I am ready to get back to weaving Celtic designs again, after a couple of months of working on those two blankets. This time, in recognition of the resounding vote by the Scottish in last week’s British election, I am weaving a Falkirk tartan – generally described as being the earliest known example of a tartan.
In reality, it would be more accurate to call it the earliest known example of Celtic checked cloth to be found in Scotland. Similar checked twills have been found in the excavation of Celtic sites all over Europe, particularly in Hallstatt burials.
More amazing still are the ‘tartan’ designs found with the mummies of the Tarim Basin. These mummified remains are of tall, fair-haired Caucasians, but were found in the northern desert region between Tibet and Mongolia and dated from the 2nd millennium BCE. Elizabeth Barber describes the extraordinarily well-preserved cloth wrappings found with these mummies, and the colourful checked twills are remarkable similar to modern tartans. Archaeologists have been astonished by this find – to learn more it’s really worth reading Barber’s account of the excavation in “The Mummies of Urumchi”.
Anyway, back to Scotland. In 1933 some road-builders were digging into a hillside near Falkirk, Stirlingshire, a few hundred yards from the Antonine Wall, when one of them came across a clay jar and broke it open with his spade. Inside was a hoard of almost 2000 Roman coins dating from between 83 BCE and 230 CE. The opening of the jar was sealed with a wad of cloth, and when this was spread out it was found to be a two-tone checked twill of typical Celtic design. Based on the coins, this cloth has been dated to the 3rd century, and today it can be seen in the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh.
This is a striking design with the same colours and proportions in both the warp and weft, and with a reversal of the twill with each stripe in the weft – but it was a modest start compared with the tartans that would follow. It was not until the 16th century that colourful tartan designs became popular, and this seemed to coincide with the introduction of chemical dyes which provided stronger tints, and at a far cheaper price. During this period, formalized tartan designs were associated with the different regions of Scotland, rather than with clans. And it was at this time that the Border tartan became popular with landowners along the Scottish borders and in Northumberland. In fact this design, a black and white hounds tooth check, seems to be loosely based on the Falkirk tartan.