Unearthed: Birthplace of Scotland’s Tartan Legacy Receives Archaeological Probe

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A site, which archaeologists deem to be the cradle of Scotland’s vibrant tartan industry, has been subjected to an in-depth archaeological probe. Dating back to the 1850s, the historically significant Wilson Mills in Bannockburn once served as a bustling hub for hundreds of workers. Today, only fragments of this once-flourishing establishment linger, as the majority of the mill structures along with workers’ abodes were torn down in the 1950s and 60s.

Expressing his view on the archaeological findings, Dr. Murray Cook recognizes the site as an “exceptionally significant yet underestimated” locale where tartan fabrication was first initiated on an industrial pedestal. As the head archaeologist, he recounts how the extensive mills complex sprawled across the Bannock Burn during its heyday. Moreover, the surrounding waters would often bear a striking, vivid hue of red and pink due to the constant interaction with fabric dyes.

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The excavation work carried out up to now has revealed the remnants of erstwhile properties that were eradicated over six decades past. The team has planned additional digs for the forthcoming year. Dr. Cook explains that the Haugh, a location nestled in Bannockburn, Stirling, was the site of a smaller mill which was operational during an upheaved era in the tartan industry.

In the tumultuous tail-end years of 1746 Act of Proscription, weaver William Wilson embarked on setting up a mill. This Act was a consequence of the Battle of Culloden, near Inverness, where Bonnie Prince Charlie and his Jacobite followers tasted defeat at the hands of a British government army. The ruling law that followed sought to suppress specific clans endorsing Prince Charlie’s royal ascendancy claims, disallowing the use of tartan as it was synonymous with the Jacobite uniform.

While these prohibitions heavily impacted the tartan-wearers in the Highland region, a stronghold of Jacobite alliance, Dr. Cook suggests that it may have inadvertently facilitated the Wilsons to establish a monopoly in the tartan manufacturing domain. They were well-positioned to meet the growing demand when Scotland caught the fancy of romantic-era enthusiasts during Queen Victoria’s reign, leading to a resurgence of Scottish identity.

In this wave, the Wilsons managed to bag substantial orders, including a contract to supply tartans for the Scottish regiments’ kilts. An industrial setup resembling a factory village mushroomed at the Haugh, reflecting the birth of tartan design. Although the workers lived under poor conditions, it signified the advent of tartan production at an industrial-scale level.

By the time the century turned, the Wilsons’ thriving enterprise had to shut down, potentially due to the loss of a military contract. The mill complex was eventually razed by the local authorities. Dr. Cook recounts the transformative journey of the burn from a dye-bearing stream into a habitat for kingfishers and otters. He acknowledges this as a triumph in ecological reclaiming but laments the loss of jobs and homes.

Stirling Council is considering channeling these historical findings into the city’s festivities planned for next year. Chris Kane, the leader, rejoices over the revelation of how Bannockburn became the cornerstone of the modern tartan industry. As the region gears up to celebrate its 900th anniversary as a royal burgh in 2024, he looks forward to showcasing yet another captivating chapter in the area’s narrative for the global visitors to behold.

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Melinda Cochrane is a poet, teacher and fiction author. She is also the editor and publisher of The Inspired Heart, a collection of international writers. Melinda also runs a publishing company, Melinda Cochrane International books for aspiring writers, based out Montreal, Quebec. Her publication credits include: The art of poetic inquiry, (Backalong Books), a novella, Desperate Freedom, (Brian Wrixon Books Canada), and 2 collections of poetry; The Man Who Stole Father’s Boat, (Backalong Books), and She’s an Island Poet, Desperate Freedom was on the bestseller's list for one week, and The Man Who Stole Father’s Boat is one of hope and encouragement for all those living in the social welfare system. She’s been published in online magazines such as, (regular writer for) ‘Life as a Human’, and Shannon Grissom’s magazine.