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Dress Stewart Tartan History

The Dress Stewart tartan is, as the name suggests, the "dress" variant of the Royal Stewart tartan. In the same way as military officers have a "dress uniform", so the Dress Stewart was designed for use at special occasions and has become an extremely popular tartan for use at weddings (partly due, no doubt, to the white undercheck of the tartan complementing the wedding dress). The Dress Stewart and Royal Stewart are historically and culturally, essentially the same tartan.

The Royal Stewart is the tartan of the House of Stewart and, therefore, the Royal Tartan of Scotland. Our national hero Robert the Bruce (King Robert I) had a son who became King David I. David I died without children so the husband of Robert I's daughter (David’s brother-in-law) was crowned King Robert II ... he was Robert Stewart.

The name Stewart derives from the term "steward" - the Great Steward of Scotland was the most important office in the land and was first conferred upon a Walter Fitzalan (ancestor of King Robert I). Once the Stewart family took over the monarchy, the hereditary title of Great Steward of Scotland was given to the heir-apparent and, today, the title is still held by the heir to the British throne - Prince Charles.

Mary Queen of Scots (executed by Elizabeth I) used the spelling “Stuart” – she said this was to ensure the French pronounced it correctly and even today some people refer to this as the “French spelling”. It tends to be found more often nowadays when used as a Christian name.

Following the death of Queen Elizabeth I of England (who had no heir), the crowns of England and Scotland were joined in 1603 when James VI of Scotland, the one-year old son of mary Queen of Scots was also crowned James I of England and Ireland. Although there would be no parliamentary union until 1707,  a Stewart neverthless became the first monarch of the countries that would eventually become Great Britain. James has been unfairly treated by some historians as a troubled monarch whose reign was marred by constant clashes with parliament and even the Gundpowder Plot. Indeed, charges of financial irresponsibility, political absolutism and a series of inappropriate and unpopular favourites are said to have helped laid the foundations of the English Civil War. However, more recently, historians have revised their assessment of the scholarly king who reigned during the Golden Age of Shakespeare, Donne and Bacon.

James VII (James II of England) was deposed in the "Glorious Revolution" of 1688 and was the last Roman Catholic monarch to reign the kingdoms of England, Scotland and and Ireland. He was replaced by his protestant son-in-law, William of Orange. Supporters of the deposed King James, known as Jacobites (from the latin "Jacobus") worked to regain the throne for the House of Stewart. The political and religious schism scarred the whole country, creating much fear and distrust, and eventually resulting in the first main Jacobite uprising in 1715.

The 1715 uprising or rebellion (depends on your viewpoint) was led by James' son, the self-proclaimed James VIII and III (the "Old Pretender") but fizzled out fairly quickly, but not before a couple of decisive vistories for the Jacobites - notably at the battle of Sherrifmuir. The British establishment, rocked by the spectre of a rebellion, exacted cruel retribution on the Scots - both Jacobite and loyalist, allowing anger and resentment to simmer for a further 30 years, paving the way for the next uprising. 

In 1745 the deposed king's grandson Prince Charles Edward Stewart (the "Young Pretender") returned from exile in France and landed in the far North West of Scotland where he raised the standard at Glenfinnan and called the clans to the Jacobite cause. Bonnie Prince Charlie was a small, French-speaking, effeminate, Italian but neverthless commanded great love and loyalty from the highland clans. It is intriguing how few people (in England at least!) realise just how close he came to succeeding in recapturing the British throne.

The Jacobite army gathered strength from all over highland Scotland, easily took Edinburgh and marched on Carlisle. They actually reached as far South as Derby but the expected support from English Jacobites was not forthcoming and, not being professional troops, the highland army suffered a steady stream of deserters returning home to their highland crofts. The desertions, the absence of popular support in England and the strained lines of supply led Charles’ Irish advisers to convince him to head back North, against the better judgement of Cameron of Lochiel, amongst other clan chifes.

Unknown to all of them, news of the Jacobite army's advance had already reached London and the city was all but evacuated. If they had only known, it would have been relatively easy to march on London and take the crown - the British army would then, of course, have become loyal to Charles. Those quick to write off Bonnie Prince Charlie and the 1745 Jacobite uprising as some sort of quaint, if rather typical, example of Scottish discontentment may do well to re-visit their history books.

