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Marc Holthof on Tue, 21 May 96 19:42 MDT


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The Prince Consort's New Clothes
On the Kilt and the Internet
By Marc Holthof

A picture by Carl Haag dated 1854 exhibited in Windsor Castle's Royal
Library, shows us "An Evening at Balmoral". The prince consort, Albert,
offers up a freshly killed deer to his young bride Queen Victoria on the
steps of the Scottish castle. The scene is illuminated by torch light. Just
like the little boy at Queen Victoria's side, Prince Albert is wearing a
short dress: he is wearing a kilt. His knee-high stockings are decorated
with the typical Scottish plaid, the so-called "Tartan".

A chain of lies

        Even today Edinburgh still entices tourists from all corners of the
world with images of plaided bagbipe-players doing what they do best during
the traditional tattoo. Even today you can buy Scottish tartan-kilts on
Edinburgh's fancy Princess Street, together with other souvenirs and
gimmicks whose single function it is to conjure up Scotland's rich past.
Tartan-patterns are registered and approved by Lyon Court in consultation
with the Standing Council of Scottish Chiefs. During the mid-sixties the
Scottish Tartan Centre was founded in Stirling, where all Tartan-research is
supposed to be done. The kilt, after all, is serious business.

In 1822 Victoria's predecessor George IV visited Edinburgh. This was the
first time royalty from the house of Hannover visited the Scottish capital,
so naturally all possible preparations were made to turn this visit into an
uncontestable success. The organizing committee was presided by famous
novelist Sir Walter Scott and colonel David Stewart of Garth. The event
ended in a genuine celebration of the Highland Clans, complete with plaid,
bagpipes and kilts. Even the king (who was born in Germany) appeared in a
kilt, took part in a Celtic parade en toasted the chiefs and clans of
Scotland.

Thirty years later, in 1850, General James Browne published his 'History of the
Highlands and the Highland clans', his definitive volume on both the noble
Scottish tribes and the tartans, the colorful plaid with which they
decorate their kilts. Twenty-two of the colour illustrations in James
Browne's classic work were plainly borrowed from the 'Vestiarum Scoticum'(1842)
by John Sobieski Stuart. Of this beautifully illustrated volume, a
masterwork of early colour-printing, only 50 copies appeared in print. Much
earlier, in 1829, the two Stuart brothers had already announced to rich
Scotsman Sir Thomas Dick that they had an important manuscript in their
possession: the manuscript was called 'Vestarium Scotticum or The Garderobe
of the Scots', and used to belong to the personal confessor of Mary "Queen
of Scots"; the manuscript was entrusted to their father by "Bonny Prince"
Charles Edward Stuart, the legendary leader of the revolt against the
English reign in 1745. In 1844 the Stuart brothers published a new work:
'The Costume of the Clans'. This beautiful folio was dedicated to King Ludwig
I of Bavaria, "the restorer of the Catholic Arts of Europe". This was a
monumental work, one of the milestones in the historiography of the kilt
and the tartar-patterns. Unfortunately, 'The Costume of the Clans' never got
the attention it deserved. So it wasn't the Stuart brothers but General
James Browne who wrote the standard work on Scottish dress.

        What had happened? Well, in 1846 the two Stuart brothers claimed
the throne: they claimed to be the last surviving Stuarts to descend from
Bonny Prince Charles himself. An article in the renowned 'Quarterly Review',
however, thwarted their royal pretence. The brothers who kept court on a
beautiful island near Inverness, were thus forced to flee to Pressburg.
Later on in their lives they returned to London, where they died in
poverty, but not without making some more unsuccessful claims on the
English throne.

The brothers Stuart, alias Hay, but actually Allen (their name changed
according to their romantic claims of illustrious lineage), were no more
than colorful con artists. They were exposed, but their book on Highland
attire lived on and was plundered by a number of interested parties. One of
these was James Logan (who was seriously injured as a child when a hammer
that was used during the Highland Games landed on his head) whose 'Clans of
The Scottish Highlands' bore more than a superficial resemblance to the
Stuart brothers' masterpiece. Another was General James Browne. They were
all "inspired by" 'The Costume of the Clans' and 'Vestiarum Scoticum'.

