Scottish researcher scouring Maritimes for 'Holy Grail' of lost tartans

·3 min read
Tartan historian Peter MacDonald is on a mission to find rare pieces of cloth that weave together Scottish and North American history.  (Submitted by Peter Eslea MacDonald  - image credit)
Tartan historian Peter MacDonald is on a mission to find rare pieces of cloth that weave together Scottish and North American history. (Submitted by Peter Eslea MacDonald - image credit)

A Scottish tartan historian is on the hunt for old blankets, kilts or pieces of fabric that are key to unlocking history.

Peter Eslea MacDonald has a passion for handwoven, checkered fabrics, and he believes that pieces of tartan found in the Maritimes that were brought over by settlers could offer a window into his country's forgotten past.

"It's that hope to find residue of techniques which have been lost in Scotland," said MacDonald, who's been studying tartans for 40 years.

MacDonald believes there are important tartan pieces yet to be discovered. Topping his list of most-wanted finds are old pieces of the governmental Black Watch tartan.

"I have calculated that before about 1780 some 14 miles of it was woven for the military, most of whom served in the North American campaigns. And not one piece is known to have survived before about 1795, so that truly is the Holy Grail."

MacDonald is hosting Antiques Roadshow-style events in Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island where he will examine pieces of tartan or Highland dress.

'Exceptional' cloth found in Antigonish 30 years ago

MacDonald last visited Nova Scotia about 30 years ago, when he found a piece of fabric in Antigonish that had been created using a forgotten Scottish technique.

"I was on the trail of a particular plaid piece of blanket," he said. "I tracked it down to a family and it was exceptional in the way that it was woven. It used techniques that were not known [in Scotland] but must have been old techniques taken [to Canada]."

MacDonald said his passion for all things tartan was passed down by his father, who worked as an anthropologist specializing in Scottish Highlands history.

MacDonald became enthralled with its patterns at a very young age and taught himself to hand-weave centuries-old designs. He even recreated the famous Moy Hall sett believed to have been worn by Bonnie Prince Charlie, one of European history's most romantic figures.

"Nothing you see in a shop is really hand-woven anymore," said MacDonald, who is head of research for the Scottish Tartans Authority.

"Those sort of techniques I'm particularly interested in. But also in understanding how the information about them was passed on, because we just don't know."

One of the biggest challenges in unravelling tartan history is that wool fabrics are typically destroyed by moths and soil.

And while he can typically tell the age of a piece of cloth just by looking at it, MacDonald said determining its value is much more difficult. Some pieces sell for hundreds or thousands of dollars, while others that unlocked a forgotten past are priceless.

Search your closets and attics

MacDonald said that the Antigonish blanket cannot be the only piece of fabric hidden in people's home that is centuries old.

"It's really trying to get some of those out of the woodwork," he said. "It's quite possible that they don't realize the significance of some of the things they've got."

As part of his trip to Canada, MacDonald is scheduled to visit the Highland Village Museum in Iona, N.S. on Friday and will then move onto the Antigonish Heritage Museum on Saturday.

He wraps up his trip with a visit to the Glenaladale settlement in Tracadie, P.E.I, on Sunday and Monday during the community's 250th-anniversary celebrations.

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