The Surprising History of Scotland’s Tartans

Bright colorful modern style tartans for sale in a store.

The geometrically regular colors of typical and distinctive tartan patterns are an unmistakeable indicator of Scotland and all things Scottish.

But that hasn’t always been so.  Please read on.

A series on Scottish Tartans and Kilts

  1.  The Surprising History of Scotland’s Tartans

(More parts to follow)

One of the iconic emblems of Scotland is the bagpiper, dressed up in tartan plaid clothing.  Most countries have a national dress, with varying degrees of color and distinctiveness, however Scotland’s tartans are among the most instantly recognizable of all national dresses.

But much of what we think we know about tartan is founded on myth, misunderstanding, and perhaps even deliberate mischief.  Where to start?

Well, let’s start at the start.  The origins of tartan are not Scottish.  They seem to spring from other countries as far away as China (the Tarim mummies dating back as far as 1800 BC), and as nearby as central Europe (the Hallstatt culture 1200 – 450 BC).

There is no denying that Scotland made the concept of tartan its own, and even though earlier tartan styles appeared elsewhere in the world, it is possible that Scotland “rediscovered” tartan independent of these other uses.  Of course, the underlying concept of a tartan – a repeating mix of colors woven together horizontally and vertically – is so simple and basic as to probably have been experimented with everywhere that weaving has been developed.

Even today, the use of tartan is shared with other nations (particularly Ireland), and many more nations have awkwardly embraced what they acknowledge as a Scottish fashion style as part of their own dress styles too (particularly Canada and other countries with significant Scottish migrant populations).

Before we continue refuting some more misperceptions, perhaps we should define what tartan is and is not.

What is Tartan

A trio of Yorkshire Terrier puppies in a gift box finished in the Royal Stewart tartan.

The word “tartan” basically refers to a type of colorful repeating pattern.  Historically, this tartan pattern was woven into fabric, but these days, you can have tartan patterns printed onto many different objects, as anyone who has strolled through a tourist/souvenir shop in Scotland well knows.  Money boxes.  Match boxes.  Whisky flasks.  Notepads and pens/pencils.  Rulers.  Confectionary containers.  Anything and everything.

The basic style of the tartan pattern relates to how weaving of fabric is done.  Most of the time, a tartan pattern is a series of symmetrical repeating square patterns, the same horizontally and vertically, and with two points of symmetry.  However, “tartan” is a loose and unregulated term/concept, and there are exceptions featuring asymmetrical patterns and rectangular rather than square designs.

Tartan patterns are made up of repeating sequences of lines, each of a different color and width (determined by the number of threads of each color).  The unique pattern/combination that is created is referred to as the tartan’s “sett”.

One of the features of a tartan is how the intersection of vertical and horizontal colors can make new colors.  For example, if you have blue and yellow threads crossing over each other, that creates a green color.  If you have red and red crossing over each other, that can make a brighter red, and so on.  The more colors in your pattern, the more combinations of colors that appear in the final tartan, and too many colors can make for an unclear indistinct confusing mess of color rather than a clear bold pattern.

For this reason, it is uncommon to have tartans with more than seven colors (which make for 21 different combinations), and usually there will be fewer than this.

Here are three excellent pages (one two three) explaining much more about tartan styles and designs and how it is made.

One significant point.  Whereas some other things (for example, Scotch whisky and Harris tweed) are defined by law and can only be named as such if conforming to the very specific definitions given, there is no such law or constraint applying to tartan.

What is the Difference between Plaid, Tartan, and Tweed?

A lovely Harris Tweed flat cap with a mix of cloth/patterns, and showing the certification mark all genuine Harris Tweed carries.

A “plaid” historically refers to a piece of cloth, and in Scotland, that piece of cloth was often woven in a tartan pattern.

But a piece of cloth (a plaid) can be in any pattern, or indeed in a plain solid color.  Similarly, a tartan pattern might appear on a cloth, but it also might appear on any other imaginable item too.

Regrettably, in the US in particular, the two terms are sometimes confused and used interchangeably, but not all plaid is tartan, and not all tartan is plaid.  We’ve even noticed, on the internet, articles headed “What is the difference between plaid and tartan” that try to suggest they are two different styles of patterns, and it is possible some people use the words in this context, particularly in the US, but to be exact, plaid means cloth, and tartan is a style of pattern.

They are entirely different things, albeit possibly combined.  Think of plaid like you would different brands of cars and tartan like different types of petrol.  Some cars use petrol, others don’t.  Petrol can be used to power cars, but also for other things too.

