The Invention of Tradition

I was rereading chunks of Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger’s imperishable classic, The Invention of Tradition, the other night, while munching on a Chinese takeaway, and this passage made me laugh and laugh…

Pinkerton had a ready listener in Sir John Sinclair himself. In 1794 Sinclair had raised a local military force — the Rothesay and Caithness Fencibles — to serve against France, and after careful research had decided to dress his troops not in the kilt (he knew all about Quaker Rawlinson) but in tartan trews. Next year he decided to appear at court in Highland dress, including trousers of a tartan specially designed by himself. But before committing himself, he consulted Pinkerton. Pinkerton expressed his delight that Sinclair had substitute ‘trousers or pantaloons for the philibeg’, for that supposed ancient dress (he wrote) ‘is in fact quite modern, and any improvement may be made without violating antiquity. Nay, the trousers are far more ancient than the philibeg’. Even the plaid and the tartan, he added, were not ancient. Having thus disposed of the antiquity of the whole outfit ascribed to ‘our Celtic ancestors’, Pinkerton turned to its intrinsic merit. The philibeg, he declared, ‘is not only grossly indecent, but is filthy, as it admits dust to the skin and emits the foetor of perspiration’; it is absurd, because while the breast is twice covered by vest and plaid, ‘the parts concealed by all other nations are but loosely covered; it is also effeminate, beggarly and ugly: for ‘nothing can reconcile the tasteless regularity and vulgar glow of tartan to the eye of fashion, and every attempt to introduce it has failed’. Sir John’s own private tartan, Pinkerton hastened to add, had ‘avoided all such objections’ and by using only two very mild colours had secured ‘a very pleasing general effect’.

So wrote ‘the celebrated antiquary Mr Pinkerton’. He wrote in vain. For by now the Highland regiments had taken over the philibeg and their officers had easily convinced themselves that this short kilt had been the national dress of Scotland since time immemorial. Against a firm military order the tremulous voice of mere scholarship protests in vain, and any denial received short shrift. In 1804, the War Office — perhaps influenced by Sir John Sinclair — contemplated replacing the kilt by the trews, and duly sounded serving officers. Colonel Cameron, of the 79th regiment, was outraged. Was the High Command, he asked, really proposing to stop ‘that free circulation of pure wholesome air’ under the kilt which ‘so peculiarly fitted the Highlander for activity‘? I sincerely hope’, protested the gallant colonel, ‘that His Royal Highness will never acquiesce in so painful and degrading an idea… as to strip us of our native garb and stuff us into a harlequin tartan pantaloon’…

— “The Highland Tradition of Scotland”, by Hugh Trevor-Roper, in Hobsbawm and Ranger, eds., The Invention of Tradition, 1983, pp.27-8.

0 thoughts on “The Invention of Tradition”

  1. Much of the nonsense about ‘clan tartans’ is just that–nonsense. The kilt, in one form or another, however, does seem to have ancient origins. Above all it is, in the words of one twentieth century colonel of a highland regiment, ‘an unrivalled garment for diarrhoea or fornication.’

  2. Trevor-Roper was prone to fall for fakes, wasn’t he? Of course the tartan business is a very over-egged pudding, but 17th century descriptions and paintings leave no doubt that tartan plaidery predates Rawlinson massively. Anyway, how can the Quaker cove adapt a dress style if that style doesn’t already exist? As my wife said as she listened to Trevor-Roper’s press conference about the Hitler Diaries “Bugger me, the old fraud doesn’t even understand colloquial German.”

  3. T-R doesn’t make the errors you suggest. He notes that in the seventeenth century, when Highlanders fought in the civil wars, “Both officers and men wore the plaid, the former as an upper garment, the latter covering the whole body, belted round the waist so that the lower part, below the belt, formed a kind of skirt.” (p.20)

    And he claims the Rawlinson invented the modern kilt to replace “the belted plaid”, “which was achieved by separating the skirt from the plaid and converting it into a distinct garment, with pleats already sewn. (p.22)

  4. T-R’s problem was that having established himself as a leading early modern British historian with his 1940 book on Archbishop Laud, his war service took him into British Military Intelligence and the ruins of Berlin where he was tasked with investigating the fate of Hitler.

    As the resulting book was a best seller on both sides of the Atlantic he was then wrongly identified by the media as a leading expert on all things Nazi, which both bolstered his bank balance and tickled his not inconsiderable vanity.

    Other than a not particularly distinguished translation of Bormann’s transcripts of Hitler’s table talk (where given his well-known opinion ‘that life is too short to learn German’ I suspect much of the real work was done by others) he then contributed nothing substantial to our knowledge of the Third Reich until the Hitler Diaries fiasco.

    In his own field though he was as rigorous as they come and the Highland Tradition essay is pretty solid and to my mind should be required reading in every Scottish school.

  5. Reading the ‘that free circulation of pure wholesome air’ quote unpleasantly reminded me of a passage in Niall Ferguson’s Pity of War which IIRC stated that kilted Scottish regiments in WW1 suffered far worse casualties than other British units from mustard gas – as the gas primarily works by attacking exposed sweaty areas of skin causing them to itch and blister horribly – so the more skin is exposed the more the target suffers.

    Not sure how far this explains the WW1 Highlanders ferocious reputation and tendency to shoot their German prisoners out of hand.

  6. “T-R doesn’t make the errors you suggest”: perhaps not in his scholarly writing, but he certainly did in his journalism. Or would one blame the subeditor?

  7. ‘that life is too short to learn German’ : in an era when organic chemists routinely learned German, that is appalling self-indulgence. Keynes was guilty of it too.

  8. I was under the impression that T-R did know German — at any rate, I recall that his published work, and some of his correspondence, suggests acquaintance with German texts. One wonders both whether he actually said tha ‘life is too short…’ quote, and if he meant it seriously (knowing something of T-R, the latter seems unlikely).
    And I think ‘the errors you suggest’ refers to your critique of the chapter on tartans, dearieme, and not the Hitler diaries affair. As for the latter: I realise that it’s an easy (cheap) shot to take, but perhaps a single (albeit, pretty big) mistake made later in life isn’t a sufficient basis for criticising any and all of T-R’s work?

  9. I have no doubt that T-R knew German when he was an intelligence officer as he would have been of limited use without it, and he obviously had at least some involvement in editing the Hitler’s Table Talk translation that appeared under his name, but it doesn’t surprise me that he’d apparently forgotten much of it by the eighties.

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