Alas, as can be expected from professional hustlers like the Stuart
brothers, their Costume of the Clans was based on ... nothing. The two
authors loved to refer to mysterious sources that were nowhere to be found,
like a manuscript containing poems by Ossian and other Celtic literature
"that was acquired by late knight Watson in Douai, but is now unavailable",
or a Latin manuscript from the fourteenth century that was found in a
Spanish monastery which mysteriously disappeared, and of course their own
'Vestiarum Scoticum' which they dated back to the fifteenth century on the
basis of "internal data". The truth was that no one, not even Sir Walter
Scott, got to see the original manuscript. There is no connection between
the tartan-patterns and the old Scottish clans. Everything was made up by
the Stuart brothers to please a number of important weaving mills. A grand
tradition which lives on till this very day is based on deceit and romantic
fairy tales.

        The Stuart brothers weren't the only forgerers in/of Scottish
history. As early as 1760 another duo, the unrelated James Macpherson and
the Reverend John MacPherson, had set the standard.
With a couple of forgeries they succeeded in creating both an indigenous
Scottish literature and a new history for the Highlands. To do this they
had to put history on its head: James Macpherson plagiarized Irish ballads
in composing his Ossian-epic, which he then claimed was an original text:
the Irish ballads he had robbed he presented as an uninspired retelling of
the original epic poems of Ossian. In 1807, after Macpherson's death, a
falsified Celtic version of the Ossian-poems appeared in print (Macpherson
had of course provided an English "translation"), of which quite a few
words ended up in the Gaellic dictionary! James' partner and soulmate John
Macpherson took care of the necessary historical background for the
Ossian-forgery. According to this Macpherson The Scottish Highlands (which
are shielded from the Lowlands by the Grampian Mountains) were not, as
conventional history has it, colonized by Irish sailors during the sixth
century. Macpherson provided a counter-history that had the Celts living in
Scotland four centuries before that time, and claimed that the Irish had
stolen their literature from the Scots, and in particular from that Celtic
Homer: Ossian. James Macpherson, the actual inventor of Ossian, supported
his partner's historical claims in his 'Introduction of the history of Great
Britain and Ireland' (1771). Thus a chain of lies was established, that has
not been broken till this day.

        Still, not every Scotsman was equally enthusiastic about the whole
Highland, tartan-kilt fuss. J.G. Lockhart, Walter Scott's son-in-law, wrote
about his father-in-law's reception of George IV in 1822 as a "collective
hallucination", in which the glory of Scotland was identified with the
Celtic tribes that "constitute but a small, almost insignificant part of
the Scottish people." Lord MacCauley, himself a Highlander, wrote that "the
last British king who held a court in Holyrood thought that he could not give
a more striking proof of his respect of the usages which had prevailed in
Scotland before the Union, than by disguising himself in what, before the
Union, was considered by nine Scotchmen out of ten as the dress of a thief."

Lord MacCauley was right: the kilt, that prime symbol of the Scots, was not
the notorious attire worn by the old Scottish clans. On the contrary: the
kilt turns out to have been an invention of the despised British. Irish
immigrants on the Scottish Westcoast wore the traditional Celtic "belted
plaid": a draped blanket that was tied around the waist with a belt. The
Lowland Scots wore plain trousers. It was an English industrial by the name
of Thomas Rawlinson who first introduced the kilt. Rawlinson was the proud
owner of an iron-foundry in Invergarry. He thought that the long Scottish
blankets in which the Highlanders used to dress themselves were well suited
for hunting or climbing mountains, but not for chopping wood and definitely
not for foundring iron. This is why Rawlinson, together with the regimental
tailor of Inverness, dreamt up the kilt: a short-skirted version of the
"belted plaid".

