The Story of the Carolina Tartan

Tartan Colors
Tartan Fraud?

Tartan Fraud

No story would be complete without a little controversy, and the world of tartan is no exception!  Tartan frauds have been around since the nineteenth century, when the infamous Sobieski Stuart brothers toured the Highlands claiming to be the heirs to "Bonnie Prince Charlie" and living off of their fame and reputation.  In 1842 they published a book entitled Vestiarium Scoticum that was supposedly taken from a sixteenth century manuscript detailing the patterns of all the original clan tartans.  Of course no one but the brothers themselves had seen the manuscript! 

In reality, of course, the concept of a "clan tartan" does not date back any further than the late eighteenth century.  The alleged manuscript never existed and the Vestiarium Scoticum was a complete hoax, with the Sobieski Stuart brothers creating many of the tartan designs themselves!

The Sobieski Stuarts were not alone in the business of tartan fraud.  The records of famed tartan firm William Wilson and Sons of Bannockburn (external link) include an early nineteenth century letter from a tartan merchant, no doubt seeking to fill a customer's order.  “Please send me a piece of Rose tartan,” he writes, “and if there isn’t one, please send me a different pattern and call it Rose.”

In a more modern context, one Austrian company in recent years has attempted to market tartan patterns discovered in archaeological digs in that country with the bogus claim that the kilt was invented not in the Highlands of Scotland, but in pre-historic Austria!

Tartan is an industry, and unfortunately there will always be those few in the business who will attempt to mislead people in order to make money.  In recent years, confusion has arisen regarding the existence of two individual tartans for the state of North Carolina and South Carolina. 

In 2003, David McGill, owner of a small private design and retail company in Edinburgh called International Tartans, designed a "North Carolina" tartan at the request of someone named "Charles" from Flatbranch, NC, (no last name is given on his web site).  He was supposedly "dissatisfied with the fact" that the Carolina tartan had been formally adopted by the NC Legislature.  Shortly thereafter, a woman from Sumter, SC, heard of the new "North Carolina" design and commissioned McGill to also design a tartan for South Carolina.  Again, the reason stated on the International Tartans Web site is "dissatisfaction" with the "patronizingly named Carolina tartan." 

No explanation is given as to why the name of the Carolina tartan is supposed to be "patronizing," but this is simply part of a larger campaign to discredit the Carolina tartan and promote his new designs.  On his web site, McGill also calls the Carolina tartan "mysteriously named" and "even more mysteriously provenanced."  Perhaps the most astonishing claim he makes is that when states pass legislation to adopt a tartan, they "are not making that tartan official or exercising any authority." 

McGill claims that his two new tartans are the tartans for "all true North [and South] Carolinians."  He even offers to name those who wear his tartans "Armigers," which is completely fraudulent.  An Armiger is someone who bears heraldic Arms (nothing to do with tartan), and only the Lord Lyon has such authority in Scotland. 

The so-called "North Carolina" and "South Carolina" tartans are copyrighted proprietary designs, and as such, they may only be purchased through McGill's company, International Tartan.  The actual Carolina tartan, as an official symbol of both NC and SC, is in the public domain.

The Scottish Tartans Authority makes this statement about International Tartans.

David McGill's company has designed quite a wide range of fashion tartans and given them the names of counties/areas...  It is believed that one or two of them might have come to be accepted as district tartans by usage in some areas, but until proof of widespread usage or official acceptance is supplied, they can only be regarded as fashion tartans by the Scottish Tartans Authority.

The truth of the matter is that the official tartan of the State of North Carolina is the Carolina tartan.  And the official tartan of the State of South Carolina is the Carolina tartan.  Private individuals who, for whatever reason, did not like the sanctioned Carolina tartan commissioned a retail company to design new tartans for NC and SC.  These tartans have no official standing with either state.  (It is a little like someone deciding on their own that the daisy would make a better state flower for NC than the dogwood, or the SC flag really ought to have a maple on it, not a palmetto). 

If people choose to wear these fashion tartans, they are of course free to do so.  But those wishing to wear the actual State tartan recognized by North and South Carolina should wear the Carolina tartan.  Any attempt to discredit the Carolina tartan, as is being done by International Tartans, is dishonest and does injustice to those who worked diligently to have the Carolina tartan adopted through the official legal processes of their respective states.

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