Ulster Tartan

Author: Leslie Dickson

Date: 1995

Source: Ullans: The Magazine for Ulster-Scots, Nummer 3 Spring 1995

Tartan. What does that word conjure up in your mind?

Do you think of pipers marching to the skirl of their pipes with their kilts swinging?

Or, do you recall a happy holiday spent in Scotland?

It will almost certainly be Scotland and the Scots which will come to mind, because the Scots have taken the tartan as their own and made it synonymous with their National Identity.

Tartans are many and varied, and in 1963, the Lord Lyon King of Arms, who is responsible for all things heraldic, decided that as tartan has no true heraldic status, a body should be set up to register the authenticity of tartans. This was duly done and the body is called The Scottish Tartan Society which operates from offices in Comrie in Perthshire. They have been given the remit of registering, recording and accrediting tartans and also enabling members of the public to trace claim to tartans and even design and register new tartans.

In Northern Ireland in 1956 an interesting event occurred in a lane leading to the farm of a Mr William Dixon just north of Dungiven in County Londonderry.

A labourer, working in the lane found some old clothing buried in the ditch. The garments consisted of a large semicircular woollen cloak, a woollen jacket and the remains of a pair of tartan trews, and by their condition had obviously been buried for a very long time.

It is the pair of trews which is of interest to this author.

The articles of clothing were taken to the Museum in Belfast where they were subjected to an intensive examination by a Miss Audrey Henshall; the details of their findings are fully recorded in a 23 page paper in the Ulster Journal of Archaeology in 1961/62.

Because of the style of the jacket, and features of the clothing in comparison to other writings and drawings, Miss Henshall dated them as probably being worn in the early to mid 1600s, and suggested that the cloak was Irish while the trews were almost certainly of Highland origin and would have been worn by someone of rank. Due to the type of soil — a peaty loam — in which the clothing had lain buried for so long, the original colours were mainly stained to various shades of brown so they were difficult to distinguish. However, four colours were identified, and Miss Henshall gave a clear description of what the cloth was probably like, including a diagrammatic picture of the tartan weave.

As a follow-up to this find, a project was undertaken by various staff members of the Museum to produce the garments. The tartan material was woven on a hand-loom in the Belfast College of Technology and the Museum staff dressed a model in replica clothing. This model stood in the entrance hall of the Museum as an introduction to their Elizabethan Ulster Exhibition in November 1958.

The model no longer exists, but the original and the reproduced clothing are stored in the Museum and may be seen on request.

The tartan cloth was reproduced in two shades of brown with a red overcheck and it is this design which was registered with The Scottish Tartan Society in the early 1970s as the Ulster Tartan and the material has been manufactured and sold under this name since.

Recently, the colours which Miss Henshall described in her article have been woven into a tartan material which is also manufactured and it too has been registered with The Scottish Tartan Society as “Ulster Tartan” giving both tartans authenticity.

This lays the ground for an interesting cross-reference between the Province and Scottish Culture.

It is also of interest to note that this more recent Ulster Tartan, in red and green with a yellow bounded with black overcheck which accords with Miss Henshall’s original description of the Ulster Tartan, is used as the tartan for the Kilts and Uniform of the Dragoon Guards.

So Ulster has its own tartans which have been duly recorded and registered as authentic. How about starting to wear them with pride and incorporating them into our culture?

If anyone is interested in viewing these tartans, this author (who can be contacted through the Ulster-Scots Language Society) will be pleased to show samples.

Leslie Dickson

• • • • •

Whitwey Tae Larn A Deuck Tae Swim

Get an oul yin tae coax it, an its an unco thing gif she winnae gang intil the watter. Th’ow a wheen o boilt prattaes in the watter, an gif she haes a hung’r, she’ll gang then. Bot, gif ye still cannae get her til gang in, nae matther whit ye dae — jist buck her in.



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