Wee History of Scottish Tartan
has become the main symbol of Scotland and Scottish Culture.
It is an emblem for those of Scottish descent around the world.
With Scottish National identity probably greater than at any
time in recent centuries, the potency of Tartan as a symbol
cannot be understated.
is evidence that Celts have used striped and checked material
for thousands of years. The Scoti, who settled Western Scotland
from 5-6th Cetury onward and eventually gave the whole country
their name, are said to have used striped garments to signify
rank. One possible derivation of the word Tartan comes from
the Irish tarsna, crosswise & Scottish Gaelic tarsuinn,
across. The basis of the pattern, dress style and word may date
back to the time when the Scots introduced their Gaelic culture
into what was to become Scotland. If early Tartan, like the
Gaelic language, were used across Scotland in the 10th century,
by the 13th century it would have been confined to the Highlands.
Lowland Scotland began adopting the language of the northern
Angles and Norman social structure from the 12th century.
another derivation may be from Old French tartaine, cloth, implying
the introduction of checked woollen cloth in the early middle
ages which simply became popular in the Highlands.. In 1538
there is a reference to 'Heland Tartan'. A Frenchman at the
siege of Haddington in 1537 describes Highlanders who were present
as wearing what appears to be Tartan. From 1581 there is a description
of 'variegated garments, especially stripes, and their favourite
colours are purple and blue'. Poet John Taylor clearly describes
the woollen Tartan garments of Highlanders at Braemar in 1618.
Martin, a doctor on Skye around 1700, gives the first descriptions
of Tartan which imply their significance as regional and the
importance to weavers of ensuring that their cloth always has
precise local patterns. Martin states that it is possible to
tell from a man's plaid where he came from. There is no implication
from any of this that specific families or Clans wore their
'own' Tartans - the patterns appeared to be regional.
battle of Culloden in 1746 saw the end of Jacobite claims to
the throne. Many Highlanders, but by no means all, had backed
the losing side of Prince Charles Edward Stuart. The great importance
of Tartan and associated dress to Highland Culture at this time
can be deduced from the fact that the government banned it from
1746-82. This proscription however applied only to common Highland
men - not the upper echelons of Highland society, not to Lowland
Scots and not to women. But most importantly, it did not apply
to the Highland regiments that were being formed in the Government
new regiments were mainly associated with specific Clans, containing
the men of that Clan and often led by the Chief or a senior
member of his family. The first regiments used the 'Government
Tartan', the Black Watch, but others quickly adopted distinctive
new patterns. From this it appears that specific regimental
Tartans became Clan or family Tartans and not vice-versa.
in this 'new Tartan' industry was the Lowland company of William
Wilson. He meet the growing demand for Tartan by inventing new
patterns. He supplied the Army and the flourishing demand for
cloth in the Lowlands. All his patterns were initially simply
given numbers but some quickly became popular in certain areas
and became known by that regions name - thus were born the regional
Tartans. Others were commissioned for a specific person and
soon the surname of that person became the name of the Tartan!
patterns appeared each year for Wilson's salesmen to market.
There is no evidence that Wilson's Tartans had anything whatsoever
to do with any ancient regional or pre-1746 patterns. The Tartans
worn at the Battles of Sheriffmuir or Culloden have almost all
been lost forever. In 1816 an attempt was made to match Clan
to 'true' Tartan. Tartans were gathered but these had more to
do with regimental uniforms and Wilson's successful marketing
than any older patterns. But the idea that Tartan and Clan paired
had become firmly established.
the early 19th Century the Gaelic mythology of Ossian had been
translated and was popular. Sir Walter Scott's novels were popular.
At times almost half the British army was Highland and the worldwide
success of these regiments was legend, never mind the Clearances,
look at our nice new Empire (a note of sarcasm from the author).
When in 1822 George IV visited Edinburgh, Tartan and Highland
Dress was the order of the day thanks to Sir Walter Scott's
personal planning. Tartan was seen as Scottish rather than just
variety of Tartans has never stopped growing. Many Clan Tartans
have become available in ancient, modern, weathered, dress or
hunting. Almost every surname from the British Isles has been
associated with a Clan and their Tartan. People's wish to wear
'their' Tartan has been enthusiastically meet by manufactures.
Companies, organisations and sports teams have their own Tartan.
To Scottish Clans