As we approach another year of Scottish events, we come again to that beloved festival celebrating Scotland’s Poet, Rabbie Burns. Last year we gave you an overview of his life and works, explaining that, despite his tragically early death, the body of writing he left behind has become a great treasury and legacy for Scottish people, and so his birthday is celebrated even to this day.
This year however, we thought we would broaden our horizons a little – for not only is the life of Robert Burns celebrated at home with suppers, recitations and music – but also in public, and worldwide!
Robert Burns was a man of deep passions; his love for humanity and concern with social reform and humanitarianism touched the hearts of people worldwide, and he is still held in memory as not only a great poet of Scotland, but also as a great poet and philosopher of the human condition.
His birthday is mainly celebrated in Scotland, or among the Scottish diaspora prevalent in Australia, Canada and the United States, however he is remembered in other ways too; other than Queen Victoria and Christopher Columbus he has the most statues dedicated to him than any other non-religious figure for example, and his version of the folk song “Auld Lang Syne” is one of the most recognisable songs ever written.
From inspiring Abraham Lincoln in his fight against slavery, to being adopted by the Chinese resistance fighters of WWII, to entertaining 21st century astronauts who took a miniature book of Burns’ verse aboard a 2010 mission, his work has echoed throughout the ages, and remains as touching and relevant today as when it was freshly penned by the educated farmer from Ayrshire.
This poem, one of his most famous, was used during the opening ceremonies of the Scottish Parliament, and is meant as a reminder that wealth or social standing (or lack thereof) should not be the yardstick by which a person’s worth is determined;
A Man’s A Man For A’ That
Is there for honest Poverty
That hings his head, an’ a’ that;
The coward slave-we pass him by,
We dare be poor for a’ that!
For a’ that, an’ a’ that.
Our toils obscure an’ a’ that,
The rank is but the guinea’s stamp,
The Man’s the gowd for a’ that.
What though on hamely fare we dine,
Wear hoddin grey, an’ a that;
Gie fools their silks, and knaves their wine;
A Man’s a Man for a’ that:
For a’ that, and a’ that,
Their tinsel show, an’ a’ that;
The honest man, tho’ e’er sae poor,
Is king o’ men for a’ that.
Ye see yon birkie, ca’d a lord,
Wha struts, an’ stares, an’ a’ that;
Tho’ hundreds worship at his word,
He’s but a coof for a’ that:
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
His ribband, star, an’ a’ that:
The man o’ independent mind
He looks an’ laughs at a’ that.
A prince can mak a belted knight,
A marquis, duke, an’ a’ that;
But an honest man’s abon his might,
Gude faith, he maunna fa’ that!
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
Their dignities an’ a’ that;
The pith o’ sense, an’ pride o’ worth,
Are higher rank than a’ that.
Then let us pray that come it may,
(As come it will for a’ that,)
That Sense and Worth, o’er a’ the earth,
Shall bear the gree, an’ a’ that.
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
It’s coming yet for a’ that,
That Man to Man, the world o’er,
Shall brothers be for a’ that.
Burns has also given his name to a special accolade for humanitarianism, awarded annually on Burns Night by the county of South Ayrshire, his birthplace. The ceremony includes a Burns supper, recitation and Scottish music as well as announcing the winner of the award.
Traditional suppers of the sort most usually celebrated at home are now becoming popular in restaurants and hotels also, especially abroad amongst dedicated Burns groups or other social clubs with a link to Scotland in general or humanitarianism in particular. Attending one of these can be a great opportunity to hear Scots dialect poetry recited natively if you aren’t familiar with the musical tones of the language of lowland Scotland. Some of these events have grown so much they now include concerts, speeches, traditional story-telling, dancing and more – and most are aimed at providing a welcoming family environment to encourage children to learn about this important man and the wonderful country he came from.
Whatever you decide to do this Burns Night, recall also that traditional Scottish clothing is to be expected. Men in kilts are a welcome sight at any time, but especially on this particularly Scottish of evenings, when you may be asked to quote a few lines over dinner – the Selkirk Blessing is useful and easy to remember – or share a dram with a fellow countryman!
We look forward to your comments as always, perhaps you’ve helped to plan a public celebration for Robert Burns, or perhaps you have a strong tradition of your own in recognising his works privately – whatever the method what remains important is the fact that for over 200 years Scots worldwide have remembered and respected the tenets by which this creative and forward thinking man lived and died.
To kick off our 2014 blog, we thought it would be great to go back and look in more depth at a topic we have covered slightly in the past – the terminology for different colour-ways of tartans, and the meaning behind colour selection for some modern tartans!
First we’ll consider the standard clan tartan, in this example transcribed as MacDonald Modern (occasionally, MacDonald Clan Modern). The ‘Modern’ here lets you know that the colours are the standard modern chemical dyes used in tartan weaving. The reds, yellows, blue and greens will be strong and bright, while navy, bottle green and black will be very dark. ‘Modern’ colour ways are of course the most common, and are usually considered the standard by which all other colour variants are derived from.
