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The future of tartan - it's official

frontpage-mrpc.jpgFor such a tiny wee nation (ouch! there I go again…) we are blessed with an incredible wealth of iconic symbols, that say ‘Scotland’ all over the world. And there’s surely none bigger than tartan. But I doubt more than a fraction of people realise just how much history and significance this seemingly simple criss-cross pattern really carries.

You are probably at least vaguely aware that different patterns (“setts”) are named after clans, families, and regiments etc. Think Buchanan, Royal Stewart, or Black Watch. But did you know that every single unique tartan (defined by its ‘thread count’: the sequence of colours woven) is painstakingly recorded for posterity - and any new one is a copyright design unless its designer explicity allows it to be used by anyone? The significance for not just families, but many huge organisations and businesses too, is huge.

scottishtartansauthority_logo.gifSo it’s all the more surprising that it is only in the last few years, with the birth of the industry-sponsored Scottish Tartans Authority, that anyone began to collect the data really systematically. And only now is the government waking up to the massive commercial value of this industry to Scotland (£350m per year, according to a recent study) and is taking steps to safeguard its status for posterity more securely, with a new official tartan records office that is intended to be open for business in 2008…

I know a little more about this process than most, as I have been representing the Scottish Tartans Authority governors on the official Steering Group for this new body. And in fact I’m now to be Senior User on the working party as the facility is developed in the coming months, which means it’s up to me to help make sure the service designed is fit for public use. So since people keep asking me what’s happening, this seems a good place to explain how things are shaping up.

The good news is that, contrary to some sceptics’ doubts, the new Scottish Register of Tartans (or whatever it ends up being called) is not going to be an expensive new quango, with over-blown powers, telling everyone what is and isn’t a proper tartan. Thanks mostly to some impressively sound-footed work by a small team of public servants (and how often do you hear that?) who have brought together, listened to, and cleverly cajoled a disparate and potentially fractious bunch of interested parties from industry, academia, and elsewhere, we are on the point of having a remarkably simple and sensible solution (oh dear, I trust I don’t regret writing this in a year or so!)

I hope I’m not breaking any Official Secrets Act in revealing that this new body hopes to work closely with, or even through, the existing offices of both the National Archives of Scotland, and none other than Lord Lyon (that most august holder of public office whose duties in governing, erm, heraldry and stuff dates back to well before the Romans, or thereabouts… Well, 14th century Romans anyway.) This both brings integrity, objectivity and depth of experience not to mention gravitas to this new body, and also incidentally saves our tax pennies. In fact, the technical services and so on will mostly be spun out from existing resources. So apart from the odd admin assistant (who’ll probably be seconded from elsewhere) the public costs will be minimal. Daily Mail readers relax.

But what will it actually do, I hear you ask. Well, basically, just what it should. It will be a one-stop-shop where a tartan’s existence will be recorded, with the weight of official national recognition for the first time. This register will bring together all existing sources of data (in addition to the Scottish Tartans Authority, there have been a couple of other smaller freelance recording bodies, with no one’s resource being comprehensive) and be freely (yes, freely) accessible to the public. This should all dovetail nicely with the new national Genealogy Centre due to open next year. So anyone will be helped to find their tartan, quickly and easily. Mostly online.

More importantly, what it won’t do is try to impose any further regulation on the definition of tartans than already exists by its nature. The new body’s staff will try to help with simpler public enquiries. But the Scottish Tartans Authority will continue to provide the expert backbone to resolve more specialist queries, as well as taking on an enhanced role in promoting tartan through education and training etc.

Finally, for anyone who’s huffing and puffing about how the Scot Nats are wasting their time defining fabric patterns out of misplaced nationalist fervour when there are so many more important things happening in the world (even though, as mentioned, this is one of Scotland’s most important industries) you may want to note that the bill going through Parliament was introduced by a Tory. Indeed, minor historical curiosity: it looks probable that when the Act goes through the Scottish Parliament in the first half of next year, it will be the first Bill put through our new consensual system by a member of the Conservative Party since devolution. Hopefully this will stop it being torn to shreds at the next change of government.

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Reader Comments (2)

It's nice to have you put it all out so plainly and sensibly.
I try not to ready any red tops, but even supposedly reputable newspapers have been foaming at the mouth about all of this recently.

Thank you.
January 14, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterArlen Donald
Scottish Cultural Influence ?

I recently attended a cousin's wedding,at a Glasgow synagogue. Not surprisingly, the male family members appeared in kilts AS WELL AS "kippahs" (religious skullcaps).

As my dear Uncle Benny and I approached the bar after the service, a young Irish bartender announced in shock; " and begorrah, Scottish jews...suppose I'll not be getting any tips from YOU lot!"

Never short for words, my Uncle Benny (78) retorted, " This is my daughter's wedding. If it's tips you'll be wanting, Paddy? Try the bris (circumcision) service downstairs".

Brought the house down !
January 17, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterJohn-Barry Livingstone

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