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History & Use of Scottish Tartan

Scottish American Society

To look up a tartan in the International Tartan Index, click here.

Program given on 14th of January 2007 by Margaret Frost 




Let’s start out by blowing up a few misconceptions.  First of all, though it is commonly used, the term “plaid” is not synonymous with tartan.  A tartan is a specific design, usually, but not always, made of cloth.  Ordinarily it is the same viewed from any direction.  That is, if you turn it upside down or sideways, it should look the same.  This is not always the case, but it is the norm. 


A plaid, or more properly pronounced “plaide” is a blanket.  In times past the Highlander wrapped himself up in his plaide at night.  It was his sleeping bag and it was also his garment during the day.  Since it was frequently woven in the form of a tartan, the two terms ultimately became confused.  It is common usage now to call a tartan a plaid.


Second, though you may belong to a clan, or be descended from someone who does – or be married to someone who does – you are not “entitled” to wear a specific tartan.  You can wear any tartan you like.  You may choose to wear a tartan identified with your particular clan or district, but if you do not like it, or it doesn’t match your favorite sweater, feel free to wear one that does.  There is no official governing body for tartan.  Tartan is an industry.  Today there are many mills located all over Scotland which produce tartan cloth.  There are mills in other countries that produce it as well.  They are all legitimately tartans.  What they may or may not be is registered. 


The Scottish Tartans Society, for a fee, will research any new pattern or “sett” and see if it has been registered as belonging to a specific individual, group, or commercial enterprise.  If indeed it has not, it can be recorded by them under the name specified and those records continue to grow.  The Lord Lyon, may record a Grant of Arms which includes a tartan.  Many clan chiefs recognized as such have had their tartans registered and recorded in the Lyon Court Books.  There are new tartans being recognized and recorded somewhere almost every day.  The last I knew there were over 3000 of them and no one source can possibly claim to have them all listed. 


There is no historical basis for the current fashion of describing certain tartan colors as being used for various fanciful concepts.  “We use the blue for the rivers found flowing musically through our clan land, the green for the verdant pine forest which surrounds us and which sheltered us in ancient battles, gold for the fields of corn which provide us with our ancient beverage and sustenance as well…”  And so forth.  The Irish aren’t the only Celts who employ the blarney.


There is a sort of basis for the so-called “dress” version of a given tartan.  Most tartans really began as what are now termed “district” tartans.  Women of various villages or gathering areas would weave a cloth of wool, plucked from their sheep and dyed with the various roots and berries to be found on their land.  They took great pride in weaving a pattern which was colorful and attractive for their men to wear as plaides when out on the hunt or in the field.  Because plants almost always were more common in one area or another, those wearing patterns with these colors could be identified as belonging to a specific area.  Whatever yarn was left over might then be used to weave material for the woman herself to wear.  As she most likely wouldn’t have enough to weave herself a full plaide, she used the plain, cheaper, undyed wool as a background and wove the extra strands or pattern of the one she had made for her mate to give it color.  Since that wool was usually the cream colored natural color of the sheep on the hill, the so-called “dress” pattern for women evolved.


Speaking of women’s dress. 

Many have heard of the so-called “correct” fashion of a woman wearing her tartan sash over the right shoulder and fastened at the left hip.  Supposedly only the chief’s wife is permitted to wear it over the left shoulder.  This is balderdash. 


The only recorded mention of this is in one part of the highlands where it was noted that a lady wore her sash over a different shoulder than usual in order to indicate that the lady concerned was in an “interesting condition.”  Even in this case no specific shoulder was mentioned as being the “usual.” 


For those who do country dancing, or use their right hand on a regular basis, placing the sash over the left shoulder makes more sense and is definitely more practical.  It would be patently unfair for any chief’s wife to demand that only she have freedom of movement, though I recently heard of one who did.  In this case the group knew full well that her demands were incorrect and unreasonable, but as a matter of courtesy abided by her wishes. 


Now as for the actual history of the tartan. 

Many myths have been put forth in this respect.  The first mention of highland tartan in writing was around 1537 or 1538.  That refers to an order for clothing made of “terten” which may have been the pattern or it may have been a certain kind of cloth. 


There are claims made that certain tartans and patterns have been used by the same family or clan for many centuries and that these claims are proven by the fact that so-called pattern sticks were used to denote thread counts and colors.  The sticks supposedly were measured and the thread counts were kept by wrapping the correct color a specific number of times around the stick.  None of these tartan pattern sticks have ever been found.  It does seem, though, that certain tartans may very well have been used by the same clan for generations – but those patterns are few in number.


As I mentioned earlier, the first tartans worn were, by necessity, really the so-called “district” tartans.  This is most likely because certain berries and vegetables were used in the dyeing process and those were available in more abundance in certain areas.  Women used what they had and often had a section of their little kitchen garden assigned to the plants they would use for the preparation of their yarn.  It was stated in 1703 that it was possible to tell a man’s residence by the pattern of his tartan.


