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tartan exhibition V&A Dundee Scotland

V&A Dundee

Tartan is the first exhibition curated especially for the Dundee branch of the V&A, which opened in 2018. ‘The exhibition celebrates the global story of Tartan. It champions tradition and playful design. Displaying 400 designs and objects, Tartan is a set of rules to be broken.’ Curator Kirsty Hassard explains at an online curator talk that I joined before seeing the exhibition. The exhibition is the first to be dedicated to this iconic textile in at least 30 years and it is based on the book ‘Tartan’ by Jonathan Faiers (University of Southampton, UK) who was also the consultant curator to the exhibition.

The Grid

The exhibition mirrors the book in it’s layout in that it is not in chronological order. The items are displayed in themes such as ‘Identity’ and Power. Fairer explains his system ‘in acknowledgement of the fact that the early history of the cloth is often shrouded in myth and speculation, and therefore any attempt to establish a definitive chronology will always remain inconclusive and somewhat strained.’ The result is the visitor is is purposely disoriented around the gallery as it has been set inside a tartan grid.

The construction of tartan is also contradictory. Traditionally woven in a simple twill using the 2/2 method. The complexity comes in the variety of colours used and the Sett. The reptation of a sett horizontally and vertically is what gives tartan its distinguished grid design. This is discussed in more depth in Fairer’s book Tartan, which I recommend reading.

The Sett

The exhibition attempts to explain the sett but I did learn more about the technically detail from Fairer’s book. What is referred to at the exhibition is the identification of setts. It is the means to which one tartan can be identified by another.

The Cockburn Collection 1816-1820. ‘Cockburn amassed an impressive collection of unique patterns produced by William Wilson & Son of Bannockburn. Old & Rare Scottish Tartans was the first publication to study the history of selected tartan patterns.’ V&A Dundee.

Cromarty Manuscript, alleged 1721, likely 1825 (V&A Dundee)

The Vestiarium Scoticum published in 1842 by John and Charles Allen. They claimed they were descended from the exiled Jacobite Charles Edward Stuart. The book is ‘probably the most influential and controversial book on clan tartans ever published, apparently transcribed from the author’s discovery of medieval manuscripts’. (V&A Dundee). The manuscripts are now considered as forgery but many of the tartans remain in use today.

The Scottish Tartans Authority hold the records for tartans and will enter new tartans to their records.

The Tradition

In the forefront of his book Tartan (2022) Jonathan Faiers explains ‘The majority of work undertaken prior to the mid-twentieth century was concerned with establishing and defining tartan as a textile tradition, and identifying specific patterns or sets, as they are more properly known, within the Scottish clan system’. Faier considers Donald C. Stewart’s The Setts of The Scottish Tartans (1950) to be a pioneering study in this area. ‘Stewart presented for the first time a systematised and accurate collection of the thread counts of a number of popular and lesser-known tartan patterns’.

The People’s Tartan

The design museum put out a call for people to lend their favourite tartan items. These items were interspersed amongst the designer and antique items through the exhibition. From a tartan shortbread tin, family picnic set to a handmade outfit to show the maker’s love of the Bay City Rollers, a popular band in the 1970s. Donators were asked to express what these tartan items meant to them. ‘Tartan is a a Scottish textile but a global textile. We were able to cover both local items and those from further afield. Lenders are from Dundee to California’, explains Curator Kirsty Hassard.

The below kilt was leant by Eilish McColgan (Commonwealth Games, Scotland) who travels for most of the year. She says ‘that small bit of tartan reminds me of home and that all my family are wishing me on’.

Kilt by Siobhan Mackenzie V&A Dundee Tartan exhibition

Designer Tartan

In her online curator talk, Kirsty states ‘Tartan is a set of rules to be disrupted by designers.’ Author and guest curator Jonathan Faiers explains ‘Tartan has developed from a Highland craft to a mass-produced, globally consumed textile. Above all, it is a textile of contradiction’. He wrote the preface to the updated edition at the end of 2020, when Covid was still forefront of our minds. He refers to the shifts in the fashion industry as ‘having imposed a necessary interruption, an enforced cessation of the unsustainable, ceaseless round of production which has characterized it throughout the twenty-first century’. He continues ‘As a textile with grids, tartan continues to be the cloth of resistance against oppression, of unity amongst dispossessed and geographically disparate groups or simply as an expression of originality.’ Faiers concludes ‘Tartan is never in nor out of fashion would now be more accurate declaring that tartan is fashion’.

Rebel Tartan

Tartan can transcend traditional dress such as military uniform through to smart dinner suits with a kilt replacing trousers. As favoured by my old boss, Kenny who proudly wears his kilt at formal business dinners in London. Whenever I visit Edinburgh I’m in awe of the way this textile is embraced in everyday wear. It is not uncommon to see men wearing smart trousers about their business in the city, alongside wearers of kilts as part of the Tartan Army at Murrayfield (home of Scottish Rugby Union).

Tartan was also the adopted by the Punks in the 1980s who utilised tartan as a uniform mixed with safety pins, blue denim and black leather Dr Martens boots. Perhaps the punks were subconsciously referring to the ban of tartan wearing over 200 years previously. Faiers explains in his book ‘The Disarming Act of 1746, which was passed following the defeat of the Jacobite forces at Culloden. The act was part of a systematic attempt to eradicate any remaining opposition to English rule. The Act outlawed the wearing of Highland dress, including tartan, which was considered to be a sign of rebellion and an expression of anti-government sympathies. The Act and its ramifications, more than any other single event, has shaped the subsequent history of tartan and cannot be underestimated in its importance.’

The exhibition is on at V&A Dundee until the 14 January 2024

I had a great time at the exhibition and in Dundee. I visited the exhibition in July 2023 as part of a short stay in Edinburgh. The city is apx 90 minutes from Haymarket station in Edinburgh. The museum is visible from the train station. Dundee was a welcome surprise for a history geek like me. It hosts a textile factory heritage centre and the Discover ship and exhibition centre from the Antartica. Plus the McManus, Dundee’s art gallery and museum. A useful link to all of the galleries and museums in Dundee can be found here, on the council’s website. There isn’t news currently whether the Tartan exhibition will tour to other galleries outside of Dundee. I read the revised edition of Tartan by Jonathan Faiers (2022) at the British Library in London. Copies are also available at the V&A Dundee and online via their bookshop. We ate a delicious lunch at The Bach, close to McManus museum. Of course we had Dundee cake at the Discovery centre.

tartan exhibition V&A Dundee Scotland
Our little friend Cali the Poodle came with us (although not in the museums!) Here she is sporting a smart Tartan bandana as a souvenir.