Now for the third term.  In simple terms (this article is about tartan, not tweed), tweed is both a type of woven wool fabric and also generally also the pattern that appears on it.

Tweeds may have non-tartan style patterns, often in herringbone alignment, and sometimes the thread they use is flecked with other colors (most notably the Harris Tweed).  While there are regional styles of tweed (Harris Tweed from the islands of Harris and Lewis in the Outer Hebrides, Shetland Tweed from the Shetland Islands, and so on), there are no clan affiliations.

It is harder to define tweed, because it is a broader concept than tartan, and we’ve even noted some tartan patterns on some tweed materials.  We will write a separate article on that, another time.

Tartan Was Not, Originally, a National Dress

The traditional boundary between the Highlands and the rest of Scotland.

The next cornerstone of the tartan story is sadly also utterly wrong – the concept of tartan as a national unifying dress embraced across all of Scotland.

It is important to appreciate that the single country of Scotland has always been a mix of different cultures, and in particular, there has been a stark divide between those people generically referred to as “Highlanders” and those referred to as “Lowlanders”.

The topic of social groupings in Scotland demands its own article, and there are more than just Highlanders and Lowlanders, but for this article, the simplification is probably acceptable, and “Lowlanders” simplistically can mean “everyone not blessed to be a Highlander”.  🙂

With the English/Scottish border being at best a variable and subjective concept for centuries, the closer to England you would get, the more blurred the national identity became, and a bit like how some large-city intelligentsia in the US today tend to denigrate rural dwellers in the deep south and “fly over country” (and vice versa), there was a mutual antipathy and dislike between the two groups in Scotland, most marked in the two major cities of Glasgow and Edinburgh and in the “Borders” region closest to England (the “Southern Uplands”).

This difference was exacerbated after the end of the final Jacobite Rebellion, when “Bonnie Prince Charlie” and his forces were routed at Culloden in 1746.  The English, by then well fed up with the troublesome Highlanders, and also more than a little fearful (the rebel troops didn’t just take over much of Scotland, they were headed at full speed to London to take over the English capital before capriciously choosing to abandon their advance and retreat back to Scotland – if they had pressed on, they well may have taken over England as well as won Scotland’s independence), passed an “Act of Proscription” that attempted to eradicate Highland Culture and clothing, banning the display/wearing of tartan, and the wearing of kilts.  The Lowlanders distanced themselves still further from the Highlanders at this time.

And so now we get to the point of this lengthy section.  Tartans were primarily a Highland thing, and spurned by the Lowlanders.  They were only, and opportunistically, picked up in a “me too” sense by the Lowlanders when the “Scotland craze” started in the 1800s.

Or, to put it more kindly and with greater political correctness, as the concept of a separate Scottish identity became more relevant and valued, the Highland style of dress acted as a suitable means of identification for the nation as a while, due to the Lowlanders having nothing distinctive to offer instead.

Scotland Becomes Popular

By 1782, not quite all, but most, had been forgiven, and Scotland was no longer viewed with so much fear and disfavor.  The English King, George III, repealed the Act his father had passed.  But the 36 years during the ban saw much knowledge and tradition lost, and aggressive acts to destroy the clan system could not and were not then undone.

Scotland’s return to the fold was cemented by the next George – King George IV – when he toured Scotland in 1822, choosing to appear in tartan clothing.  He was the first king to visit Scotland in 200 years, and not only the mere act of visiting, but the voluntary decision to appear in a fanciful and elaborate Scottish-style manner of dress, caused Scotland to become fashionable.

At this point, most of what passed for “Scottish culture” was actually Highland culture.

The fashionableness of Scotland surged still further when Queen Victoria became an ardent fan.  She made her first visit in 1842, then leased Balmoral Castle in the Highlands in 1848 and bought it outright in 1852.  After having bought the modest castle and grounds, she and her husband, Prince Albert, massively increased their commitment to Scotland by building an entire new and much larger castle/dwelling at Balmoral over the years that followed.  They and subsequent members of the Royal Family extended the land holdings, which today comprise 50,000 acres (20,000 hectares), and is one of the rare properties which the Royal Family personally and directly own (unlike Buckingham Palace, for example, which is owned by the government).

Victoria’s clear love of Scotland created a great desire by English society to become familiar with and associated with all things Scottish, and towns such as Pitlochry surged in popularity as fashionable holiday places to go where you could “see and be seen” by/with your fellow members of society.

To be blunt, the canny Scots were quick to come up with the 19th century equivalent of “tourist traps” and faux souvenirs of dubious provenance, all the more so if there was a chance to separate the English from their money.  While the English – conquerors/invaders, as they were seen in the eyes of many Scots – were willing to forgive and forget, the Scots themselves never quite shook off the animosity they felt to the English, as is seen more recently with the renewed attempts at regaining Scottish independence.

