New Falklands tartan connects the Falkland Islands with Falkland Palace in Scotland, 8,000 miles away

05 December 2018
falkland1-09963.jpg Falklands tartan, designed by Brian Wilton MBE
A new tartan created for the Falkland Islands by Brian Wilton MBE pays tribute to the royal house of Stewart’s long association with Falkland Palace in Fife, the ancient home of Scottish kings.

A new tartan created for the Falkland Islands by Brian Wilton MBE pays tribute to the royal house of Stewart’s long association with Falkland Palace in Fife, the ancient home of Scottish kings.

Creating the Falkland Tartan

The tartan’s designer Brian Wilton MBE spoke to History Scotland about his early years in tartan design, how he came to create the Falkland Tartan: ‘As Director of the Scottish Tartans Authority at the time, my first tentative foray into design was the 2005 Gleneagles G8 Conference for which the Westminster government wanted a bespoke tartan. To my surprise, the final three entries sent to Downing Street included two of mine, one of which was the final choice. So heralded a relatively new approach to tartan design in which research could uncover a range of specific design elements that came together to give the final tartan a much deeper significance. 

‘Many years and tartans later, an inquiry from the Falkland Islands Overseas Games Association whose members were attending the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, prompted me to offer a pro bonotartan to the Falklands. Pro bonobecause as ex-RAF Aircrew, my slumbering patriotism was given a nudge and I was greatly privileged when the Island Government accepted the offer.

‘A mere 40 years ago, before the advent of modern computers and the ubiquitous “Windows” operating system, tartan designers were confined to graph paper and coloured pencils and their research limited to their book shelves and libraries. Now, with unbelievably flexible computer programmes and the marvel of instant online access to an ever-increasing knowledge base, a designer can devote much more attention to the aesthetics of a tartan and its individual design elements.'

Historical roots

‘Whenever designing a tartan, continues Brian, 'my first goal is to link it to the past, to give it some historical roots, to imbue it with a little “soul”. The all-knowing Wikipedia told me that the name "Falkland Islands" comes from Falkland Sound, the strait that separates the two main islands.That name was applied to the channel by John Strong, captain of an English expedition which landed on the islands in 1690. He named it in honour of Anthony Cary, 5thViscount of Falkland, the Treasurer of the Navy who sponsored the voyage.” The Viscount's title originated from the town of Falkland in Fife the centre-piece of which is Falkland Palace whose frequent residents were the Stuart kings. The all-important link with the past was established — the Stuart/Stewart tartan.

‘On to the Falklands themselves . . .  I received a plethora of colour suggestions from island contacts but in the interests of simplicity anda weaving limit of six or seven colours, had to diplomatically relegate them to the reserve team. 

‘The Falklands’ isolation in the vast South Atlantic suggested that they should be represented by the colours of the Union Jack, alone in the centre of a dark blue’ sea.’ Around the periphery, the King Penguins fortuitously offered a brilliant orange and yellow enclosed with the ubiquitous olive-green grass. Colours can serve more than one purpose in a design, so the blue also represents the early Scots settlers who are joined by the red of their Welsh colleagues. White from the Union Jack doubles as a marker for Antarctica to the south and finally, the red and the black are a memorial to all lives lost on and around the Falklands – a deliberately inclusive reference.

‘The Falklands Tartan is 3,500 years and 8,000 miles distant from that warrior’s cave in Greece but admirably serves to show the timeless appeal and symbolism of Scotland’s tartan heritage.’

The tartan was registered with the Scottish Register of Tartans on 30 November 2018, with the following design rationale: 

This design is based on an old Stewart tartan in recognition of Scotland's Royal House of Stewart's long association with historic Falkland Palace, the ancient home of Scottish kings and the source of Viscount Falkland's title, whose name was first connected with the Islands in 1690. The focal point is the colours of the Union Jack centred in a vast ocean of blue, framed by the brilliant colours of the islands' most outstanding wildlife, the King Penguin.

White also represents the Falklands' southern neighbour - the great Antarctic continent - and blue and red are for the early settlers, blue for the Scottish Saltire and red for the Welsh dragon. The red and black also serve as permanent memorials to the blood and lives lost on all sides during territorial conflicts in the Southern Atlantic.

