Monday, January 11, 2010

Kilts, Tartans, and Mimesis

The great civilizationist Arnold Toynbee believed that healthy Civilizations have the ability to bedazzle barbarians so as to make them want to imitate the practices of the Civilization to which they are attracted, which process Toynbee called “mimesis”. As a Civilization declines, it loses the ability to impress barbarians; and the barbarians become less likely to imitate the customs of the decaying Civilization. Nevertheless, Toynbee would admit that even in late stage Civilizations, some imitation does occur.

Such mimesis accounts for most of the acquisition of culture by barbarians. Obvious late stage examples of mimesis include the Teutonic and Slavic barbarians’ conversion to Christianity, and their adoption of Roman titles and offices such as “prince”, “duke”, “count”, and “czar/kaiser”.

Some examples of influence of a Civilization on barbarians are more convoluted. The prime example that comes to mind is the fact that the Spanish introduced horses to the Americas. Some of their horses got loose and ran wild, becoming mustangs. The Plains Indians independently domesticated the mustangs. Eventually, the great horse cultures of the Plains were based almost entirely on the horses that the Spanish had originally introduced. Thus, although neither the Plains Indians nor most Europeans realized it, virtually the entire buffalo hunting culture of the Great Plains would not have existed without the incursion of Western Civilization into the New World.

However, none of the foregoing examples of mimesis are as interesting as the story of kilts and tartans. In The Invention of Tradition ( Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger, eds.), to the dismay of Scotsmen everywhere, Hugh Trevor-Roper opines in his chapter, “The Highland Tradition of Scotland”, that the kilt was invented by an English Quaker from Lancashire named Thomas Rawlinson, who owned iron ore furnaces in Furness. When his coal supply ran low, he made a deal in 1727 with a MacDonell clan chief for a lease of a wooded area and employed Highlanders to fell trees to fuel a furnace that he set up in Invergarry.

Rawlinson’s Highlanders wore their traditional dress, which was essentially a heavy robe. Unfortunately, the heavy robes made it difficult to chop wood, so Rawlinson’s solution was to separate the top of the robe from the bottom. In this way the arms were freed to work. The result was the kilt, which was first worn by Rawlinson himself, then by his friend and associate, the MacDonell clan chief, and his subordinates, and then, through mimesis, by other Highlanders.

The story of the clan tartans is even more disturbing, and more recent. It seems that the idea of differentiated clan tartans arose after the repeal of the post-1745 Parliamentary ban on Highland dress, which ban lasted until 1782. During the ban, the only kilts and tartans that could be legally worn were those of Highland regiments in the British Army, each of which had its own pattern. When the ban was lifted, the textile merchants saw the opportunity to attract a larger market. Highlanders and things Highland were back in vogue; as Trevor-Roper puts it, “Before 1745 the Highlanders had been despised as idle predatory barbarians… But after 1746, … they combined the romance of a primitive people with the charm of an endangered species.” So certain textile merchants decided that if they could get certain patterns declared to be of this or that clan, business would boom. Therefore, they had the Highland Society (founded 1778) of London certify the various clan tartans, which patterns previously had simply been designated by numbers. Thus were the clan tartans differentiated, in London, no less.

Trevor-Roper’s arguments seem well-supported. If he is right, then I believe that kilts and tartans may represent the only known example of products made by a Civilization specifically for neighboring barbarians, who adopt the products lock, stock, and barrel as their national symbols, so that the products’ true origin is forgotten; and everyone then assumes for 250 years that the barbarians developed the products themselves as part of their customs and traditions. Perhaps there are other such examples; I doubt it.

By W. Reed Smith

1 comment:

  1. The blog cites historian Trevor-Roper claiming the highland kilt was invented by an Englishman for commercial purposes. Given Trevor-Roper's authentication of the forged Hitler diaries, among many other things, I never accept any claim of his without independent verification. His name is a caution for any claim. Sure enough a simple web search turned up a Wikipedia article on "The history of the kilt" which disputes him significantly, as well as
    claims on the tartan. Certainly, the English (and the lowlanders)may have popularized and romanticized these for commercial and political reasons, but that is a different matter.
    Incidentally, it would appear on either account that the cloth objects are not examples of mimesis in Toynbee's sense, because they
    were not imitations of admired objects of a different civilization which they were highly attracted.

    Ernie Hook