Samui Wining & Dining
Plaid Around

The links between Scotland and Thailand are closer than you might think, as their common usage of tartan suggests.

48Tartan and kilts, in particular, are most commonly associated with Scotland. But there’s good evidence to suggest that a number of other cultures were producing woven criss-crossed horizontal and vertical patterns in multiple colours to wear as garments long before the Scots. And there’s direct links to ancient Asian tribes and even multi-purpose woven tartan-style garments that are still worn by many Thais on Samui to this day.

According to the textile historian, E. J. W. Barber, the Iron-Age Hallstatt culture produced tartan-like textiles and they’re linked with ancient Celtic populations that flourished between 400 BC and 100 BC. Some of them were recently discovered, remarkably preserved in Salzburg, Austria. Also, textile analysis of fabric from Indo-European Tocharian graves in Western China has shown it to be similar to the Hallstatt culture of central Europe. Tartan-like leggings were also found on the ‘Cherchen Man’, a 3, 000 year-old mummy, found in the Taklamakan Desert in Western China. And similar finds have been found in central Europe and Scandinavia.

In the UK, the earliest documented tartan dates from the 3rd century AD and was found near Falkirk in Stirlingshire, Scotland, just 400 metres north-west of the Antonine Wall. The fragment was stuffed into the mouth of an earthenware pot containing almost 2, 000 Roman coins. Early forms of tartan such as this are thought to have been produced in pre-Roman times, and would have been popular amongst the inhabitants of the northern Roman provinces.

And there is evidence that ancient Celts and their descendants have used striped and checked material for thousands of years. The Scoti, who settled Western Scotland from 5-6th century AD onwards and eventually gave the whole country their name, are said to have used plaid and striped garments to signify rank as well as to keep warm. (Tartan is also known as plaid in North America but, in Scotland, a plaid is a tartan cloth slung over the shoulder or a blanket.)

Scottish tartan as we know it today is really quite a modern invention. After the battle of Culloden in 1746 Jacobite claims to the throne came to an end. Many highlanders, but by no means all, had backed the losing side of Prince Charles Edward Stuart. The great importance of tartan and associated dress to highland culture at this time can be deduced from the fact that the government banned it from 1746-82. This proscription, however, applied only to common highland men and to not the upper echelons of highland society, lowland Scots and women. But, most importantly, it didn’t apply to the highland regiments that were being formed in the government army. These new regiments were mainly associated with specific clans. And they used the ‘government tartan’, known as the ‘Black Watch’; however, others quickly adopted distinctive new patterns. From this it appears that specific regimental tartans became clan or family tartans and not vice-versa.

Central in this new tartan industry was the weaver, William Wilson. He met the growing demand for tartan by inventing new patterns and became the main supplier to the army. All his patterns were initially given numbers but some quickly gained popularity in certain areas and they became known by that region’s name – thus were born the regional tartans. Others were commissioned for a specific person and soon the surname of that person became the name of the tartan.

Today, it’s reasonably easy for anyone of Scottish descent to identify their tartan or tartans (mine is MacLaren, although there are many others that I’m entitled to wear). That said, the only times you’ll see a Scotsman wear a kilt is if he’s in a Pipe Band, getting married or at a Scotland football match. If you are walking through the centre of Edinburgh and see someone sporting a kilt then he’s probably American. Kilt-makers are rather adept at convincing tourists that they are direct descendants of Bonnie Prince Charlie himself and selling them the full regalia. Some things in life are free, and some things are just priceless.

But let’s turn our attention to Thailand and the numerous ethnic groups that have traditionally produced a wide range of cotton and silk textiles. Long ago, the various Tai (not Thai) tribes in south-western China, Laos, northern Thailand and northern Burma developed societies in which clothing represented much more than protection from the elements. The colours, patterns and weave all designated the specific tribe, the exact village, and the status of the individual within the village. When the Thais moved southward, they brought this clothing and texture culture with them. And these traditions have been kept alive right up to the present time.

Traditionally natural substances, such as leaves, plants and barks, were the source of dyes. Just like a good recipe for tom yum, the secrets of how beautiful colours were produced were passed down from mother to daughter throughout the generations. Many different methods had to be applied, for not every natural material could just be boiled up for successful colour baths. Natural materials produce the colours of beige, tan and yellow tones with red highlights and some pale greens. And the leaves of fresh indigo plants produce subtle colours from grey and lavender through to pink. If you have ever pared a mangosteen fruit, you’ll know that the outer skin produces a deep purple. And a striking red colour can be had from the resin of the lac insect, whilst strong orange is obtained from boiled annatto seeds with pineapple leaves producing greens and blues.

On Samui, you can still see (mainly older) Thai men who wear a plaid cotton cloth or pha khao ma. Its versatility means that it can be used as a wraparound, a blanket, a bath towel, a belt for holding a hatchet or knife, a sunshade, a head cloth, a sash, a scarf, a means of carrying food or even as a whip-like weapon (very similar to the Scottish plaid worn over the shoulder). You won’t see them much around the main tourist areas but if you’re out and about and visit the older communities around Maenam, Fisherman’s Village, Thong Krut, Hua Thanon and Nathon you’ll easily spot them.

And there’re a few local shops that sell them if you fancy the look. Just don’t get conned into thinking that you’re a direct descendant of the ancient Kings of Siam and end up with the full ceremonial gear. Though it would be a great story to tell the family back home, especially if you’re Scottish!


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