Tartan (Scottish Gaelic: breacan [ˈpɾʲɛxkən]) is a patterned cloth consisting of criss-crossed, horizontal and vertical bands in multiple colours, forming simple or complex rectangular patterns. Tartans originated in woven wool, but now they are made in other materials. Tartan is particularly associated with Scotland, as Scottish kilts almost always have tartan patterns.

Three tartans; the left and right are made with "modern" dye palette; the middle is made with "muted" colours.
Soldiers from a Highland regiment c. 1744 wearing tartan belted plaids (great kilts).

Outside of Scotland, tartan is sometimes also known as "plaid" (particularly in North America);[1] however in Scotland, a plaid is a large piece of tartan cloth which can be worn several ways.

Traditional tartan is made with alternating bands of coloured (pre-dyed) threads woven as both warp and weft at right angles to each other, in a simple 2/2 twill pattern. Up close, this pattern forms visible diagonal lines where different colours cross; from further back, it gives the appearance of new colours blended from the original ones. The resulting blocks of colour repeat vertically and horizontally in a distinctive pattern of rectangles and lines known as a sett.

Tartan was originally associated with the Scottish Highlands. The Dress Act of 1746 attempted to bring the warrior clans there under government control by banning Highland dress, then an important element of Gaelic culture. When the law was repealed in 1782, tartan was no longer ordinary Highland dress, but was adopted instead as the symbolic national dress of all Scotland, a status that was widely popularised after King George IV wore a tartan kilt in his 1822 visit to Scotland. Early Highland tartans were only associated with particular areas, rather than any specific Scottish clan; like other materials, tartan designs were produced by local weavers for local tastes, using the most available natural dyes.

While the first military uniform tartan is believed to date to 1725 (with some evidence of militia use earlier), it was not until the around early 19th century that patterns were created for specific Scottish clans;[2] most were established in the 1810s to 1840s. The Victorian penchant for ordered taxonomy, and the new chemical dyes then available, meant that specific tartan patterns of bright colours could be created and applied to a nostalgic (and increasingly aristocratic) view of Scottish history.

Today tartan is no longer limited to textiles, but is also used as a name for the pattern itself, regardless of medium.[3] The use of tartan has spread outside Scotland, especially to countries that have been influenced by Scottish culture. However, tartan-styled patterns have existed for centuries in some other cultures, such as Japan, where complex kōshi fabrics date to at least the 17th century, and Russia (sometimes with gold and silver thread) since at least the early 19th century. Maasai shúkà wraps and Indian madras cloth are also often in tartan patterns.

Etymology and terminologyEdit

The English and Scots word tartan is possibly derived from Scottish Gaelic tarsainn,[4] meaning 'across' or 'crossing over'. But tartan could be derived from the French tartarin or tiretaine meaning 'Tatar cloth, i.e. linsey-woolsey'.[5][4]

Today tartan usually refers to coloured patterns, though originally a tartan did not have to be made up of a pattern at all. As late as the 1830s, tartan cloth was sometimes described as "plain coloured ... without pattern".[6] Patterned cloth from the Gaelic-speaking Scottish Highlands was called breacan, meaning 'many colours'. Over time the meanings of tartan and breacan were combined to describe a certain type of pattern on a certain type of cloth.

The pattern of a tartan is called a sett. The sett is made up of a series of woven threads which cross at right angles.[6]

Today tartan is generally used to describe the pattern, not limited to textiles,[6][2] appearing on media such as paper, plastics, packaging, and wall coverings.[7]

In North America, the term plaid is commonly used to refer to tartan.[8][a] Plaid is derived from the Scottish Gaelic plaide, meaning 'blanket',[b] was first used of any rectangular garment, sometimes made up of tartan,[c] which could be worn several ways: the belted plaid or "great kilt" which preceded the modern kilt; the earasaid, a large shawl that can be wrapped into a dress; and several types of shoulder cape, such as the full plaid and fly plaid. In time, plaid was used to describe blankets themselves.[8]

Weaving constructionEdit

Tartan weaving in Lochcarron, Scottish Highlands

Traditional tartan cloth is a 2/2 twill weave of worsted wool: the weft (or woof) is woven in a simple pattern of two over–two under the warp, advancing one thread at each pass.[13] Threads in the weft cross threads in the warp at right angles. The result, when the material is examined closely, is a characteristic 45-degree diagonal pattern where different colours cross. Where a thread in the warp crosses a thread of the same colour in the weft they produce a solid colour on the tartan, while a thread crossing another of a different colour produces an equal mixture of the two colours, producing the appearance of a third colour when viewed from further back. Thus, a set of two base colours produces three different colours including one mixture, increasing quadratically with the number of base colours; so a set of six base colours produces fifteen mixtures and a total of twenty-one different colours. This means that the more stripes and colours used, the more blurred and subdued the tartan's pattern becomes.[6][14]

The sequence of threads, known as the sett,[14] starts at an edge and either repeats or reverses on what are called pivot points. In diagram A, the sett reverses at the first pivot, then repeats, then reverses at the next pivot, and will carry on in this manner horizontally. In diagram B, the sett reverses and repeats in the same way as the warp, and also carries on in the same manner vertically. The diagrams illustrate the construction of a typical "symmetrical" tartan. However, on a rare "asymmetrical" tartan, the sett does not reverse at the pivots, it just repeats at the pivots. Also, some tartans (very few) do not have exactly the same sett for the warp and weft. This means the warp and weft will have alternate thread counts.

A tartan is recorded by counting the threads of each colour that appear in the sett.[d] The thread count not only describes the width of the stripes on a sett, but also the colours used (typically abbreviated). For example, the thread count "K4 R24 K24 Y4" corresponds to 4 black threads, 24 red threads, 24 black threads, 4 yellow threads.[15] Usually the thread count is an even number to assist in manufacture. The first and last threads of the thread count are the pivot points.[7] Though thread counts are quite specific, they can be modified in certain circumstances, depending on the desired size of the tartan. For example, the sett of a tartan (e.g., 6 inches square) may be too large to fit upon the face of a necktie. In this case, the thread count has to be reduced in proportion (e.g. to 3 inches to a side).[15]

The predominant colour or colours of a tartan (the widest bands) are called the under-check (or under-cheque), while thin lines are referred to as the over-check.[16]

Early historyEdit

Pre-medieval originsEdit

The earliest image of Scottish soldiers wearing tartan; 1631 German engraving.[17][e]

Today, tartan is mostly associated with Scotland; however, the earliest evidence of tartan is found far afield from Britain. According to the textile historian E. J. W. Barber, the Hallstatt culture of Central Europe, which is linked with ancient Celtic populations and flourished between the 8th and 6th centuries BC, produced tartan-like textiles. Some of them were discovered in 2004, remarkably preserved, in the Hallstatt salt mines near Salzburg, Austria; they feature a mix of natural-coloured and dyed wool.[4] Textile analysis of fabric from the Tarim mummies (2100–1700 BC) in Xinjiang, northwestern China has also shown it to be similar to that of the Iron Age Hallstatt culture.[18] Tartan-like leggings were found on the "Cherchen Man", a 3,000 year-old mummy found in the Taklamakan Desert.[19] Similar finds have been made in central Europe and Scandinavia.[6]

The earliest documented tartan-like cloth in Britain, known as the "Falkirk tartan", dates from the 3rd century AD, and is actually closer to tweed than tartan in weaving construction.[20] It was uncovered at Falkirk in Stirlingshire, Scotland, near the Antonine Wall. The fragment, held in the National Museums of Scotland, was stuffed into the mouth of an earthenware pot containing almost 2,000 Roman coins.[21] The Falkirk tartan has a simple check design, of natural light and dark wool. Early forms of tartan like this are thought to have been invented in pre-Roman times, and would have been popular among the inhabitants of the northern Roman provinces[22][23] as well as in other parts of Northern Europe such as Jutland, where the same pattern was prevalent.[24][25][26]

There is little in the way of written or pictorial evidence about tartan (much less surviving tartan cloth) from the Medieval era. Tartan use between the 3rd-century Falkirk tartan and 16th-century samples, writings, and art is unclear.[27][28] Based on similarities of tartans used by various clans, including the Murrays, Sutherlands, and Gordons, and the history of their family interactions over the centuries, Thomas Innes of Learney estimated that a regional "parent" pattern of a general style might date to the 12th or 13th century,[29] but this is quite speculative. The cartularies of Aberdeen in the 13th century barred clergymen from wearing "striped" clothing, which could have referred to tartan.[30]

Early modernEdit

John Campbell of the Bank, 1749. The present official Clan Campbell tartans are predominantly blue, green and black.[31]

The oldest surviving sample of complex, dyed-wool tartan (not just a simple checker pattern) in Scotland has been shown through radiocarbon dating to be from the early 16th century; known as the "Glen Affric tartan", it was discovered in the 1980s in a peat bog.[32] The earliest known written reference to tartan by name is in a 1538 Exchequer accounting of clothing to be ordered for King James V of Scotland, which referred to "ane schort heland coit" ('a short Highland coat') and "heland tertane to be hoiss" ('Highland tartan to be hose').[33][34] By the late 16th century, there are numerous references to striped or checkered plaids. Probably the earliest pattern that is still produced today (though not in continual use since its original creation) is the Lennox district tartan; it was reproduced by D. W. Stewart in 1893 from a portrait of Margaret Douglas, Countess of Lennox, dating to around 1575.[35][36]

Tartan and Highland dress in this era have been said to have become essentially classless – worn in the Highlands by everyone from high-born lairds to common crofters,[37] at least by the late 16th century. The historian John Major wrote in 1521 that it was the upper-class, including warriors, who wore plaids while the common among them wore linen, suggesting that woolen cloth was something of a luxury;[38] while in 1578, Bishop John Lesley of Ross wrote, contrariwise, that the belted plaid was the general Highland costume of both rich and poor, with the nobility simply able to afford larger plaids with more colours.[39] D. W. Stewart (1893) attributed this change to broader manufacture of woolen cloth and "the increased prosperity of the people".[39][f] George Buchanan in 1582 wrote that "plaids of many colours" had a long tradition but that the Highland fashion by his era had mostly shifted to a plainer look, especially brown tones, as a practical matter of camouflage;[41] Edmund Burt, writing much later in 1727–1728, concurred, as did his 1818 editor Robert Jamieson.[42] An account of the Highlanders in 1711 had it that they all, including "those of the better sort", wore the plaid.[43] A 1723 account suggested that gentlemen, at least when commingling with the English, were more likely to wear tartan trews and hose with their attendants in the belted plaid,[43] which Burt also observed.[44]

Tartan became something of an industry in the Highlands, centered on Inverness, the early business records of which are filled with many references to tartan goods.[45] Tartan patterns were loosely associated with the weavers of a particular area, owing in part to differences in availability of natural dyes,[46][40] and it was common for Highlanders to wear whatever was available to them,[2] often a number of different tartans at the same time.[g] The early tartans found in east-coastal Scotland used red more often, probably because of easier continental-European trade in cochineal, a red dye derived from insects, while western tartans were more often in blues and greens, owing to the locally available natural dyes.[35] (See also § Colour: hues and meaning.) Tartan spread at least somewhat out of the Highlands, but was not universally well-received. The Kirk of Scotland in 1575 prohibited the ministers and readers of the church from wearing tartan and other "sumptuous" clothing,[48] while the council of Aberdeen, "a district by no means Highland", in 1576 banned the wearing plaids (probably meaning belted plaids), and later in 1621 banned plaids being used as women's head-wear.[49]

A 1594 Irish account of Scottish gallowglass mercenaries in Ireland clearly describes the belted plaid, "a mottled garment with numerous colours hanging in folds to the calf of the leg, with a girdle round the loins over the garment."[50] The privately organised early "plantations" (colonies) and later governmental Plantation of Ulster brought tartan weaving to Northern Ireland in the late 16th to early 17th centuries.[51] Many of the new settlers were Scots, and they joined the population already well-established there by centuries of gallowglass and other immigrants. In 1956, the earliest surviving piece of Irish tartan cloth was discovered in peaty loam just outside Dungiven in Northern Ireland, in the form of tartan trews, along with other non-tartan clothing items.[52] It was dubbed the "Dungiven tartan" or "Ulster tartan".[53] The sample was dated using palynology to c. 1590–1650[54][55] (the soil that surrounded the cloth was saturated with pollen from Scots pine, a species imported to Ulster from Scotland by plantationers).[56][12] According to archaeological textile expert Audrey Henshall, the cloth was probably woven in County Donegal, Ireland, but the trews tailored in the Scottish Highlands[56][57] at some expense, suggesting someone of rank,[58] possibly a gallowglass.[54] Henshall reproduced the tartan for a 1958 exhibit;[56][12] it became popular (and heavily promoted) as a district tartan for Ulster[12] (both in a faded form, like it was found,[59] and a bright palette that attempts to reproduce what it may have originally looked like),[60] and seems to have inspired the later creation of more Irish district tartans.[12][61] (see § Regional, below).

Tartan was also used as a furnishing fabric, including bed hangings at Ardstinchar Castle in 1605.[62] William Camden's Britannia of 1607 mentions the Highlanders' "striped mantles".[63] In 1618, poet John Taylor wrote in The Pennyless Pilgrimage of tartan Highland garb in detail (in terms that generally match what was described and illustrated even two centuries later), and says that it was worn not just by locals but also by visiting British gentlemen.[h]

The earliest surviving image (above, right) of Scotsmen in tartan Highland dress is a 1631 copperplate engraving by Georg Köler (1600–1638); it features Scottish mercenaries of the Thirty Years' War landing in the Baltic port of Stettin in 1630 or 1631, thought to be of the regiment of Donald Mackay, 1st Lord Reay, who joined the forces of Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden. The men are depicted in varying dress, including belted plaid, shoulder plaid, and tartan trews with tartan hose.[17][e]

The MacDonald Boys Playing Golf, 18th century, National Galleries Scotland

It is not until the late 17th or early 18th century that regional uniformity in tartan, sufficient to identify the area of origin, is thought to have occurred.[27] Martin Martin, in A Description of the Western Islands of Scotland, published in 1703, wrote that Scottish tartans could be used to distinguish the inhabitants of different places.[i] He did not mention anything like the use of a special pattern by each family.