About the only thing that wasn’t a feature of the tourism industry back then was having everything made in China!

So a great deal of mystique was hastily manufactured about tartan, and the Lowlanders, who in the past disliked and feigned to be embarrassed by their “less civilized” Highland brethren, were quick to join in too, creating their own tartans alongside the tartans being created by enterprising Highlanders, too.

A tartan weaving mill.

Tartan Becomes Popular, Too

While the concept of “branding” otherwise generic goods might seem like a modern marketing invention, it is fair to say that tartan was (is) perhaps the earliest expression of branding being used as a way to distinguish, differentiate, and add premium pricing to an otherwise generic product.

As an aside, little more than 100 years later, Scotland repeated the feat, when it changed single malt whisky from being scorned as sub-standard and low-priced whisky, and being recreated as premium expressions of whisky at sometimes sky-high pricing, to the point that these days people will pay crazy money for “collectible” single malt whiskies that have nothing in their favor other than a self-proclaimed prestigious brand, unsupported by anything other than fanciful advertising.

A stroke of marketing genius was to suggest that each different tartan pattern belonged uniquely to a specific clan.  With, some say, as many as 100 million people world-wide claiming Scottish heritage (to put that number in context, there are 5.4 million people living in Scotland, and not all of them are Scottish), and many of these 100 million people being justifiably proud of their Scottish roots, this gave each and every person a way to proudly show off “their” clan origins, however distant and vague they may be, and greatly expanded the potential market for the fabric mills.

Scotland’s clan system dates back to the 12th century, evolving out of extended close family groups who worked together and mutually supported each other.  Scotland’s use of tartan dates back even further, tracing its roots in what seems like nothing much more than weaving pretty and semi-random patterns with mixes of different wools, with the earliest known tartan type fabric being the “Falkirk tartan” – a scrap of cloth dating to perhaps the 3rd century AD, and found stuffing an earthen pot containing Roman coins in the Falkirk region.  It had a simple check design created out of natural light and dark wool.

Similar simple check patterns were found in Jutland in north-eastern Europe, dated to around the same sort of time.

It is of course likely that village weavers, who would weave cloth for their local village and clan, might have had their own favorite patterns and styles, and with colors influenced by any local pigments that were available.  This was of course something that was associated with the weaver, not the clan.  When a new weaver appeared, that new weaver’s pattern/style preferences would likely replace the previous weaver’s preferences.

It was not until the 1600s that any reference to brighter colors (but not as bright as today – affordable bright colors only dated from the invention of aniline dyes in the 1850s) and more complex patterns appeared, and at that time, there was no indication that there was any color/pattern coordination by clan or region.

It has been suggested that just like other military uniforms and patterns, tartan patterns were adopted by Scottish soldiers so they could recognize friends and foes on the battlefield, but this appears to be incorrect.  Contemporary paintings of notable battles like Culloden in 1746 show no type of color coordination of dress, other than that of single-colored cap ribbons.  Another person on the battlefield wearing the same tartan as you was as likely to be an enemy as an ally.

Tartans were rarely named, and usually only identified by number in pattern books and samples issued by weavers.  One well known firm of weavers was William Wilson & Sons, based in Bannockburn (just out of Stirling).  They were founded in about 1765, and became the sole supplier of tartan cloth to the Highland regiments (during the period of the banning of tartans, only the military could wear it).

At first Wilsons just assigned numbers to their patterns, then they started giving them generically Scottish names in a random manner, including not only clan names but also the names of Scottish towns and other totally invented names, sort of like how different colors of paint are named in a sample book these days.  In their pattern book of 1819, Wilsons had 250 tartans, but only 100 of them were given names.

The first stirrings of formalizing the concept of “pretty patterns” in tartans seems to have occurred in 1815, when the Highland Society (of London) resolved that all clan chiefs

be respectfully solicited to furnish the Society with as much of the Tartan of his Lordship’s Clan as will serve to Show the Pattern and to Authenticate the Same by Attaching Thereunto a Card bearing the Impression of his Lordship’s Arms

Many of the clans had no idea how to respond, but sniffing a whiff of opportunity, designated official tartans on the spot.  The head of perhaps the largest and perhaps the most powerful clan, the MacDonalds, wrote back to the Society to say

Being really ignorant of what is exactly The Macdonald Tartan, I request you will have the goodness to exert every Means in your power to Obtain a perfectly genuine Pattern, Such as Will Warrant me in Authenticating it with my Arms.

