Researchers discover piece of Flora MacDonald’s tartan wedding dress in Fort museum storage box

Jo Watson holds up the piece of tartan from Flora MacDonald's wedding dress, watched by Nikki Laird, far left, Robin Elliott and Vanessa Martin. Photographs: Courtesy of Joanne Watson and by permission of the West Highland Museum. NO F28 Flora tartan 03
Jo Watson holds up the piece of tartan from Flora MacDonald's wedding dress, watched by Nikki Laird, far left, Robin Elliott and Vanessa Martin. Photographs: Courtesy of Joanne Watson and by permission of the West Highland Museum. NO F28 Flora tartan 03

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The box of tartan samples was one of several brought down from the loft of the West Highland Museum in Fort William for two specialists to have a look at.

Little did they know, however, that one of the boxes would contain a piece of tartan from the wedding dress of none other than the heroine of the 1745 Jacobite Rising herself, Flora MacDonald.

It was at the end of May after mounting the current temporary exhibition at the West Highland Museum, that museum volunteers Jo Watson – who is a postgraduate research student of history at the University of the Highlands and Islands, and specialises in the cultural and dress history of the Scottish Highlands and Islands – and her friend Nikki Laird FSA Scot, director of the Kiltmakery in Edinburgh, made the discovery of a lifetime.

Museum Curator Vanessa Martin had brought the few boxes of tartan down from storage for Jo and Nikki to examine.

‘We took out the first few items, which included a 1960s Inverness cape in the Macdonald of Clanranald tartan and some older arisaids [women’s plaids], and while Nikki was having a good look at them I took out the next piece, which was a lot smaller than everything else in the box. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw the label attached to the piece of tartan,’ said Jo.

What the women were looking at was labelled as being a piece of Flora MacDonald’s wedding dress tartan. Flora MacDonald, the Jacobite heroine who helped Bonnie Prince Charlie escape from Scotland after the failed rising, got married in 1750.

‘I got very excited when I saw the traditional herringbone selvedge edge. It is a really rare weaving technique today and the only person who does that today is Robin Elliott,’ said Nikki, who has been at the forefront of teaching traditional kiltmaking for over 20 years.

Watched by Nikki Laird, Robin Elliott examines the piece of iconic tartan. Photograph: Courtesy of Jo Watson and by permission of West Highland Museum. NO F28 Flora tartan 02
Watched by Nikki Laird, Robin Elliott examines the piece of iconic tartan. Photograph: Courtesy of Joanne Watson and by permission of West Highland Museum.
NO F28 Flora tartan 02

After their visit, Nikki got in touch with Robin, a tartan manufacturer from Selkirk in the Scottish Borders, about the tartan and asked if he would like to come and see it, along with the Sobieski kilt in the museum, with a view to making reproductions of the items.

The kilt once belonged to one of the Sobieski Stuart brothers. They were 19th century conmen – their real names were John Carter Allan and Charles Manning Allan- who managed to convince a lot of people in Scotland that they were descended from Bonnie Prince Charlie.

Robin, Jo, Vanessa, and Nikki all met at the museum on Saturday and have now put plans in place to recreate the items next year to celebrate the museum’s centenary.

Jo has done the initial research into the tartan and Flora MacDonald’s wedding dress. A book from 1938 stated that the family believed Flora had married in a black silk dress, however this has been recently discounted by Flora’s six times granddaughter in Canada.

Another piece of this tartan is in the collection of the Glencoe Folk Museum, and it was clearly cut from the same piece at the West Highland Museum.

With around 7,000 items on display and in store at the museum in Fort William, Vanessa admitted it was impossible for her to have come across every single one of those items – hence the on-going possibility of such amazing surprises.

‘We were searching for Flora MacDonald-related items in our collection
using the museum’s collections management system.  Both Jo and I are
undertaking academic research on Flora MacDonald at the moment,’ she told us.

‘This fabric piece is recorded on our database as ‘said to have been taken from
a dress worn by Flora MacDonald’. It was stored away in our attic and
myself and current board members were unaware of its existence.

‘It was only when the box was opened up that we discovered a handwritten label
that stated this tartan was part of Flora’s wedding dress.

‘We have full documentation in our files on how this piece of tartan came to us and we even know when the fabric was cut and sold.’

The two pieces at the West Highland Museum and at the Glencoe Folk Museum were clearly once attached. The museum’s records show they were last on display as one piece in 1938 and the larger piece was cut in 1942. The rest of the tartan is owned by a private collector in America.

The reproduction dress and the reproduction kilt which Jo and Nikki will make will eventually be sold by auction to raise much-needed money for the museum, which has seen a significant drop in visitor numbers this year.

Jo will be blogging the entire project on her blog, www.sassenachstitcher.com, and it will be included as a major element of her research at UHI.

Nikki will be recreating the museum’s Sobieski kilt and will be blogging about her project on The Kiltmakery’s blog on www.scotclans.com/bletherskite