Women's dress was not often described (except in earlier times as being similar to men's), but in 1688, William Sacheverell, lieutenant governor of the Isle of Man, wrote of the tartan plaids of the women of Mull in the Inner Hebrides as "much finer, the colours more lively, and the squares larger than the men's.... This serves them for a veil, and covers both head and body."[68] Martin Martin (1703) wrote that the "vulgar" Hebridean women wore the earasaid (a plaid that could be worn as a large shawl or be wrapped into a dress), describing it as "a white Plad, having a few small Stripes of black, blue, and red; it reach'd from the Neck to the Heels, and was tied before on the Breast with a Buckle of Silver, or Brass", some very ornate. He said they also wore a decorated belt, scarlet sleeves, and head kerchiefs of linen.[69] Edmund Burt, an Englishman who spent years in and around Inverness, wrote in 1727–1728 that the women there also wore such plaids, made of fine worsted wool or even of silk, that it was sometimes used to cover the head, and that it was worn long, to the ankle, on one side. He added that in Edinburgh (far to the southeast) it was also worn, with ladies indicating their Whig or Tory political stance by which side they wore long (though Burt did not remember which side was which).[70]

The Treaty and Acts of Union in 1706–07, which did away with the separate Parliament of Scotland, led to Scottish Lowlanders adopting tartan in large numbers for the first time, as a symbol of protest against the union.[71][72] It was worn not just by men (regardless of social class),[73] but even influential Edinburgh ladies,[71][74] well into the 1790s.[75] By the beginning of the 18th century, there was also some demand for tartan in England, to be used for curtains, bedding, nightgowns, etc., and weavers in Norwich and some other English cities were attempting to duplicate Scottish product, but were considered the lower-quality option.[43]

From 1725, evidence suggests that at least some of the militia forces of the Independent Highland Companies introduced a standardised tartan,[76] and this idea was formalised when they amalgamated to become the Black Watch regiment in 1739. (See § Regimental tartans, below.)

The most effective fighters for Jacobitism were the supporting Scottish clans, leading to an association of Highland dress with the Jacobite cause to restore the Catholic Stuart dynasty to the throne of England and Scotland. This included great kilts, and trews (trousers) with great coats, all typically of tartan cloth, as well as the blue bonnet. Highland garb formed something of a uniform,[75] even worn by Prince Charles Edward Stuart ("Bonnie Prince Charlie") himself.[77][j]

After the failure of the Jacobite rising of 1745, efforts to pacify the Highlands led to the Dress Act 1746, banning the wearing of Highland dress by men and boys in Scotland, except for the landed gentry[k] and the Highland regiments of the British Army.[82] Although the act, contrary to popular later belief, did not ban all tartan[83] (or bagpipes, or Gaelic), and women, noblemen, and soldiers continued to wear tartan,[84] it nevertheless effectively severed the everyday tradition of Highland Scots wearing primarily tartan, as it imposed the wearing of Lowland, English-like clothing for two generations.[82][85] It had a demoralising effect;[l] however, it may also have ironically helped to "galvanize clan consciousness" under suppression.[87]

After much outcry (as the ban applied to Jacobites and loyalists alike), the act was repealed in 1782, primarily through efforts of the Highland Society of London.[88] Some Highlanders resumed their traditional dress.[89] In the interim, traditional Highland techniques of wool spinning and dyeing, and the weaving of tartan, had sharply declined.[90] Commercial production of tartan was to become re-centered in the Lowlands, among companies like Wilson's of Bannockburn (then the dominant manufacturer),[91] with the rise of demand for tartan for military regimental dress.[92] Tartan by this era had also become popular in Lowland areas including Fife and Lothian and the urban centers of Edinburgh and Stirling.[83] Wilson's were also exporting large quanties of tartan (for both men's and women's clothing) to the British colonies in Grenada and Jamaica, and had clients in England and Northern Europe, a bit later in North and South America and the Mediterranean.[93]

Because the Dress Act had not applied to the military or gentry, tartan gradually had become associated with the upper class, rather than "noble savage" Highlanders,[94] from the late 18th century and into the 19th,[95] along with patriotic military-influenced clothing styles in general.[96] The clans, Jacobitism, and anti-unionism (none of them any longer an actual threat of civil unrest) were increasingly viewed with a sense of nostalgia,[37][97][98] while adopting the airs of a Tory sort of tartanned "Highlandism"[99] provided a post-union sense of national (and militarily elite) distinction from the rest of Britain, without threatening empire.[100] By the 1790s, some of the gentry were helping design tartans for their own personal use, according to surviving records from Wilson's.[37] In or around 1797, British war-hero Admiral Adam Duncan, 1st Viscount Duncan, had a tartan named in his honour, and it came into decorative civilian use.[101]

The tumultous events of 18th-century Scotland led to two enduring tartan categories: regimental tartans and eventually clan tartans.

Regimental tartansEdit

Pre-regiment military useEdit

Starting in 1603, the British government mustered irregular militia units in the Highlands, known as the Independent Highland Companies, to police and keep the peace in the region, and engage in more prosaic duties like road-building.[102] Clans also had for a long time independently raised militias to fight in their periodic internecine conflicts.

As early as 1691, in the poem Grameid, James Philip of Almerieclos described Highland troops at the 1689 Battle of Killiecrankie being distinguishable by a number of factors, including colours of hose, of coats, and of tartans. While it is not always clear when he was referring to the miliamen and when he was more specifically describing the bedecked lords who led them, and he did not use the term "regimental tartan", "clan tartan", or anything similar, he does in places appear to be describing uniforms,[m] and D. W. Stewart (1893) interprets them as such.[105]

In 1713, the Royal Company of Archers (first formed in 1676 and not an independent company nor an army regiment, but a ceremonial company serving as royal bodyguards), became the first troops in service to the British crown who adopted tartan as a part of their uniform. Their original tartan, used for a dress-like tunic and a coat, is unknown, but was said to be based on one believed to have been worn by "Bonnie Prince Charlie".[106][71]

The Independent Highland Companies came and went, but were re-raised in 1725–29, from clans loyal to the British government,[107] "and numbers of young men of respectable family flocked to their ranks."[108] Evidence suggests that at least some of these reconstituted militia forces wore a uniform tartan, to avoid association with a particular location or clan.[76] (One of their main duties was enforcing the Disarming Act 1715 by dispossessing clansmen of their weaponry.)[108] The tartan (which does not survive to the present day)[35] may have varied among units under different commanding officers; one has been described as "consisting mostly of blue, black and green".[109][n] A surviving order of Maj.-Gen. George Wade reads: "That the Offrs commanding Companies take care to provide a Plaid Cloathing & Bonnet in the Highland Dress for Non Commission Offcs & Soldiers belonging to their companies, the Plaid of the Company to be as near as they can of the same sort & Colour."[110]

Early regimentsEdit

Gen. William Gordon, commander of the Queen's Own Royal Regiment of Highlanders (1760–63), which may have used this unusual asymmetric tartan, with a striped appearance, in their uniform.

Ten of the Independent Highland Companies were amalgamated in 1739 to become the Earl of Crawford's Highland Regiment, 43rd (later 42nd) Regiment of Foot,[111] informally called the Black Watch (a name which became official in 1881).[112] It was the first proper governmental Highland regiment, part of the British Army, and they wore the great kilt for dress, and the tailored small kilt for undress uniform.[108] For the latter garment,[35] they used a distinctive dark tartan, which was designed for the unit;[113] originally called the "42nd tartan",[113] it was later used by various other units, and it remains popular in general-public use under the names "Black Watch", "Government", and "old Campbell" or "Grant hunting" (but today officially called "Government 1" by the military). {See illustration at § Popular tartans, below.) It seems likely that the tartan was based on that used by some of the militia units earlier, as the Black Watch tartan is certainly "of black, blue, and green". It became the basis of various later regimental (and eventually clan) tartans. The regiment's great-kilt tartan has been lost, but was known to have a red stripe.[35]

Regiments were raised for the Seven Years' War (1756–1763), then disbanded after; little seems to have been recorded of what they were wearing. The short-lived Queen's Own Royal Regiment of Highlanders (105th Regiment of Foot), formed for three years from more of the independent companies in 1760, might have used an unusual tartan. A portrait of their commander (right), William Gordon, in regimental uniform shows a rare asymmetric tartan (see § Weaving construction, above), forming more of a striped than checked appearance, if the painting illustrates it accurately; but it is unclear whether the specific tartan itself was integral to the uniform. It appears to be a variant of the pattern recorded in symmetric form as Gordon red in 1819 in the Dunbar collection.[114]

Late 18th century diversificationEdit

Other Highland regiments were raised later for service in India, America, and the Napoleonic Wars, a formative middle period in the history of the regiments. Exempt from the Dress Act, Highlanders in military service to the British crown were given Highland dress as a sort of safe, subsumed nationalism.[115] From c. 1770 onward into the 19th century, virtually all the regimental tartan was produced by the company William Wilson & Son of Bannockburn, the dominant tartan weaver.[91] Regiments in this era frequently changed designations (sometimes to confusingly similar names) and were amalgamated into other units; the names used below are their early ones. Regimental uniforms, including tartans, were left to their commanders; a colonel's personal preference and reputation were definite factors, making for aesthetic as well as practical choices.[116]

The tartan of the original Seaforth's Highlanders (and later of Clan Mackenzie); like many regimental tartans, it is Black Watch with an over-check of thin, brighter-coloured lines.

Two of these mid-period regiments first used Black Watch, then in 1787 adopted a variant of it with thin over-check (over-stripes) of red and white. These were MacLeod's Highlanders (73rd, later 71st, Regiment of Foot, raised 1777–8), and the original Seaforth's Highlanders (78th, later 72nd, raised 1778).[117][o] The new tartan was initially named "Mackenzie-MacLeod" after commanding officers of the two units, but eventually became the Clan Mackenzie tartan,[117] usually in somewhat lighter form, and it also remains in its original dark form as an official British military tartan, designated "Government 5A". A slight variation on this, with yellow in place of white, became one of the Clan MacLeod tartans. Wilson's also recorded a special tartan for MacLeod's Highlanders; dating to around 1800, it is a much more "busy" variant of Black Watch with several white and red over-checks;[118] it is unknown if this ever saw deployment. Raised in 1787, the 74th (Highland) Regiment of Foot [p] used another variant of the Black Watch tartan with a white over-check.[119]

The Gordon Highlanders (100th, later 92nd) also wore an altered Black Watch, this time with a thin yellow over-check. In a rare show of competition to Wilson's, the tartan (which did not become a clan one) was designed in 1793 and supplied by weaver William Forsyth of Aberdeen. The troops were not actually raised until 1794.[120] A kilt of this regiment still survives in remarkable condition.[121] Also in 1793, the Cameronian Volunteers (79th Regiment) used a rather complex tartan, later the family tartan of Cameron of Erracht (a minor branch of Clan Cameron); it bears similarities to the MacDonald and main Cameron tartans, and is believed to have been designed by unit leader Alan Cameron of Erracht's mother or grandmother.[122]

Some of this unit-specific tartan innovation continued into the beginning of the 19th century. E.g., the Loyal Clan Donnachie Volunteers, a unit of irregulars raised in 1803, had its own uniform tartan, which was later adopted as the Clan Robertson (a.k.a. Donnachie) hunting tartan.[123][124]

Later useEdit

After the "clan tartanry" rush of the early to mid-19th century (see below), various of the later Highland regiments adopted some of the recently minted clan tartans for their uniforms (reversing the original regimental-into-clan-tartan flow). Some of these adoptions remain in regimental use today, including tartans of clans Douglas, Erskine (red), Leslie, Rose (hunting), Stewart (royal and hunting), and Sutherland.[q]

The Lowland regiments (dating in some form to 1633 and never before dressed in Highland garb but in a variant of regular army uniform) were outfitted in tartan trews in 1881. This both linked them with and distinguished them from the tartan-kilted Highland regiments.[126][r] Typically the "Government" or "Black Watch" tartan was used, though some units later diversified, e.g. the King's Own Scottish Borderers adopted Leslie tartan in 1881, and the Cameronians (Scottish Rifles) used Douglas from 1891. Several Highland regiments were again assigned new tartans that were clan tartans rather than unit-specific ones; e.g. the Royal Scots adopted the Stewart hunting tartan in 1901.[107]

Today, only 10 tartans are officially used between all of the surviving historical Scottish regiments, which have largely been amalgamated since 2006 as batallions into the Royal Regiment of Scotland, part of the Scottish, Welsh and Irish Division. These tartans are only worn in dress and pipe-band uniforms, after the practical uniform changes introduced in the early part of World War II, which did away with tartan kilts and trews in undress uniforms. (For further information on these tartans and the modern units using them, see List of tartans § UK military or government tartans.)

In all, there are at least 38 documented tartans that have at one time or another been associated with the regiments, though many of them also with clans.[s]

Clan tartansEdit

With a seeming sole exception dating to 1618[132] (which may not have survived), it is generally regarded that tartans associated by name with Scottish clans mostly date to the early-to-mid 19th century,[2][133][134] some few to the late 18th at the earliest,[40] depending on how one defines "clan tartan". As tartan researcher Matthew Newsom (2005) put it: "No one ever sat down to index all of the clan tartans prior to the nineteenth century for the simple fact that there were none to record."[123] Barnes & Allen (1956) tell us:[40]

There is no doubt that many 'setts' had been traditional to certain districts for centuries, but the theory that they were a sort of Clan uniform seems now to have been quite discredited.

And Gordon Donaldson (1956):[135]

Although the antiquity of the "clan tartans" is exaggerated, what might be termed their unofficial registration took place during the nineteenth century, and if we are prepared to accept some hundred and fifty years as sufficient to create "tradition", it may be excusable to accept the fait accompli as a pleasant – and perhaps not entirely useless – national vanity.

The notion of clan tartans has been called "an astonishingly successful marketing story"[133] and an example of an invented tradition,[136] though one that became very well-accepted by the clans to whom it pertained, as well as by the general public and by the weaving industry – "adopted enthusiastically by both wearer and seller alike".[137]

Precursors of clan tartans were regionally distinctive tartans (since perhaps the 16th century), regimental uniform tartans (from 1725 onward), and personal tartans of nobles (dating to the 1790s if not earlier).

Today, clan tartans are an important aspect of Scottish clans, and every clan has at least one tartan attributed to its name (some officially, some not, and in a handful of cases one tartan is shared between two clans). Clan tartans may not have actually been traditional, but they became conventional.

Long-running debateEdit

The earliest published mention of the idea of clan tartans seems to be a letter in The Scots Magazine in 1785 stating that "tartans, as distinctive clan patterns, are of recent date",[138] suggesting that at least a few claims about clan tartans had been advanced by this year (details having since been lost). Decades later, the idea appears not to have become well-recognised, until events of 1815 and 1822 (see § 19th century broad adoption, below).

Since then, various writers on tartans have supported or opposed the idea of clans long using distinctive tartans as an identifying badge, interpreting the scarce evidence as suited their viewpoint.[t] Where one saw a militia uniform, or an individual noble's plaid, another saw a clan identifier. The 19th-century Celtic scholar John Francis Campbell of Islay was certain that while tartans in general were quite old, "uniform clan tartans are no older than clan regiments", a view backed by Col. M. M. Haldane in 1931 in a series of articles in The Scots Magazine.[140] The earliest evidence summarized below could have been more a matter of militia uniform than clan-wide dress; a distinction in that era is difficult to be certain of today, because troops then were led by landed gentry and a unit was raised largely on its commander's land from his clansmen.[u] Such definitional uncertainty could also apply to the 1691 Grameid poem; describing what appear to be some soldierly uniform tartans, it could be reinterpreted as supporting an early notion of clan tartans, if one wanted to define that as 'what most of the men of a clan were wearing into battle'.[v] However, Robert Jamieson (1818) reported that the "field dress" plaids of Highland men, for war and hunting, were different from their everyday dress – made of coarser material and using patterns intended to blend into natural surroundings, the cath da' ('war colour').[141] This casts doubt on interpretation of militia tartans as general clan tartans. Many of the later regimental uniform tartans (which did not become adopted as clan tartans until around the early 19th century, when they did at all) were variations on the dark, green-based Black Watch tartan, as detailed above.