Most of those familiar with Scottish history are aware that the Scots were forbidden to wear tartan after their defeat at Culloden in 1746.  It was to be 37 years before the ban was lifted.  In 1782 that the Marquess of Graham, acting as a spokesperson for the Highland Society of London, got the ban overturned.  This coincided with a Romantic Movement in Europe, which traveled to Britain, and ultimately the whole idea of the romanticism of the Celt and the highland way of dress.  The writings of Sir Walter Scott further contributed to this change in attitude and resulted in the state visit to Scotland of George the IV who appeared in highland dress although underneath his kilt wore pink tights.  Though the visit is pictured in paintings of the time, the tights are not, but they are documented.  When Queen Victoria visited the highlands with her beloved Albert, she became much enamoured of the whole idea of Scotland and Scottish dress and popularized it even more. 


At the close of the 18th Century, the opportunities for commerce involved in the development of tartan cloth was not lost on the border weaving industry.  As with all industries, it was necessary to maintain a steady flow of new products.  The idea of individual tartans providing an identity for a clan or family was an attractive one – not just to the weaving trade, but to the potential wearers as well.  Chiefs and clansmen were soon asking for “their” tartan.  The weavers were most enthusiastic about meeting their wishes.


This sudden demand for clan tartan led to a great deal of confusion.  Many clans claimed the same tartan, and some do to this day.  Some have included minute differences, almost impossible to detect at any distance, others added a recognizable stripe or shading.


In 1815, the Highland Society of London began its collection of tartans, with a number of them signed and sealed by the chiefs of concerned clans.  The first book of tartans appeared in 1831. It was entitled “The Scottish Gael” and was written by John Logan a one-time secretary of the Highland Society.  At the same time, some of the chiefs were asked about their clan tartan and were puzzled and embarrassed.  They had no idea what pattern was “theirs” and were totally confused by a declaration then encouraged that clans and setts had been used to designate family ties from the dawn of civilization.  Needless to say, this was far from the case.


Add to all this confusion the contribution of two brothers* who claimed to have been directly descended from Charles Edward Stuart, known more popularly as Bonnie Prince Charlie.  Although there is some confusion about their real name, they eventually settled upon the name “Sobieski Stuart.”   They claimed to have possession of an old manuscript dating from the 16th century, which supposedly gave details of upwards of seventy five early clan tartans.  The language used was also supposedly an archaic one, and only the Stuart Brothers could understand it.  Thus they alone were able to produce a book entitled the “Vestiarum Scoticum” which is often cited as a reliable source to this day.  It is not.  The original document has never been seen by any but the Stuart Brothers and the whole thing was very likely little more than a figment of the brothers’ rather fertile imagination.


In summation.

Thanks to the spirit of commerce, identifiable tartans have grown from the few at first, to a real flood of patterns and there are more added each day.  There are lots of names distinguished by a tartan of their own and lots of variations on the patterns themselves…such as “old” or “ancient” colors meant to replicate fabric made of yarns dyed with native plants, “hunting” tartans meant to replicate tartan worn when out hunting the stag while knee deep in heather, “modern” colors which are supposed to be the basic clan or district tartan using modern dyes, and so on.


That the tartan is a national symbol of Scottish dress is undeniable.  However, there are no rules at all about who can wear what tartan or what a given tartan should be named or used for. Nor are there even rules or regulations about the shades or tints of the colors used within the tartan pattern itself.   But there are conventions and traditions and they have been around for well over 200 years now. 


It is a good way to show your loyalty to a given clan if you wish, but no one is going to slap your hand (or any other part of your anatomy) for wearing something simply because it pleases you.  It is considered bad taste to wear more than one tartan at a time, though perhaps different versions of the same tartan might work.  Use discretion here, please.


Tartan, as it exists today, does not come down to us as inherited from our forbearers yea these many centuries ago.  Cave men did not wear tartan.  Even in Scotland’s early formation, it was most likely worn in a haphazard fashion, if at all.  But it has existed, it has become a registered, if not regulated industry, and we can hardly deny that it is an established custom now.


10th July 2007 - The Scotsman.com

Checking up on a tartan tradition

JOHN ROSS (jross@scotsman.com)

TARTAN is renowned across the world as a symbol of Scotland and is of huge value both to the economy and tourism.

Rangers and Celtic football clubs both have one, as does the Los Angeles Police Department and the iconic cartoon character Scrooge McDuck.

You can find it on every high street in Scotland and even on the moon.

It is associated with the height of fashion and tourism tat and it was also once outlawed. More recently, it took centre-stage at the Scissor Sisters' tartan-clad appearance at T in the Park.

Yet despite its significance, there is no official register of the thousands of tartans in existence. However, by next spring, that will change.

Jim Mather, the enterprise minister, yesterday gave official backing to the idea to "protect, promote and preserve one of Scotland's most iconic and valuable assets".

