After the Jacobite rebellion of 1745, the British government passed the Act of Proscription which forbade the wearing of any chequered cloth in Scotland. This was one of the measures to break the clan system that dominated in the highlands from where the great majority of Bonnie Prince Charlie's army had come. The 'chequered cloth' was of course tartan, a common material woven and worn in the highlands but rarely worn by folk south of the highland line.
The Act was repealed in 1782 although the highlanders did not go back to wearing tartan immediately due to the impoverished position of the highland population. When King George IV visited Scotland in 1822, he announced that he would wear a tartan kilt at a party at Holyrood House and largely through the efforts of Sir Walter Scott, the assembled guests each wore tartan kilts in various patterns. During the proscription, a myth grew up that each highland family and clan had their own particular tartan pattern or sett. In reality most tartan before the proscription was what ever the weaver chose to make to no particular design. Into this background stepped the Sobieski Stuart brothers. Their real names were John and Charles Hay Allan, but they secretly let it be known that they were the long lost grandsons of Bonnie Prince Charlie. They were set up in a hunting lodge on Lord Lovat's estate from where they 'researched' Highland history. They became the source of the ancient weaves to the 'lost' clan setts culminating in their publishing Vestiarium Scoticum in 1842. The book was claimed to be copy of a medieval manuscript discovered by the brothers which listed the setts of Scottish families. The book listed some seventy tartans, one of which was the tartan now commonly called Maxwell or sometimes Red Maxwell. The pattern of the tartan is determined by the thread count or sett. For Maxwell (Red) the sett is:- red 6, green 4, red 56, black 12, red 8, green 32, red 6, the sett then reverses.
Throughout the nineteenth century,
setts were designed in great proliferation. Old pre-proscription tartans were
copied and assigned to clans. Some tartans became personal to chiefs and some
clans had several different setts. The most common reason for a clan to have
two different tartans was to have one as a dress tartan of bright colours and
another as a hunting tartan of dull, earthy colours so as not to frighten the
game whilst out hunting. The two variants of the Maxwell tartan both developed
in the last thirty years were both designed to be a hunting sett. The first
attempt was to switch the red and green, thus producing a green based tartan
with a red over-stripe. However the effect is rather garish and the sett, now
called Reversed Maxwell, is not popular.
In the early 1970's, Mervin (Scotty) Maxwell, founder and Chieftain of the Clan Maxwell Society of the United States of America had another go at a hunting sett. With the assistance of Kinloch Anderson, a firm of tartan merchants from Edinburgh, Scotty tried substituting olive green and mulberry for the red and green and produced a pleasing new sett, now called the Hunting Maxwell
All Maxwell tartans are produced in two main dye variants; Modern, which are bright chemical dyed tartans and Ancient or Reproduction tartans, which as the name suggests are supposedly representing the muted organic dyes of ancient times. There is a third dye variant called, Weathered tartan, which is supposed to represent a sun bleached and rain washed tartan, but frankly it looks like dull, old, dirty cloth. Colonel Donald Maxwell, who is the family's tartan expert, insists I try and reproduce the ancient colours here. They might appear the same as the modern colours on some computers, but here goes. If you are seeing this 'orangy' coloured tartan correctly, this is the prefered colour for the Maxwell tartan.
However with a computer and a bit of know-how you can design a new tartan for yourself. Using the Maxwell sett I have produced below, three 'new' Maxwell tartans just by swapping the colours around. You could also change the colours any of the strips and create hundreds of different tartans using the same set. There are no rules governing the designing of tartans and you could quite easily design your own personal tartan and have it woven by any of the many tartan weavers in the Borders of Scotland or indeed, by any competent weavers anywhere in the world. My first two 'new' tartans are based on an ancient tradition. Of old, highland women wore dresses of tartan with a white base. These dresses were called Arisaids. Today, arisaid tartan is worn by highland dancing competitors and sometimes for formal wear. Here is an arisaid developed using the Maxwell sett. I have named it predictably enough, Maxwell Arisaid.
This arisaid uses the same priciple of replacing a colour with white making it a Green Maxwell Arisaid.
A lot of people find the Maxwell tartan a little bright, as indeed I do. So some years ago, I designed this very dark, but distinct tartan which I call Black Maxwell. It does not however have any black in it, the blackish colour is in fact a very dark green.
Another way of changing the way a tartan looks is apply an overstripe. An overstripe is usually a thin line of a different colour that contrasts with the basis tartan colours. The tartan below has what appears to be an overstripe but is in fact just a colour transition. The overall affect is one of a white bordered black overstripe which transforms the Ancient Maxwell Red tartan giving it greater depth.
A practical example of designing your own tartan is the Pollock tartan. The Pollock family are purported to be historically a dependent family of the Maxwells and had regularly worn the Maxwell tartan until the late 1970's when a the Clan Pollock Society was founded. The tartan was designed by American, Rhys A. Pollock, founder of the society. He took the basic Reversed Maxwell tartan and changed the colour of a single strip from green to white, thus giving the red stripes a border of black and white and forming a brand new tartan .
Having selected a tartan material you may wish to wear it. Clearly most people will want to wear the kilt, but in truth Maxwells, being a lowland family, would normally have worn trews (trousers). The choice is easy, if you think you would feel uncomfortable in a kilt, wear trews. If you have scrawny wee legs, wear trews. If you don't like the cold or indeed the heat, wear trews. If you don't like being the center of attention, wear trews. If you are going to ride a horse....