Part of the confusion and debate about clan tartans comes down to definitions. Sir Thomas Innes of Learney, writing in the 1930s and described as "immensely keen on [tartan] codification and the importance of it",[142] was one of the firmest proponents of the idea of very old clan tartans (in the particular sense of 'patterns consistently used for a period by certain clans', not 'patterns named for certain clans and claimed by them to the present').[w] He held that some setts gradually became associated with particular families (clans and septs thereof) over time. D. W. Stewart's 1893 reference shows various cases of old district tartans later sometimes being identified for a time with specific families before 19th-century adoption of their own clan tartans.[x] Innes of Learney wrote of clan tartans that (notwithstanding the unusual 1618 case covered below) "the tendency was rather to insist upon a similarity of general hue than on similarity of detail",[145] a vague sense that is not what "clan tartan" usually refers to. He also reasoned that "it was not until about the 18th century that the clan tartans became conscious and acknowledged badges of identification".[146] However, the surviving period source material lacks this "acknowledgement" and does not actually suggest broad adoption of formal clan tartans (with clan names, particularity of detail, and an identifying intent) until the early 19th century.

Earliest evidenceEdit

The "Sobieski Stuarts" and later D. W. Stewart made much of some changes to the feu duty paid in woven cloth by locals of Noraboll on the island of Islay to their lords. In 1587, under the Macleans, the cloth was to be white, black, and green; in 1617, under the Mackenzies, the demanded cloth-rent changed to white, black, and grey. These writers were sure, without any further evidence, that this represented a change of clan tartans.[147][y]

The only clear instance of a clan-based and specific livery tartan to an early date, rather than simply regional and later regimental uniformity, is found in a 1618 letter from Sir Robert Gordon of Gordonstoun (in the employ of the Earl of Sutherland) to Murray of Pulrossie, chieftain of the Murray branch in Sutherland but subordinate to the Earl of Sutherland, chief of Clan Sutherland (in turn recently become subordinate to the Gordon earls). The letter (rediscovered in 1909) requested Pulrossie "to remove the red and white lines from the plaides of his men so as to bring their dress into harmony with that of the other septs" of Sutherland.[132] The letter does not specify the tartan to which to conform; there have been sharply conflicting interpretations, and it is not even certain that it was a tartan that survived to the present.[z]

A case of general colour-matching: In 1703 and again in 1704, the chief of Clan Grant ordered that his "fencible" men, some 600 or so, obtain coats, trews, and hose of red and green tartan[151] (vaguely described as "broad springed"[151] but not specified in detail).[35] The material seems not to have been provided by Grant for them in a centralised way, but left to each man to furnish by his own means (on penalty of a fine).[151] Some of the modern Grant tartans also use red and green; one was designed by Wilson's of Bannockburn in 1819 as "New Bruce" and later adopted by both Grant of Redcastle and Clan Drummond;[152] one was reconstructed from an 1838 portrait;[153] another first appeared in the dubious Vestiarium Scoticum of 1842[154][155] (see below); and so on – none with pre-19th-century history. Nevertheless, D. W. Stewart (1893) proclaimed on this thin material that here was "a complete chain of evidence ... of the existence of a uniform clan pattern at the very start of the eighteenth century" – despite his own observation that portraits of leading members of the Grant family in this era do not show them wearing consistent tartans,[151] much less ones that agree with modern "official" Grant tartans.[134][aa]

In 1718, Allan Ramsay published the poem Tartana, which combined colours with Latinised family names: "... If shining red Campbella's cheeks adorn .... If lin'd with green Stuarta's Plaid we view ... Or thine Ramseia, edg'd around with blue ...." This has sometimes been taken as evidence of early clan tartans, despite seeming to refer to the edging and lining of garments.[ab]

John Telfer Dunbar (1962) seemed to accept and even promote the idea of a MacGregor official clan tartan dating to 1782, quoting an old Victorian volume[ac] stating that one Rev. Joseph Robertson MacGregor "attired himself in a full suit of the MacGregor tartan". But it misquoted the original source (and contained date errors that Dunbar didn't catch either). The original read: "dressed himself in the Highland costume peculiar to his clan", and says nothing of tartan, much less a suit of clan tartan.[157]

Lack of further evidence of early adoptionEdit

As a more general matter, contemporary portraits show that although tartan is of an early date, the pattern worn depended not on the wearer's clan, but rather upon his or her place of residence, or personal taste. They frequently depict subjects wearing multiple tartans at once.[146] Nor do the tartans shown match current clan tartans.[158]

David Morier's An Incident in the Rebellion of 1745. The eight featured highlanders in the painting wear over twenty different tartans.[159]

David Morier's well-known mid-18th-century painting of the Highland charge at the 1745 Battle of Culloden (right) shows the clansmen wearing various tartans, despite men charging in kindred groups. The setts painted differ from one another and very few of those painted resemble today's clan tartans.[76] The method of identifying friend from foe was not through tartans but by the different plant sprigs worn in the cockade of the bonnet, or by the colour of the bonnet's cockade or ribbon.[ad][ae]

The idea of groups of men wearing the exact same tartan as an identifier is thought to originate (aside from the 1618 case) from Scottish military units in the 18th century, starting with the Independent Highland Companies in 1725.[76] "[I]t was probably their use of it which gave birth to the idea of differentiating tartan by clans; for as the Highland regiments were multiplied ... so their tartan uniforms were differentiated."[136] Particular regiments were often dominated by men raised from the same clan lands, and this may have blurred the line between regimental uniform and clan-identifying tartan. (And several tartans of extinct regiments survive today as clan tartans.) The end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th centuries brought an unprecedented level of influence of military clothing styles, including Highland regimental, on civilian attire, especially among the social elite connected to regiments.[96]

Some suriving early records of tartan manufacture are those of the Orphan Hospital Manufactory and Paul's Work, in Edinburgh, for the period 1734–37 and 1751–52; tartans were not named but given numeric designations such as "No. 2nd".[33] Advertisements for tartan from 1745 to the early 19th century did not mention clans, or focus on the patterns at all, but rather on the forms in which the cloth could be ordered.[162]

The Cockburn Collection of 56 tartan samples (some of them duplicates) was put together between 1810 and ca. 1815, published in 1820, by Lt.-Gen. Sir William Cockburn, and is now in the Mitchell Library in Glasgow.[123][163] Cockburn did ascribe particular family names to many of these setts (probably naming them after prominent individuals), but they rarely correspond to current clan tartan associations (indeed, some patterns that are today associated with particular clans were given multiple different names in the Cockburn Collection).[164][af]

The Lowlands-based William Wilson & Son of Bannockburn, the first large-scale commercial tartan producers,[166] founded c. 1765,[2] had become the foremost supplier of tartan to the military by around 1770, and the dominant tartan weaver in general,[91] an endeavor that required the introduction of tartan recording, of standardisation of setts and dyes, and of consistency and quality control.[2][167] Wilson's corresponded with their agents in the Highlands to get information and samples of cloth from the various districts to enable them to reproduce "perfectly genuine patterns". Wilson's recorded over 200 setts in addition to ones they designed in-house, collected in their 1819 catalogue, the Key Pattern Book of around 250 setts[2] (among earlier volumes to the 1770s). These tartans were numbered, named after places, or given fanciful names, such as "Rob Roy", later sometimes family names, but usually not those of clans.[123][168] Several of the modern clan tartans, however, can be traced to this work, originally with numbers or unrelated names.[123][ag]

Even Maj.-Gen. David Stewart of Garth, who was to become one of the chief proponents of the idea of clan tartans, observed in 1814 only that various heads of families seemed to have selected personal tartans and that there were also district tartans.[171] When Garth and his Highland Society of London solicited clan tartans from chiefs in 1815 (see below), Col. Alexander Robertson of Struan, Chief of Clan Robertson/Donnachaidh/Duncan, wrote back:[172]

It does not appear to be appertained, either by tradition or by authentick history, that the different Clans in the Highlands of Scotland, wore any distinctive pattern or tartan. It is well known that they all had particular Colours, or Standards, emblematical of some of their most honourable attachments, but as far as I have been able to discover, they wore no uniform Garb.

19th century broad adoptionEdit

It has been suggested by a modern chief of Clan Campbell and another of the clan executives that the clan had informally adopted what is now known as old Campbell or Black Watch tartan by the early 19th century, because so many of their men were already wearing it as part of regimental uniform[31] (three of the ten Independent Highland Companies that amalgamated into the Black Watch regiment in 1739–1751 were Campbell units). Some time in or after 1806, when he became clan chief, the city-dwelling politician George Campbell, 6th Duke of Argyll, created his own personal tartan, of Black Watch with a thin over-check of white and yellow added,[173] "to differentiate himself from the rest of the Campbells", i.e. because they were already so often wearing Black Watch.[31] This essentially may have been one of the earliest clan tartans (and the duke's variant was an early declared personal tartan of a noble).[ah]

The idea arose among Scottish expatriates (especially in the Celtic societies, which encouraged members to wear "appropriate" tartans),[174] eager to "preserve" Highland culture,[2][174][175] that tartans had traditionally been named and that the names represented clan affiliations.[2] Among them was Maj.-Gen. David Stewart of Garth, a Black Watch veteran and vice-president of the Highland Society of London[176] (founded 1778).[123] He and fellow member Sir John Sinclair were among the first proponents of the idea of clans being identifed by tartans, despite the lack of evidence.[176][177] The society also counted among its members the Prince of Wales[178] (the future George IV, who was to become instrumental to clan "tartanry" in 1822) and two dukes, among various itinerant actual Scots.[179]

On 8 April 1815, the society resolved that the clan chiefs each "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."[180] Many had no idea of what their tartan might be or whether they had one, some provided only a vague description, and some claimed they had none.[178] But plenty were keen to comply and to provide authentic signed and sealed samples;[178][181] many (possibly most) turned to Wilson's of Bannockburn for a design,[174] while some directly adopted a regimental tartan as their own,[123][2][ai] and still others adapted designs from old portraits of clan nobles.[178][aj] Alexander Macdonald, 2nd Baron Macdonald, wrote back to the society: "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."[180] On the other hand, Sir John Macgregor Murray of Clan Gregor, who had spent most of his life in England and India, was writing instructions on the use of his clan's tartan by December 1818.[183] From the submissions they received 1816–26, the society built up a clan-tartan collection (now in the National Museum of Scotland), with 34 "authenticated" specimens and about 40 others.[178][131][ak] Other such societies generated more interest, belief, and demand.[184] By 1821, advertisements for tartan cloth had shifted to include language like "true", "warranted", and "original", and began to stress antiquity and family connections.[185]

The 1822 visit of George IV to Scotland, in Highland garb and with a great deal of tartan-festooned public ceremony (arranged by Walter Scott and Stewart of Garth), had a profound tartan-boosting effect, including the invention of new clan-specific tartans to suit[186][123][187] (or renaming of old tartans to have clan names),[2] as clan chiefs had been asked to attend in clan tartans.[2] It caused a boom in the tartan-weaving business,[169] and a broader public notion that tartans should be named for families.[123][2] A wave of highly dubious books followed, all purporting to reveal true clan histories and tartans; they presented little in the way of evidence, but they caused enthusiastic adoption of clan tartans. The first of these, in 1831, was The Scottish Gael or Celtic Manners, as Preserved Among the Highlanders by James Logan, which contained 54 tartans (based on Wilson's collection, that of the Highland Society of London, and other sources he alleged but did not name, plus some he collected himself); the author ignored advice from Wilson's on which were actually old tartans, and included some erroneous and fictitious examples; meanwhile, Wilson's and other weavers simply adopted some patterns from his book due to demand.[188][169][189] It was followed in 1842 by Vestiarium Scoticum by the so-called Sobieski Stuarts, purporting to contain 75 centuries-old clan tartans, illustrated in great detail but from vague textual descriptions. Although it is now known to have been a forgery,[190][191][al] many of visual tartan designs in this "final – and fantastic – codification"[191] of clan tartans were nevertheless adopted and survive today as accepted tartans of clans,[192] especially for Lowland clan names (which had hitherto never been associated with tartan or Highland garb at all).[123][37][193] This was followed soon after by The Costume of the Clans published by one of the Sobieski Stuarts in 1844.[188] (The socio-political background of these events and their overall impact on tartan in general are presented at § Georgian and § Victorian, below.)

Other 19th-century clan-tartan works followed.[192] Logan returned, with illustrator Robert Ranald McIan, with The Clans of the Scottish Highlands in the 1840s, which had iconsistently hand-coloured portraits of chiefs in clan tartans, which he stated were "acknowledged by the present chiefs and clans".[123] The Clans of the Highlands of Scotland in 1850 by Thomas Smibert drew heavily on Logan and the Sobieski Stuarts, and in the same year Authenticated Tartans of the Clans and Families of Scotland by William and Andrew Smith was based on trade sources such as army clothier George Hunter's pre-1822 collection of setts.[123] J. Claude produced the tartan pattern sample book Clans Originaux in Paris c. 1880, and some tartans were adopted from it,[am] though its 185 samples were generally of already-known tartans.[12] Another influential one was D. W. Stewart's Old & Rare Scottish Tartans (1893), which also included swatches of fabric. Books of this era (most notably Tartans of the Clans and Septs of Scotland by James Grant in 1886, revised by Henry Whyte in 1906)[123] also introduced lists of alleged clan septs – families of different surnames supposedly linked to particular clans as "extended family". It was a means of greatly increasing tartan sales by attaching many more names to extant tartan designs, but not well-grounded in any historical reality.[195]

Woolen mills like Wilson's were complicit, not passive, in the tartan boom. According to Alastair Campbell of Airds:[137]

One factor which has been decisive throughout the history of the development of the modern system [of clan tartans] has been the influence of the tartan manufacturers .... As with any marketing organisation it was important to maintain a steady flow of "new products", and every year new patterns were produced .... The idea of individual tartans providing a clan or family identity was a most attractive one, which was adopted enthusiastically by both wearer and seller alike.

The romanticised notion of clan tartans became deeply embedded in the Scottish imagination and further afield.[37] On the cusp of the Scottish Renaissance and Gaelic Revival, most clans had been assigned and had generally accepted one or more tartans by the late 19th century.

20th century consolidationEdit

The first properly scholarly book on the subject, which remains in print today, was Frank Adam's 1908 The Clans, Septs & Regiments of the Scottish Highlands.[123] A variety of books, with colour plates, had been affordably and widely published about clan tartans by the mid-20th century. Three popular ones were The Clans and Tartans of Scotland by Robert Bain, 1938 (revised and updated many times through 1983); The Tartans of the Clans and Families of Scotland by Sir Thomas Innes of Learney (later to become the Lord Lyon King of Arms as well as a founder of the Scottish Tartans Society), 1939; and The Scottish Clans & Their Tartans published by W. & A. K. Johnston, 1939, and based on previous works by Grant and Whyte; many others followed in successive decades.[123]

The mass-market books (some with over 200 tartans illustrated) did much to cement the idea of clan tartans in the public imagination, as well as to consistently anchor particular tartans to particular clans. And the works were in general agreement with one another. They also simultaneously increased the number of clans with their own assigned tartans, and reduced the number of tartans claimed to be those of certain clans to a more manageable number, probably after consultation with clan chiefs and clan society officers. They did, however, typically include sept lists, which today are widely regarded as bogus[195] (though many present-day clan associations still use them, as a means of attracting larger membership).

