21 November 2009

Lindisfarne Castle

It just occurred to me that Nana and I are headed on a new day-trip adventure tomorrow, and we still haven't finished blogging about the last two! So without further ado, here's another installment on Lindisfarne (you can find the first post here.) This post will deal with Lindisfarne Castle; a future post, I hope, will touch on the silliness surrounding the Lindisfarne causeway.

First, calling Lindisfarne Castle a castle is a bit of a misnomer: it's a tiny thing, really more of a fort, perched on an incongruous crag that juts out of a low field at the southern end of the island.



The castle, originally built in the 16th century, is the smallest of a string of fortresses along the coast of Northumberland designed to protect the surrounding countryside and, more importantly, the sea lanes from the Scots. Lindisfarne Castle stands guard over a natural harbor that was used as a staging area for various campaigns throughout the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries.

It also stands guard over several very strategic sheep.

Lindisfarne had at least a small role to play in nearly every major conflict in Britain during those centuries: the castle and its nearby harbor were used during the time of the Border Reivers, the English Civil Wars, and pretty much every last one of the half-dozen Jacobite Risings between 1688 and 1745. It was during this latter period that Lindisfarne Castle was somewhat farcically captured by an overwhelming force of two rowdy Jacobites who managed to hold the fort for about a day before surrendering to Hanoverian troops.

In the 1900s, the castle was converted into an utterly idiosyncratic country home, which now belongs to the National Trust. When we visited, they had a little Halloween scavenger hunt running, in which children (and childish adults like us) were tasked with finding a selection of ghoulish little things that had been hidden throughout the property.

At the foot of the castle, you can a modern example of some traditional Northumbrian architecture: a row of sheds made from the bottoms of herring boats that have been cut in half. Easy to waterproof and aerodynamic, both of which are important if you want your stuff to live through a winter on the North Sea!

19 November 2009

Sartorial Mythbusting, Part 2: Plaids and the "Banning" Thereof

Welcome to Part II of Sartorial Mythbusting, in which I tackle the image of traditional Highland dress and the Act of Proscription (1746, took effect 1747) banning it.

First of all, as with the tartan, you have to establish a timeline for "traditional" when you want to ask what is "traditional" Highland dress. The kilt is and has been a part of Highland dress for a long time, but it's actually an evolved form of a garment known as a plaid.

The plaid is a rectangular piece of plaid/tartan cloth draped about the body. This is a substantial piece of cloth - some sources say 12 to 18 feet long - that also doubled as a blanket or wrap when necessary. The female version of this garment was draped like a hooded cloak and was called an arisaid. My friend Doug in college had a theory that the entire purpose of college was to teach you that words you thought meant the same thing mean two different things - nation and state, illness and disease, race and ethnicity, etc. You can now add plaid and tartan to that list.

If a 12-18 foot garment sounds inconvenient, well, just watch how two college-educated people with a set of instructions and a pre-pleated garment fail spectacularly at donning one:

(It took me over an hour to figure out how to convert and compress the file to get that video on here so I really hope you enjoy it!)

After the '45 Jacobite rebellion (which followed the '89, '08, '15, and '19 Jacobite rebellions), Parliament decided it was kind of tired of all these Jacobite rebellions. They passed the Act of Proscription, primarily to disarm the Scots, but also put in the following passage on clothing commonly called the Dress Act (which is a favorite in Highland romance novels):

no man or boy, within that part of Great Britain called Scotland, other than shall be employed as officers and soldiers in his Majesty's forces, shall on any pretence whatsoever, wear or put on the clothes commonly called Highland Clothes (that is to say) the plaid, philibeg, or little kilt, trowse, shoulder belts, or any part whatsoever of what peculiarly belongs to the highland garb; and that no tartan, or partly-coloured plaid or stuff shall be used for great coats, or for upper coats; ... every such person so offending.... shall be committed, shall suffer imprisonment, without bail, during the space of six months, and no longer; and being convicted for a second offence before a court of justiciary or at the circuits, shall be liable to be transported to any of his Majesty'splantations beyond the seas, there to remain for a space of seven years.
Put on a tartan and get schlepped off to the colonies, basically. So things were not looking up for the tartan.

Yet portraiture of the time does not support the idea that this ban was enforced. Take the Campbell portait from my previous post: 1749, two years into the Dress Act. Or take any of these portraits at the National Portrait Gallery of Scotland (1749, 1765, and late 1700s): hemorrhaging tartan, all of them. (Seriously, John Murray, red and green tartan at the same time?)

There are two explanations for this. First, everybody in the National Portrait Gallery is financially well-off, and many are nobles who are "in" with the monarchy, having backed the right (Hanoverian) horse in the '45. The Campbells famously supported the royals even before the uprising, executing the Glencoe Massacre against Clan MacDonald in 1692 over the belated provision of a loyalty oath. These are individuals, therefore, who are likely to be cut some slack in their fashion choices.

Other records, like court records, show us that this lackluster enforcement extended as well to the Scottish hoi palloi. Why might this be?

In the 18th century, people often didn't have multiple changes of clothes. For a peasant Highlander, the plaid not only might be one's only heavy/warm garment, but also one's blanket and bedding. There are court records of bewildered sheriffs writing to their superiors saying that if they enforce the Dress Act as written, they will have a district full of naked people freezing to death come December. (Or come September, frankly - Scotland's pretty darn cold). There were, of course, sheriffs who didn't lose any sleep over this idea, and people who were deported under this act. But generally, the decision was made to ignore the Dress Act, unless tte person in question was engaged in other forms of rabblerousing.