"Tartan's importance to Scotland cannot be overestimated," he said. "It is deeply embedded in Scottish culture and is an internationally recognised symbol of Scotland.

"So it is only right that the Scottish government protects, promotes and preserves one of our most valuable assets for generations to come."

He said the Court of the Lord Lyon, the heraldic authority for Scotland, and the National Archives of Scotland will play a crucial role in setting up, operating, maintaining and facilitating access to a register.

"I hope the work on a register will continue to be backed by industry and political consensus. And I hope the register will become a focus for authenticating all the superb varieties of tartan we design and produce."

Jamie McGrigor, a Highlands and Islands Conservative MSP, put forward the idea for a register of tartans in a private member's bill in the last parliament and received cross-party support.

Described by the MSP as a "trademark" for Scotland, he said a register would preserve the thousands of designs currently in existence. "It is vital that we keep Scotland as the mecca for tartan worldwide and this national register will go a long way in helping to achieve this," he said.

Details of how the project will work have still to be finalised, although it is thought a panel will be formed and will register only official tartans.

The international tartan index of the Crieff-based Scottish Tartans Authority (STA) is seen as the "register in waiting", with over 4,500 tartans listed, although a smaller list also exists in Dunkeld.

Although registration would not be compulsory, it is seen as a way of ensuring tartans are unique and authentic.

The STA advises designers of new tartans to go through the process so that a dated record of their tartan is kept. This can be legally significant if someone were to copy a design, produce a tartan of confusing similarity or try to record a tartan of the same name.

Brian Wilton, the STA's director of operations, said: "There is a huge amount of confusion at present. When a new tartan comes in we compare it to all others in our database to ensure it is unique.

"If there are some that have slipped through the net one can run into problems as someone could register a tartan which is far too close to an existing one."

He said the register will not be an "arbiter of taste", but will record genuine tartans which have fulfilled the recording criteria: "That is, that the design is unique and they are not making a claim in their name that cannot be substantiated."

He added: "I think what the new register will try to do is do away with tartans that make false claims and hoodwink the public.

"There has been a spate over the last few years of Irish surname tartans, almost the case of 'have you got an O'Flaherty tartan?', 'Not at the moment but come back after lunch'.

"In these cases, either deliberately or inadvertently, the tartan gets sold to all the O'Flaherties in the world and they are under the impression that the design is as ancient as [king of Ireland] King Brian Boru. It gives the industry such a bad name."

Blair Urquhart, an expert on tartan who runs an online design company, said the new register will effectively allow a tartan design to be copyrighted.

He said the industry has changed from even a decade ago.

"If you thought then of inventing a new tartan you would have Rob Roy turning in his grave," he said.

"There was a feeling that there were the clan tartans and that was it, and tradition was sacrosanct.

"There are now ones coming all the time and you want to make sure it's not the same as everyone else's."


THE word "tartan" refers to the way the thread is woven to make the cloth: each thread passed over two threads then under two threads, and so on. The use of different coloured yarns crossing each other distinguishes tartans from checkered pattern fabrics.

The oldest piece of tartan dates back to the 3rd century AD, found near Falkirk in an earthenware pot covering Roman coins.

After the Battle of Culloden in 1746, tartan was outlawed for 36 years, but its use was re-established by a later romantic movement concerned with reviving Scotland's past.

Sir Walter Scott urged all Highland chiefs to attend dressed in tartan finery.

A further boost was given by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert who liberally decorated Balmoral Castle with tartan.

There are thought to be more than 4,500 unique tartans and about 150 new designs come forward each year. Football teams, the mobile phone firm 02, the Hilton Hotel in Hong Kong and a number of whiskies all have their own tartan.

Alan Bean, the Apollo 12 pilot, left a piece of MacBean tartan on the moon in 1969. In 1942 Walt Disney designed the MacDuck tartan for Scrooge MacDuck, Donald's Scottish uncle.


*According to several sources, the claims by these two nineteenth century charlatans, Charles and John Allen alias John Sobieski Stuart and Charles Edward Stuart, that their father Thomas Allen was a legitimate son of Charles and Louise are without foundation. 

To read: The Military Origin of Clan Tartans - excerpts from an article by Matthew A. C. Newsome, click here.



Clans and Tartans by George Way of Plean – published by Harper Collins

A Short History of Highland Dress by R.M.D.Grange with references by Sir Iain Moncreiffe of that Ilk, BT, and Sir Thomas Innes of Learney, the Lord Lyon King of Arms – published by MacMillan & Company

Tartans & Heraldry by Matthew A.C. Newsome, FSA Scotland, GTS (Guild of Tartan Scholars) Chief of Research at the Scottish Tartans Museum,  published by the Scottish Banner

Clans, Septs & Regiments of the Scottish Highlands by Frank Adam, revised by Sir Thomas Innes of Learney, Lord Lyon King of Arms – published by Johnston & Bacon.

Scottish Clans & Tartans by Ian Grimble, Ph.D., F.R.Hist.S. – published by Lomond Books