Every extant clan (with or without a chief) had at least one tartan associated with it by this era. Many clans have several well-accepted tartans. Sometimes they represent different branches of the family; e.g., there are separate tartans for Campbell of Breadalbane, Campbell of Cawdor, and Campbell of Loudoun, in addition to the general "old" Campbell tartan. In other cases, they are (at least ostensibly) for specific purposes such as hunting, mourning, formal dress occasions, or Highland dance competition; e.g., the Barclay dress and Barclay hunting tartans are different. (See § Tartans for specific purposes, below.)

An important, more scholarly work was 1950's The Setts of the Scottish Tartans by D. C. Stewart[an] (son of the aforementioned D. W. Stewart).[123] The younger Stewart has been hailed as "the founder of serious tartan research"; originated now-standard methods for indexing tartans; and would go on to help expose the Vestiarium Scoticum as a fraud, in Scotland's Forged Tartans, co-authored with J. Charles Thompson in 1980.[123]

In the late 20th century to present, clan and other tartans also have been catalogued in databases. (See § Registration, below.) A small number of new clan tartans (specific-purpose "side" tartans, like dance tartans) were registered in tartan databases in the 21st century.[196]

Recognition by clan chiefsEdit

The "officialness" of clan tartans has varied widely, and still does today. Although it is possible for anyone to create a tartan and assign it any name they wish, the only person with the authority to make a clan's tartan "official" is the chief.[123]

Some clans have had no chiefs for some time, while only a majority subset of those with living chiefs in the modern era have made direct proclamations as to their clan tartans and registered them with the Lord Lyon.[ao] (See § Registration, below.) Some of the clan tartans were simply adopted by custom, and have remained rather consistent into the 21st century. A clan booth at a Highland games event is likely to proudly display at least their best-known clan tartan, regardless whether a chief has declared it official.

However, some chiefs have been quite adamant about what their clan's legitimate tartans are. Ian Campbell, 12th Duke of Argyll, chief of Clan Campbell in the late 20th century, excoriated attempts to claim there were other than the four aforementioned particular Campbell tartans (and specifically rejected the personal-variant tartan of the 6th Duke).[31] Similarly, Sir Malcolm MacGregor, modern chief of Clan Gregor, has written that only four MacGregor tartans (plus a newer dance tartan) are legitimate, out of 10 or more alleged ones found in a tartan database, which he blamed on "indiscriminate commercialisation ... disingenuous and lead[ing] to confusion".[198]

In at least one instance, a clan tartan appears in the coat of arms of a clan chief and is considered by the Lord Lyon as the "proper" tartan of the clan: The crest of the chief of Clan MacLennan is A demi-piper all Proper, garbed in the proper tartan of the Clan Maclennan.[199][ap]

Some chief-authenticated clan tartans are quite late arrivals. E.g., the MacLeod red tartan was approved by the chief (John MacLeod of MacLeod) in 1982, to join much longer-standing yellow and blue tartans of the clan; it was based loosely on what appears in a 1748 portrait of Chief Norman MacLeod by Allan Ramsay and Josef van Haecken.[200]

Modern general useEdit

Aside from regimental and clan usage, tartan has seen broad use by the general public in the modern era. By the 19th century, the Highland romantic revival, inspired by James Macpherson's "Ossian" poems and the writings of Sir Walter Scott, led to wider interest in tartan and other things Gaelic and Celtic. Clubs like the Celtic societies welcomed Lowlanders, and tartan rapidly became part of the Scottish national identity[201][202] (and part of broader British dress as a familiar exoticism).[203][204]


Wilkie's idealised depiction of George IV, in full Highland dress, during the visit to Scotland in 1822[aq]

While tartan had already seen more nationwide use from 1707, as a Scottish nationalism symbol against union with England,[72] it was turned on its ear to become a romanticised symbol of union loyalism in the early 19th century,[37] an era in which prominent conflicts caused a patriotic influence of military (including Highland) style on civilian clothing,[ar] including among women[96][207] despite its overtly masculine focus.[208] "Highlandism"[209] became a mythologised and colourful escapism[210] even as Lowland Scotland itself was becoming one of the most industrialised places on earth, and the entire nation was undergoing the social upheavals of union and empire, of large-scale warfare, of urbanisation, and of modernisation during the Scottish Enlightenment.[211]

In 1822, Maj.-Gen. David Stewart of Garth, who was with both the Highland Society of London and the Celtic Society of Edinburgh,[212] published Sketches of the Character, Manners, and Present State of the Highlanders of Scotland, the beginning of a wave of 19th-century books lionsing the Highlanders (and the tartanned regiments).[208][181] The various Celtic/Highland societies throughout Britain had already been driving a rise in tartan demand since the late 18th century.[213][as]

The popularity of tartan was greatly increased by the royal visit of King George IV of the United Kingdom to Edinburgh in 1822, in Highland garb. He was the first reigning monarch to visit Scotland in 171 years.[186] The pageantry invented for the event, which was nicknamed "the King's Jaunt", brought a sudden consumer-driven demand for tartan cloth[169] and made it the national dress of the whole of Scotland.[186][214][201] The 21 days of festivities were organised by the staunchly unionist[37] Walter Scott, who was another co-founder of the Celtic Society of Edinburgh, and British military man Stewart of Garth.[176] They urged Scots (most of whom were Lowlanders) to attend "all plaided and plumed in their tartan array"[215] in "complete national costume".[214] One contemporary writer sarcastically described the pomp that surrounded the celebrations as "Sir Walter's Celtified Pagentry",[215][216] and another as a "plaided panorama".[214] Clan chiefs, expected to be kilted, had little choice but to take the event seriously, and arrived to show their loyalty in something of a panic, with tartanned retinues (at great expense), in a city overflowing with "Highlanders" and spectators.[217] "A bogus tartan caricature of [Scotland] had been drawn and accepted, even by those who mocked it, and it would develop in perspective and colour."[218] George IV's visit – which was not just theatrical but thoroughly political, in fusing Hanoverian power to Stuart ideology[219] – has been described in modern scholarship as the catalyst by which "a Union of practical convenience became a Union of irrational love and fears, sublimated in militarism, tartanry, royalism and, eventually imperialism".[220]

Following the royal visit, the number of available tartans increased tenfold.[221] Books which documented tartans began to appear and added to the "tartanry" or "Highlandism" craze. James Logan's romanticised work[189] The Scottish Gael (1831) was the first such publication, and led the weaving industry to adopt new tartans, even Logan's invented or erroneous ones.[188] The result of these flurries of attention has been described as an "astonishing frenzy of excitement into which [patronage of tartanry] threw the citizens of Edinburgh and much of the rest of Scotland",[222] and "inciting a rush to lay claim to the tartan to which one's family was 'entited'".[223]

From the 1820s, Georgian and then Victorian portraiture of clan nobles had them decked out in tartan and "Highland" dress (much of it regimental military stylings), with jewels, gold, and other symbols of aristocracy – a "synthetic Gaelicism".[224] The funerals of Sir John Macgregor Murray and Alasdair Ranaldson Macdonell of Glengarry, in 1822 and 1823 respectively, were marked by tartan, bagpipes, and "wailing" of clansmen – "a feudal sight in an increasingly industrial age".[225]

French tartan fashions from Costumes Parisiens, 1826

Tartan had begun making appearances in civilian Georgian fashion throughout Britain and into continental Europe, as illustrated in publications such as London's Gallery of Fashion (1787) and La Belle Assemblée (1808), and (after Paris was famously occupied by Highland regiments during the Waterloo campaign)[226][208] in the French periodicals Le Prétexte (1815)[227] and Costumes Parisiens (1826). Tartans associated with family names became popular, but there was also a brisk trade in new tartans commissioned for societies, to commemorate events (such as the Battle of Waterloo), in honour of famous persons (e.g. George IV and the Duke of Wellington), and designed simply to personal aesthetic taste.[228] Weavers struggled to keep up with demand.[201] By 1820, dominant tartan weaver Wilson's of Bannockburn[91] had access to 132 looms;[229] they experienced a four-fold increase in output in 1821, leading up to George IV's visit,[214] after which they acquired 40 more looms,[221] and expanded into a new mill in 1822, mechanising more and more to keep up with demand.[229] They also produced tartan in a range of qualities from finest merino wool to cheap linsey-woolsey blends, demonstrating that whatever high-class associations tartan had taken on, there was significant working-class demand.[230]

Georgian and later Victorian entrepreneurs not only created new tartans, but new tartan objects called tartanware. Tartan decorated an assortment of common household objects, such as snuffboxes, jewellery cases, tableware, sewing accessories, desk items, and even furniture. Visitors to the Highlands went home with tartanware, and Scotland-based businesses sent tartanware out as gifts to customers. Some of the more popular tartans used were the Stewart, MacDonald, MacGregor, MacDuff, MacBeth, and one fancifully named "Prince Charlie".[231] Today, tartanware is widely collected in England and Scotland.[232] There was a symbiotic relationship between tartanware production and interest in tartans generated by books on the subject: a tartanware manufacturer from 1820 onward was W. & A. Smith, of Mauchline, also incidentally the publishers of Authenticated Tartans of the Clans and Families of Scotland (1850).[233]


The first publication showing colour plates of an array of tartans was the Vestiarium Scoticum (meaning 'wardrobe of the Scots'), published in 1842.[192] It was the work of two brothers: John Carter Allen and Charles Manning Allen, from Surrey, England, who used a variety of assumed names. The two claimed to be grandsons of Prince Charles Edward Stuart and Princess Louise of Stolberg-Gedern, and consequently later became known as the "Sobieski Stuarts". They claimed further that the Vestiarium was based on a 1571 manuscript on clan tartans – a manuscript which they never managed to produce. It was not known at the time, but many of the tartans were simply invented by the brothers, and others were taken from early 19th century sources like the Cockburn and Wilson collections.[234][123] The Vestiarium was followed by the equally dubious The Costume of the Clans two years later by John "Sobieski Stuart".[188] The books, which "added mystery, romance and some spurious historical documentation to the subject",[191] spurred another wave of interest in tartans, and the enthusiasm generated by these publications led the way for more tartan books in the 19th century.[215][192][at]

Twenty years after her uncle's royal visit to Scotland, Queen Victoria and her husband Prince Albert made their first trip to the Scottish Highlands; she was the first monarch to set foot there since Mary, Queen of Scots.[236] The visit involved her large royal party being met with several theatrical tartan-kilted welcomes by Highland nobility and their retinues (while the common people were experiencing considerable misery); the Queen wrote: "It seemed as if a great chieftain in olden feudal times was receiving his sovereign".[237] The monarch's early trips to Scotland were seen as a royal endorsement and had a transformative effect on the image of the country, as a now-loyal land of tartan, pipers, and Highland martial prowess.[238]

Victoria and Albert bought Balmoral Castle in 1848 and hired a local architect to re-model the estate in feudalised "Scots baronial" style, starting a trend.[239] Prince Albert personally took care of the interior design, where he made great use of tartan. He used the royal Stewart (red) and the hunting Stewart (green) tartans for carpets, while using the dress Stewart (red and white) for curtains and upholstery. The Queen designed the Victoria tartan, and Prince Albert the Balmoral tartan, still used as a royal tartan today.[240] (See illustration at § Family and individual, below.) The couple even decorated their carriage with tartan.[241]

The royal couple spent a considerable amount of time at their Scottish estate (nearly 7 years in total),[242][au] and in doing so hosted "Highland" activities. Victoria was attended by pipers, and her children were attired in Highland dress. Prince Albert himself loved watching the Highland games;[244] the couple also became patrons of the Braemar Gathering. The royal ethusiasm for and patronage of Highland things generated a lot of early tourism to the Highlands,[245][246][av] and a boost to business in the region.[248] It also spread tartan-wearing to other northern British lords and ladies, who began to invent complicated etiquette rules of dress for Highland garb, which had the effect of increasing the sense that it was upper-class attire.[37][249] (See § Etiquette, below.)

Victoria and Albert have been accused of using their "Balmorality" – a term coined by George Scott-Moncrieff to refer to upper-class appropriation of Highland cultural trappings, marked by "hypocrisy" and "false sentiment" – to trivialise history and engage in long-term, tartan-blanketed escapism from pressing British societal problems, and worsening those problems in the actual Highlands.[250] As the tartan and "romantic Highlands" craze swept over Scotland, the actual Highland population suffered grievously from the Hungry Forties as well as the Highland Clearances, when thousands of Gaelic-speaking Scots from the Highlands and Isles were evicted by landlords (often the very men who would have been their clan chiefs) to make way for sheep.[215][251] The queen's Balmoral residency even had a colonising effect, leading other English nobility to follow her north, both for extended sporting jaunts and to buy property, resulting in land-ownership disparties that persist to the present.[252]

Thomas Babington Macaulay wrote in 1848 of the romantic reinvention of Highland customs as somehow generally Scottish: "Soon the vulgar imagination was so completely occupied by plaids, targets, and claymores, that, by most Englishmen, Scotchman and Highlander were regarded as synonymous words."[253]

By the 1860s, leading tartan weaver Wilson's of Bannockburn produced £80,000 of product per year, and employed 500–600 people. (It amalgamated with another of the family businesses, a carpet-weaving operation, in 1867, which continued to 1924.)[254]

The first permanent colour photograph, by Thomas Sutton in 1861, was of a tartan ribbon.

The world's first permanent colour photograph, taken by Thomas Sutton (using the three-colour process developed by Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell) in 1861, was of a tartan ribbon.[255] It was created by using red, blue, and yellow filters to create three photographs which were then combined into a composite.

In the Victorian era, tartan garments for women as well as men continued to be featured in fashion catalogues.[256] In the United States, tartan was often worked into school uniforms, especially at Catholic schools.[257] The late 19th century saw tartan (sometimes in silk) in fashion throughout Europe, including in France (e.g. Paris, Lyon, and Alsace) and Italy,[258] and as far from Britain as Russia.[259]

Founded in 1898, Walker's Shortbread has long been sold in royal Stewart tartan packaging around the world (especially during Christmas and Hogmanay festivities).[260]

20th century to presentEdit

In the Edwardian era, tartan remained not simply a component of men's clothing but also an important part of women's fashion, including fanciful haute couture designs from Paris that had no connection to Highland style.[256] There was also in this period into the 1920s a market for Highland-dress etiquette booklets, which tied into the era's "dress sense" of decorum and class[142] (see also § Etiquette, below). Edward VIII himself was a life-long devotee of tartan, often wearing more than one at a time.[256] In consequence of its associations with the British aristocracy, Scottish clans, and Highland military, tartan developed an air of dignity and exclusivity.[261] Because of this, tartan was to make periodic resurgences in the world of fashion. Tartan's Georgian reorientation to represent unionism and empire continued well into the 20th century.[262]

Tartan patterns (often simple, unnamed ones) remained commonly used for skirts and jumper dresses (pinafore dresses) in Catholic and other private school uniform codes in North America and also in public and private schools in New Zealand. The style spread to many other places, including South America, Japan[230] (which sometimes imports tartan directly from Scotland),[263] and Hong Kong.

