The Hay Tartans: a lecture from Peter MacDonald

Lt. Col Peter MacDonald

The Clan Hay Society's most recent lecture saw an enthralling evening with Lt. Col. Peter MacDonald, the leading tartan historian of our age and a talented handloom weaver.

Peter has been researching tartan and Highland costume for the last 40 years.  He is Head of Research for the Scottish Tartans Authority, and has successfully combined an impressive range of activity in the tartan field with his successful military career.   He looks forward to retiring from the army this summer when he plans to devote yet more time to tartan and Highland dress.

Peter began by debunking a number of myths connected to the subject.  Firstly, it is not the case that tartan was banned by the Act of Proscription of 1747; if you read the legislation, what was banned was the kilt.  Secondly, despite long decades of research proving the contrary, the myth that all clans dressed in the same uniform tartans from medieval times still persists.

Although tartan and Highland dress are of ancient provenance, they belong very much to the present, not the past, a living, breathing cultural entity which, by its very nature, evolves and develops with each succeeding generation.  Highland dress fell out of fashion during the 35 years it was proscribed, kept alive by the Highland regiments of the British Army, who were uniquely allowed to wear it.  By 1785, though, when the act was repealed, the European Romantic Movement was sweeping the continent, something Scotland benefited from as much as many other European nations, as long forgotten elements of our national story were rediscovered.

Hay Leith

Leith Hay, the earliest Hay tartan

Tartan was one of these, beginning in the later 18th century, continuing with a dynamic commercial weaving sector, led by the great weaving firm of Wilson of Bannockburn, and receiving a major boost following the 1822 visit to Edinburgh by George IV, when the king's decision to wear Highland dress had a significant impact.

It is from this era that we can trace the evolution of tartan associated with a particular family name.   The earliest associated with the Hays is the one now known as 'Leith Hay', or occasionally 'Hay and Leith,' which Peter believes was originally created by Wilsons for the town of Leith, the port of Edinburgh, rather than the family of that name.  It is a striking sett, particularly suited for evening dress, and it's a pity it's so rarely seen nowadays.

The main Hay tartans are the work of the Sobieski Stuart brothers, active during the 'middle half' of the 19th century, firstly with their iconic book, The Costume of the Clans, followed in 1842 by Vestiarium Scotticum, where the tartan we now instantly recognise as Hay made its first appearance.  The earliest portrait of a Hay in Highland dress is of the eighth Marquis of Tweeddale, dating from perhaps 1830 or a little earlier.  He is shown wearing a plaid in what we would now know as a 'dress' tartan; the artist has made no effort to accurately depict the sett, but it is clear from the double red lines on a white ground that he is wearing the tartan known as Hay Stuart, another Sobieski Stuart pattern.

The well-known Hay tartan alongside the blanket

The Hay tartan comes in a variety of different shades and Peter made the interesting point that although the shades of the colours make the tartans look very different, the sequence of the colours themselves remains the same.  In some cases, notably the Dress Hay and the Hunting Hay, colours themselves have been changed but the motif of the pattern remains unchanged, something that can be revealing if we examine the pattern without paying too much attention to the colours themselves.  Peter illustrated this very effectively with a blanket he had been sent from Canada for identification; it looks quite unlike the Hay tartan until it becomes clear that the green has been woven as a duck-egg blue, and the yellow is so pale it is almost white.

It is the illustration of a successful lecture when the audience engages with the speaker and the long and involved question and answer session that followed Peter's presentation went on way beyond the allotted time.  We thank Peter for a fascinating talk.