Friday 1 March 2013


The interest in and debate concerning clan tartans was kick-started by the famous Sobieski Stuart brothers, alleged grandsons of Bonnie Prince Charlie, John Hay Allen [John Sobieski Stolbert Stuart, Count d’Albanie] and Charles Hay Allen [Charles Stuart Hay Allen, Count d’Albanie (succeeding his brother)]. The pair were well known for engaging in all things Highland from wearing the traditional garb to hunting, writing poetry and collecting folklore.

The brothers edited and illustrated the famous Vestiarium Scoticum: from the Manuscript formerly in the Library of Scots College at Douay. With an Introduction and Notes, by John Sobieski Stuart that was published in 1842 by William Tait of Edinburgh. The book lists the clans from all over Scotland: Highlands, Lowlands and the Borders, ‘the order of Terteinis apperteinand unto ye chieff Hieland clannes’ and seventy-five colour plates illustrating the tartans of the clans listed.

Kilt from the Carmichael Collection, West Highland Museum
This impressive publication was based on an ancient manuscript the brothers possessed that was collated with a second manuscript from the library of the Monastery of St Augustine in Cadiz from 1571. Although in 1828 they displayed a 1721 Vestiarium manuscript to Sir Thomas Dick Lauder, this was not used as a source. 

The authority of all these texts was questioned and doubt cast over the brothers' integrity. A popular opinion was that the tartan manufacturers encouraged the publication as the popularity of tartan sky-rocketed from 1842Either way, be it author or editor/illustrator, these two brothers were behind what Telfer Dunbar believed to be ‘probably the most controversial costume book ever written’.

The label reads: Kilt Worn by one of the Sobieski Stuart brothers. Alex Carmichael. 
Carmichael, noted for his extensive collection of folklore, also acquired an extremely significant tartan collection, including a kilt worn by one of the Sobieski brothers. Telfer Dunbar, one of the leading Highland Dress experts, noted:

 “Without doubt the greatest collector of early tartans and dress was Alexander Carmichael – compiler of Carmina Gadelica. His fine specimens of pre-nineteenth-century tartans with their lovely colour combinations and interesting weaves are far removed from the “clan” tartans of later times. Without the work of Alexander Carmichael our knowledge of early specimens of tartan would be very slight indeed.”

The tartan collection, unfortunately, no longer exists as one entity. The West Highland Museum has tartan clothing and NMS, Edinburgh holds some the pre-nineteenth century tartan swatches mentioned above but the rest was scattered after Carmichael’s death. Telfer Dunbar attained a number of samples that the team are eagerly trying to locate!
Jacket worn at Culloden, West Highland Museum
Over the coming months there will be a number of blog entries about this extraordinary facet of Carmichael’s collection. Tartan from the Carmichael Collection is on display in the West Highland Museum that is now open again Mon – Sat, 10 – 4. 

For those readers living in Edinburgh there is a long-term exhibition in the National Portrait Gallery 'Blazing with Crimson: Tartan Portraits'

Telfer Dunbar, J. History of Highland Dress (Oliver and Boyd: Edinburgh and London, 1962)
Copyright Carsten Flieger


  1. Are the crimson/verdigris kilt(s) and the cloak of about the same age? Early 19th cent. if worn by the Sobieski brothers - or old already by then? Which tartan?

  2. Thank you for the comment VoxHumana. Unfortunately we are still hoping to locate Carmichael's notes about the tartan so it is from the label that we know it was worn by one of the Sobieski Stuarts. The kilt itself is a Stewart hard tartan, box pleated and probably early 19th century.
    The cloak is an 18th century hard tartan that was made in Uist.
    Please do get in touch if you have anymore questions, our email address is


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Stone whorls WHM 1992 13 2.4

Stone whorls WHM 1992 13 2.4
Stone whorls collected by Alexander Carmichael, held by West Highland Museum (ref. WHM 1992 13 2.4). [©]