        The kilt got popular when Sir Walter Scott dressed it around the
royal waist of George IV during that historical visit in 1822. Later on,
the kilt was also worn by Albert, the prince consort. Both George and
Albert were Germans (in 1847 Queen Victoria acquired the estate in
Balmoral, where Prince Charles is still running around in his kilt today).
So it turns out that Scotland's most important symbol was thought up by an
Englisman, who was not thinking about safeguarding the traditional Scottish
way of life but of purely modern, industrial considerations. It is also
true that the kilt was promoted by the English royal family as a way to
justify their authority over the whole of the British Isles. Once again, a
romantic symbol is discovered to be a by-product of industrialisation. Once
again, a nationalistic emblem turns out to be a product of the modern
nation-state.

        I've talked about this history at length (it is also treated quite
extensively in Hugh Trevor-Ropers' essay 'The Highland Tradition of Scotland'
in Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger's classic 'The Invention of Tradition')
because it's a classic case-study of a number of confusions,
misunderstandings, lies, manipulations and forgeries that have led to a
contemporary (in this case relatively innocent) reality: the tourist
industry in Edinburgh and other crowd-pullers. The history of the kilt
shows how fictions become incontrovertible "truths" even "traditions"
because of political and industrial interests (Scottish nationalism and
Scottish weavers). Equally absurd stories that are, however, a lot more
horrible can be told about former Yugoslavia, Ruanda, Germany, ... And stories
a lot more insignificant can be told about nationalism in Flanders.

Lie and Disorder

        In his 'Wahrheit und Methode' (1960) Hans-Georg Gadamer
stresses the importance of tradition. He claims (following Heidegger) that
a fundamental unity exists between thought, language and the world. It is
through language that the horizon of the "now" comes into being. This
language, however, is always marked by the past. Through language the past
lives on in the present and thus represents tradition. According to Gadamer
the Enlightenment made an important mistake when it failed to take these
"prejudices" and traditions seriously: the burden of the past was too
easily discarded. Gadamer claims that it is tradition which shapes our
ways of understanding and interpreting the world through language. And this
tradition, he is well aware, does not exist of itself. It must constantly
be embraced, comfirmed and cultivated. It also requires (but Gadamer
doesn't tell us this) reinterpretation and pure make-belief.

In their latest book, 'Antiracisme', the Belgian linguists Blommaert &
Verschueren
are a lot more careful: "Diversity should be taken seriously. In this
process it is
the individual who takes centre stage, not the group. Groups are always
constructed on a basis of arbitrary criteria, of which some are culturally
inspired. Culture does exist in a general sense. And cultural differences
are equally real, if only because they are experienced as a reality. But
just as biology has shown that "race" does not exist (because there are no
population groups that can unequivocally be described on the single basis
of variable biological characteristics), cultures cannot be described as
separate units." In a footnote Blommaert & Verschueren refer to Hobsbawm &
Ranger's 'The Invention of Tradition', which we have cited above.

The kilt-problem that we're confronted with is the following: no matter how
imaginary and fantastic it may be, no matter how closely it is tied to
Macpherson & Macpherson, Walter Scott or the Stuart brothers, the lie has
become a historical reality. The Highland-myth does exist. You can find it
on any bottle of Scotch. You can buy kilts and tartan-fabrics on Princess
Street. The fiction has become a reality. No matter how "fake" or forgered,
tradition does exist.

The bankruptcy of communication

        Inspired by his disgust with such fictions American mathematician
and cyberneticist Norbert Wiener (1894-1964) attached new meaning to the
term "communication". Wiener succeeded where others failed: "communication"
has become a magic word. Just look at those slick youngsters with their
cellular phones, at fax-addicts or the commuters on the information
super-highway.

The truth is that communication also loves to present itself as a natural
phenomenon: we all communicate, and are even unable not to communicate.
Still, the description of human, animal and mechanical interaction in terms
of communication is a fairly recent phenomenon. Communication studies only
came into being after (and as a reaction to) the Second World War. Wiener's
deal of the information-flow (based on apparatuses like the telegraph, the
television or the radio) was designed as a reaction to the hiding and
bending of information which the Nazis displayed in their discourse on the
concentration camps. This means that communication studies have a clear