Quebec's Gaspé region gets its own official tartan

·5 min read
The region of Gaspé's official tartan, as seen in the Scottish Register of Tartans, is based an unofficial regional flag created in 2001 and is now part of the public domain.  (Scottish Register of Tartans - image credit)
The region of Gaspé's official tartan, as seen in the Scottish Register of Tartans, is based an unofficial regional flag created in 2001 and is now part of the public domain. (Scottish Register of Tartans - image credit)

The Gaspé region now has its own official tartan, thanks to a team effort sparked by the initiative of a bagpipe player and brought to life by the knowledge and expertise of a Quebec City kilt-maker.

Benoît Poulin, a bagpipe player from Matane, Que., about 500 km north of the provincial capital, found the more he learned about Scottish culture and music, the more he grew to love it. Given Scotland's deep roots in the region of Gaspé, he felt that connection should be materialized.

"It happened about five years ago," he said. "The idea [to create a Gaspé tartan] came to me spontaneously and I started doing some research."

"Back then I knew that one was in the works for the Saguenay [region] and I said to myself, 'Well wouldn't it be good to have one for chez nous in Gaspésie?'"

Poulin reached out to Patrice MacLeod, a photographer, kilt-designer and kilt-maker in Quebec City, credited as the co-inventor of Gaspé's tartan.

"Patrice said it was doable and we just had to find a motif that corresponded to the region," said Poulin.

The pair found their source of inspiration in an unofficial Gaspé flag, created by historian Marc-Antoine Deroy in 2001, that Poulin says has been proudly adopted by people in the region.

Using the colours of the flag as a starting point, MacLeod completed a design that was sent off to Scotland to be evaluated by the Scottish Register of Tartans.

To be formally approved, tartans have to be new and unique, respect the criteria of the Scottish Register of Tartans Act 2008 and show a clear connection between the person registering the tartan and the proposed tartan name.

Poulin says the design was approved but the register told him they needed a person of authority for the Gaspé region to sign off on it. He says he contacted Jonatan Julien, the provincial minister responsible for the Gaspésie–Îles-de-la-Madeleine region, who loved the idea and signed the letter needed to finalize the process.

Cultural connection

Patrice Lambert MacLeod, the 6th Chieftain of the MacLeod clan of Saguenay, says the people of Quebec and Scotland don't just share a love for fiddle music, dancing and cheerful celebrations — they actually come from the same place.

"It's important to not forget that Québécois culture is of French origin and France is Celtic," he said. "The Gaulois were a confederation of Celtic tribes."

MacLeod explains that while there were a great number of diverse Celtic tribes across Europe, culturally and linguistically they shared a lot of similarities and were able to communicate with each other.

"It's a culture that dates back to 2,000 BCE," he said, "and the tartan itself has existed since at least 3,500 years BCE."

"The tartan isn't necessarily Scottish," he said.

"The Scottish, particularly the Highlanders, adopted it as their national symbol but it doesn't necessarily belong to them, historically speaking. It's Celtic."

Submitted by Benoît Poulin
Submitted by Benoît Poulin

Ancient history, modern art

MacLeod retired from commercial kilt-making last year but says he still has a workshop and is happy to lend his expertise to people like Poulin who come to him with passion projects like the Gaspé tartan.

He's been making kilts for 25 years and since he started he's also studied Scottish history, genealogy and traditional weaving.

"I learned by making kilts," he said. "Making kilts got me interested in tartans, which in turn got me into weaving, learning all of the techniques behind it ... subtle rules that aren't necessarily written down and are part of the visual art."

MacLeod says the familiar plaid pattern is traditionally created by hand and involves weaving the vertical stripes, known as a warp, and the horizontal stripes, known as a weft, at sharp right angles.

"Real kits are made by hand and tailored," he said. "The tartan itself is the design, not the object."

He says kilts have different layers of symbolism and detail, depending on their significance.

"There's a dominant base colour, for example, hunting tartans will be predominantly green, while tartans for celebrations will be more colourful, they'll have more red, yellow, pale blues. The black line in a tartan, represents the ink of written history."

Submitted by Patrice MacLeod
Submitted by Patrice MacLeod

MacLeod says tartans aren't just used to make kilts. Once a design is approved and registered in Scotland, it becomes part of the public domain and can be used in ties, scarves, shawls — anything made of wool.

Asked what having their own tartan means to people of a particular region like the Gaspé, MacLeod said it all comes down to an individual's sense of belonging, cultural pride and an understanding of their family and regional history.

In his case, he's traced his family tree branch by branch over the years, visited Scotland to learn more about his heritage and created a tartan for his own region of Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean, along with the one he designed for the Gaspé .

"When I went to Scotland in 2013, I had the impression I was returning home," he said, "even though our family has been in Quebec for six generations. [The connection] is very deep, it's very hard to explain."

MacLeod says it costs a lot to have a tartan woven in Scotland, which is part of the reason it took some time to bring Poulin's idea to life. But now the design has been sent to a weaver there who will be sending fabric back to MacLeod, who will create a custom kilt for Poulin.

"It's a symbol that brings people together," he said. "If someone identifies more with Gaspésie, they'll choose the Gaspésie tartan. If they identify more with a Scottish family name, then they'll choose [that] tartan."

"Today, in a world of people who are scattered and caught up in the 'me, myself and I', having a clear path of identity is the best way to reconsider our community connections."

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