Bannockburn: The Capital of Tartan Weaving

by Joe Smith 19th February 2008

Today, books or shops dealing with tartan and Highland Dress will be mainly, if not exclusively, concerned with clan tartans. They may seek to suggest that these are the actual patterns worn by the Scottish clans throughout history up to, and including, the Battle of Culloden in 1746. This is not the case. The majority of the pre-1850 patterns bearing clan names can only be traced back to the early 19th century and to the famous weaving firm of William Wilson & Sons of Bannockburn.

After the failure of the last Jacobite rising in 1746, the kilt and tartan were banned in an attempt to stamp out the culture, which was seen by the Hanovarian government as the power base of the House of Stuart. The ban, imposed by an Act of Parliament of 1746, was called the Disarming Act or ‘An Act for the more effectual disarming of the Highlands in Scotland and for more effectual securing of peace of the said Highlands; and for restraining the use of the Highland dress.

Under the Act, men and boys were forbidden to ‘wear or put on Highland clothes including; the kilt, plaid and no tartan or party-coloured Plaid or stuff was to be use for Great Coats or for Upper Coats’. The Act, which came into force on August 1st 1747, did not apply to those men serving as soldiers in Highland Regiments, or to Gentry, the sons of Gentry, or women. The proscription of Highland Dress lasted for a period of 36 years before being repealed in 1782, by which time much of the old lore and skills had been lost or discarded as inappropriate to the new politico-economic circumstances in which the Highlanders found themselves.

However, under the Act, the ban only affected ‘that part of North Britain called Scotland’ and which was defined in an earlier Act following the 1715 Rising. Roughly speaking, this was the area north of a line from Dumbarton in the west to Perth in the east. Scotland at this time comprised two cultures; the Gaelic Highlands and the Scots Lowlands. The Hanovarian government saw the latter as civilised and generally supportive of the crown whereas the Highlands were regarded as a vestige of a wild, untamed, rebellious and Catholic past that needed to be subjugated.

William Wilson started his family business south of the Highland boundary in Bannockburn on the outskirts of Stirling where, being unaffected by the Act, he was able to flourish. He quickly cornered the growing market for tartan in southern Scotland and elsewhere, and especially for the lucrative supply of cloth to the military and the increasing number of Highland Regiments. The need for mass cloth production to meet large orders such as the military, led to a requirement for standard colours and patterns in order to maintain quality control. These standardised colours and patterns devised by Wilsons were certainly in use by them by the 1780’s and their range continued to grow with the increase in the demand for tartan; a trend which continued throughout the 19th century.

By the time the first aniline dye was introduced in 1856 the use of standard colours and colour terminology had been practised by Wilsons for over seventy years and was firmly established. Wilsons started to name some of their patterns after towns and districts in the latter half of the 18th century. Towards the end of the century the use of family names for tartans becomes apparent and this practice increased over the next fifty years and in 1819 they complied their in house reference manual the 1819 Key pattern book.

Once industrial mills began to weave tartan on a large scale, commercial basis, it became possible to produce hundreds and thousands of yards of the same design (or sett). As mentioned above the first commercial weaver of tartan material was William Wilson. Wilson at first assigned his tartans numbers, but eventually they were given names, usually names of romantic clans or powerful families. Over the course of the 19th century, the link between the clan and the tartan that bore its name grew in the minds and hearts of the wearers of the kilt. In the year 1800, there were about 90 named tartans. Today there are over 2500.

The tartan today is one of the most easily identified symbols of Scottish heritage, recognized the world over. While there is no law preventing someone from wearing any tartan they chose (as our ancestors hundreds of years ago would have), today tartans do have a symbolic meaning, and most people prefer to wear a tartan that represents a part of their heritage and has personal meaning to them, even to the extent of wearing the “tartan” of your favourite football team – Wilson would be spinning (no pun intended) in his grave at the thought. The American astronaut, Neil Armstrong even took a piece of Armstrong tartan to the moon and back, which shows the depth of feeling for this special and internationally known cloth.

The mills have left their mark on Bannockburn with many landmarks still standing. The familiar mill and laundry down the old town brae was used as the local miners welfare before being destroyed by fire, and the big chimney was eventually demolished in 1936. Mills were also situated at Skeoch, upstream from the old bridge.

The Bannock flowed more strongly before 1906 when Grangemouth town council to provide water for its expanding chemical works, of ICI and B.P, built the North Third reservoir upstream. The burn was dammed about half a mile from the site of the Skeoch mill at the falls, a natural waterfall was built up to create a weir. Overlooking the haugh is another building, which is now used as the Christadelphian hall, but once a carpet factory. On the north side of the burn, above the old bridge, stood carpet close.

The main Wilson estate, Hillpark, is now a housing estate. The James Wilson academy, established to give poor children an education, is in the main street and was the heritage headquarters, now local council offices. The Bruce and Thistle 312 Masonic hall was known as the Royal George carpet factory. John Wilson eventually sold the Skeoch mills to John Crawford who kept up the Bannockburn tradition before selling out to the Stirling county council who drained the dam and in filled the site in 1970.

The Bannockburn history of the Tartan Weaver is still alive today with the local Burns club called the “Tartan Weavers Burns Club”. Club Chairman, Willie Gibb, is proud to be associated with this and can often be seen entertaining during the Burns season wearing one of his many Tartan jackets. Local hostelry, Tartan Arms takes its name from this era and both Bannockburn Amateurs FC and Bannockburn Rugby Club have had tartan incorporated into their strips over the years. Bannockburn is famous for many things and we may have given Scotland it’s Freedom but we gave the world our Tartan.

For more detailed information on this subject the local library has copies of the excellent book “Wilson’s Mills of Bannockburn” by R.J Ritchie.

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