On Thursday, 2 April 2020, former TRC volunteer Alice Jaspars writes from London:
In times such as these, the importance of tradition is evident. Seeking to align ourselves with histories, both national and personal, is one way in which we can anchor ourselves when the world seems increasingly uncertain.
Yet many of the traditions we consider to be the oldest are in fact recent and even invented. There is no better example of this than the adoption of the Scottish kilt. Worn by school children and members of the armed forces alike, the tartan garb unites classes and nations in kind.
The TRC’s own example of a kilt (TRC 2016.0571b) was donated by Magdalene Kircher and is believed to be one worn by a member of the 78th Highlands Regiment, with the kilt pin worn to prevent the garment from indecently exposing its occupant. While kilts were worn in combat up to World War One (1914-1918), it is most likely this one was reserved for ceremonial dress.
According to the British academic Eric Hobsbawm (1917-2012), the invention and maintenance of tradition allows us to understand how new traditions may be created (Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger, 1983, The Invention of Tradition, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press). He argues that the first role of tradition is as a form of social cohesion through bonding a group in a collective action; the second is to legitimize the power base of an individual; and the third is to necessitate some kind of socialization.
The invention of the kilt in the 1800s fulfils the first and third of these, although it could be argued to have been exploited for the legitimization of power when it was briefly banned. The kilt was planted in social memory through a number of means, mainly through the work of the brothers Allen. Through a desire among the Irish immigrants in the Scottish Highlands to place themselves in Scottish history the kilt has now become part of the way in which Scots view themselves and how the world views them.
Clan tartan has become a point of pride, even for a number of people with arguably questionable links to Scotland. The humble kilt is evidence of our ability to formulate tradition and subsequent identity. It is far more than simply a piece of tartan.