All Things Scottish:

 Material Culture and the Scottish Revival in North America

Invented Tradition

One of the central themes framing this investigation is that of the "invented tradition". In the introduction to the book, The Invention of Tradition, the historian Eric Hobsbawm argues that invented tradition includes,  "both "traditions"actually invented, constructed and formally instituted and those emerging in a less easily traceable manner with a brief and dateable period - a matter of a few years perhaps - and establishing themselves with great rapidity." These "invented traditions" are "a set of practices, normally governed by overtly or tacitly accepted rules and of a ritual or symbolic nature, which seek to inculcate certain values and norms of behaviour by repetition, which automatically implies continuity with the past." Usually, they try to establish links with a suitable historic past  but their connection with this past is tenuous at best. In sum, Hobsbawm writes, invented traditions  "are responses to novel situations which take the form of reference to old situations, or which establish their own past by quasi-obligatory repetition."

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Hugh Trevor-Roper recounts three aspects of the Highland tradition of Scotland which, he argues,  are invented traditions in the sense described above. The first of these is the invention of a Scots-Gaelic epic poet called Ossian who's supposed writing was "discovered" and "translated" in the 1760s. Promoters of Ossian, Trevor-Roper contends, popularized the idea that Scottish-Highland culture was a distinct and an ancient one. The second is the invention of the modern kilt sometime after about 1727 by a Quaker industrialist named Thomas Rawlinson and its quick adoption in many parts of the Highland and Northern Lowlands by about 1768.

The third invented aspect of the Highland tradition of Scotland, Trevor-Roper argues, is that of tartan. Family tartans, as they are now generally conceived, probably never existed. Instead, tartans probably were regionally based with different patterns belonging to different areas of the country. What tartan one wore was mainly a decision based on preference or fashion. The wearing of kilt and tartan became popular in the nineteenth century because of  the romantic interest in the idea of the noble savage and the exploits of the Highland regiments in India and America. Thus, following the lifting of the ban of Highland dress that was imposed after the 1745 Jacobite Rebellion, Highland noblemen, anglicized Scottish peers, improving gentry, well-educated Edinburgh lawyers and prudent merchants of Aberdeen - "men who were not constrained by poverty and who would never have to skip over rocks and bogs or lie all night in the hills" - took to wearing the modern kilt as a new fashion. In this way, the entire Scottish nation adopted the bogus Highland symbols of kilt and tartan.

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Any questions or comments? Feel free to e-mail me: rmaclean@chass.utoronto.ca.