affric, some 15 miles west of Loch Ness, the fabric underwent numerous tests thanks to The Scottish Tartans Authority (STA). They undertook dye analysis and radiocarbon testing of the tartan to prove its age. The investigation found four possible colours in the fabric, via high resolution digital microscopy, including green, brown and possibly red and yellow.

Researchers found that no artificial or semi-synthetic dyes were involved in the making of the tartan, leading researchers to conclude it predates the 1750s, estimating it was most likely made between 1500 and 1600.

STA’s head of research and collection Peter MacDonald explained that the testing process took almost six months and that the organisation was "thrilled with the results", adding, “In Scotland, surviving examples of old textiles are rare as the soil is not conducive to their survival".

The survival of this piece is likely down to it having been buried in peat, which prevents exposure to air and other factors which could have damaged it further.

Copyright - V&A Dundee
The centuries-old Glen Affric tartanCopyright - V&A Dundee

MacDonald said although the tartan contains several colours and multiple stripes, it cannot be fully determined as a ‘true tartan’ - that is one which belongs to a particular clan in the Scottish middle ages.

A Clan called Chisholm controlled the Glen Affric area in the 1500s, but MacDonald explains the STA can’t attribute the tartan to them with any certainty. He also said the potential presence of red, a colour that Gaels - or Scottish highlanders - historically consider a status symbol is interesting as the cloth itself was more of a rustic fabric, more associated with an outdoor working garment rather than somebody of high status.

Copyright - V&A Dundee
STA chair John McLeish, V&A curator James Wylie and STA historian Peter MacDonald inspect the Glen Affric tartanCopyright - V&A Dundee

Despite a lack of clarity in provenance, the tartan has been named as the Glen Affric due to where it was found. It measures about 55cm by 43cm (approximately 22 by 17 inches) and will go on public display at the V&A Dundee design museum in Scotland from 1 April. It will feature alongside more than 300 other objects and the exhibition aims to examine tartan’s universal and enduring appeal and use in all kinds of design, including fashion, architecture, furniture, film and art.

A curator at the museum, James Wylie paid tribute to the STA ahead of the exhibition opening, saying he was, “very thankful for the Scottish Tartans Authority's backing and support for uncovering such a historic find", adding that it’s "immensely important" to put the Glen Affric tartan on display for visitors to see for the very first time.

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