By the mid-20th century, annual Highland games events, modelled on the traditional events in Scotland, had been established throughout the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa, among other places with a notable Scottish diaspora. (The earliest such events in North America go back quite a ways, to 1836 in New York[264] and 1863 in Nova Scotia.) The modern, rather commercialized gatherings have done much to promote tartan (and kilts) abroad, having up to tens of thousands of attendees, a large proportion of them in tartan Highland dress. The games are the primary source of business for a cottage industry of professional kiltmakers outside of Scotland, and are the main recruiting grounds of the numerous clan societies. As of 2000, there were at least 260 annual Highland games events.[265] [aw] This rather flamboyant subculture is sustained primarily by multi-generational Scottish descendants rather than by direct Scottish expatriates.[267] It has been hypothesized that the fondness for tartan and other Highland symbols and activities among the New World Scottish diaspora may be due to the European-descended populations in these countries lacking much of a direct experience of culture deeper than a few generations, and being dominated by nuclear family structure; clan tartans, Highland games, Burns suppers, etc. provide a sense of shared roots, heritage, identity, and a broader and more elastic sense of family, as well as fostering Old World connections.[268]

Tartan Day, an annual symbolic ethnicity holiday among the Scottish diaspora, was first declared in Nova Scotia in 1987 and was essentially nation-wide in Canada by the 1990s. It has since spread to Australia (with varying levels of official recognition, 1989–1996), the US (1998), and other places including New Zealand and even Argentina.

The Scottish Tartans Museum and Heritage Center was opened by the Scottish Tartans Society in 1988 in Highlands, North Carolina; in 1994, it moved to nearby Franklin. The museum, which runs independently of STS, features over 600 tartans on display, including specimens dating to c. 1725, and Highland dress examples to ca. 1800.[269] (STS also operated a Scottish Tartans Museum in Edinburgh,[270] but it closed when STS did in 2000.) A major exhibition on tartan was produced by the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York 1988–89, and another was created for the Edinburgh Festival in 1989.[271] Others followed in Italy in 2003, and Japan in 2018.[272] In April 2023, the Victoria and Albert Museum of Dundee (V&A Dundee) opened a design exhibit (running until January 2024) about tartan and its "shifting context", with goals of "challenging preconceptions of what tartan is, whether that be from a historical sense or fashion sense".[273][274]

D. Gordon Teall of Teallach, of the Scottish Tartans Society, observed in 1994:[275]

Tartans have always formed part of Scotland's historic heritage and it is a compliment to their country that they have become so widespread throughout the English and Gaelic speaking world. They are probably more popular now than they have ever been because they have come to symbolise the spirit of families, clans and districts and, more recently, corporate institutions.

Following a bill submitted in the Scottish Parliament in February 2007,[276] Scotland's enterprise minister announced in July 2007 that the National Archives of Scotland would set up a national register of tartans.[277] The announcement stated that "Tartan's importance to Scotland cannot be overestimated. It is deeply embedded in Scottish culture and is an internationally recognised symbol of Scotland."[277] The ministry cited an industry report indicating that "the tartan industry is a significant contributor to the overall Scottish economy; and larger ... than suggested by previous industry estimates", and is the basis for some 200 businesses, 4,000 jobs, and £350 million in annual GDP in Scotland.[277] The bill passed in October 2008, and the Scottish Register of Tartans launched in February 2009.[276] (See § Registration, below.)

The Observer reported in 2010 that tartan clothing had become more popular than ever before, crossing subcultural, social-class, and age-group lines, and showing in that year a 540% sales increase from only two years earlier.[278] Around the same time, there began a resurgence in tartan kilt wearing among Scottish young people "as a mark of a vibrant, modern Scotland".[279][280] Contemporary Scottish nationalism has been said to be "fed, in part, by tartan and Jacobite nostalgia".[249] This has interrupted a generations-long trend of native Scottish disaffection toward tartan as stereotyping kitsch.[281]

Major commercial weavers (woolen mills) of traditional tartan cloth that are operating today include Lochcarron of Scotland (who date back to the era of George V)[282] in Lochcarron and Selkirk; Ingles Buchan in Glasgow; House of Edgar (also a Highland dress vendor) in Perth; Johnstons of Elgin (also a wool clothing maker); Strathmore Woolen in Forfar;[123] DC Dalgliesh in Selkirk;[166] Prickly Thistle (also a women's clothing maker) in Evanton and Edinburgh,[283] The Tartan Weaving Mill in Edinburgh; Marton Mills in West Yorkshire, England; West Coast Woollen Mills in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada;[284] GK Textiles (formerly Fraser & Kirkbright) in Port Moody, BC; and Pendleton Woolen Mill in Portland, Oregon.[57] The modern woollen tartan fabric trade has three principal markets: Highland dress, high fashion (with significant business from France and Italy), and furnishing.[285][12]

Popular tartans (including for kilts and other Highland dress, as well as for school uniforms) have increasingly been manufactured, primarily in the UK, in poly-viscose (PV),[286] a blend of the artificial materials polyester and viscose (rayon), typically in a 65% polyester to 35% viscose ratio.[287][288] PV is promoted as washable, durable, crease-resistant but heat-settable for permanent pleating, shrinkage-resistant, stain-resistant, colour-fast, low-pilling, hypoallergenic, not attractive to clothes moths, more "breatheable" than polyester (thus good for athletics), lower cost than wool, and lighter weight than wool, but said to have a wool-like texture.[289][290][291][292][293] It also does not rely on animal industry, so it appeals to vegans.[289][290] Lage-scale global manufacturers of tartan cloth in a variety of cotton, polyester, viscose, nylon, etc., materials and blends include Başkan Tekstil in Istanbul and Bursa, Turkey; and Jeen Wei Enterprises in Taichung, Taiwan; while a leading maker of tartan ribbon is Satab in Saint-Just-Malmont, France.[294] Tartan designs have long been produced in low-cost cotton in large quantities in China.[284]

In a tartan-as-marketing analysis, M. B. Paterson (2001) observed that continued internationalisation of tartan manufacture, design, and consumption has diluted the associative "Scottishness" of tartan and its value as a national identifier. He blames this in part on Scottish weavers' failure to adapt to market demands for a wider range of fabric applications, as well as the businesses' own complicity in broadening tartan's perceived cultural identity, e.g. in creating tartans for non-Scottish families and organisations.[295]

(For particular 20th-century to present-day tartans, see also § Corporate and commercial and § Fashion, below.)

In popular cultureEdit

In 1947, the tartan-laden Broadway musical Brigadoon (followed by a film version in 1954 and a television adaptation in 1966) renewed an excessively romanticised notion of the Highlands and Highland dress. A critical review called it a "whimsical dream-world" that was "overloaded with Hollywood-Scottish trappings".[296] (The production is generally not well received by actual Scots.)[297][298]

Tartan suits were popular in the mod subculture of Great Britain of the early to mid-1960s and its late 1970s revival.

Since the 1970s, the fandom of the Scotland national football (soccer) team have been collectively referred to by the nickname "Tartan Army", with fans often sporting tartan clothing at matches.

Popular in the mid-1970s, Scottish teeny-bopper band the Bay City Rollers were described by the British Hit Singles & Albums reference book as "tartan teen sensations from Edinburgh".[299]

A German punk wearing a piece of the royal Stewart tartan, 1984

Tartan became a common element of punk subculture starting in the late 1970s. Punk music was a way for youth in the British Isles to voice their discontent with the ruling class and with modern society. The unorthodox use of tartan (especially the royal Stewart), which had long been associated with authority and gentility, was then seen as an expression of that discontent. In this way, tartan – worn unconventionally – became an anti-establishment symbol. This was entirely on purpose according to Vivienne Westwood, a designer deeply involved in early punk fashion.[261][300] American punks often wore tartan skirts, a "subversion" of the Catholic school-girl uniform, and kilts have also been worn in the punk scene since around the 1980s, especially in the UK. Baggy tartan pants later proved popular among pop-punks and skate punks, and tartan-lined jackets among ska punks. (For further information, see Punk fashion.) From the late 1990s, kilts (mostly modernised "utility kilts" but sometimes traditional ones) have become relatively popular even in North American post-punk subculture (e.g. the gothindustrial, emo, and steampunk scenes), though often in black rather than tartan.

After the 1970s, Westwood, who continued to work extenstively with tartan, was joined by other big-name couturiers. These included Ralph Lauren, whose designs promoted tartan as a mainstream modern clothing option for both women and men;[282] and later Alexander McQueen, who was "consciously repoliticising the cloth".[85] Others have included Jean Paul Gaultier, Tommy Hilfiger (who made tartan central to his fall 2000 collection), and Christian Lacroix.[301] A tartan outfit designed by Westwood featured on a commemorative UK postage stamp issued by the Royal Mail in 2012 celebrating "Great British Fashion".[302]

Tartan flannel shirts became emblematic of (and androgynous within) the grunge scene of the late 1980s to 2000s, and re-entered the fashion mainstream thereby.[303][304][305]

A resurgence of interest in tartan and kilts (and even Scottish tourism)[298][306] has been generated in recent times by major Hollywood productions like the Highlander franchise (1986–2007),[307] Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994),[308] Braveheart (1995),[309][310][311] Rob Roy (1995),[309][311][312] Brave (2012),[313] and the television series Outlander (2014–, with a follow-on travelogue documentary series, Men in Kilts).[193] Many of these featured custom-designed tartans.[307][314]

Tartan clothing has appeared frequently in Doctor Who. The Fourth Doctor (Tom Baker) wore a Wallace tartan scarf on Terror of the Zygons,[315] and his robot-dog companion K9 had a tartan collar.[314] The Seventh Doctor (Sylvester McCoy) wore a crimson and black tartan scarf on Time and the Rani. Clara Oswald (Jenna Coleman), the companion of the Eleventh Doctor (Matt Smith) and the Twelfth Doctor (Peter Capaldi), wore a Campbell tartan dress on The Name of the Doctor and a Wallace skirt on The Time of the Doctor and Deep Breath.[316] The Fourteenth Doctor (David Tennant) wore a tartan brown suit in the 60th anniversary specials.[317]

Popular designsEdit

One of the most popular tartans is the royal Stewart tartan, ostensibly the personal tartan of the British monarch. The sett was first published in 1831 in the book The Scottish Gael by James Logan. In addition to its use in clothing, such as skirts and scarves, royal Stewart tartan has also appeared on biscuit tins for Scottish shortbread,[318] and it has also long been favoured by the British punk scene.

Another tartan in very common use by the general public is Black Watch (also known as old Campbell, Grant hunting, and Government).[319] This tartan, a dark variant of the main Clan Campbell tartan, has long been used by military units in the British Army and other Commonwealth forces.

Colour: hues and meaningEdit

The brighter of the MacLeod tartans, known affectionately as the "loud MacLeod", in the saturated modern palette.

The hues of colour in tartan can be altered to produce variations of the same tartan. The resulting colour schemes or palettes are divided into modern, ancient, muted, and weathered (sometimes with other names, depending on weaver). These terms only refer to dye colours and do not represent distinct tartans.[90][166] In the mid-19th century, the natural dyes (like alder bark, bilberry, cochineal, heather, indigo, woad, and yellow bedstraw) that had been traditionally used[14][40][141] began to be replaced by artificial dyes, which were easier to use and were more economic for the booming tartan industry. Artificial dyes tend to produce very strong, vivid colours compared to natural dyes; the more saturated palette was favoured in Victorian aesthetics. All commercially manufactured tartan today is coloured using artificial not natural dyes, even in the less saturated schemes.[320][321]

Refers to darker tartan, with fully saturated colours.[321][166] In a modern palette, setts made up of blue, black, and green tend to be obscured because of the darkness of the colours in this scheme.[321]
Also known as old colours (OC); refers to a lighter palette of tartan. These hues are ostensibly meant to represent the colours that would result from natural-dyed fabric aging over time. However, the results are not accurate (e.g., in real examples of very old tartan, black often fades toward khaki while blue remains dark;[321] and natural dyes are capable of producing some very vibrant colours in the first place, though not very consistently).[166] This style dates to some time after World War II.[166] This ancient is not to be confused with the same word in a few names of tartans such as "ancient Campbell".
Also called reproduction;[90] refers to tartan that is even lighter (less saturated) than ancient, as if exposed for a very long time.[166]
Refers to tartan which is between modern and ancient in vibrancy. Although this type of colouring is very recent, dating only from the early 1970s, these hues are thought to be the closest match to the colours attained by natural dyes used before the mid-19th century. This palette may be exclusive to the weaver House of Edgar.[166]

A general observation about ancient/old and muted are that they rather uniformly reduce the saturation of all colours, while actual natural-dyed tartan samples show that the historical practice was usually to pair one or more saturated colours with one or more pale ones, for greater clarity and depth.[166][90] From around the 1990s onward, the once-unusual paler palettes have become increasingly popular for kilts because of their more understated appearance, and there has been an upsurge in brown kilt belts, sporrans, and brogues that go well with the faded look (the more traditional style for such accessories is black).

The same tartan in the same palette from two manufacturers (e.g. Colquhoun ancient/old from DC Dalgliesh and from Strathmore) will not precisely match; there is considerable artistic license involved in exactly how saturated to make a hue.[321] Some particular tartan mills have introduced other color schemes (e.g. Lochcarron's antique) that are unique to that weaver and only available in certain tartans.[166]

The idea that the various colours used in tartan have a specific meaning is purely a modern one, notwithstanding a myth that red tartans were "battle tartans", designed so they would not show blood. It is only recently created tartans, such as Canadian provincial and territorial tartans (beginning 1950s) and US state tartans (beginning 1980s), that are stated to be designed with certain symbolic meaning for the colours used. For example, green sometimes represents prairies or forests, blue can represent lakes and rivers, and yellow might stand for various crops.[319] In the Scottish Register of Tartans (and the databases before it), colour inspiration notes are often recorded by a tartan's designer. However, there is no common set of tartan colour or pattern "motifs" with allusive meanings that is shared among designers.

Tartans for specific purposesEdit

MacLachlan hunting tartan

In addition to clan tartans, many tartan patterns have been developed for individuals, families, districts and towns, institutions, corporations, and events.[2] They have even been created for particular ethnic groups,[ax] and for sociological groups like the LGBT community.[324][325] Tartan has had a long history with the military, and today military units – particularly those within the Commonwealth  – have tartan dress uniforms.[326] (See List of tartans § UK military or government tartans.)


Many districts, cities, and towns in Scotland have their own tartans, mostly dating to the 20th century (though some district tartans are quite old), and not always official. They are intended primarily for those to whom a clan tartan does not seem to apply (see § Etiquette, below). At least two local government councils in Scotland have official tartans.[327]

In addition to the original district and modern geographic tartans of Scotland, new designs have been created for places in other countries. Many regional tartans are officially recognised by government bodies.