In other words, “pick a style, any style, and I’ll call it the official MacDonald tartan”.  (See this article.)

Another manifestation of the growing obsession with Scottish culture, and the desire to give new Victorian creations an apparent history and validation was the publication of an influential book in 1842, the Vestiarium Scoticum.  This book claimed to be a reproduction or reprinting of an earlier 15th century manuscript, and showed in colored drawings the official tartans of clans at that time.  It listed and illustrated 75 different tartans.

This welcome historical foundation was accepted at first with unquestioning delight by many, because it overnight validated the historical status and significance – not just of tartan overall, but of specific tartan patterns and the clans the patterns belonged to.

Very quickly however, the book was denounced as a total forgery with no basis in historical fact at all, and with some reluctance, it was generally accepted to be exactly that.  But, and just like some modern “lies” that have subsequently been justified and even accepted on the basis of “It might as well be true, even if I can’t prove it”, the convenience of the book and its codification of 75 different tartan patterns was so compelling as to be accepted as a base for confirming tartan origins, even if in reality it was totally a work of creative fiction.

Much has been written about the book, and astonishingly, some writers still cite it as “proof” of whatever point they’re making.  Here’s the Wikipedia entry, which is detailed and helpful.

The bottom line is that the matching of tartan patterns and colors to clans really didn’t start until the 1800s, and much of the matching – both then and subsequently – has been, shall we say, creative and imaginative.

Furthermore, it sometimes happens that when a new clan chief is appointed, he may decide to change the clan’s official tartan to something different.  This happened most amusingly when astronaut Alan Bean carried a 14″ x 14″ piece of what he understood to be official MacBean tartan to the moon with him on Apollo 12 in 1969.  When he returned back to Earth, he gifted part of this to the clan MacBean, only to find that it was no longer the clan’s official tartan – the new chief had changed it.  (Details here.)

Depending on how you count and who you believe, these days there might be as many as 10,000 different tartan styles, and because there are “design your own” tartan programs online (for example this site) that allow you to design a tartan pattern which will then be woven into a length of cloth for you, the total number is probably impossible to determine and increasing daily.  Several self-appointed organizations each attempt to maintain official records of tartans and their origins, but the history and probity of all but the modern tartan patterns is at best dubious.

The thing is that, depending on how you count them, there are at best no more than perhaps 85 Highland clans (and even that number allows for counting branches of the same clan separately).  Here’s a strange list purporting to be of the “Great Clans of Scotland” that has only 25, including Lowland clans.  Getting from 25 or even 85 clans to 10,000 tartans is a bit of a leap.

Different Styles of Tartan

As part explanation of this large number, there are sometimes several different styles of a given tartan.  These may be referred to as modern, ancient, hunting, weathered, muted, dress, even mourning.

It is worth noting that a tartan described as “ancient” may actually be a modern invention – the word is intended to denote that the tartan is styled in older less intense colors such as may have been used prior to modern aniline dies.

A dress tartan usually involves replacing one of the prominent colors in the tartan with white and is often used in Highland dancing.  These started to appear in the mid 1850s.  It does not mean it is a more formal style to be used on formal occasions, and neither does it mean “to be used for dresses”.

A hunting tartan – also a Victorian invention – has muted colors, greens and blues, rather than brighter reds and yellows, but has nothing to do with hunting.

Weathered tartans are also more muted in color.  The terms “weathered“, “reproduction“, and “muted” are reasonably interchangeable, and a fanciful explanation is that they are intended to represent a piece of tartan that had been buried in a peat bog for a couple of centuries, or otherwise exposed to the elements.  Another definition suggests that muted tartans are half-way between modern and ancient in style.

A mourning tartan tends to be in black and white and possibly grey, with no color at all.

Anyone can design any type of tartan and call it whatever they like.  There are no hard and fast clear rules that must be followed.

A sense for the great variety of styles for a single named tartan can be had by going to, for example, this page and searching for a MacDonald tartan.  We count 52 different versions.  Another site has 96 versions, but some are merely the same tartan with slightly different colors from a different mill.

Can Anyone Wear Any Tartan?

Prince Charles, Duke of Rothesay as he is known in Scotland, and his wife Camilla, wearing Balmoral tartan.

Is it true that only members of a specific clan can wear “their” tartan?

This is another absolutely artificially created bit of nonsense by imaginative marketers who were keen to add more significance and status to tartans.  They have eagerly added, and then added some more, tartan designs in an attempt to persuade people that they should be loyal to their clan and buy clothing, tea-towels, rugs, and assorted other items out of “their” clan’s tartan.  This is especially advantageous if they can first copyright and then secondly license a design to the weaving mills, prior to then third telling everyone who identifies with the clan that, as loyal members of the clan, they should be wearing that particular tartan and no other.

