“…for, as long as but a hundred of us remain alive, never will we on any conditions be brought under English rule.
“It is in truth not for glory, nor riches, nor honours that we are fighting, but for freedom – for that alone, which no honest man gives up but with life itself.” — Declaration of Arbroath, 1320
On April 6, 1320, a letter—signed by at least thirty-nine nobles—was composed and, later, dispatched to Pope John XXII declaring the Scots’ intention to remain independently sovereign and affirming their right to take military action against the invading English. The letter also beseeches the pontiff to intercede on their behalf by affirming Scotland’s sovereignty and convincing the English king to be content with England (apparently, if the Pope did say anything to the English, it wasn’t terribly effective). Though the pontiff spent forever waffling back and forth between sides in this conflict, the letter remains such an eloquent and striking document that it has been nominated to be catalogued in UNESCO’s Memory of the World register and has been co-opted for a woefully inaccurate dramatization of history.
So, when the idea for an annual celebration of Scottish heritage was initially raised in Nova Scotia—yep, Canadians got this ball rolling and I thank them for it—, April 6th was a pretty fitting choice. Prior to its adoption as an annual observance in Canada and in the United States, the first Tartan Day was an ad hoc celebration on July 1st, 1982 in New York City marking the two-hundredth anniversary of the repeal of the Act of Proscription. The Act of Proscription, passed by Parliament in 1746, prohibited the Scots (the Highlanders, in particular) from wearing their traditional clothing and from using “tartan, or party-coloured plaid or stuff” in outer garments. The Act also banned the playing of bagpipes and required children to participate in school prayers for the King and the Royal family. This attempt to force the Scots into assimilating—or, as Parliament put it, “…An act for the more effectual securing the peace of the highlands in Scotland”—was specifically meant to disarm the Highlanders and quash the clan system after the Jacobite Rising of 1745. The punishment for wearing Highland dress was six months in prison for the first offense and being shipped off to one of “his Majesty’s plantations beyond the seas, there to remain for the space of seven years.”
During the thirty-six years in which the Act was on the books, the dyeing and weaving of tartans ceased and likely resulted in the loss of some of the ancient tartan patterns. On the other hand, the Act and its outlined punishments also served to imbue tartans with an air of the mysterious and powerful forbidden…which is practically an invitation for the human brain to obsess about it—I mean, transgressing a prohibition is a basic principle of folklore.
So, in addition to the U.S. and Canada’s April 6th celebration, Australia and New Zealand both observe International Tartan Day on July 1st, the anniversary of the Act’s repeal.
Like a lot of other folks, I know that I’ve got some Scottish blood running through my veins, but I don’t know enough to trace my Scottish ancestors back to their clan or, more likely, clans. There are three clans I am more likely to be related to than others: MacTavish, Ramsay, and Buchanan. However likely my relation to any or all of those clans may be, any connection is so far back as to be negligible. For me, the exploring the possibility of ancient kinship—in Scotland and elsewhere—is less about pinning down my specific ancestry and more about adding dimension and depth to my understanding of history. Brief two sentence entries in a history text book become vivid, three dimensional scenes in my mind’s eye. It’s kind of like those Magic Eye autostereogram illusions, except way cooler.
This National Tartan Day, let’s celebrate Scottish history and maybe even your own! Let’s definitely celebrate that the national animal of Scotland is a unicorn! Above all, let’s celebrate Scotland, its traditions, and its people (even if, sometimes, we can’t understand them)!
Oh, come on! Y’all knew weren’t getting out of here without some kickass (if not strictly traditional) pipes!
Happy Tartan Day!