The real story on tartans

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The real story on tartans

Sir Walter Scott usually gets the blame for foisting upon Scotland the vision we now have of tartan-kilted, plaid-wearing, claymore-wielding, bagpipe-playing, sword-dancing Noble Savages, bestriding the mist-swirled bens and glens, baking bannocks in a blackhouse and shouting “Och Aye!” every time a Clan Chief goes past.

Of course, that’s a travesty of Scotland. But it’s also a travesty of Scott himself. Yes, he did provoke an outpouring of Highlandry when he organised the visit to Edinburgh of King George IV in 1822, and, yes, he did invent a number of “ancient” traditions more or less on the spot. But at least he was sensible about tartans.

Certainly, the idea of weaving a patterned cloth is ancient – the earliest Scottish example is from the 13th Century. Originally, the patterns was probably typical of a region, using the vegetable dyes common in the area. But the linking of a pattern to a surname is a fairly modern one. There are contemporary paintings of individual Highlanders (including some Chiefs, and fighters at Culloden) wearing two or three different tartans.

Scott knew very well that, in his own words, the "idea of distinguishing the clans by their tartans is but a fashion of modern date . . ." and rejected the idea that Lowlanders ever wore clan tartans. That was in a letter to his close friend Sir Thomas Dick Lauder, Bt., dated 19 November 1829. And what they were discussing was a fake collection of clan tartans of Scottish families, called Vestiarium Scoticum, produced by a pair of rogues and social poseurs calling themselves Sobieski Stuart and claiming to be - or at least allowing themselves to be thought of as - close relatives of Prince Charles Edward Stuart. Their forgery still causes ructions today.


The “Sobieski Stuarts”

It came about like this. In the late 1820s the Sobieski Stuart brothers, then living in Moray, were visiting Sir Thomas Dick Lauder, and produced for his inspection a copy of a document of tartan patterns. This was entitled Liber Vestiarium Scotia (the Book of Scottish Dress) and bore the date 1721 on the first page. The brothers said it came from someone called John Ross of Cromarty, and was a second-rate copy of an earlier manuscript. John Sobieski Stuart later (1842) published the now-notorious “Vestiarium Scoticum: from the Manuscript formerly in the Library of the Scots College at Douay. With an Introduction and Notes”, printed in a limited edition by the highly-reputable publisher, bookseller and radical, William Tait of Edinburgh

In the Preface, the author claimed that it was based on an original manuscript (usually called the Douay MS) of date 1571 or earlier, and said to have been in the hands of John Leslie, Bishop of Ross (1527–1596). The Douay MS itself, claimed Sobieski Stuart, was the "oldest and most perfect" copy of the Vestiarium, the original being even older. From Bishop Leslie, it had then turned up in the library of the Scots College, the famous seminary founded in 1594 and settled at Douai in 1612, for the training of Scottish exiles for the Roman Catholic priesthood. When Bonnie Prince Charlie visited the Scots College in the early 1750s he took possession of the MS, and from there it had found its way to the brothers – they claimed.

We’ll get back to John Sobieski Stuart and Charles Edward Stuart later, but for the moment, let’s concentrate on the book. When Dick saw the copy of the “15th century” manuscript the brothers showed him (which was not claimed to be the Douai copy, you’ll notice), he wrote to his friend Sir Walter Scott on June 1, 1829, recommended the book in the highest terms and stated that several clan chiefs, such as McLeod and Cluny MacPherson had derived their "true and authentic" tartans from it. In his letter to Scott, Lauder described the manuscript, said that he had obtained colour drawings of the 60-odd tartans in it and sent some of these to Scott himself. The book had appendices on arisaids (the traditional Western Islands women's buckled plaid), on hose and on trews. Lauder was keen that the brothers should have the book published and even started pulling together support, costings and silk swatches of the tartan patterns depicted. Lauder was completely taken in.

Not so Sir Walter Scott. Apart from his reputation as a novelist, the inventor of Scottish Tourism (thank you, Sir Walter!) and the most famous man in Europe at the time, Scott was a good antiquarian. Replying to Lauder on June 5, 1829, Scott articulated his scepticism of both the manuscript and the brothers themselves, and asked that a copy be sent to him, so that he and other experts could examine it. It was in this letter that he stated his doubts that Lowlanders had ever worn tartans, pointed out that there was no supporting evidence (including any mention in the writings of Bishop Leslie) and took the view that the title Vestiarium Scotia was, as he said, "false Latin" (it should have been Vestiarium ScoticumScotia is nominative, meaning “Scotland” rather that genitive “of Scotland”, which would be Scotiae, or the adjective Scoticum, “Scottish”).

