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Tartan on tour

Brian Taylor | 12:58 UK time, Friday, 12 October 2007

Do you wear the kilt? About the closest I get to Our National Dress is wearing tartan galluses.

For the purely practical purpose of keeping my breeks above the pavement.

I once tried on a kilt, with a view to purchase.

My elder son, who was acting as my fashion consultant, had to be helped from the shop, he was laughing so hard. Apparently, my resemblance to an early Spike Milligan sketch was marked.

Actually, come to think of it, I once donned a kilt as a three-year-old page boy. But, as Groucho said, there’s no need to bring the Civil War into this.

However, kilts aside, I take a passing interest in how Scotland projects herself to the wider world.

The First Minister, Alex Salmond, is in New York right now on just such a mission, following in the brogue footsteps of his predecessors.

Again today, he was asked about tartan. Was it not a bit “shortbread tin”? For any sake, what’s wrong with shortbread? A little shortie with your tea, splendid fare. What have people got against it?

OK, OK, I know, it’s shorthand for railing against kitsch, against the kailyard. I get the concept.

But I think you can go too far the other way. If you’re known for a tradition – especially a home-made one like tartan – then work with the weft.

I say “home-made” advisedly. I am perfectly well aware that Tartan, as presently marketed, is a relatively modern invention.

I am aware too of the glorious irony of Lowland Scots presenting their country to the world on the back of a distorted version of the once-suppressed Highland dress.

Me, I say: relax. Go with the flow. As the FM rightly said, most countries around the world are desperate to find a simple, straightforward image to project.
We’ve got one, ready made. Tartan, bagpipes, haggis, whisky. Perfect. You can wear it, you can play it, you can eat it and, above all, you can drink it.

What’s the alternative? Present our modern, high-tech image to the world? Hey, guys, we’ve got smart scientists and working computers? Join the queue.

Or perhaps tell it as it really is in parts of our cities? Less Princes Street, more Pilton?

Well, yes, we should ensure that the benefits of economic gain are widely spread.

But you don’t help the people in Pilton or Whitfield or Easterhouse by neglecting an opportunity to market Scotland internationally, thus attracting job-creating investment.

Let’s think of ourselves like old-style showfolk. They needed a gag to get people to come to their tent in the first place.

Then they could entice them to part with their cash.

So, it’s roll up, roll up, look at the guy in the plaid skirt. While you’re here, you’ll have a dram. Single malt? Oh, and by the way, did you know that we happen to run a world-beating company, with close links to a top-ranked university? You didn’t? Step this way.

PS: Off on leave for a spot. Abnormal service will resume after next week.


  • 1.
  • At 01:42 PM on 12 Oct 2007,
  • Ian Taylor wrote:

The Taylor tartan is actually very nice and understated - recommend you try it, Brian! As a national dress, kilts and all that are instantly recognisable and attractive and look very smart.

  • 2.
  • At 01:54 PM on 12 Oct 2007,
  • James wrote:


Many thanks for an enjoyable week of blogs. I hope you enjoy your break.

When you return, I wonder whether you'll consider the position of the Scot who (like myself) used to be against independence but is now better described as agnostic, even open, to that eventuality.

With this in mind, your previous blog on Trust left me with what has become a more common reflection on my part: I am pleased that Alex Salmond is actively defending Scottish interests. Furthermore, in the context of other commentators, it appears I'm not alone.

Is the tide turning?

  • 3.
  • At 02:55 PM on 12 Oct 2007,
  • Andrew wrote:

You are abolutely right. I work in a high tech industry in Scotland, and global clients like the tartan/shortbread/golf/hospitality as much as they like our science. Most people have an impression that Scots are friendly, and its easy to start coversations with them at trade fairs, starting with whisky and leading to business.(Indian restaurants with kilted waiters confuse the American clients a bit though when they visit...)

  • 4.
  • At 03:12 PM on 12 Oct 2007,
  • Poppaea wrote:

Yeah, and let's redesign Glasgow and Edinburgh to look like Brigadoon while we're at it....

It's all very well pandering to the ignorance of the foreign masses, who may or may not turn up as eager tourists, but there are people out there who ask if our houses have running water, and do we have telephones/TVs, because of it. Is that what we want? People thinking we're stuck in the 1700s??

As for tartan, mine is an Irish pattern. So it's not only those with Scots ancestry who can wear it.

  • 5.
  • At 03:47 PM on 12 Oct 2007,
  • Ed Martin wrote:

If tartan, whisky, haggis, shortbread, bagpipes, kilts, hills & glens, nessie etc help give us a recognisable identity far beyond what our size might reasonably expect that's all to the good. And if it helps our science and high-tech industries get a foot in the door then great. And don't forget the Scottish accent, research says that 55% of business executives said they believed that Scots accent was desirable in business because it conveyed 'above average honesty in the personality of its owner.'