Created from 1963 to the 1980s, there are official "national" (in the sense of Celtic nations) tartans of Cornwall, long a part of Devonshire, England.

All but two Canadian provinces and territories have official tartans, with the first dating from 1956. Neither Quebec nor Nunavut, Canada's newest territory, have enshrined their tartans in law. Alberta, meanwhile, has two official tartans, including a dress tartan. All but Quebec's are registered with the Court of the Lord Lyon in Scotland.[328] Canada has an official national tartan that was originally designed to commemorate the introduction of its new maple leaf flag, and was made an official national emblem in 2011.[329] Various Canadian regions (like Labrador and Cape Breton Island), counties, municipalities, and institutions also have official tartans.[ay]

Tartans have been created for Australia; its capital city, Canberra; each of its states; and some of its local government areas; but only some of those tartans have been officially adopted or recognised by the relevant governments in Australia. US states have official tartans, with the first dating from 1988.

After the discovery of the "Dungiven tartan" (see § Eary modern, above) and its marketing as a district tartan for Ulster, Scottish weavers (and in two cases English, and in another American) decided to tap an Irish and especially Irish-American market by introducing a profusion of national, province, and county tartans for Ireland and Northern Ireland (and even some for Irish surnames), generally based on established Scottish tartans with some colour changes.[12][57] These geographical tartans, which date to 1970 and later,[61] do not have any official governmental recognition, and are purely a product of the industry.[12][55] One weaver even introduced a competing set of Irish national and county tartans in 1996, different from the previous offerings.[55] "The influence of native Irish people, either as suppliers or consumers of Irish tartans, would appear to be minimal."[12]

Hunting, mourning, dress, and danceEdit

Highland dancing, at a 2008 Highland games event, in dance tartans that feature a lot of white

A tartan is sometimes differentiated from another with the same name by a label: hunting, mourning, dress, or dance.

Hunting tartans seem to be a Victorian conception, although there is some evidence of early tartans with camouflage colours,[az] going back to the 16th century.[333] These tartans tend to be made up of subdued colours, such as dark blues and greens. Despite the name, hunting tartans have very little to do with actual hunting.[8]

Mourning tartans, though quite rare, are associated with death and funerals. They are usually designed using combinations of black and white, or by replacing bright colours such as reds and yellows in a traditional tartan with black, white, or grey.[334]

Dress tartans are sometimes special tartans for formal-dress occasions[335] (e.g. dress Stewart[336] is distinct from both the main royal Stewart tartan and the hunting Stewart, [337] among several other tartans attributed to Stewart/Stuart). In other cases, a dress tartan is simply the main tartan of the clan (e.g. Barclay dress is also known simply as Barclay, and is distinguished only from a Barclay hunting tartan). Dress tartans that do differ from main clan tartans are sometimes entirely different, while in some cases they are based on the main tartan but with colour differences (e.g. both Stewart and Barclay). Some dress tartans are very modern, but some date back to the era of the Vestiarium Scoticum.

Dance tartans, intended for Highland dance outfits, for either sex, are inspired (like some dress tartans before them) by the earasaid tartans worn by Highland women in the 17th and 18th centuries,[ba] which often featured white as a major colour, as do typical dance tartans today (most or all of which date to the 20th century or later).

There has been some confusion between dress and dance tartans, especially since the idea of the latter developed from the former.[bb] Some dress tartans, including some of the oldest, also have white in them, and have been used for dancing in lieu of a dance-specific tartan, so are easy to mistake for dance tartans, which almost invariably have white in them.[339] The white-heavy MacGregor dance tartan (in three colour variants dating to 1975–2005) is confusingly listed in the Scottish Register of Tartans as both dance and dress,[340] but the chief of Clan Gregor insists it is for dancers only,[198] so it is demonstrably not a general dress-wear tartan.[bc]

Family and individualEdit

The British royal family's own Balmoral tartan (established 1853). It is incidentally one of the few long-established tartans with multiple hues of the same colour (two greys, in this case).

A large proportion of non-clan tartans in all of the modern tartan databases have always been family tartans, promulgated mostly from the late 20th century for family names that are not clans or listed as septs of clans. These are usually Scottish surnames, but the Scottish Register of Tartans (SRT) database increasingly includes new family tartans for names that are not Scottish or even British. Most family tartans have no copyright claim, since they are intended for use by anyone with the surname or an extended-family connection. The SRT classifies them together with clan tartans in a "clan/family" category.

A few non-clan family tartans have an older pedigree. The best known is Balmoral tartan, reserved for the British royal family and personal pipers thereof, since its creation by Prince Albert in 1853.[341] (See also further discussion under § Etiquette, below.)

Some clans recognise tartans for specific family branches and septs that are not themselves generally regarded as clans. For example, Clan Robertson/Donnachaidh/Duncan acknowledges separate, established tartans (some of them quite old) for Inches, MacGlashan, MacInroy, MacLagan, MacPhee, MacWilliam, Reid, and Robinson,[342] and they are all registered in the SRT.

Since the late 1960s, various weavers have marketed (primarily to Irish Americans) some tartans with Irish family names, without any involvement by family members.[57] There has also long been a rumour that the rare Clans Originaux (1880) contained Irish family tartans, but this was finally disproven in 2003.[12][bd] There is one case of a formal Irish clan/family tartan, however: The Clan Cian Society commissioned a tartan for Cian of Ely, and registered it with the Chief Herald of Ireland in 1983.[12][57] (Even this has an Irish-American connection, as the chief resided in California.)[344]

For the much narrower sense of "family", the SRT registers as "name" tartans those that are created by individuals for only themselves and their immediate-family members, often for weddings; these usually have a copyright claim. One of the earliest tartans named for a specific person[be] is the "Janet Wilson sett", entered into the late 1770s records of Wilson's of Bannockburn and believed to refer to the company founder's wife or daughter-in-law.[83][bf]

Corporate and commercialEdit

Numerous Scottish brands use tartan, and some have unique tartans. Various not-for-profit organisations also have corporate tartans. Probably the earliest case was that of the Ancient Caledonian Society of London (founded in 1786 and now long defunct), which used what is believed to have been a consistent tartan[347] for its members' dress coats (which, unusually, featured embroidery over the tartan), one of which survives in the National Museum of Scotland.[348]

Scottish airline Loganair in its tartan livery

As an example of a modern commercial tartan, Irn-Bru (introduced in 1901), the best-selling soft drink in Scotland, has its own tartan.[349] Scottish regional airline Loganair uses tartan livery, including on the tails of its planes, and has two registered corporate tartans.[350] "Racing Stewart" is a pattern created in 1995 for the Jackie Stewart Formula One car-racing team.[351] While it was not the first tartan designed expressly for commerce, the first corporate tartan registered in any of the tartan databases (see § Registration, below) was that of Highland Spring Ltd of Blackford, Perth and Kinross, in October 1987[352] (designed in 1985, and since replaced by later versions).[353][354]

The "corporate" category is one of the fastest-growing in the official Scottish Register of Tartans database, with a large number of Scottish (and American and other) companies and societies registering organisational tartans. These are generally protected by trademark and copyright law. These tartans vary in purpose from general corporate livery, to special event tartans, to tartans for fictional characters.

Two examples of the latter are Sanrio's 2004 creation of a predominantly pink tartan for Hello Kitty;[355] and the 2011 creation by Disney/Pixar of the DunBroch tartan for the family of the main character, Merida, of the animated Highland fantasy/adventure film Brave.[356]


Burberry check

An early example of a tartan created by and for the fashion industry, and surely the most famous, is "Burberry check". It was introduced in the 1920s for the lining of trench coats made by Burberry of London, but has been used for all manner of clothing and accessories since 1967[357] (with another major marketing push in 2001) and is emblematic of the company and its upscale product line.[358] (For additional information, including a legal dispute, see § Legal protection, below.)

A fast-growing category in the Scottish Register of Tartans (SRT) is that of "fashion" tartans, created by companies and individual designers simply for aesthetic reasons, without any association with a particular clan, family, region, etc. Like organisational tartans, most of these have a copyright claim attached to them.

A prominent example: In 2017, Scottish fashion designer Charles Jeffrey designed a signature tartan for his Loverboy label, registering it in the SRT.[359]


Manufacture and use of tartan (at lesat in the Scottish context) is regulated, formally and informally, in three ways: registration (recording of a tartan and its association, if any, with a particular family, organisation, person, event, etc.); legal protection of a tartan as intellectual property (trademark, copyright); and etiquette (socio-cultural norms regarding the use of tartan and Highland dress).


Coat of arms of the now-defunct Scottish Tartans Society

The naming and registration of "official" clan tartans began in 1815, when the Highland Society of London solicited clan tartans from clan chiefs.

Following recognition by a clan chief of a tartan as a clan tartan, the chief may petition the Lord Lyon King of Arms, the Scottish heraldic authority, to register it as a formal clan tartan.[bg] Once approved by the Lord Lyon, after recommendation by the Advisory Committee on Tartan, the clan tartan is then recorded in the Lyon Court Books.[76]

Modern-day tartans can be created and registered by anyone, in the Scottish Register of Tartans (see below for details). Modern registered tartans include ones for Scottish and other districts, cities, and towns; for Irish counties (devised since the 1990s)[166] and clans (for example, the surname Fitzpatrick has two registered tartans[360]); for organisations and companies; and even for specific events or individuals. Other Celtic nations, such as the Isle of Man, Wales, Cornwall, and Brittany, have today a number of (mostly regional) tartans. Tartans are also being created in record numbers among the Scottish diaspora in the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, etc., especially for places, military divisions, and pipe bands.

Depending upon how "different tartan" is defined, it has been estimated that there were about 3,500[361] to 7,000[362] different tartans as of the late 2000s, with around 150 new designs being created every year.[362] With four ways of presenting the hues in the tartan – "modern", "ancient", "weathered", and "muted" colours – there are thus at least 14,000 recognised tartan variations from which to choose. (The 7,000 figure above includes many of these variations counted as though they were different tartans.)[362] Commercial weavers regularly produce only 500–700 in popular names;[2] the rest would be a matter of custom ordering.

Until the late 20th century, instead of a central official tartan registry, independent organisations located in Scotland, Canada, and the United States documented and recorded tartans.[363] In 1963, an organisation called the Scottish Tartans Society (now defunct, and originally named Scottish Tartans Information Centre) was created to record and preserve every known tartan design.[364] The society's Register of All Publicly Known Tartans (RAPKT) contained about 2,700 different designs of tartan.[361] Registration was not free of charge.[365] STS also (at additional expense) hosted rather elaborate "ceremonies of accreditation" for registrants, featuring society members in Highland dress, pipers, presentation of an accreditation scroll, and a prayer.[366] The society, however, ran into financial troubles in 2000, and folded.[367][123]

Former members of that society formed two new Scotland-based entities – the Scottish Tartans Authority (STA, 1996 – before STS closed) and the Scottish Tartans World Register (STWR, 2000 – the trade name of a private copmany, Tartan Registration Ltd).[123] Both of these organisations initially based their databases on the RAPKT. STA's database, the International Tartan Index (ITI) consisted of about 3,500 different tartans (with over 7,000, counting variants) as of 2004.[361] The online ITI was later rebranded The Tartan Ferret. STWR's self-titled Scottish Tartans World Register database was made up of about 3,000 different designs as of 2004.[361] Both organisations were registered as Scottish charities and recorded new tartans (free in the case of STA and for a fee in the case of STWR) on request.[368][369]

In the interim, a jointly Scotland- and US-based organisation, International Association of Tartan Studies and Tartan Educational & Cultural Association (IATS/TECA) emerged in 1984[123] and published its own TartanArt database in the early 1990s as Microsoft Windows software which was much used in the North American kilt-making trade. IATS/TECA was absorbed by STA by 2005.[123]

The Scottish Register of Tartans (SRT) is Scotland's official tartan register, opened in 2009.[370] SRT is maintained and administrated by the National Archives of Scotland (NAS), a statutory body based in Edinburgh.[371] The aim of the register is to provide a definitive and accessible resource to promote and preserve tartans. It is also intended to be the definitive source for the registration of new tartans (if they pass criteria for inclusion and a registration fee is paid). The database itself – also named simply Scottish Register of Tartans, and sometimes called TartanRegister from its domain name – is made up of the pre-existing registers of STA and STWR as they were at the time of SRT's launch (preserving the STA's and STWR's registration numbers, dates, and other details in the SRT data), plus new registrations from 5 February 2009 onward. On the register's website, users can register new tartans, search for existing tartans and request their thread counts, and receive notifications of newly registered tartans.[370][372]

One criticism of the SRT and NAS's management of it is that its exclusivity, in both cost and criteria, necessarily means that it cannot actually achieve its goals of definitiveness, preservation, and open access. The STA's ITI, for example, contained a number of late-added tartans that did not appear in the SRT, and the gulf would only seem to widen under then-current policy, with SRT and STA both continuing to register new tartans independently.[373] Another criticism is that the SRT does not limit registrations to Scottish persons and organisations, nor include compulsory licensing of registered tartans for Scottish production, despite direct Scottish economic benefits being part of the rationale for the Scottish Register of Tartans Bill 2008 ("Tartans Bill" for short) that authorised SRT's operation.[374]

STWR became defunct some time after 2008. STA later closed the ITI/Tartan Ferret to new registrations, and in late 2022 removed the search feature from the STA website, deferring to the Scottish Register of Tartans, which now appears to be the only operating tartan registry.

