During my own tartan phase (c. 1939-1943), when my parents used to dress me up in Highland costume for special occasions such as the family banquet on Christmas Eve, the visit to the Sick Children's Hospital to hear the King's speech through the PA on Christmas afternoon, and visits to wealthy patients of my father's some way up the twin river valleys from Aberdeen, I might well have run away screaming, tearing off my Graham of Montrose kilt and matching trews (tartan underpants), the blue-green Harris-tweed jacket and waistcoat with staghorn buttons, the bottle-green Balmoral stockings and tooled black brogues and seal-fur sporran, had I been able (aged nine) to find out from such a book as this latest work of John Prebble's that all these tartans were nothing but hype: a stunt devised chiefly by Scott to make George IV's visit to Edinburgh in August 1822 as splendiferous as possible. In his anonymous shilling pamphlet 'HINTS addressed to the INHABITANTS OF EDINBURGH AND OTHERS in prospect of HIS MAJESTY'S VISIT by an Old Citizen', Scott dubbed a principal event of the visit (the dance at the Assembly Rooms in George Street) a 'Highland Ball' and warned all citizens that 'no Gentleman is to be allowed to appear in any thing but the ancient Highland costume' - 'this noblest of all British costumes'. George himself turned up in a field-marshal's coat and blue pantaloons, plus the riding boots he had worn at a military parade in the morning, and he left after a couple of hours: the dances played by Nathaniel Gow the fiddler's band at once 'became less Highland and more fashionable'. Perhaps the corpulent King had been appalled by his own image in the mirror before the levee at Holyrood, when he had worn 'full Highland dress', described by the painter David Wilkie as kilt and hose 'with a kind of flesh-coloured pantaloons underneath' and by a Lowland laird as 'the Royal Tartan Highland dress with buff-coloured trowsers like flesh to imitate his Royal knees, and little bits of Tartan stocking like other Highlanders halfway up his legs'.
LRB 5 January 1989 | PDF Download