I visited the Tartan exhibition at the V&A Dundee a few days ago, just before it was due to end. The show was wide-ranging, thought-provoking and left you wanting to learn more, which is always a good thing as you clatter down the stairs and back out into the wintry blast of the firth.

Outside the exhibition hall, in the first floor foyer where one of Ian Callum’s Jaguars used to sit, was a Hillman Imp with tartan seats. I read the caption closely, twice; despite what it said, the Imp wasn’t the last mass-produced car to be built in Scotland. After Imp production ended, the factory at Linwood – which passed from Rootes Group to Chrysler and would soon become Peugeot-Talbot – began making Sunbeam hatchbacks. Mass production in Scotland ended when the Sunbeam went out of production.

However, the initial jolt that things you read on exhibition walls aren’t necessarily true, did prompt another connection. Although it doesn’t get a mention in the Tartan exhibition, I recalled a snippet about the Volkswagen Golf GTi which demonstrates the international reach of tartan.

The decision to select tartan upholstery for the Golf GTi came from designer Gunhild Liljequist, who was a porcelain painter and chocolate box designer when she was hired, at the age of 28, to work in Volkswagen’s Department of Fabrics and Colours at Wolfsburg in 1964. She was one of the car industry’s first female designers and prior to her, the VW’s interiors were drab. Some would say that many of them still are.

Liljequist’s focus was on colour, trim, and interior detailing: when the first Golf GTi was planned in the mid-1970s, she was asked to design a “sporty” interior. Specifically, Scottish sportiness: the tartan cloth design. She recalled, “Black was sporty, but I also wanted colour and quality. I took a lot of inspiration from my travels around Great Britain, and I was always taken by high-quality fabrics with checked patterns … you could say that there is an element of British sportiness in the GTi.”

The fabric she chose was named “Clark” by VW, as a reference to double F1 world champion Jim Clark, whose his home in Duns isn’t far from the cloth-weaving heartland of the Borders woollen industry. Jim Clark was the talent of his era, and just like most great drivers he made speed look effortless, with none of the theatrical oversteer and screeching tyres you see in Hollywood films.

So the sporting check made its way to the grouse moor and the golf course, then it was co-opted by the fashion industry, and finally crossed over to motor racing. The GTi’s tartan upholstery is now referred to as “Clark Plaid”, which confuses people because tartan and plaid aren’t the same thing. The pattern on the x- and y-axes is identical in a tartan, but the patterns are different in a plaid. Nonetheless, tartan is often misrepresented as “plaid”, especially in the US.

Liljequist’s decision to use tartan-upholstered seats made the GTi of 1976 easy to distinguish from a base model Golf, just as she had intended. Fifty years later, tartan seats have endured, although the fifth-generation Golf GTi which emerged in 2005 had a classic black, white and red tartan renamed “Jacky”, perhaps in tribute to Jim Clark’s friend Jackie Stewart.

Meantime, for me, the best images in the V&A Tartan exhibition were firstly a shoot for Vogue magazine by Sarah Moon, a French photographer with a superb eye. True to the original clan tartans, prior to Walter Scott and George IV’s Public Relations visit to Scotland 200 years ago, the models in her photos wear subtle, autumnal colours. The second image is a Bo Diddley album cover which stands out thanks to the joy of his shy smile and pillarbox red tartan jacket. Compared to the po-faced fashion plates on show elsewhere in the exhibition, Bo Diddley is having the time of his life.

Passing the Hillman Imp again on the way out, though, something was missing. I had a nagging feeling that the V&A’s curators treat their subject as art historians would, rather than as a living tradition. Perhaps they didn’t speak to Johnstons, Isle Mill or Strathmore Woollens – who have a mill just up the road – while they were putting the show together. The exhibition needed a tangible demonstration of how tartan is made, with a Dornier P2 loom – like the working mills in Forfar, Keith, Elgin and Hawick use – so that visitors could see tartan cloth physically forming in front of their eyes, as the rapier swishes to and fro through the warp.

When folk reportedly say of the V&A, and other galleries, that “It’s no’ for us,” or that “There’s nothin’ for us there,” that’s sometimes construed as people in Dundee’s traditionally working class northern suburbs saying that they don’t have a connection to the arts, especially to visual culture. That shouldn’t be the case.

Just as The Rep theatre has made an effort over the years to put on shows which connect to the working traditions of Dundee’s jute industry, perhaps the V&A should look closely at what was (and is still) made across Tayside. Then, everyone in the city would make a connection with the tyres, watches, lasers, computers, confectionery, ships and many other things which their families helped to make, and which contribute to Scotland’s material culture – including the polychrome checked woollen fabric on the Hillman Imp’s seats.

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