  • 6.
  • At 04:21 PM on 13 Oct 2007,
  • Poppaea wrote:

My tartan is Irish, Brian, so it's not just Scots who wear it (Jamie McGrigor, please take note)!

But really - do we want tourists thinking they're coming to visit Brigadoon?? There are idiots out there who still ask if we have tv/hot water and who think we all live in some kind of 18th century timewarp.

Is that really the image we want to present to the world?

I hope not.

  • 7.
  • At 08:49 AM on 14 Oct 2007,
  • Jim wrote:

Just stick to the tartan galluses.
Like you say there is much more to Scotland than the oft portrayed kitsch.
An awful lot more, one item that tends to be now tagged as kitsch is St Andrews and Golf, but as an earner of revenue it does very well thank you.
The tag merchants are generally driven by the lack of knowledge of our country’s history, including the modern day tartan and kilt; a Victorian idea purposely created to appease the natives.

  • 8.
  • At 09:59 AM on 14 Oct 2007,
  • rd wrote:


This inst so much a comment as a suggestion. I am like a lot of Scots perturbed by the lack of balance that currently exists in the Scottish media towards the reporting of all things regarding the current Scottish government. Whether or not your pro SNP or not I feel that the almost continuous bile that flows from the BBC, Herald and Scotsman towards the SNP and Alex Salmond in particular is failing Scotland and Scottish voters. The Labour party in Scotland is simply not being held to account which is supposed to be raison d'aitre of the 4th estate. As one of the few journalists that is capable of batting a straight line through these things it would be interesting to hear your views on this important issue.

  • 9.
  • At 10:57 AM on 14 Oct 2007,
  • Sandy wrote:

It's the standard line that other nations would kill for the sort of highly exaggerated image that Scotland has. Funnily enough, you never see them stating this for themselves, citing Scotland as an example to follow.

  • 10.
  • At 02:26 PM on 14 Oct 2007,
  • wrote:

So Brian, we go from:

The Best Wee Country in the World


The Best Twee Country in the World

Not sure I like either.

  • 11.
  • At 02:30 PM on 14 Oct 2007,
  • Rob Davidson wrote:

Spot on Brian. Tartanry sticks in my craw in the general way. It is faked-up sentimentlised nonsense largely invented by Sir Walter Scott for the royal visit of George IV to Edinburgh in 1822.

But, if it helps sell modern Scotland and gives us a unique image in the world, fair enough! While the money's coming in, I'll happily tolerate it . . .

  • 12.
  • At 03:28 PM on 14 Oct 2007,
  • Douglas McCallum wrote:

Bravo for plain speaking. Like it or not, most people in the outside world recognise the images of tartans, bagpipes and whiskey. (This is very clear to those of us who have worked and travelled in many different countries.) Surely most marketing people would be ecstatic if their company had such widely and instantly recognised images. Also, and here is a key point made by Brian, these are images which are unique to Scotland. All sorts of places claim to be modern, trendy, fashionable, smart, etc. - but none of them can claim it uniquely. As he said, "join the queue". By all means, modernise the marketing of Scotland where possible - but by building upon the long-established and powerful strengths of our existing images.

  • 13.
  • At 12:55 AM on 15 Oct 2007,
  • Amateur Emigrant wrote:

Do I wear the kilt? Yes. Every day? No, but by tomorrow I will have donned the garment on five days in ten, and in three time-zones: at home in London and on both coasts of the USA. What am I selling: whisky, Hamilton Accies memorabilia or "no haein fun"? None of these (and for once the last two aren't exactly synonymous).

I'm dressing for comfort, and right now the kilt is much better "business casual" than trousers at dealing with the Californian climate. Not every kilt-wearer is harsh-huckstering for loch, glen or the roundabouts of East Kilbride. If I'm remembered for my good business and some of that rubs off on a view of Scotland (and/or Britain/EU), that's good. Actions, not words, and all the stronger.

And this may disappoint some - the kilt isn't the attention-magnet it's often claimed to be. Few, if any, heads turned as I stride the streets or ride the transit. No, it's just another garment being worn in the museum, the Polish restaurant, the conference room - but I'm more comfortable than just about everybody else.

I just wish the buckles didn't set off the airport security bells.

  • 14.
  • At 07:37 AM on 15 Oct 2007,
  • Bert wrote:

Absolutely spot on. Why do we feel we must cringe at anything that identifies us as Scots? I have no problem with it whatsoever, unless it's a FM wearing a plain black thing. If it has no tartan in it, it's a skirt!