Legal protectionEdit

Some modern tartans are protected by trademark law, and the trademark proprietor can, in certain circumstances, prevent others from selling that tartan.[319] The "Burberry check" of the English fashion house is an instantly recognisable tartan that is very well known around the world[375] and is an example of a tartan that is protected.[bh]

Unlike trademark registration and copyright registration, the Scottish Register of Tartans (SRT) and its authorising Tartans Bill do not create any new or enhanced intellectual property rights through the act of registration (nor provide any enforcement mechanism other than removal of infringing entries from the registry).[378]

SRT, however, permits registrants optionally to assert copyright and/or trademark claims over their new tartans, for designs that are eligible for such protection under other established law[379] (such as the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988; and the Scotland Act 1998, which took over copyright and trademark registration and enforcement in Scotland)[380] and lists such tartans as restricted. An SRT registration "provides evidence of the existence and date of [the] design",[381] which helps establish the copyright date under the Berne Copyright Convention. Such legal protections apply only to comparatively recently created tartans; old clan, regimental, and district tartans are outside the protection periods of such intellectual property laws.[382]

SRT also permits the listing of intended use and manufacture restriction preferences, but has no enforcement capability,[383] and also includes a statement that "No other rights can be conferred."[381] British tartan weavers, such as Lochcarron and DC Dalgliesh, generally will not produce material in an SRT "restricted" tartan without written evidence of permission from the copyright/trademark claimant. In additional furtherance of intellectual property concerns, the SRT also refuses to register a new tartan that is confusingly similar to any existing one.[384]

The application of copyright law to tartans is not well tested. The leading British legal case on textile copyright, concerned with designs printed on fabric, is Designer Guild Ltd v Russell Williams (Textiles) Ltd (2000), finding for fairly broad copyright protection in textile works that involve creative originality.[385] A more recent case, Abraham Moon & Sons Ltd v. Thornber & Others (2012), actually involved tartan. It held that the textual ticket stamp (a detailed set of weaving instructions, i.e. a thread count with additional information on precise colours, etc.) used to produce a tartan designed in-house by the claimant had been infringed, was protected as a literary work, and also constituted a "recording" of the graphical work of the tartan and thus was independently protected as a work of artistic craftsmanship.[382][386] As of 2020, the decision was being appealed, as it conflicted with previous caselaw, e.g. Hensher v Restawile (1976), holding such instructions to be uncopyrightable.[387][382]

While tartan arguably could be classified as a form of intangible cultural heritage,[388] and its value to identifying Scottish products both at home and internationally has been recognized and exploited for a long time,[351] tartan is not protected by either geographical indication (protected designation of origin) law, nor sui generis legislation specific to that kind of product.[389] Harris tweed, another textile associated more narrowly with Scotland, does have such protection. In 1998, Keith Lumsden, research officer of the Scottish Tartans Society, proposed that the word tartan be prohibited for use to market a textile, unless the design was accepted in an official governmental tartan registry (which did not then exist).[351] When the Scottish Parliament finally authorised the Scottish Register of Tartans in 2008, it did not include anything like this sort of trade protection. According to M. B. Paterson (2001): "No mechanism exists to protect [traditional Scottish] tartan from 'misuse' by interests having nothing to do with Scotland or Scotland's interests", though the tartan registries "play an important, if weak, role in asserting Scotland's cultural rights in relation to tartan."[390]


Scottish actor Sean Connery at a Tartan Day celebration in Washington DC. When knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 2000, he wore this green-and-black hunting-tartan kilt of his mother's Clan Maclean.

Since the Victorian era, authorities on tartan have claimed that there is an etiquette to wearing tartan, specifically tartan attributed to clans or families. In the same line of opinion, some tartans attributed to the British royal family are have been claimed to be "off limits" to non-royalty.[391][392] Even so, there are no laws or universally accepted rules on who can or cannot wear a particular tartan. The concept of the entitlement to certain tartans has led to the term universal tartan, or free tartan, which describes tartan which can be worn by anyone. Traditional examples of such are the Black Watch, Caledonia, hunting Stewart, and Jacobite tartans, shepherds' check, and district tartans.[393][280] Some recently created designs intended for everyone (though some are exclusive to particular weavers or Highland dress outfitters) have names including Braveheart, Clansman, European Union, Highlander, Independence, Pride of Scotland, Rainbow, Scotland 2000, Scotland the Brave, Scottish National, Scottish Parliament, Spirit of Scotland, Stone of Destiny, and Twenty First Century.[394]

Books on Scottish clans list such rules and guidelines.[319] One such opinion is that people not bearing a clan surname, or surname claimed as a sept of a clan, should not wear the tartan of their mother's clan.[395] This opinion is reinforced by the fact that in the Scottish clan system, the Lord Lyon states that membership to a clan technically passes through the surname. This means that children who bear their father's surname belong to the father's clan (if any), and that children who bear their mother's surname (her maiden name) belong to their mother's clan (if any).[396] Also, the Lord Lyon states that a clan tartan should only be worn by those who profess allegiance to that clan's chief.[397]

Some clan societies even claim that certain tartans are the personal property of a chief or chieftain, and in some cases they allow or deny their clansfolk "permission" to wear that tartan.[bi] According to the Scottish Tartans Authority – which is an establishment of the Scottish tartan industry – the Balmoral tartan should not be worn by anyone who is not part of the British royal family. Even so, some weavers outside of the United Kingdom ignore the "longstanding convention" of the British royal family's "right" to this tartan. The society also claims that non-royals who wear this tartan are treated with "great disdain" by the Scottish tartan industry.[399][bj]

Generally, a more liberal attitude had been taken by those in the business of selling tartan, holding that anyone may wear any tartan they like. Under the liberal view, claimed "rules" are mere conventions (some of which are recent creations), with different levels of importance depending on the symbolic meaning of the tartan on some particular occasion.

The Standing Council of Scottish Chiefs has also taken a fairly flexible position (organisationally; some specific individual chiefs may have a narrower or looser take, and not all chiefs are members). Aside from opposing the creation a new tartan using a clan's name without the chief's permission, their website states:[401]

There are no strict rules on who has the right to wear a particular tartan. People normally wear only the tartan (if any) of their surname, or a "district tartan" connected with where they live or where their family come from. Wearing a particular clan tartan indicates that the wearer bears an allegiance to the chief of that clan.

In other culturesEdit

While tartan has been most closely associated with Scotland, and dating back to the Roman period was perhaps associated with Northwestern Europe in general, it is likely that the idea of using patterns of rectangles and lines has independently occurred many times, in any cultures with weaving. Basic tartan "is almost as primitive a weave as it is possible to make ... probably the earliest form of patterened fabric anywhere."[4] Surviving pre-modern historical examples seem sparse, however. (See § Pre-medieval origins, above, for ancient examples from western China.)

Modern tartan-style cloth in a wide variety of materials and patterns from simple to complex is available and used today around the world, often simply as a style of cloth and without any association with Scotland.

Indian madrasEdit

Samples of tartan madras cloth, showing its muted look

Madras is a patterened, light-weight, breathable, cotton cloth named for the Madras (now Chennai) area of India.[402] Traditional madras is hand-woven from lumpy, carded-cotton thread, and coloured with natural dyes which may bleed together upon washing to create a more muted pattern than typical tartan, as well as a rougher texture.[403] Madras cloth dates to at least the 16th century, produced in a variety of patterns, including religious designs and floral prints.[403] It is unclear if tartan patterns were among the original designs, though they became very popular later. Weaving, primarily for export, in Madras/Chennai became a large-scale commercial enterprise after the British East India Company came to control the area in the mid-17th century.[404] Major production of this style of cloth also took place in Cambay State (present-day Gujarat).[405]

Madras, ideal for warm-weather wear, became popular in the Philippines (where it is known as cambaya)[405] and the Caribbean;[403] mainly in undyed form, it was also exported to Europe.[403] Tartan madras reached America by 1718, and appeared in the 1897 Sears catalogue.[403] It was popular in the United States in the 1930s and again in the 1960s, often associated with preppy style.[403] Substantial export of the cloth to South Africa began in 1958.[403]

Modern madras cloth is commonly in tartan patterns, but also simply striped (seersucker). Unlike Scottish-style tartan, madras is not woven in 2/2 twill pattern, but is a muslin of plain weave;[403] it thus features straight not diagonal lines when viewed up close (see detail image).

Japanese kōshiEdit

Woodcut image of Japanese kabuki actor Iwai Hanshiro IV dressed in kōshi, 1780s

In Japan, tartan patterns called kōshi 格子 (also koushi or goushi, literally 'lattice') or kōshijima 格子縞 date back to at least the 17th century[406] in the Edo period (1603–1867), and were popular for kabuki theatrical costuming, which inspired general public use by both sexes, for the kosode (precursor of the kimono), the obi, and other garments.[407] The name is a reference to the details of shoji room dividers, the grid pattern said to stand for strength, with larger stripes representing more power.[407]

Kōshi range from simple checker patterns to complex multi-colour weaves. Ikat thread-dyeing techniques were sometimes employed before the weaving, such that a colour in the pattern was mottled.[407] Some styles have particular names, such as misuji-kōshi ('three-striped lattice')[407] and futasuji-kōshi ('forked lattice').[408] A pattern with larger squares is more generally called ogoshi or with smaller squares kogoshi.[409]

It is unclear whether there was a Scottish tartan influence on the development of kōshi. The Edo period pre-dates the Perry Expedition of 1853–1854 and its opening of Japan to general Western trade, but mostly post-dates early European contact from 1543 to the closure of Japan to outsiders in 1639 under the sakoku isolationist policy.

Nothing suggests that particular patterns have been associated with specific families or Japanese clans.

Today, kōshijima is the general Japanese word for 'tartan/plaid, checked pattern'.[410] Tartan is popular in present-day Japan, both for high fashion and for streetwear,[85] as well as school uniforms.[230] Japan hosted a major museum exhibit about tartan in 2018.[411]

Maasai shúkàEdit

Maasai men in shúkà; Narok County, Kenya, 2018

Among the Maasai people of Kenya and Tanzania, the shúkà is a cotton blanket-like garmet (what Scots would call a plaid) worn as a wrap, and very commonly in a tartan pattern, though sometimes linearly striped or of one colour.[412] Shúkà are predominantly red, though sometimes seen in blue and other colours.

Shúkà were originally of painted (typically red) leather, but Maasai have had access to plain-weave cotton fabric for some time, imported to the region by Americans since the 1860s.[412] Joseph Thomas Last, a British missionary, in 1883 described the Maasai as particularly fond of red and white cloth, to be worn by higher-status men (though he did not mention tartan in particular);[413] a 1903 report also had them typically wearing red blanket-like garmets, after a time of favouring blue.[412] The Maasai were loosely allied with the British, 1895–1904,[414] and the latter made heavy use of Scottish regiments in African conflicts, bringing tartan with them. (However, "Guinea cloth" (mostly produced in India), sometimes red and blue checked, was a common commodity in 18th-century western Africa, pre-dating British West Africa; whether it relates at all to shúkà is unknown.)[415]

A nomadic cattle-pastoralist culture, without their own weaving tradition, the Maasai have been described as unusually culturally conservative and resistant to modernization.[416] Nevertheless, they have always engaged in trade to get goods they do not make themsevles,[413] and have made local traditional use of modern materials.[417] The Maasai approach has been to resist yet assimilate colonial and post-colonial influences.[418]

The current bright tartan and striped style of shúkà appears to have been adopted primarily in the 1960s[415][419] (partly in response to national-level clothing modernisation pressure), supplanting leather but keeping the same form-factor.[418] The shift in outward form without affecting function led one writer to quip that Maasai dress "has undergone dramatic changes while not changing at all."[420] Tartan-patterned cloth is not typically used for other Maasai garments besides shúkà.

The shúkà has become so emblematic of the Maasai that there is some discussion (driven by the Maasai themselves) at the national and regional level about protecting it as a form of cultural property.[421] While it has been claimed that shúkà patterns, at least at one time, conveyed particular meanings,[bk] and there historically have long been weaving operations in various African areas,[422] most shúkà today that are not mass-manufactured in Dar es Salaam actually come from China, not Africa.[415]

Russian shotlandkaEdit

Alexander Pushkin wearing a tartan cape; by Orest Kiprensky, 1827

Robert Jamieson, writing in 1818 as editor of Edmund Burt's 1717–18 Letters of a Gentleman in the North of Scotland, said that in his era, married women of the north-western provinces of Russia wore tartan plaids "of massy silk, richly varied, with broad cross-bars of gold and silver tissue".[141] This seems quite distinct from Scottish-style tartan.

The Russian poet Alexander Pushkin (1799–1837), who was influenced by the romantic-Highlands writings of Walter Scott,[423][424] posed for one of the most famous paintings in Russia, the 1827 portrait (right) by Orest Kiprensky. Pushkin wears what looks at first like a Scottish-style tartan shoulder plaid, but is more probably a sleeveless "Almaviva" cape/cloak, a style in fashion at the time and known to have been worn by Pushkin.[259] A posthumous portrait of Pushkin, by Carl Peter Mazer, 1839, shows him in a red and green tartan dressing gown.[259]

Tartan was commented on in the Moscow Telegraph in 1826 as being in broad fashion in the city for all sorts of garments (often as a decorative accent).[259] Plaids proper apparently did come into some fashion in Russia as women's wear for a space during the second half of the nineteenth century, a style picked up from stage productions; some 1880s Russian paintings illustrate use of plaids as shawls.[259]

Around the end of the 19th century, the Russian equivalent of Georgian and Victorian British tartanware objects, such as decorative Fedoskino boxes with tartan accents in a style called Shotlandka Шотландка (literally 'Scotlandish'), were produced by companies like the Lukutin Manufactory on the outskirts of Moscow.[425]

Today, shotlandka is simply the Russian word for 'tartan/plaid', and the cloth is popular enough in Russia to be manufactured in the country in considerable quantity.

See alsoEdit

  • Flannel, a type of fuzzy cloth often produced in a tartan pattern
  • List of tartans
  • Tartan Day, a day of celebration, in Canada, the US, and some other countries, recognising the influence of Scottish immigration
  • Tartanry



