The Cockburn Collection

A collection of 56 old ‘hard tartans’ brought together by Lieutenant-General Sir William Cockburn in the early 19th century. Such ‘hard tartans’ were woven tight on the loom with firmly twined yarn, so that water would run off the fabric rather than soaking it: ideal for the Scottish drizzle.

About Lieutenant-General Sir William Cockburn

Lieutenant-General Sir William Cockburn, of that ilk, 6th Bt., was born in 1769, the son of Sir James Cockburn of that Ilk, 5th Bt. and Laetitia Little. He gained the rank of Lieutenant-General in the 73rd Foot. He graduated from Oxford University with a Doctor of Civil Law (D.C.L.)

As a member of the Highland Society of London (a club for gentry with Highland connections, and an institution with an interest in preserving tartans), Cockburn was one of the first to give attention to the restoration of tartans to their important place in Scottish life and culture. He died on 19 March 1835.

About the collection

Left to right: MacPherson, Colquhoun, and McRae tartans

The Cockburn Collection, a single volume created between 1810 and 1820 by Lieutenant General Sir William Cockburn, is one of the earliest sources for many popular clan tartan designs, containing 56 specimens of ‘hard tartans’ originally made by William Wilson & Sons of Bannockburn.

Following the 1745 Jacobite Rising, and the introduction of the Act of Proscription in 1746, the wearing of Highland garb for men and boys (other than those in the army) was forbidden for 35 years. As a result, tartan fell into disuse for several generations. The later repeal of the act, and the advent of Highland Romanticism in the works of Robert Burns, James Macpherson (‘Ossian’) and Sir Walter Scott, brought about a revival of interest in tartan as a symbol of Scottish identity.

Finding aid

Online catalogue

Further reading

Cheape, Hugh and National Museums of Scotland. (2006) Tartan: the Highland Habit. Edinburgh: National Museums of Scotland.

Mosley, Charles, editor. (2003) Burke's Peerage, Baronetage & Knightage. Wilmington, Delaware, U.S.A.: Burke's Peerage (Genealogical Books) Ltd.

Rae, Victoria. (2019) The Secret Life of Tartan: how a Cloth Shaped a Nation. Edinburgh: Black & White Publishing.

Tartans & Highland Dress. (2016) London: Collins.

Stephens, H. M. (rev. by Lunt, James). (23 September 2004) ‘Cockburn, Sir William, of that ilk, sixth baronet (1769–1835)’. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

Image gallery

View images from the collection in the Cockburn Collection image gallery.

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