The Jacobite army headed home, pursued by the two remaining British army divisions which had been held in reserve in the South of England (where a French invasion to reinforce the Jacobites was feared) and the rebellion eventually ended in disaster at the Battle of Culloden Moor, just outside Inverness, on 16th April 1746. It is an all too common and simplistic error to regard Culloden as "Scotland v. England"... it was the Jacobite army against the British army and it has been documented that there were more Scots fighting in the British army than in the Jacobite army! The marshy ground was ill-suited to the famous highland charge and the British army - well-trained, well-supplied and well-experienced from wars in Europe, were able to use their superior training, weaponry and discipline to withstand charge after charge.

At Culloden the Duke of Cumberland (“Butcher Cumberland”) perfectly illustrated the way in which highlanders were regarded as sub-human, by ordering no quarter for the wounded. Thousands of wounded men and prisoners were murdered and thousands more pursued by dragoons, their crofts burned, their families butchered and their land and possessions looted. The aftermath of the battle is the real tragedy . . . these actions were what we would now call war crimes, and were followed by terrible measures intended to exterminate the highland way of life. The carrying of arms was banned, as was speaking in Gaelic, the playing of bagpipes and even the wearing of tartan. It was an attempt at ethnic cleansing and the horror of Culloden’s aftermath continues to reverberate in Scottish consciousness. As they say – folk have long memories in these parts.

Through all this, various branches of the Stewarts survived, including the Stewarts of Appin, of Atholl and of Balquhidder. The Royal branch, however, was lost to obscurity when Bonnie Prince Charlie escaped with the help of Flora MacDonald to the Isle of Skye and then, onwards to France and eventually back to Rome, the place of his birth. Although regarded as somewhat of a celebrity and visited by members of other royal courts of Europe, he ended his days as a rather sad figure, plagued by aloholism and syphilis and tortured by the memories of lost dream.

After Charles' death, rumours of him having fathered more than one illegitimate child echoed persisted, but were always "rubbished" in Britain where, of course, the merest suggestion that there existed a legitimate Stewart claimant to the throne was something the ruling House of Hanover had to nip in the bud. Even today, “Prince” Michael James Alexander Stewart (7th Count of Albany) claims to lay a legitimate claim to the British throne. It is a fascinating story and is well worth exploring by anyone who enjoys Scottish history. The lineage presented to support his claims certainly demands some careful scrutiny as there may well be more than a thread of truth in this story(!).

OK . . . as for the tartan itself . . . the Royal Stewart tartan was "adopted" by Queen Victoria who, of course, was not a Stewart but was descended from the German line. Even so, Victoria's love of all things Scottish at the same time as Sir Walter Scott's novels were establishing themsleves as bestellers, helped spark a massive revival in Scottish culture, tourism and, of course, tartan.

This interest, combined with the Victorian passion for civil engineering, saw railways and bridges open up Scotland as never before with railway hotels and hunting lodges soon appearing on the highland landscape. The downside was that, again, there was little real respect for highland culture and identity... Scots Baronial castles and huge hunting estates further changed the relationship between the highlanders and the land itself. The Highland Clearances, which took place mainly from 1815 onwards, cleared the highland people from vast tracts of land in order that the rich, greedy landowners could turn the land over to sheep. Through this policy, many Scottish families first settled in Canada and the USA.

Queen Victoria's love of Scotland may have helped our national image and give birth to our tourism industry but, it has to be said, at a price. Changing their family name from Saxe-Coburg during the first world war to something more “British”, the House of Windsor does have a connection to the Stewarts, as they are descended through the House of Hanover from George I of Hanover (crowned 1714)... and George I was the great-grandson of the Stewart King James VI of Scotland (James I of England).

The Dress (Royal) Stewart is a tartan of Her Majesty the Queen and the tartan of the British royal family. King George V stated that the Royal Stewart tartan (and Dress variant) could be worn by "all members of his family" and his words were taken to mean all the people of the British Empire. Since clansmen traditionally wore the tartan of their chieftan, all subjects of the British monarch and their descendants - extended to the Commonwealth - can properly wear the Royal and Dress Stewart tartans.

The Dress (Royal) Stewart tartan is extremely popular for wearing at special events such as weddings and remains one of the most recognisable of all Scottish tartans, with its symmetrical, colourful overcheck set against a white background, reminiscent of the Jacobite rose, or cockade, worn in the bonnets of Bonnie Prince Charlie and the highlanders at Glenfinnan 250 years ago.

Click here to buy Dress Stewart Tartan Ribbon

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Click here to see MacBeth Tartan Ribbon - often called the "Blue Stewart"

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