Everything Meghan Markle needs to know about tartan

Meghan Markle is not the first royal to wear tartan for PR purposes, but it was once banned by the monarchy

The decision to present Prince Harry’s fiancée Meghan Markle in a Burberry tartan coat on her first trip to Scotland may be a clever move by Kensington Palace’s PR team and Ms Markle’s dressers, but it is not an original one.

Tartan is both currently in fashion and, of course, one of the most distinctive symbols of the Scots. However, the Palace is recycling a move first used almost 200 years ago for the visit to Edinburgh in 1822 by Prince Harry’s ancestor, King George IV. At the time, he was the first English king to visit Scotland in 200 years (the last being King Charles I for his Scottish Coronation in 1633), and arrived clad in Royal Stewart tartan. George IV and his court advisers appropriated the cloth in a calculated move – he was on a mission to appease the Scots and strengthen the Union in the aftermath of the Jacobites’ final failed rebellion of 1745.

Just a stone’s throw from Prince Harry and Ms Markle’s public appearance at Edinburgh Castle, there stands on George Street a bronze statue of George IV dressed in a kilt with a sporran.  Both his choice of tartan and Ms Markle’s 200 years later are somewhat at odds with the history of the cloth. Tartan began as a practical garb for the peasant Highlanders and was seen by the Lowlanders and the English as a symbolic reflection of their ‘barbaric’ ways. However, when Scotland was united with England through the Acts of Union in 1707, many Scots felt an erosion of their national identity, and tartan was adopted by previous detractors, including Highland gentry, to promote Scottish cultural nationalism.

George IV resplendent in tartan, painted by David Wilkie (Royal Collection)

The cloth also became a form of propaganda for the Jacobites to encourage rebellion against the English, and served as their military uniform in the 45 Rebellion. Tartan was then prohibited in the ‘dis-Kilting’ Act of 1746 under King George II due to its associations with rebellion. In 1782, when the Jacobites were no longer regarded as a threat, the ban was lifted on the kilt. It was then that Sir Walter Scott cleverly rebranded tartan as the cloth of the historic Highlander and masterminded preparations for George IV’s visit to Edinburgh in 1822. Amid the pageantry of kilts and bagpipes, the King paraded down Princes Street in the very tartan his forebears had outlawed.

George IV was later depicted in full Highland dress by the Scottish artist Sir David Wilkie in a portrait which now hangs in the Royal dining room at the Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh. The tartan regalia was provided by ‘His Majesty’s clothier and mercer’, George Hunter of Princes Street in Edinburgh at a cost of £1,354.18s. Harry and Meghan attended a reception at Holyroodhouse and in the shadow of Wilkie’s portrait, where Meghan sported not a sporran but a handbag by Edinburgh-based Strathberry, which may have set her back a little more.

In the near 200-year gap between the appropriation of tartan first by George IV and then by Ms Markle, Anglo-Scottish anxieties persist today. A row erupted last month over a decision to fly the Scottish Lion Rampant flag rather than the Union Jack over Edinburgh’s prominent institutions on important public occasions, such as the Queen’s Birthday. The Scottish first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, tweeted Trump-style that this was fake news, claiming it had been policy since 2010, while Theresa May’s office responded: ‘The Prime Minister thinks [the Union flag] is an important symbol of our Union, and the Union is something that she believes in fiercely.’ The visit of the tartan-clad Ms Markle to Edinburgh, however, seems to have triumphed in strengthening the Union –  it was a sea of Union Jack flags rather than the Saltire or the Lion Rampant which dominated the streets of Edinburgh during her visit.

Following her wedding in May, Ms Markle can dispense with her faux-tartan Burberry and wear an authentic family plaid. The Royal family boasts its official ‘Balmoral’ tartan, designed by Prince Albert in 1895 and worn by every monarch since Queen Victoria. According to newly released documents, the plaid is protected by a Royal Decree of 1937, banning any commoner from buying or wearing it. Whether Ms Markle will be seduced by its grey-green hue – inspired by the gloomy granite of Aberdeen – remains to be seen.


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