How an outrageous fabrication became the great tartan revival

The Sobieski - Stuart brothers have had an enormous impact on the culture of Scotland. They were responsible for many of the tartans now accepted as being the old and true tartans of many clans. In particular they practically invented the concept of Border family tartans, which have no basis in Border tradition whatsoever.  

Tartan has always been a feature of the Highland way of life but the designation of specific tartans to particular clans is mostly a product of the Sobieski – Stuarts. Their highly influential and fantastical book, the Vestiarium Scoticum published in 1842, was the basis for many of the clan tartans we know and recognise today.

John Sobieski Stolberg Stuart and his brother Charles Edward Stuart claimed to be the legitimate sons of King Charles III. They concocted a supporting story that Queen Louise, the wife of King Charles III gave birth to a son but that this son was handed over to the captain of an English warship, as she feared an assassination attempt upon the child.

This ships captain was supposed to have brought up this royal child as his own son. As an adult, this adopted child sired the Sobieski – Stuarts, who went on to produce that glorious piece of forgery and romance the Vestiarium Scoticum. The book that was to set the scene for the great Victorian tartan revival that continues to this day.

The story is of course wild in the extreme and the brothers produced no convincing evidence for their amazing claims, in fact they produced no evidence at all. Despite this they received the support of many respectable people highly placed in Scottish society.  These included, The 10th Earl of Moray, the 14th Lord Lovat, the 8th Earl of Dumfries, Sir Thomas Dick Lauder and Dr Robert Chambers.

The Lauder Tartan - A fabrication of the Sobieski - Stuarts

In fact so taken with the brothers was Lord Lovat that he provided them with a hunting lodge at Eilean Aigas on the river Beuly near Inverness. The brothers lived there in splendour and fully indulged their imaginations, dressing in the full Highland garb, surrounding themselves with royal paraphernalia, going deer stalking with clan chiefs and even embracing Roman Catholicism. 

One person whom they failed to convince of their bona fides was Sir Walter Scott, a man who could tell a good story himself and recognised an outrageous fiction when he heard it.

In reality, the Sobieski – Stuarts were two Englishmen who were born in Wales to a naval officer called, Thomas Hay Allen and his wife Catherine. Upon moving to Scotland they first changed their surnames to Allan to give it a more Scottish twang. It then morphed into Hay Allan before becoming simply Hay. From this launching pad they proceeded to go the full stretch and change their surname to the royal Stuart, with their accompanying preposterous genealogical tale.

The brothers themselves fell from grace after 1847, when a damning attack on them was published in the Quarterly Review that severely damaged their reputations. They wrote a rebuttal in 1848 in the same publication but by then the damage had been done. They were forced to leave Scotland and were only to return upon their deaths for burial. John died in 1872 and his younger brother Charles passed away in 1880.

With the passage of time, the many tartans invented for the clans by the artistically talented Sobieski - Stuarts in the Vestiarium Scoticum have gained respectability. A whole industry in Scotland now revolves around those designs, from kilt making to the kind of cheap ‘tartan tat’ one can find at any souvenir shop up and down Scotland.  

Anybody who has ever seen that classic TV comedy series in the UK called ‘Only Fools and Horses’, featuring the ‘Cockney Chancer’ characters of 'Dell Boy' and Rodney, will certainly appreciate the unabashed fabrication and cheek of the Sobieski – Stuart brothers.

A 'Dell Boy' £20 note - about as genuine as a Sobieski - Stuart tartan pattern

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