  • 15.
  • At 09:43 AM on 15 Oct 2007,
  • Bob Stewart wrote:

Moray is the home of tartan shortbread tins and malt whisky (as you will remember from your days with the P and J!)so I have to agree with the thrust of your argument. We also have the one and only kilt school in Scotland. Should you ever feel the need to bear your knees to the general public we would be delighted to help.

  • 16.
  • At 12:22 AM on 16 Oct 2007,
  • neil robertson wrote:

What you need, Brian, is banana boots to offset the short hairy
legs and then the kilt will work.

But you are spot on about the 'wee dram' giving us that little extra
something as a deal-breaker. Thus
it was great to read in today's Herald that this is integral to
the tourism marketing strategy
being pursued this week by the
VisitScotland team and Tatiana
(their in-house Russian expert)
on their trade mission to Saint
Petersburg to attract the high
rollers back to Gleneagles and
golf courses all over Scotland.

Golf is the other secret weapon that nobody can trump. And I say that as a non-golfer....... It is much more effective as an ice-breaker than the nuclear submarines that defile our shores and Alex Salmond sees that,
even if London politicians cannot.

Haste ye back .... as Gary Player said to Jack Nicklaus on prime time TV in South Africa in the presence of Thabo Mbeki and De Klerk after the 2003 Presidents' Cup. Player credited the saying to the Scots.
You just can't buy that kind of advertising even if you are RBS!

  • 17.
  • At 01:07 AM on 16 Oct 2007,
  • Stuart Miller wrote:

Brian you are absolutely right. As an 6 year ex-pat in the US I take enormous pride in promoting the brand and doing a fair bit of education on things historical and culturally Scottish. The kilt or tartan immediately brands me and is a wonderful ice breaker. As a Sales professional I get way more attention at a black-tie event than I might otherwise.

I appreciate the point of view of the "shortbread tin protestors" but they miss the point of the power of promoting the brand. If Scotland is to get its share, it has to run with the natural and unnatural advantages it has and there is no doubt the whisky, golf, tartan image of Scotland is the prevalent brand differentiatiors on the international stage. Use it at every opportunity....Go oan Alex, pump it up...pump it good!

  • 18.
  • At 02:01 PM on 17 Oct 2007,
  • Douglas Eckhart wrote:

No 11

Agreed. If we don't use what we have then we are just another bland nation with 'some good scientists and a bit of IT'. yawn.. join the endless que

With the brand, we are a cut above. Those fools who disagree, have they ever worn the kilt abroad and attested to its power? and I'm not talking about Tennerife.

Now for the history lesson, as soem people here are in dire need of one:

Tartan is not a 'modern invention'...rather, the tartan *designs* we have today are 'modern', to an extent. They come from the 18th and 19th centuries, almost all the pre-cullodon tartans have been lost. Tartan itself however, is way older, with the famous 'falkirk tartan', a simple 2 shade weave, dating to the 3rd ceentury ad. In the 16th century, the Scottish King is on record ordering several rolls of 'heeland terten' for a dress for his queen.

As for the kilt. It isnt actually a '19th century invention'.

The Great Kilt is attested to the 16th century at least, as for the 'little kilt' that we would recognise, that came into general use in the *early 18th* century, in time for the 1715 rebellion, and may have already been in use in the late 17th.

The oldest 'little kilt' we have, with sown-in box pleats and recognisable as a modern kilt actually dated from the 1780s,so the myth of the 'englishman inventing the kilt' is just that, a myth. The character in question didnt set foot in Scotland until the next century.

However, it is fair to say that the Victorians promoted the 'little kilt' and formalised it, and also greatly modified/expanded on the tartan designs... what's wrong with that? Scots were Victorians too you know!

It has to be said that only negatively minded scots would view formalisation, development and continued evolution as 'invention'.

  • 19.
  • At 08:39 PM on 18 Oct 2007,
  • GI wrote:

There is nothing wrong with Scotland using Tartan, Whisky, Haggis, Bagpipes and even Shortbread to promote itself. They are instantly recognised as Scottish throughout the world. I was working in the States during 1997 and 1998 and was never asked any stupid questions like “Do we have electricity, TV etc”. Scotland was always portrayed by the Americans as a modern European country although some education was required to make them aware that it is not part of England. I was there when it was announced that Dolly the sheep had been born and this was not received with amazement that a “backward” country like Scotland should be able to do this.

  • 20.
  • At 12:53 PM on 22 Oct 2007,
  • Peter, Fife wrote:

Although I am more than entitled to wear the kilt, I choose not to, not for reasons similar to yours own Brian, but as a non kilt wearer I feel it is a tad hypocritical to dress in the plaid for that which is the most common of purposes, that of posing for wedding photographs.

Many a kilt wearer in many a wedding photograph does not have the bloodline to wear the kilt; many seeing it as fancy dress for weddings.

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