Additional “rules” have been created as to which tartan you should wear if your mother and father were from different clans, and we hesitate to dignify such rules with even a mention, other than to note the concept generally follows the clan custom that one’s clan allegiance is tied to your surname and so passes down the paternal side of the family.

These rules weren’t always helpful.  For example, your maternal grandfather was a Scot and your paternal grandmother was a Scot, but the other two grandparents were not Scottish at all, so which clan should you align yourself with – or both, or, horror of horrors, neither?  Such issues, while perhaps important centuries ago, are now meaningless.

The other point about such rules is that they are utterly and completely unenforceable.  Are you required to show birth certificates and genealogical lineages when buying tartan material?  Or when walking around wearing items of tartan?  No, of course not!

Are there criminal penalties for wearing the “wrong” tartan?  Again, no, of course not.

Are there even civil laws or copyright type restrictions that might limit what you wear?  No, of course not – there are copyrights on some tartan designs, but those restrictions apply to who can create items using that design, not to who can wear them after lawfully buying them.

Are there unwritten rules and time-hallowed customs that apply?  Remember that you’re talking about a country with millennia of history, a country that still feels old grievances and wrongs keenly, even today.  But with the concept of tartan in reality only emerging in the 19th century, and being created out of nothing and nowhere, including by a Scottish group based in, of all terrible places, London, the answer is once more, of course not.  To American and Commonwealth readers, something in the early 1800s is ancient, to the Scots, it is a modern recent event and not yet hallowed sufficiently by time as to be considered a true tradition.

A possible weak exception might apply to the Royal Stewart tartan signifying the Royal Family, but this is also one of the most popular tartans and seen on everything imaginable, everywhere, so clearly it is ignored by everyone.

The after-the-fact justification for the endemic popularity of the Royal Stewart tartan is amusing.  The Scottish Register of Tartans, in an attempt to reconcile popular fashion with their invented protocols, say “In the same way that clansmen wear the tartan of their chief, it is appropriate for all subjects of the Queen to wear the Royal Stewart tartan”.

But another self-styled authority, the Scottish Tartans Authority, disagrees and says

Tradition has it that those who have no tartan of their own can wear the Black Watch (The Universal or Government Tartan) or the Hunting Stewart, but not the Royal Stewart without the express authority of the Queen.

The Royal Stewart tartan, by the way, first appeared in 1831, so any reference to “tradition” is somewhat dubious.  Whatever the official situation may be, the Royal Stewart tartan (see the dog picture above) is now not only endemic on items of clothing, but appears on assorted other items as well, even biscuit tins.

During the Scottish craze of the Victorian era, just about everything imaginable was given a tartan pattern – tableware, jewelry and cases for it, souvenirs, commercial gifts, everything.  Indeed, that’s something that has pretty much continued in the nearly 200 years since then.

There is an associated personal Balmoral tartan of the Royal Family, which was designed by Victoria’s German husband, Prince Albert, in 1853 and so has neither historical nor Scottish roots, but notwithstanding, the Scots are uniquely protective of this tartan out of respect for the Royal Family, and we’ve not found a single Scottish mill that produces Balmoral cloth for sale to the public.

The Scottish are proud of their history and their heritage, even the not-so-historic and not-so-Scottish concept of tartan, but as long as you are wearing tartan respectfully and to show your support of Scotland, and possibly to celebrate your Scottish heritage, no-one will complain and many will thank you.

Instantly recognizable as the Burberry commercial tartan pattern.

There are also clearly non-Scottish tartans.  In the British Commonwealth, school uniforms often have a tartan style pattern, no matter what the origin of the students or the history of the school.  Canada even has an official national tartan, designed to coincide with the release of its red and white maple leaf flag design.  Many Canadian provinces also have a provincial tartan.

Even private companies have their own tartans, and of course, another of the best known tartans is a private invention, the Burberry Check, which first appeared in 1924 as a lining for coats rather than as an external pattern.

There are also deliberately designed “suitable for everyone” tartans.  One such listing even includes the Royal Stewart tartan on their list, providing perhaps the clearest proof that there are no restrictions on tartans and who can wear them.

Anyone for a Tartan Kilt?

It is impossible to talk about tartan without mentioning its best known embodiment – the Scottish kilt, although we’ve managed it for the 4,650 words to this point!

We’ll focus on kilts in the next articles in this series.

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