The next most common colour way is the ‘Ancient’ tartans, as in MacDonald (Clan) Ancient. These colours are still produced using modern chemical dyes (as are all the colourways), but are attempting to mimic the appearance of cloth which has been aged for many years. Ancient colourways became popular in the 1950’s and 60’s when the fad for vivid ‘Modern’ colours had waned slightly. One reason for the enduring popularity of the ‘Ancient’ shades is that the lighter, faded style makes it easier to identify and differentiate the lines in certain patterns. In the Black Watch Modern tartan, for example, it can be difficult to tell the difference between the areas of navy and bottle green as they are so dark. Some people like this subtlety, but others prefer the ‘Ancient’ version where the colours more easy to tell apart.
‘Reproduction’ cloths were next to come along, after the discovery of a tiny fragment of tartan fabric, dating back almost 200 years inspired the weavers at DC Dalgleish to try and recreate the colours present in the sample. These tartans are stronger in hue than the ‘Ancient’ ones, but the colours are overall softer and more natural looking than the ‘Modern’ dyes. Other mills have tried to capture their own versions of this, giving rise to two new colourways which are growing in popularity; ‘Muted’ colours are slightly less bright and artificial looking than ‘Modern’, but not quite as natural as the ‘Reproduction’ colourway, and ‘Weathered’, which is a more extreme version, aiming to look as though the fabric was not only dyed using vegetable dyes, but was then aged for many decades. The ‘Weathered’ palette tends towards greys and browns and may look very different than the original ‘Modern’ scheme, but the pattern and thread-count will remain the same, only the definition for what constitutes red, or blue, or green has differed.
As previously mentioned, pattern variants are noted by a term just after the clan or district name. This may be seen in the MacDonald Old Modern tartan, as an example. These terms will describe in some sense the reason that this variant is different from the main tartan. In the cases where the term ‘Old’ is used, it means either that a new design has been adopted, or that this is an earlier design which was previously unknown, the colourway designation ‘Modern’ here still only refers to the dying process which has been used on the threads. ‘Hunting’, ‘Mourning’, and ‘Dress’ are the other terms commonly used in this way, and it is quite self-explanatory as to the circumstances under which each variant design was used. ‘Hunting’ tartans tend to be developed by clans with a very bright or complicated standard design, to allow for outdoor pursuits in a less showy outfit, ‘Mourning’ tartans are very rare, but consist of replacing the background of a tartan with white, and making the entire overcheck black. Finally we have the ‘Dress’ tartans, which are frequently worn by Highland Dancers. These variants see the background of the tartan be replaced by a pure white ground which makes the overcheck even more vibrant and noticeable when dancing. Dress tartans, along with ‘Hunting’ tartans are by far the most common pattern variations.
But what about colour symbolism? Of course, with most clan tartans, any colour symbolism would only apply to the standard variant, as all the different colourways or other variations can dramatically alter the colours of the finished tartan. However in fact, despite never-ending rumours, the majority of old tartans (i.e. those designed before the 20th century) don’t have any specific symbolism attached to the choices of colours at all. The reason for this is quite simple; when tartans were first developed, the colours were determined by the local availability of dyes, and the wealth of those wearing them. Tartan designers didn’t think of themselves as such as the time, and their selections would have been based on what was naturally pleasing to them while being readily available and affordable for the people they were weaving for. Furthermore, many tartans were “invented” during the Victorian revival of Scottish and specifically Highland fashions. This was not done in a malicious way, but because many of the truly ancient patterns and designs had been lost or forgotten during the period known as Proscription, so clan chiefs had to try to piece these back together from incomplete records, or have new designs made. As such these patterns, while not false, do not necessarily have the same connotations as the older, lost designs.
Modern tartans however, are frequently designed with specific colour symbolism in mind. Because there is no specific system equating particular shades with particular meanings, one shade of blue may be used by three different designers to mean three different things! Perhaps the background of the Saltire flag in a commemorative design, the waters of a local river for a new district tartan, or even the blue eyes of a loved one in a personal tartan! This means there are unlimited possibilities for symbolism when designing a new tartan and it can be very interesting and enlightening to read the notes attached to every official tartan registration to see if there is a particular story or meaning behind each design.
One of our favourites is the World Peace Tartan; a new design registered only a couple of years ago. The tartan was designed to promote a global message of peace and features a very distinctive light blue background – chosen for its similarity to the striking light blue used by the United Nations. Red and black lines cross the overcheck, representing the everyday reality of war and violence which affects our planet, and lines of purple and green, representing the thistle, mark Scotland’s position at the heart of this initiative to raise awareness and promote peace. Finally, strong white lines run through the centre of the black lines, symbolising hope for a peaceful future. Isn’t it wonderful to see how, with just a few ideas for symbolism and using only a handful of common colours, a talented designer can create such a beautiful design?
We would love to hear from you about any tartan symbolism you’ve encountered, or any colourways or variants you have been drawn to – perhaps you have eschewed your standard clan tartan for something a little more offbeat, or perhaps you have designed a tartan yourself in the past? As always comments are welcomed!