Plaid fabric is fairly innocuous. It’s been borrowed by all sorts of groups in America, from hipsters to lumberjacks and punk rockers to professors.
But, in the 18th century, it was the semi-official uniform of Scottish rebels branded as terrorists by the Protestant King George II.
King James II and his wife, Anne, before they were violently deposed and forced to flee to France and exile.
The problems started in 1688 when Catholic King James II was overthrown by a Protestant rebellion. In his absence, who, exactly, would be the legal holder of power in England was thrown up for debate. Would the Catholic king, who had cast away the Seal of the Realm while fleeing to France, or the Protestant William III and his wife, Mary, be the true authority of England?
Different political bodies in England and in other European capitols came down on different sides of the debate, but Mary was crowned queen and her husband became king. But the descendants of James II maintained their claim to the throne in exile. In 1745, James II’s grandson, Charles, made a play for the throne.
“Bonnie Prince Charlie,” the world’s hardest pandering claimant to the English throne in 1745.
Boasting Scottish blood, Charles decided to start his campaign in Scotland in 1745. The Parliament of Scotland had initially acquiesced to the rise of Queen Mary and King William III, but the Scottish, as a whole, still supported Catholic rule. And Scotland had been angered by a series of acts by London and the Crown during the early 1700s, including the dissolution of the Parliament of Scotland.
To cement his political standing with the Scots, Charles arrived in the country in a plaid coat. Plaid patterns in Scotland are known as tartans, and they had been a popular part of Scottish identity for centuries.
The ploy worked, and many Scots, especially Highland Scots, decided to support the invasion, creating the Jacobites, as they were known. But, some Lowland Scots supported Mary and William, leading to fighting in Scotland even before Charles began his push south.
Soldiers of a Highland Regiment just before the Jacobite uprising. After the uprising, soldiers serving the British crown could continue to wear patterns like this, but it was banned for nearly all others.
The Highland Scots, often wearing their traditional garb made with tartan fabrics, delivered a number of victories to “Bonnie Prince Charlie” (Think Braveheart clothing but The Patriot weapons).
But popular support for Charles and the House of Stuart dried up the further the Jacobites marched south, and so they were soon forced to start pulling back north with his largely Scottish forces.
This led to the Battle of Culloden in April, 1746, where Charles and the Scots attempted to score a defensive victory against government forces led by the Duke of Cumberland. Both sides were bogged down in the mud, but greater numbers on the Protestant side allowed them to pin down Scottish fighters with some units while others maneuvered. Their artillery advantage played a large role, as well.
Battle of Culloden, where a Jacobite uprising supporting a Catholic claim to the British throne was ended by government forces.
But the real brilliance of the Protestant attack came in how they ordered men to attack with bayonets during hand-to-hand fighting. Rather than fencing with the man directly in front of them, as was normal, the men were ordered to thrust into the exposed right side of the enemy adjacent to them.
Charles fled the country, never to return. But the Scots he left behind found themselves in the unenviable position of being stuck in the kingdom they had just rebelled against.
They were branded as terrorists and insurgents, and many of those who took part in the rebellion were hunted and executed. Meanwhile, their traditional fabric had been outlawed for general wear. Only highlanders who joined the British military were allowed to wear tartan fabrics, and usually only in Scottish units.
The ban was lifted in 1782, but by then, many of the traditional patterns had been lost and weavers had died. Still, it slowly grew in popularity once again.
Oddly enough, its popularity had greatly grown among Lowland Scots who had fought against their tartan-wearing brethren. They collected tartan patterns like souvenirs of their fathers’ victories over the Catholics.
Finally, the Protestant aristocracy embraced the pattern after King George IV visited Edinburgh and led a tartan procession of Highland chiefs through the Scottish city.
Now, of course, its popular around the world, but known as plaid in the States. Scottish clans reclaimed their historic patterns or generated new ones that would be tied to families forever. It’s no longer the fabric of a military rebellion. It’s just a cool pattern, often woven of warm cloths, like flannel.
In fact, the rebellious nature of the pattern has been so degraded that one of the most recognizable and broadly used tartan patterns is that of the the Royal House of Stewart, the royal family of England which defeated the 1745-1746 Jacobite Rebellion and then outlawed the fabric for almost 40 years. Oddly enough, it’s very similar to the “Jacobite” pattern worn by the rebels.
So, enjoy your flannel, but maybe tip a Scotch whisky over for the tartan-wearing warriors in the sky while you do so.