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Scotland's 'oldest' tartan is found in a Highlands bog

The piece of the traditional patterned fabric could date back 500 years, according to new research.
The tartan piece can be dated to around 1500-1600 A.D., making it the oldest known surviving specimen of true tartan in Scotland.
The tartan piece can be dated to around 1500-1600 A.D., making it the oldest known surviving specimen of true tartan in Scotland.Alan Richardson / V&A Dundee

A piece of fabric discovered in a bog in the Scottish Highlands might be the oldest traditional tartan ever found, new research suggests.

The piece of material could be up to 500 years old, according to scientists, who said it survived because of the lack of air that was getting to it. The fabric was found almost 40 years ago in a peat bog — a type of wetland — in the Glen Affric valley, 15 miles west of Loch Ness.

It is believed to have been made in the 16th century around the time of the reign of Mary, Queen of Scots, according to dye analysis and radiocarbon testing commissioned by the Scottish Tartans Authority and released this week.

The 55-cm by 43-cm (almost 22 inches by 17 inches) piece of Scottish history is expected to go on display at the Scottish V&A Dundee museum’s Tartan exhibition Saturday.

“There is no other known surviving piece of tartan from this period of this age. It’s a remarkable discovery and deserves national attention and preservation,” John McLeish, the chair of the Scottish Tartans Authority, said in a statement.

Scottish clans and families have used the plaid patterns for centuries as badges of identity.
Scottish clans and families have used the plaid patterns for centuries as badges of identity.Alan Richardson / V&A Dundee

Northern European bogs’ cool and waterlogged conditions create low-oxygen and highly acidic environments, which are ideal for preservation.

That unique chemistry has allowed artifacts to endure for centuries, with archaeologists digging up 3,000-year-old butter to remains of a 4,000-year-old man in a body bag with intact skin.

While Scottish soil itself is not conducive to survival of the fabric, the fabric’s burial under peat, which forms when vegetable matter partly carbonizes, meant “it had no exposure to air and was therefore preserved,” Peter MacDonald, the head of research and collections at the Scottish Tartans Authority, said in a statement. 

“The testing process has taken nearly six months but the effort was well worth it and we are thrilled with the results!” MacDonald said.

The analysis, conducted by scientists from the Scottish National Museums, indicated the presence of four colors: green, brown and possibly red and yellow.

“The tartan has several colors with multiple stripes of different sizes, and so it corresponds to what people would think of as a true tartan,” MacDonald said.

The plaid patterns are traditionally designed and woven in Scotland and have been used for centuries by Scottish clans and families as a badge of identity.

“The potential presence of red, a color that Gaels considered a status symbol, is interesting because of the more rustic nature of the cloth,” he said, referring to the Gaelic-speaking ethnic group in Scotland, Ireland and the Isle of Man.

"This piece is not something you would associate with a king or someone of high status; it is more likely to be an outdoor working garment," he added.

The use of indigo or woad in the green color and the lack of any synthetic dye indicated it was made before the 1750s, the museum said in a statement. Subsequent radiocarbon testing identified the most probable period as 1500 to 1600 A.D.

Modern adaptations of tartan-like styles, commonly referred to as plaid, have become popular fashion choices.

“To be able to exhibit the Glen Affric tartan is immensely important in understanding the textile traditions from which modern tartan derives, and I'm sure visitors will appreciate seeing this on public display for the very first time," James Wylie, a curator at V&A Dundee, said in a statement.