Sir Thomas wrote back on July 20, 1829, describing the (alleged) 1571 original from which the 1721 copy he saw was derived – even though he hadn’t seen that “original” but said it was in the possession of the brothers' father in London. He also discussed the brothers' personalities and credibility, and allowed that their "quixotism” (by which he probably meant romantic impracticality) “must render these very unfortunate individuals for the introduction of a piece of antiquarian matter to the world…". In other words, no-one would believe them. Yet Lauder did, declare again his belief in the MS’s authenticity, and taking issue with the "false Latin" and the supposed use of tartans in the Lowlands of Scotland.

The last letter in this epistolary tussle was from Scott to Lauder, dated 19 November 1829. Scott stuck by his rejection of the authenticity of the Vestiarium and dismissed the whole idea of Clan tartans as a “fashion of modern date " – which Sir Walter himself had helped to foster by organising George IV's 1822 visit to  Edinburgh.

Nonetheless, published the Vestiarium Scoticum was in 1842 (Scott had been dead 10 years, but was presumably spinning in his grave) complete with a list of "Highland clans" and "Lowland Houses and Border Clans", with some rather fanciful spellings which the brothers doubtless felt were suitably and authentically ancient (see below) such as “Fryjjelis in ye Ayrd” for Fraser..

Fewer than 100 copies of Vestiarium Scoticum were published (“printed” would be a better term for such a low-level activity) but the brothers produced another book in 1847, The Tales of the Century, which was a lightly-fictionalised claim by them to be direct descendants of Prince Charles Edward Stuart, the Young Pretender. This provoked a response, in terms of a critique of the Vestiarium Scoticum, in the June 1847 issue of The Quarterly Review. We now know this anonymous piece to have been penned by Prof. George Skene of Glasgow University and Rev. Dr. Mackay, editor of the Highland Society's Gaelic Dictionary. In reply to the dismantling of its authenticity by Skene and Mackay, John Sobieski Stuart replied in the an 1848 Quarterly Review and offered the 1721 Cromarty MS for inspection. This appears never to have happened and Skene’s demand for the original manuscript (the one said to have belonged to Bishop Leslie) to be brought out. To this day, no-one except the brothers (they claim) has ever seen the Leslie-Douai copy.

The affair went further. The Glasgow Herald published a number of articles in 1895 by Andrew Ross, entitled "The Vestiarium Scoticum, is it a forgery?". Ross did get his hands on the 1721 Cromarty MS, gave a detailed description of it and even had it chemically analysed by Stevenson Macadam, Lecturer (and later Professor) in Chemistry at the University of Edinburgh and a Public Analyst. Macadam reported that the document had been treated chemically to give it an appearance of age and concluded that it "cannot be depended upon as an ancient document".

No second edition of the Vestiarium Scoticum was ever published, although Dunbar's History of Highland Dress (1962) has many excerpts from the first edition and there are copies available for view in various libraries, including the Burns House Museum in Mauchline, Ayshire, and the Scottish Tartans Museum in Franklin, NC, USA has produced scans of the title page and images of the 75 tartans ( D. C. Stewart and J. C. Thompson did a proper, forensic demolition job on the Vestiarium Scoticum and the historical claims of the brothers in Scotland's Forged Tartans (1980), concluding that it was a fabrication, the universally-held view of tartan scholars today, except a few isolated flat-earthers.

The vast majority of the 'ancient' clan tartans in the Vestiarium came only from the fertile imagination of John and his brother Charles (the illustrator) although they were jumped on by Clan Chiefs and, predictably, the tartan weaving industry. Scott himself had suspected the hand of the weavers in the origin of the Cromarty MS, suggesting it started out life “behind the counter of one of the great clan-tartan warehouses which used to illuminate the principal thoroughfares of Edinburgh”, which sentiment could be replaced today by “the counters of the many tartan-tat shops which line the High Street and Princes Street”.

So, who were the Sobiesky Stuart Brothers?

As is now well-known, they were Welsh, and their surname was Allen. John (Sobieski Stuart) Carter Allen and Charles (Edward Stuart) Manning Allen were born in Wales in the late 1700s, although their father, Naval Officer Thomas Hay Allen, claimed Hay ancestry, related to the Earl of Erroll. The brothers may have learned a lot at their father’s knee, as he seems to have been in debt, often lived abroad, used an assumed name and made up his ancestry. He died in Clerkenwell in 1852.

It wasn’t until 1811 (the brothers say) that they discovered they were descended from the Stuart kings, and in the 1871 census entry gave their birthplace as Versailles. When they moved to Scotland some time in or before 1822, they first changed their surname to the Scottish spelling, Allan, then to Hay Allan, and finally to Hay. John published a Genealogical table of the Hays in 1840 In 1822 John published The Bridal of Caölchairn and other poems under the name John Hay Allan, and had the sheer effrontery to produce another edition the same year under the name Walter Scott.

In the 1830s (having failed to persuade Scott that their Cromarty MS was genuine) they moved to Eilean Aigas on the River Beauly in Inverness-shire, where Lord Lovat, completely taken in by the brothers, gave them a hunting lodge which they tricked out as a royal court with thrones, fake heraldry, pennants, seals and all the rest. It was during their stay at Eilean Aigas that they started using the surname Stuart and became practising Catholics. Highland chiefs and nobles became their patrons, including Sir Francis Stuart, 10th Earl of Moray.

