Sometime around the 1980s, maybe, a rough, yellow-tinged piece of fabric, slightly larger than a placemat, was pulled from a peat bog in Glen Affric, Scotland. The cloth is a swatch of tartan, the fabric associated with Scottish kilts, featuring the telltale interlocked stripes of various sizes and colors. (The term also applies to the pattern, which many know as plaid. But not all plaids are tartan, and to add to the confusion, in Scotland a plaid is a long piece of tartan that is pleated and wrapped around the body.) How and when this fabric, now known as the Glen Affric tartan, found its way into the peat is a bit of a mystery, and now, researchers are starting to unravel its checkered past, one that places it in a unique position in Scottish cultural and sartorial history.
Tartan historian Peter MacDonald, head of research and collections at the Scottish Tartans Authority (STA), a nonprofit dedicated to the promotion and preservation of tartans, had an inkling that this fabric piece was special. When the V&A Dundee, a branch of London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, inquired about old tartan specimens the STA might lend for an exhibition, MacDonald knew just the one. It was the Glen Affric, but the question of its actual age was still unanswered. Over the following six months, analytical scientists from National Museums Scotland analyzed the fabric’s dyes, and a team from SUERC Radiocarbon Laboratory in East Kilbride carbon dated the cloth. They confirmed that it is officially Scotland’s oldest true tartan, dating to the 16th century, predating other candidates by over a century and providing a window into the persisting importance of the Scottish icon.