This 21st century adaptation is a celebration of the Islands' unique history and heritage and its proud and inviolable status as a British overseas territory.

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Brian Wilton MBE’s history of tartan

The very earliest evidence of tartan comes from a 1.4 inch, intricately carved sealstone from a warrior’s tomb in SW Greece that was dated to 1450 BC — the Minoan-Mycenaean era. Subsequent evidence was in fabric form on the mummified body of a Caucasian male buried in modern-day China’s Takla Makan desert and dated to 750-1200 BC. Similarly-aged but nearer to home were tartan scraps preserved in the Austrian saltmines at Halstat. In the wake of such verifiable archaeological evidence came anecdotal:

100BC  "The way they (the Celts) dress is astonishing: they wear brightly coloured and embroidered shirts, with trousers called bracae and cloaks fastened at the shoulder with a brooch, heavy in winter, light in summer. These cloaks are striped or checkered in design, with the separate checks close together and in various colours."  Diodorus Siculus, Greek Historian.
50BC.  " . . . woven of divers colours."   Marcus Terentius Varro 
30BC    " . . .  flaming coloured dresses."  Titus Livius. 
30BC(Circa)     "Their cloaks are bright and shining" Virgil's Aeneid, Book VIII.

Slowly but surely, that peculiarly Celtic artform was – with its artisans - inching its way towards its final destinations on the north-western extremities of Europe where Celtic expansion was halted by the Atlantic Ocean. Of no known significance other than as a woven fabric design, it is logical to assume that it would have been a common sight in the Scottish Highlands and also in those other Celtic ‘nations’ of Eire (Ireland), Kernow (Cornwall), Mannin (Isle of Mann), Breizh (Brittany), Cymru (Wales) and modern-day Galicia in NW Spain. But inexplicably, despite their acquisition of modern tartans, no evidence has ever come to light of those nations retaining or developing the weaving artform that their Celtic forebears brought with them from the east.

Tartan after the Battle of Culloden

After the 1746 Battle of Culloden and the ensuing Act of Proscription of the Highland Garb, tartan could well have sunk into oblivion but for a serendipitous series of events —  the formation and valorous exploits of the kilted Scottish regiments; the 1782 Repeal of the Act of Proscription; George IV’s hugely successful 1822 visit to Edinburgh; Sir Walter Scott’s romantic novels and Victoria and Albert’s unrestrained love affair with Scotland and all its folksy manifestations. 

Clan tartans more than likely existed a lot earlier than their detractors would have us believe, but not as formal clan ‘uniforms’ - but as the uncodified output of the local weaver, worn by all in that locality. It wasn’t until the mid to late 18thcentury that a few such designs attracted the imprimatur of the clan chiefs concerned. George IV’s Edinburgh visit unchained the tartan sluice and Victoria and Albert completed the task and a torrent of clan tartans appeared: some rooted in the past, some hastily ‘remembered’ and some just pure Victorian ‘confections’ aided and abetted by entrepreneurial industrial weavers, Wilsons of Bannockburn.

That 18thand 19thcentury codification of many tartans was the cornerstone of the tartan industry. No longer were they just anonymous fabric designs but, like their elder brothers the estate tweeds, they had meaning. Whilst the weavers of the period took great advantage of this, it wasn’t until our modern era of marketing and consumerism, that tartan’s potential as a unique personal identifier and global branding tool was appreciated. Even then, many of the new tartans for towns, cities and regions limited their imagery to simplistic design elements such as blue for the sky and green for the hills.

QUICK LINK: What tartan can I wear?

Brian Wilton MBE

Brian Wilton MBE., FSA Scot was Director of the Scottish Tartans Authority during its formative years and in the process became Scotland’s leading freelance tartan designer with almost 200 commissions from 26 different countries — tartans for individuals, families, clans, districts, charities, organisations, major corporations and even European ‘royalty’.

Author of the acclaimed National Trust for Scotland book ‘Tartans’, he also writes and lectures on the subject and is now writing a major book on Highland dress. 

He was appointed MBE in 2013 for his services to the tartan industry in Scotland. Visit Brian's website.