Myths & Legends
Kilts are ancient and were originally brought to Scotland by the Irish.
False. (This depends on what "ancient" means to you.) The first documented mention of the kilt (or more accurately, fèileadh mhòr, meaning "big wrap") was in the last decade of the 16th Century. An Irish historian (Lughaidh Ó Cléirigh) detailed the dress of Hebridean gallowglass in the employ of Aodh Ruadh Ó Dónaill (Red Hugh O'Donnell). Their outer clothing consisted of a "girdled mottled cloak" and was notably distinct from the Irish soldiers they served alongside.
The Highland Scots, being Gaels, are descended mainly from the Irish (or Scotii, as they were known then) who settled in the western part of Scotland, creating the ancient kingdom of Dáil Riada in the 5th Century. These people initially wore what the Irish wore, a léine (often saffron-coloured) and a brat. They did not wear the kilt their descendants later devised.
Tartan originated in Scotland.
False. Many examples of tartan have been found all over the world, notably China and Austria. In fact, an African tribe called the Masai even wear tartan. Tartan design certainly reached its peak of creativity in Scotland. The oldest piece of tartan found in Scotland is the Falkirk tartan, which was a simple pattern of light and dark-coloured wool. It is believed to date from the late 2nd or early 3rd Century.
The greater the number of colours in a tartan means the greater the rank of the wearer.
False. This is mistakenly ascribed to the ancient Irish Brehon Laws which only make mention of striped clothing in regards to the rank of the wearer. Tartan does not mean striped. The Brehon Laws were, of course, obsolete by the time kilts were adopted. I suspect proponents of this belief use the Stewart Royal tartan as an example, since it contains many colours. A study of tartans will reveal, however, that many simplistic tartans are affiliated with clans or individuals that held considerable power.
Clan tartans are ancient and were worn by clansmen centuries ago.
False. Most of our "clan tartans" are from fabric sample books dating to the latter part of the 18th Century, notably those of William Wilson & Son, Bannockburn. Tartans were eventually assigned clan names instead of serial numbers. The Highland Society in London cemented this tradition in the early 19th Century. In reality, people simply wore what they liked, and a weaver presumably produced several patterns that proved popular or that he or she liked weaving.
Tartan colours have a symbolic meaning.
True and False. While the colours of newly created tartans do often have special meanings ascribed to them, the older ones do not.
The fèileadh mhòr was eight or nine yards long.
Mostly false. The fèileadh mhòr was on average four yards long. However, it was made from two 25"-30" wide four-yard pieces which were then sewn length-wise to produce a blanket some 50"-60" wide and 4 yards long.
I must confess, this is my favourite tartan myth of all. Ogham (pronounced OY-AM) was a vaguely runic form of writing devised by the ancient Irish. Various stone inscriptions are found throughout Ireland, Scotland and parts of Wales. Ogham was read from bottom to top, and written as a series of horizontal lines crossing over a central vertical line. Though only stone inscriptions survive today, Ogham was likely used on wooden posts as well. Some "experts" claim that the colours and line sequences of a tartan have a "secret" Ogham meaning. Well, they don't. Even a rudimentary examination of the Ogham alphabet reveals that there are diagonal lines as well as straight horizontal ones. A limited message these tartans would produce indeed!
Another version of this fable informs us that when Highland Dress was banned after the '45, the elders of the clan were entrusted with sticks wrapped in different coloured yarns. This talisman of sorts apparently represented the "authentic clan tartan". Some believe this is derived from the sticks that weavers used to recall their patterns. (As they were probably illiterate.) Unfortunately, as mentioned earlier, clan tartans did not exist at that time.
Must one draw blood whenever one draws a sgian dubh or dirk?
Um, no. This is another great myth, almost as funny as Tartan Ogham. I don't even know where it started, but I'm quite sure it's nonsense. It is entirely possible that this has become confused with Khukri knives used by the Gurkha regiments. After all, how could you draw blood with a safety sgian dubh?