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John Sobieski Stolberg Stuart lived from 1795 to 1872. Together with his brother, Charles Edward Stuart he did much to popularise tartan in Scotland by publishing Vestiarium Scoticum in 1842. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.
Actually, John Sobieski Stuart and his brother Charles Edward Stuart, collectively later known as "the Sobieskis" were born as John Carter Allen and Charles Manning Allen in Wales. They were the sons of a Royal Naval Officer, Thomas Hay Allen, and his wife Catherine. Catherine died when the boys and their sister Matilda were young, and Thomas remarried, to Ann Salmon. They had five further children. From this point on, the picture gets murky, and it seems Thomas and Ann lived in a number of different parts of Europe, and under a number of different names, possibly to evade creditors.
During the 1820s, John and Charles moved to Edinburgh, becoming increasingly prominent in Scottish society. They subsequently took the names John Sobieski Stuart and Charles Edward Stuart and rumours, which they doubtless did as much as they could to encourage, began to circulate that they were descended from the Royal Stuart line. Sobieski was the surname of King John Sobieski of Poland, whose granddaughter Maria Klementyna Sobieska married, James Francis Edward Stuart, the "Old Pretender". He sometimes inserted a "Stolberg" in his name in an effort to suggest a link with Princess Louise of Stolberg-Gedern, the wife of Bonnie Prince Charlie. John Sobieski Stuart also took to using the title Count d'Albanie.
The Sobieskis claimed to have in their possession old documents originally given to Bonnie Prince Charlie which, they said, illustrated many old clan tartans used across both the Highlands and the Lowlands. Their claims were accepted by many in Scotland, including Sir Thomas Dick Lauder, though some, including Sir Walter Scott, expressed doubts.
Despite the doubters, the Sobieskis went on to publish their classic book Vestiarium Scoticum in 1842. Leather bound, superbly illustrated and costing the princely sum of 10 Guineas, this catalogue of 75 "traditional clan tartans" became an instant best seller, with aristocrats the length and breadth of Scotland seizing on it as a means of providing historical tartans legitimately associated with their own clan heritage. Meanwhile, Scottish weavers and tailors were also very enthusiastic about a book that gave a sense of order to the tartan chaos that reigned at the time. With great good fortune Vestiarium Scoticum also arrived on the bookshelves just as Queen Victoria came to power, and was perfectly timed to feed the Victorian love-affair with all things Scottish that followed.
It is possible that some of the tartans in Vestiarium Scoticum were based on existing patterns that the Sobieskis had encountered. But it seems very likely that, with great skill and artistry, they simply invented most of them, and in so doing invented what Scots now instinctively accept as an integral and long-established part of our heritage. John Sobieski Stuart died in Pimlico in London in 1872. Charles died on a steamer while travelling to France in 1880.