So there you have it: Scottish dress history, myths busted!

Bonus busted myth: wool is bad in the rain.

Most wool is smelly in the rain, that's for sure. But wool is actually one of the best fibers for a wet environment, for two reasons. First, a wool garment can absorb significant amounts of water before the person wearing it feels wet on the inside (according to the American Sheep Industry Association, that figure is 30% of its own weight). Second, wool does something truly wacky: it actually heats up when it gets wet. So wearing wool around Scotland is like carrying around your own little space heater! Let's hear it for sheep!

17 November 2009

Sartorial Mythbusting, Part 1: Clan Tartans

When you think of Scotland, you probably think of many things. Haggis. Bagpipes. Rain. But I'm going to go out on a limb here and guess that your most thought-of Scotland image is tartan, often also called plaid.

Ah, the tartan! What a glorious tradition, each clan to its own tartan! Imagine them running over Culloden Field in their Highland Charge, displaying to the enemy which families were arrayed against them! How tragic it was when the plaids were banned for most of the rest of the 18th century!

Except not. Time for some sartorial (i.e., clothing) mythbusting!

Here is a portrait of John Campbell, from 1749:

We have a problem here. The Campbell plaid, as we know it, is predominantly blue, green, and white, and looks like this.
So he is definitely not wearing Campbell plaid. (In fact, he's wearing two plaids that aren't "Campbell plaid" – your eyes may be watering too hard from that outfit to tell, but those tartans are different top and bottom). Why not?
Campbell plaids did not exist in the 18th century. Neither did Stewart plaids, or MacDonald plaids, or MacIntosh plaids, or any other form of official standardized clan plaids. There were very likely regional variations caused by the availabilities of dyes and local weaving techniques, but the official tartans as we know them are a product of the early 19th century, specifically of a firm called Wilson's of Bannockburn.
At that time, Scotland was hot. Highland regiments won renown for their fighting against Napoleon. Sir Walter Scott's 1814 book Waverley romanticized the '45 uprising like dang and whoa. King George IV even came to Scotland in 1822, and wore tartan! Wilson's knew a good trend when they saw it, and began weaving like crazy on those newfangled industrial looms. This, by the way, is another nail in the coffin for the "plaids as traditional Highland attire" argument – the plaids we see today are completely beyond the capacity of a Highland homespinner, both in weaving and dyeing. (Want to try some virtual weaving yourself? See links below!)
Soon, Wilson's's ('s's's's) tartans were flying off the shelves. To keep track of all the patterns, or perhaps to simply merchandise them better, the tartans were given clan names. The final capping touch on this was the forgery of the Vestiarium Scoticum (a book, and not a skin condition, although it sounds like one) by John Sobieski Stuart and Charles Edward Stuart, two brothers who claimed to be the descendents of Bonnie Prince Charlie. The book, which they said came from an old manuscript, claimed to lay out pre-Culloden tartans by clan. As fake royals trying to bond with the local population and score some freebies like room and board, the Sobieski Stuarts probably claimed this faux sartorial (word of the day!) expertise to shore up their Scottish street cred.
Need more evidence? Look at the 1746 David Morier painting of Culloden, in which the Scots clearly are not wearing organized plaids. The tartans shown also do not align to the 19th century plaids assigned to the clans we know were at the battle. (There are also some more amazingly eyewatering tartan-on-tartan outfits here – I'm surprised the Hanoverian side could see to aim their muskets.) Eyewitness accounts of the battle support the painting as well. The Jacobites were distinguished by white bonnets, or the berets with white bows shown in the painting. After the battle was lost, the vanquished frequently ditched the bonnet to pass for Royalists. Clearly, this would not have worked if the other 8/10ths of your outfit screamed "Member of a Jacobite Clan."
Some people don't deal well with this revelation. My professor recounted giving a presentation on the above portrait of Campbell and receiving a question from a man who wanted to point out to her that it couldn't be John Campbell, since it wasn't a Campbell plaid. She explained what I've just gone over here – that the "Campbell plaid" is 19th century construction, etc., etc., and he nodded and nodded, and when she finished, he said, "I understand what you're saying, Professor, but that's not a Campbell plaid." The tourist industry also is very fond of the tartan system, as it enables them to sell mass quantities to Scottish diaspora tourists seeking a bit of heritage to take back. (Which is completely fine with me - the tartan can still connect you to Scottish heritage, or to other wearers, or can just look fun, regardless of what year it was designed. I like tartan. I just want to point out its real history.)
Nowadays, tartans are policed very seriously by the Scottish Register of Tartans, which you can think of as a patent bureau for tartan patterns. If you made a tartan using Tartan Maker or Tartan Designer or Interactive Weaver (go on, it's a hoot) or another progam, I'm sorry to say you can't just declare it your tartan and start making kilts. You must submit it (and pay a fee), and have your submission approved as different enough from all existing tartans to justify its own registration. With everyone from Alberta to Zambia getting in on the act, you can imagine things get tighter every year.
By "policed," though, I don't mean that people will come and tear a tartan off you if they don't you deserve it. Mostly it relates to manufacture and naming rights. People "in the know" would frown on wearing the royal family's three Balmoral tartans if you're not actually a royal (they won't even manufacture them for you in the UK), but tartan-wearing is basically self-policing. If you want to wear one just because you like it, I don't think people would mind. Just don't lie and say you're their long-lost cousin
Coming up next time: the "banning" of the Tartans, and what is a plaid?