They followed the publication of the Vestiarium Scoticum with The Costume of the Clans. With observations upon the literature, arts, manufactures and commerce of the Highlands and Western Isles during the Middle Ages; and the influence of the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries upon their present condition (1844), equally a farrago of fake scholarship and sheer fantasy.

The attack by Skene and Mackay in the Quarterly Review did dent their reputation and they disappeared from Scotland, but were later to be seen in the British Library in London, wearing Highland dress and writing with pens bearing gold coronets. They did return to Scotland, but only to be buried in Eskadale, about 15 miles WSW of Inverness.

Almost everything about them is a richly-embroidered fantasy. Their supposed connection to the Stuarts was by a claim that their grandfather, Admiral John Carter Allen, had only fostered their father Thomas, whose "true" father was Bonnie Prince Charlie. And how did this come to pass?

Clementina Sobieski (Maria Klementyna Sobieska) was the granddaughter of John III (Sobieski), King of Poland, and married the "Old Pretender", Prince James Francis Edward Stuart. The Allen brothers claimed him as their "true" grandfather. James and Clementina had...
   (i) Charles Edward Louis Philip Casimir Stuart (1720–1788), the "Young Pretender", Bonnie Prince Charlie, who married Louise of Stolberg-Gedern in 1772 (he was 51, she 19);
  (ii) Henry Benedict Maria Clement Thomas Francis Xavier Stuart (1725–1807), Cardinal Duke of York, who never married.

Charles and Louise had no children, but Charles already had, by an affair with his cousin Marie Louise de La Tour d'Auvergne (also a great-grandchild of John III) and with his mistress Clementina Walkinshaw, who came from Glasgow, Scotland.

The child of Charles and Marie Louise was Charles Godefroi Sophie Jules Marie de Rohan (Marie Louise was married to Jules Hercule Mériadec de Rohan, Duke of Montbazon, Prince of Guéméné) who died aged  less than 6 months old in 1748 and was buried in the Rohan-Guemene crypt in Paris.

Charles and Clementina Maria Sophia Walkinshaw (1720–1802) had a daughter, Charlotte, on 29 October 1753. Charles refused to recognise her, but towards the end of his life they were reconciled and Charlotte was (possibly) legitimated in 1783

Charlotte became the carer for her increasingly drunken and dissolute father from 1784 until his death in1788. She died a year later and left her mother a principal sum and an annuity, but Charles’s brother, the Cardinal Duke of York (now considered King Henry IX by his Jacobite supporters) refused to hand it over for two years until Clementina signed a "quittance" renouncing any further claim on behalf of herself and her descendants. This effectively ruled out Charlotte’s children while mistress of Ferdinand Maximilien Mériadec de Rohan, Archbishop of Bordeaux and Cambrai as heirs to Prince Charles. They were: Marie Victoire, Charlotte, and (tellingly) Charles Edward Augustus Maximilian Stuart, Baron Korff, Count Roehenstart (ca. May 1784 – 28 October 1854). Notice the combination of Rohan and Stuart in Roehenstart. He pursued the Jacobite claim in a half-hearted way, but often visited Scotland (he died and was buried at Dunkeld in 1854 on his way from a visit to the Duke of Atholl at Blair Castle). He married twice, but there were no children.

John Allan sometimes called himself John Sobieski Stolberg Stuart, a reference to Princess Louise of Stolberg-Gedern. He used the title Count d'Albanie, as did Charles on John's death in 1872 and when Charles died on a steamer on a trip to France in 1880, his son did likewise and is buried as Count d'Albanie.

If there is a claim to the Jacobite succession, it has fluttered down through Charles Emmanuel IV of Sardinia (a descendant of Charles I in the female line) and two more generations of the House of Savoy, via the House of Austria-Este to the current Duke of Bavaria, whose great-nephew was born in London in 1995, Prince Joseph Wenzel Maximilian Maria von und zu Liechtenstein, Count of Rietberg. When he succeeds his father, Alois (b. 1968), as Hereditary Prince of Liechtenstein, he will become a Head of State.

So who needs independence for Scotland? We can just wait until 2050 or so and be taken over by Leichtenstein!


Dunbar, John Telfer. History of highland dress: A definitive study of the history of Scottish costume and tartan, both civil and military, including weapons, Edinburgh, 1962.

Fraser, Marie. John Sobieski Stolberg Stuart & Charles Edward Stuart

Reynolds, K.D. Stuart, John Sobieski Stolberg in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

Robb, Steven. The Sobieski Stuart Brothers, Royal Stuart Review 2003.

Trevor-Roper, Hugh. The Highland Tradition of Scotland in The Invention of Tradition ed. Hobsbawm and Ranger (1983)

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