Learning which object I’d been assigned (Ross Tartan Suit), I was delighted. I had no problem with it. Not at that point.
OK, who among us didn’t look down the list of 26 objects to see what everyone else had ‘got’? And who didn’t wonder what it would have been like to have been paired with something else, something more immediately glamorous or dangerous: the Lewis Chessmen, miniature coffins, a bionic hand?
I loved my object, because it was mine; not naive enough to think I’d bagged a coveted one (confirmed by an email, saying, ‘Glad I didn’t get the tartan suit!’).
I understood why. We laugh at tartan; can’t take it seriously. The White Heather Club. The carpets.
What instantly recognisable symbol has this nation, of its identity? Tartan. Is there another country which so derides and shamedly dissociates from the thing it promotes, globally, as its badge? And would punch any non-Scot for mocking?
The rare citizen wearing tartan day-to-day is met with incredulity, hilarity. Yet it has evolved into the uniform for men at weddings.
Our struggle to be proud of ourselves is mirrored in our love-hate with tartan. Our slight self-embarrassment, which hides behind our passion, our social levelling, our teary sentimentality and our brilliant Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment contributions. Are we a knowledge economy or a signing-on underclass? Self-determined or occupied dependents?
Early signs that big themes lay in wait, that this object may render me wordless, were crowded out by elation. I had a photograph: a back view of a suit that stopped time as I stared at it. And I had potential family connections. The suit is Ross tartan. The historic clan seat is Balnagown Castle – a few miles from where my paternal ancestors hail. We had salmon fishing rights near Tain. Did the owner of this suit eat fish caught by my great, great grand-someone? The connection seemed uncanny; this was meant to be my object. I would visit Ross-shire! I would write the piece there!
Oh that heady time of uninformed enthusiasm for the suit. I remember it fondly.
It buoyed my journey to Edinburgh, dispelled any trepidation in steep, blind closes to the Royal Mile.
The enthusiasm of the curator, David Forsyth, matched my own. His knowledge far exceeded. A ranging, exhilarating conversation ensued about Scots and Scotland. Scots as aboriginals, as Highland warriors. The Highland clearances (more people left in the 20th century than the 19th – did you know that? We’re way up the emigration league table with Ireland and Norway.)
David left me at a large table with a thin A4 folder; the ‘object file’. It took two hours to feel done with less than a dozen sheets.
If tartan had been my first problem related to the object, its provenance became my second. And that, dear reader, shall remain the greatest story never told. I was privy to the information in relation to how the suit came to be donated to the NMS. For you, I can distil some facts:
- The suit was made for Alexander Ross, a medical student, most likely for the ceremonials surrounding the visit of George IV to Edinburgh in 1822.
- It was given by Dr. Ross to his wife Kitty’s younger brother, Donald Munro Ross (same surname being a coincidence, I think).
- The suit was taken to Australia when D.M. Ross emigrated in1864, aged 34.
- He won the Best Dressed Highlander rosette at the Melbourne Fayre, more than once.
- The suit passed down the family, until being donated by The Rev. and Mrs. Donald Dufty, Australia, for the opening of NMS in 1998.
- The act of donation was inspired by repatriation of aboriginal remains by Scottish institutions.
Geography and dates had ruled out any connection between the wearers of this suit and my forebears.
What I was invaded by, what awakened my writerly urge, was what I found in the object file: the correspondence, the newspaper clippings. Its wearers and keepers; how they changed the suit and the suit changed them (nothing in any way ‘bad’, just regular family myth-making). But I couldn’t touch that. Because as ripe and tantalising as it was, it was not mine to tell. The owners donated their suit, not their family, for the public to stare at.
The significance of the suit as a gift to the people of Scotland brought the weight of the tartan fabric to bear again. In what way was it Scottish? How authentic was this suit, made for a street party? Who wears tartan? When? How relevant is it? Does it mean more to the diaspora than the born-and-bred?
But I couldn’t resolve the politics of tartan in 62 words. And I’d take no avenue that could be construed, however unintentionally, as disrespectful to the donors of the object. I wouldn’t examine the ‘more Scottish than the Scots’ angle, and how the diaspora feels about Scotland. I would not set out to disabuse them of their views. I don’t even know my own.
This object was not a fossil whose relatives were long dead. Or a piece of industrial equipment, which never had any. This object was gifted to Scotland by a generous family who live (albeit very far away). I wouldn’t be ungracious. It’s not what Scots are known for.
This tartan coatee had become a straight jacket. What words were left for me?
Well, I had the fact that when I first saw its photograph I loved it. Utterly, almost sexually, it hooked me. The fresh-blood red of it, the pleat and puff of it. The curl and drape of it. The red. The luminous red. It hung like there was a man still wearing it. If you stand a man’s clothes up, I thought, he can’t leave. Take down this kilt and coatee. Let him rest.
With 15 minutes till closing time, I scurried out from ‘behind the scenes at the museum’ and back in by the public entrance, to the fourth floor, expecting to round a corner and be met with the majesty of it, the statuesque, solitary spot-lit glory of it. I was almost past it before I realised I was passing it.
That was it?
Dull wool, dully lit, front view. Nothing to see here, folks, move along. In a busy display case, one thing among many. Wallpapering a corridor. I wanted to love this object, but it didn’t want to be loved. Scotland and the Scots came to mind, again. We don’t make it easy for people.
I couldn’t write a paen to the object itself, because what caught me was its photograph. The fresh-blood-and-mud pleats, in white studio light. I’d have to write about what visitors to the museum would see.
Let me look more closely, I thought. Let me study this. Let me forget its reinvention over the years (which I cannot mention) and talk only of what is there. The process of tartan-making, a 62 word phonic poem of suggested meaning: plaid and thread, warp and weft, twill and weave, sett and selvedge.
It was not enough. OK then, a tribute, to the dead animal that is folded over on itself, into a sporran, face framed by useless legs. Claws for tassles. An animal which, in the documentation, was never referred to as anything other than ‘the sporran’. (Confirming why I could not touch the ‘story’ of the suit in my 62 words. I couldn’t treat the suit’s wearers and donors like we have treated this creature – as irrelevant and not there. The family is standing beside it every time I look.)
How could I talk about this? How could I haul up its treasure; love it once more?
The only angle to come from was the one chosen for me; the curator’s –
the position in the Australia and New Zealand case, in the Industry and Empire section. I would talk about emigration. The Scots who go. This was not a new phenomenon to explore; nor unique to this object. This phenomenon was all I had.
When I had my angle, the 62 words came. I found out, first hand, that you can’t write well about what you have just learned (the history of tartan, Walter Scott and George IV). You can only write about what you already ‘know’. And I know the push of this country. And I know the pull.