Tartan is a woollen cloth woven in various patterns of checks and crossed lines. The pattern is the same in both directions of the fabric and normally produces a square pattern. Secondary hues appear where different colours of thread cross, meaning each particular tartan has a distinctive design. Each design and colour scheme is usually associated with a particular Scottish clan. However, it is a common misconception that the number of colours in tartans indicates the rank or status of the wearer.

The Origins of Tartan

Scraps of tartan dating back to 1200 BC have been found in the salt mines of Hallstatt, Austria. This material belonged to the Celts, described by Greek Historian Didiorus Siculus (c.100BC) as wearing cloaks, chequered in design and in various colours, fastened at the shoulder with a broach. 

A Jar of Roman coins from 230AD containing ‘tartan’ was discovered in Falkirk, Scotland. Although this is the earliest example of a tartan-type fabric in Scotland, the pattern actually resembles houndstooth. It has two tones of yellow and brown in a diagonal pattern, which doesn’t match today’s definition of a tartan.

Falkirk Tartan
National Museum of Scotland

Tweed and tartan are not the same; tartan is a pattern, whilst tweed is a material. Tweed colours generally mimic the Scottish landscape as it provides camouflage for hunting and deer stalking; even purples allow the wearer to blend in with heather. Tweed patterns include herringbone, check and Estate tweeds, which are not tartans.

Clan Tartan

In later history, the Scottish clan system was based on medieval tribes, and wearing tartan demonstrated one’s allegiance with a particular tribe. However, after the Battle of Culloden fought to the northeast of Inverness in 1746, the Crown outlawed the wearing of Highland dress, in part to crush the clan system and their rebellion attempts. In 1979, a tartan coat from the 18th Century was donated to the National Museum of Scotland. Bonnie Prince Charlie, the leader of the Jacobite Revolution in Scotland, is believed to have worn this coat.

18th Century coat that may have belonged to Bonnie Prince Charlie.
National Museum of Scotland

The return of tartan to Scottish national identity ironically began with the British Army. The British Army designed tartans for each of The Highland Regiments of the British Army; the Black Watch, also known as the Universal or Government tartan was one of the first tartans. Formed in 1739, this regiment policed the Highlands. The reputation of the Highland Regiments reversed the perception of tartan as a Jacobite, anti-authoritarian symbol into a symbol of those willing to fight and die for their country and social prestige. Tartan was endorsed, or appropriated, by Queen Victoria who wore the pattern on each of her visits to Balmoral.

However, by the 19th-century Scottish revival, many of the oldest tartans patterns had been lost. Victorian clan chiefs designed and adopted new tartans for their clan. So, whilst it is easy to assume the tartans you can buy today are centuries old, it is not necessarily the case. 

Black Watch Tartan Highland Dress
Tartans Authority

Highland Dress

Highland Dress is a type of formalwear traditional to the Highland areas of Scotland. It consists of kilts or trews, kilt jackets and a number of accessories including sporrans, sgian dubhs, kilt pins, ghillie brogues, kilt hose, shirts, and ties. Families and Regiments would have Highland Dress made with their own tartans.

The Kilt

Wrapped around the wearer’s waist and reaching the knee, a kilt is the most important aspect of Highland Dress. It is a modern adaptation of the cloak-type kilt covering the entire body, worn in ancient times. The pleats at the back of a kilt make the item less restrictive; it could also be a reference to ancient Highland Dress in which great and excessive folds of bright fabric signified wealth and status.

The Sporran

A kilt does not have pockets, so a leather pouch became a useful way to store valuable items, such as money, food and ammunition.

The Sgian Dubh

A Sgian Dubh is a small and, often decorative, single-edged knife or dagger. Originally, the knife was functional. Worn on the kilt hose (sock) of the wearer’s dominant side, the knife was for eating, cutting material and protection. Only the hilt of the Sgian Dubh is visible.

Tartan Today

Tartan holds a much larger place in fashion than novelty scarves and kilts worn at weddings. The pattern has long remained a symbol of social status. Wealthy farmers and country folk integrated their family tartans into warm and durable tweeds which were perfect for riding.

Leaning once again towards its anti-authoritarian roots, tartan became a punk symbol, representing discontent with society. Other punk icons such as leather straps also imitate Highland Dress. Later designers Vivienne Westwood and Alexander McQueen adopted this punk iconography.

Similarly, the plaid flannel shirt, loosely based around tartan patterns became a symbol of the grunge movement in the early 1990s. Bands like Nirvana caused plaids to grow in popularity amongst underground music communities and they remain a wardrobe staple today.

Tartan has retained both a sense of both social status and of anti-establishment. It has become a pattern for everybody regardless of political or social affinities. Moreover, there is something exciting about going into a shop in Scotland and finding the tartan for your name. Many of us in the UK have names of Celtic origin. Perhaps the collective association of tartan with our heritage is why we can’t seem to remove it from our wardrobes!

If you want to find your own version of this British Classic, try searching the Scottish Register of Tartans for your name. Even if your it isn’t Celtic, you may still be in luck!

Tartan Register
Tartans Authority
National Museum of Scotland