Variation on the Word Sleep

Friday, September 10, 2004

Inventing Traditions Part I -- the Kilt

I was thinking about ideas for essays that I've had floating around in my head today and I remembered one that I planned on writing last year in time for Christmas, but never got around to. Now is the perfect time to go back to it.

Here's the basic premise:

I was reading the book The Invention of Tradition because it was edited by two of my favorite historians Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger. As you might expect the book examines the inventions of traditions and how traditions develop a sense of timelessness -- (to quote Woody Allen "Tradition is the illusion of permanence"). One great example of this is the kilt/tartan traditions in Scotland. Ask the average person (especially if they are of Scottish descent) about kilts and tartans and you get the story of a timeless tradition whose origins are shrouded in the ancient history of the highlands. The truth is rather far from that.

As I don't have my copy of the book in front of me I'll have to give you another source which references the Hobsbawm and Ranger book, as to the real origins of kilts and most scottish highland "traditions. Here's a choice quote from the BBC Reith Lectures:

Along with most other symbols of Scottishness, all these are quite recent creations. The short kilt seems to have been invented by an English industrialist from Lancashire, Thomas Rawlinson, in the early 18th Century. He set out to alter the existing dress of highlanders to make it convenient for workmen.

Kilts were a product of the industrial revolution. The aim was not to preserve time-honoured customs, but the opposite - to bring the highlanders out of the heather and into the factory. The kilt didn't start life as the national dress of Scotland. The lowlanders, who made up the large majority of Scots, saw highland dress as a barbaric form of clothing, which most looked on with some contempt. Similarly, many of the clan tartans worn now were devised during the Victorian period, by enterprising tailors who correctly saw a market in them.

What strikes me most about this is that there is always a reason for a tradition to be invented. Why were the creation of the noble myth of the Scottish highlands and the accompanying traditions necessary to England in the 18th century? Quite a few reasons actually-- amongst them: nationalism, industrialism, and the monarchical goals of a pair of con men.

The question which then begs asking is "What major traditions which we today see as timeless, are really much more recent than we think, and what role do they serve?" The first thing which popped into my mind to research was Christmas and the concept of Santa Claus in particular. Where does Santa come from, how old is the Christmas that we celebrate now, and what are the ideological roots of our practices. Why do we tell our children about Santa Claus, gather with family, and give eachother gifts?

I'll continue this later. How's that for a cliffhanger.


  • ah! no! no more cliffhangers...

    this got me thinking more of personal traditions and why they were created more than on a larger scale. my family has a number of traditions that are signifcant only to the six of us because when my parents were starting out their family they were further away from their families than had been common in the past. also i've started a number of traditions amongst my friends - i suppose this isn't quite as interesting as nationalism and con-men, but it has been a fun way to keep us together.

    By Blogger Xtine, at September 10, 2004 at 2:43 PM  

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