Earliest-known true tartan identified

Radiocarbon dating revealed that the fabric dated to AD 1500-1655, confirming it as the oldest-known piece of tartan.

Recent scientific analysis of a rectangle of woollen fabric held within the collections of the Scottish Tartans Authority (STA) has identified it as the earliest-known example of a true tartan, probably dating to the 16th century (BELOW). Before this analysis, all previous candidates for the oldest-surviving true tartan were from the early 18th century.

IMAGE: The Scottish Tartans Authority

The sample – which may have once been part of a work garment – was donated to the STA in 1985 after it was discovered in a peat bog in Glen Affric, near Inverness. Peter MacDonald, the head of research and collections at STA, always suspected (based on its loose weave and open structure) that the fabric was likely to pre-date the 18th century. It wasn’t until recently, however, when the V&A Dundee was looking for an early example of tartan for a new exhibition, that the opportunity arose to test it.

Radiocarbon dating revealed that the fabric dated to AD 1500-1655, with a 95.4% probability that it came from 1500-1600, confirming it as the oldest-known piece of tartan. While a small piece of fabric known as the Falkirk ‘tartan’ had been found with a Roman coin hoard dating to the early 3rd century AD and is believed to be contemporaneous with it (even though it has never been directly dated), it is not considered a true tartan as it is only composed of a two-checked pattern woven with undyed wool.

High-resolution digital microscopy then revealed that the fabric contained stripes of green and a dark natural fleece colour yarn, together with indications of red and yellow ground colours. Dye analysis found that no artificial dyes had been used and that the blue component of the green stripes was indigotin from either woad or indigo. As true indigo was not imported into Scotland before the 17th century, it is likely this dye was made from woad, making it the only known woad-dyed tartan in Scotland.

The tartan is on display at the V&A Dundee until 14 January 2024 (see www.vam.ac.uk/dundee/whatson/exhibitions/tartan). After the exhibition, further analysis will be conducted on the sample to determine how it was woven, what breed of sheep was used for the wool, and potentially where the sheep came from. It is hoped this will tell us more not only about its origins, but also about tartans in general at this time, as currently our only evidence from the 16th century is a few brief mentions in historical documents, making the newly identified tartan a significant piece of Scottish history.