Scotland's oldest known surviving tartan discovered in a peat bog

30 March 2023
New scientific research has revealed a piece of tartan found in a peat bog in Glen Affric around forty years ago can be dated to circa 1500-1600 AD, making it the oldest known surviving specimen of true tartan in Scotland.

The Scottish Tartans Authority commissioned Dye Analysis and Radiocarbon testing on the woollen textile to prove its age.

The first investigation was dye analysis carried out by analytical scientists from National Museums Scotland. Using high resolution digital microscopy, four colours were visually identified for dye analysis: green and brown and possibly red and yellow.

The dye analysis confirmed the use of indigo/woad in the green but was inconclusive for the other colours, probably due to the dyestuff degradation state. However, there were no artificial or semi-synthetic dyestuffs involved in the making of the tartan, which pointed to a date of pre-1750s.

Glen Affric tartan - Scotland's oldest-known true tartan discovered by The Scottish Tartans Authority to go on display for the first time at V&A Dundee's Tartan exhibition. Image courtesy of  Alan Richardson Pix-AR

Radiocarbon testing

Further clarification on the age of the tartan involved radiocarbon testing at the SUERC Radiocarbon Laboratory in East Kilbride. The process involved washing out all the peat staining, which would have otherwise contaminated the carbon content of the textile.

The Radiocarbon testing results identified a broad date range between 1500 and 1655 AD, with the period between 1500 and 1600 AD the most probable. This makes it the oldest-known piece of true tartan found in Scotland – the Falkirk ‘tartan’, dating from the early third century AD, is actually a simpler check pattern woven using undyed yarns.

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First ever display

The Glen Affric tartan, which measures around 55cm by 43cm is due to go on display for the first time at V&A Dundee’s Tartan exhibition opening on Saturday 1 April 2023.

The piece will be the oldest exhibit among more than 300 objects. The exhibition examines tartan’s universal and enduring appeal through iconic and everyday examples of fashion, architecture, graphic and product design, photography, furniture, glass and ceramics, film, performance and art.

A rare survival

Peter MacDonald, Head of Research and Collections at The Scottish Tartans Authority, said: “The testing process has taken nearly six months but the effort was well worth it and we are thrilled with the results!

“In Scotland, surviving examples of old textiles are rare as the soil is not conducive to their survival. As the piece was buried in peat, meaning it had no exposure to air and was therefore preserved.

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

“Although we can theorise about the Glen Affric tartan, it’s important that we don’t construct history around it. Although Clan Chisholm controlled that area, we cannot attribute the tartan to them as we don’t know who owned it.

“The potential presence of red, a colour that Gaels considered a status symbol, is interesting because of the more rustic nature of the cloth. 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.

John McLeish, Chair of The Scottish Tartans Authority, said:

“The Glen Affric tartan is clearly a piece of national and historical significance. It is likely to date to the reign of James V, Mary Queen of Scots, or James VI/I. “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. “It also deserves to be seen and we’re delighted that it is to be included in the Tartan exhibition at V&A Dundee.”

Exhibition details

Tartan at V&A Dundee opens on Saturday 1 April 2023 until 14 January 2024.