  1. ^ The use of plaid to mean 'tartan' has not been exclusively American; in 1808, the London publication La Belle Assemblée referred to "plaid scarfs".[9]
  2. ^ MacBain (1911), p. 277. The original word was the Luwian pldtmn and then later Latin paludamentum for 'cloak'. The paludamentum was a plaid or red cloak put on by Roman officiers in time of war.[10][11]
  3. ^ Solid-colour, non-tartan kilts were often thought to be an Irish invention of the late 19th century, but an example from Scotland was found in a 1635 portrait of Sir Duncan Campbell of Loch Awe,[12] among other Scottish examples.
  4. ^ Early collectors of tartan recorded setts by measuring the width of each stripe in eighths of an inch.[15]
  5. ^ a b The Highlanders depicted were mistakenly described as Irish: "Irrländer oder Irren". The original caption states: "They are a strong and hardy people who survive on little food. If they have no bread, they eat roots. When necessary, they can cover more than 20 German miles [1 German mile = 4.75 English miles] in a day's forced march. Besides muskets, they carry bows, quivers and long swords."[17]
  6. ^ There is a hypothesis that during some undefined period there may have been something like a "caste" system by which chiefs were entited to up to 7 colours in a tartan, fewer colours were allowed for clansmen according to their position in the social hierarchy, and just single-coloured cloth was used by servants. Barnes & Allen (1956)[40] attribute this idea to Frank Adam, author of The Clans, Septs & Regiments of the Scottish Highlands (1908). It is unclear if there is any evidence to support this notion, and it is contradicted by the existence of numerous old regional tartans of complexity, and by chiefs adopting clan tartans of marked simplicity. More likely, the extra dye and weaving-labour expenses of complicated tartans meant that they cost more and so were more often worn by monied persons, as clearly reported by John Lesley.[39]
  7. ^ Innes of Learney (1971 [1939]) believed that Highlanders wore multiple tartans because some were personal (perhaps inherited), some geographical, and some clan-specific.[47]
  8. ^ Taylor: " ... all and every man in generall in one habit .... For once in the yeere, ... many of the nobility and gentry of the kingdome (for their pleasure) doe come into these Highland countries to hunt, where they doe conforme themselves to the habite of the Highlandmen, who for the most part speake nothing but Irish [i.e. Gaelic] .... Their habite is shooes, with but one sole apiece; stockings (which they call short hose) made of a warm stuff of divers colours, which they call tartane; as for breeches, many of them, nor their forefathers, never wore any, but a jerkin of the same stuff that their hose is of; their garters being bands, or wreathes of hay or straw; with a plaed about their shoulders, which is a mantle of divers colours, much finer and lighter stuffe than their hose; with blue flat caps on their heads ...."[64][65]
  9. ^ Martin Martin wrote: "each Isle differs from the other in thir fancy of making Plaids, as to the Stripes in Breadth and Colours. This Humour is as different thro the main Land of the Highlands, in so-far that they who have seen these Places are able, at the first view of a Man's Plaid to guess the Place of his Residence ...."[66][67]
  10. ^ A small piece of tartan believed to be from a plaid of Bonnie Prince Charlie, given in 1746 to Lady Anne Mackintosh of Clan Farquharson, survives in the National Records of Scotland.[33] The prince had a habit of giving out plaids as thanks for hospitality, and several recorded (but quite different) tartans are said to have come from these plaids, e.g. SRT 4220,[78] 4421,[79] 4422,[80] and 4423.[81]
  11. ^ The Dress Act per se did not enumerate exceptions for the nobility, but was part of the larger Act of Proscription, which did.
  12. ^ Lt.-Col. Sir John MacGregor Murray, newly chief of Clan Gregor and later vice-president of the Highland Society of London, wrote of the difficulty of raising a new regiment, in 1803: "It will require much to rekindle the martial spirit of our ancestors, which has, unfortunately, been systematically broken down – we were so long degraded by the privation of our arms and dress, and so much unmanned by being converted into manufacturers".[86]
  13. ^ Philip was writing in Latin. Various later books have provided English renditions. Some key phrases: "Glengarry's men were in scarlet hose and plaids crossed with a purple stripe. Lochiel was in a coat of three colours; the plaid worn by MacNeil of Barra rivaled the rainbow."[103] Another describes Glengarry's men as "three hundred ... each of whom a tartan garb covers, woven ... in triple stripe." Then it turns to individuals again: "the flowing plaid of yellow stripe covers the shoulders of both" Maclean of Duart and brother Alexander.[104]
  14. ^ Groves (1893) makes the confusing and anachronistic claim that "The independent companies wore the clan tartan (consisting mostly of black, blue, and green) of their respective commanders",[108] which contradicts modern tartan research that puts formal clan tartans no earlier than 1815 and informal ones to the border of the 18th and 19th centuries; and seems to contradict itself in suggesting a single black/blue/green tartan and yet differing tartans under different commanders (unless all of the same colours). Groves was writing not long after the "clan tartanry" craze of 1815–1850s, much of which was accepted without question until refuted in the mid-to-late 20th century. More than one uniform tartan among the early units, however, is credible.
  15. ^ Not to be confused with the second Seaforth's Highlanders, also raised as the 78th, in 1793. The original Seaforth's Highlanders were amalgamated with other units under the Childers Reforms to become the 1881 Seaforth Highlanders.
  16. ^ Not to be confused with the earlier 74th Regiment of (Highland) Foot, raised 1777.
  17. ^ The main Sutherland tartan, another variant of Black Watch, with over-check of red and two white stripes, first appears in surviving records in 1829.[125] It is unclear whether it was originally used by the 93rd (Sutherland Highlanders) Regiment of Foot (raised 1799), ancestral to the later units that have used this tartan to the present day.
  18. ^ Some confusion still resulted. E.g., the "Highland Light Infantry" of 1881–1959 were actually a trews-dressed Lowland unit. All the Highland regiments were "de-kilted" for a period after 1809, in an effort to recruit from beyond the Highlands.[127][128] And the Royal Highland Regiment had worn trews for a period around the 1820s; [129] later, the Rothesay and Caithness Fencibles (1794–1802), did likewise. Various Highland units also wore trousers for particular campaigns.
  19. ^ The commercial tartan weaver DC Dalgliesh provides a list of those that they supply, and it includes a mix of obscure tartans from defunct regiments, ones still used today for surviving regiments, tartans of overseas units that were "Highland" only in name, some that are now only associated with clans, and a number that are/were reserved for military pipe-band use and were not used in regular dress or undress uniforms.[130] The exact history of all these tartans is unclear. E.g., Murray of Atholl tartan (yet another Black Watch variant, with an orange over-check) is used by the reconstituted Atholl Highlanders today, and was recorded by the Highland Society of London as a clan tartan in 1816–22;[131] but it may or may not have first been established for the original unit, Atholl's or Murray's Highlanders (77th Regiment of Foot), which was raised in 1777.
  20. ^ As one example, in the The Lockhart Papers, first published in 1714, is a passage describing how opposing battatlions of MacDonalds from different places could only tell each other apart by colour of bonnet cockade. D. W. Stewart (1893) leapt to the conclusion they must have worn the same tartan, despite the material saying nothing of the sort[139] (they could have been wearing whatever tartans they happened to have, not uniforms, making tartan meaningless for distinguishing units of men).
  21. ^ D. W. Stewart (1893) sometimes leaned toward the uniform interpretation: "It appears from the regulations issued to the retainers of the Clan Grant anent the wearing of a uniform tartan that distinctive patterns were in use, at least for military purpose, or on occasion of great gatherings".[43] The Grant case is covered in detail below.
  22. ^ D. W. Stewart (1893) again came down on the "uniform" side, despite otherwise being a booster of the idea of early clan tartans.[105]
  23. ^ Innes of Learney's motte-and-bailey tactic when it comes to what a "clan tartan" is, is exemplified by his supposition that similar tartans used in lands of Murray, Murray of Athol, and Sutherland must mean they went back to a common tribal tartan "from the twelfth century" (which is not attested), and that "It was no doubt 'the Murrays' tartan' without being 'The Murray tartan'".[29]
  24. ^ E.g., the Huntly district tartan was sometimes called Brodie, sometimes associated instead with Forbes or Gordon, while Forbes did not have a distinct clan tartan until the key date of 1822, nor Brodie until the beginning of the 19th century.[143] the several tartans named Gordon all date to 1798 or later (and that earliest one adopted from a 1793 regimental tartan).[144]
  25. ^ However, not only is it not certain that a single cloth of mixed colours was intended, rather than three cloths of distinct colours, Stewart contradicted himself. When the lands in question were restored to the MacLeans in 1630, the grey did not revert to green but remained gras, i.e. grey. Nevertheless, Stewart asserted: "The explanation is simple enough. White and black and green are the only colours in the oldest authenticated Mac Lean tartan."[148]
  26. ^ The Scottish Tartans Society seemed to think it was something very similar to Black Watch, with the red-and-white-striped Murray of Pulrossie version somehow, despite its 1618 prohibition, eventually becoming the primary Sutherland tartan.[149] Innes of Learney also supported the interpretation that it was a dark Black Watch-style tartan, related to others used in the region.[132] On the other hand, House of Gordon USA, a clan society, proclaims "It was a Red Gordon!",[150] referring to a primarily red and teal tartan, also known as old Huntly, recorded in 1819,[114] and appearing in an asymmetric variant in the 1766 painting of William Gordon illustrated above. The society does not publish any basis for their assertion.
  27. ^ This problem of no consistent tartans in old family portraits recurs in other clans, such as Murray and MacDonald, going back to the 18th century.[134]
  28. ^ Willie Scobie, in 2012, railed against "an influential and determined body of opinion set against the idea of clan tartans having existed prior to the late 18th century", analyzed the Tartana lines in light of known clan tartans, found no correspondences aside from the Royal Company of Archers, using a Stuart tartan, having green edging on their jackets, and nevertheless proclaimed "we have in this piece of literature strong (one is almost tempted to say irrefutable) evidence of the existence of clan tartans in the year 1718."[156]
  29. ^ Namely: Grant, James (1884). Cassell's Old and New Edinburgh. Vol. II. London: Cassell & Co. p. 235 – via Google Books.
  30. ^ James Ray, who served in the government forces at the Battle of Culloden, wrote in 1752: "In their flight I came up with a pretty young Highlander, who called out to me, Hold your Hand, I'm a Cambell. On which I asked him, Where's your Bonnet? He reply'd, Somebody have snatched it off my Head. I only mention this to shew how we distinguished our loyal Clans from the Rebels; they being dress'd and equip'd all in one Way, except the Bonnet; ours having a red or yellow Cross of Cloath or Ribbon; theirs a white Cockade".[160]
  31. ^ Kass McGann, citing A Journal of the Expedition of Prince Charles Edward in 1745, by a Highland Officer which states: "We M'Donalds were much preplex'd, in the event of ane ingagement, how to distinguish ourselves from our bretheren and nighbours the M'Donalds of Sky, seeing we were both Highlanders and both wore heather in our bonnets, only our white cockades made some distinction", claims that this further supports the thought that the idea of clan tartans is a late invention.[161]
  32. ^ A prime example is the Black Watch tartan, which Cockburn collected four times and assigned the names "Campbell Argyll", "Grant", "Munro" and "Sutherland".[165]
  33. ^ One example is today's Macpherson, adopted in 1817, which was originally "Caledonia" then "No. 43 or Kidd" in Wilson's pattern books.[123][169] Another is Campbell of Cawdor, originally "No. 230" or "Argyll", after the county.[170]
  34. ^ Clan Gregor, the Gordons, and a MacDonald branch might also have had early informal clan tartans around this period.[37] However, the chief of the MacDonalds indicated not knowing of a clan tartan in 1815, and the tartan that was the subject of the 1618 Gordon/Murray/Sutherland letter is uncertain.
  35. ^ Several at once claimed the Black Watch regimental tartan.[178]
  36. ^ There are numerous examples, but a prominent case is that two of the Lord of the Isles tartan variants were taken from portraits dating to the third quarter of the 18th century.[182] This practice, incidentally, has contributed to confusion about the age of clan tartans; a tartan adopted officially by a clan in 1850 from a painting dating to 1750 might misleadingly be said to be "a clan tartan dating to 1750".
  37. ^ The society collected tartans in general as well, and amassed 586 by 1987.[178]
  38. ^ In fairness, only some of the tartans in Vestiarium were made up; others had previously appeared in collections like those of Cockburn and Wilson.
  39. ^ E.g., the usual tartan of Clan Home dates to Clans Originaux.[194] Another is Brodie hunting; it was also later included in Old & Rare Scottish Tartans.
  40. ^ D. C. Stewart's The Setts of the Scottish Tartans has been updated and expanded by James D. Scarlett in 1990 as Tartan: The Highland Textile, perhaps the most definitive work on tartan published so far (though by no means the largest in terms of number of tartans illustrated).
  41. ^ Electric Scotland publishes an annotated list of clans and their tartans' Lord Lyon registration status. The list is much shorter than some other clan lists, because it omits clans that have not applied to the Lord Lyon for tartan registry at all; it lists only those with Lyon-recorded tartans or those in process of such registration.[197]
  42. ^ The Highland MacLennans use the same tartan as the Lowland Logans. Clan Logan is without a chief.
  43. ^ David Wilkie's portrait of George IV depicts the king as being much slimmer than he actually was. Wilkie covered up the fact the king's kilt was too short – sitting well above the knees – and also left out the pink tights the king wore to hide his bare legs.[205]
  44. ^ In this era, soldiering, especially as an officer, was the "aristocratic profession par excellence",[206] and this had a strong effect on fashion.
  45. ^ Not to universal approval. The chief of Clan MacDonell of Glengarry wrote of a Celtic Society of Edinburgh gathering: "I never saw so much tartan before in my life, with so little Highland material ... they have no right to burlesque the national character or dress of the Highlands."[181]
  46. ^ A detailed summary of the 19th-century tartan books can be found in D. W. Stewart (1893), pp. 57–61.[235]
  47. ^ Queen Victoria wrote of her time in Scotland: "... I feel a sort of reverence in going over these scenes in this most beautiful country, which I am proud to call my own, where there was such devoted loyalty to the family of my ancestors – for Stuart blood is in my veins, and I am now their representative, and the people are as devoted and loyal to me as they were to that unhappy race".[243]
  48. ^ There were "tartanitis"-infused travel books of the era to go along with the tourism, e.g. A Tour in Tartan-land by Rev. Edward "Cuthbert Bede" Bradley (1863).[247]
  49. ^ Armstrong (2017) quoted a US-based clan association organiser thus: "without Scottish Clans & Families and our oft criticised tartan, bagpipes, musty castles, clan battles and inspiring heroes the national Scottish brand becomes somewhat indistinguishable from countless other nations".[266]
  50. ^ As examples, modern tartans have been created for Chinese, Jewish, and Sikh communities,[322] as well as Italian Scots.[323] (See also: History of the Jews in Scotland § 20th and 21st centuries.)
  51. ^ For example, Bruce County has an official tartan.[330] An example of a Canadian municipality with an official tartan is Beauport, Quebec City.[331]
  52. ^ The 16th-century historian George Buchanan wrote: "They [Highlanders] delight in variegated garments, especially striped, and their favorite colours are purple and blue. Their ancestors wore plaids of different colours and numbers still retain this custom, but the majority, now, in their dress, prefer a dark brown, imitating nearly the leaves of heather; than when lying upon the heath in the day, they may not be discovered by the appearance of their clothes".[332] Edmund Burt made a similar claim around 1728.[42]
  53. ^ The Scottish Gaelic term earasaid refers to a shawl worn by women, that could also be folded and wrapped into a dress. It was often but not always made of tartan cloth.[338]
  54. ^ Some writers have confused them as late as the 1980s (which suggests that dance tartans as a conventional thing unto themselves may date to the 1990s and later, though some specific dance tartans date to at least the mid-1970s). E.g., Thompson conflates dance and dress tartans and treats all dress tartans as if they were white-bearing, despite the clear fact that some dress tartans of considerable age do not have white in them.[321]
  55. ^ Several other dance tartans are listed also as dress tartans in the SRT, but most appear to be comparatively recent inventions by individuals (e.g. kiltmaker Hugh Macpherson of Edinburgh) or by woolen mills (such as DC Dalgliesh) and are not associated with clans or districts.[339]
  56. ^ An example of a writer uncritically perpetuating the story can be found in M. B. Paterson (2001).[343]
  57. ^ As noted above, an early regimental tartan of 1787 was for a while called "Mackenzie-MacLeod" after two commanders, but this was a troop uniform tartan, not one for the named individuals.
  58. ^ The sett actually survives in two variants in the SRT, created for an 1880 wedding; they are now sometimes used as Wilson family tartans.[345][346]
  59. ^ The Lord Lyon will only accept formal clan tartan registrations from clan chiefs; this excludes chiefless armigerous clans from tartan registration with the Lord Lyon, whether or not they have latter-day clan associations/societies. However, many now-armigerous clans were able to register tartans with the Lord Lyon before they became chiefless, and these registrations remain in the Lyon Court Books. The Lord Lyon seems to consider a clan that has had a chief to remain a clan and not just a family/surname (the Lord Lyon does not do any registration of family tartans, i.e. those for non-clan surnames), though a statement by the Lord Lyon on this matter in 2002 is not as clearly worded as it could have been.[197]
  60. ^ In 2003, Burberry demanded members of the tartan industry to stop trading a certain Thomson Camel tartan.[376] Burberry claimed this tartan was confusingly similar to their Burberry check and that it thus infringed their registered trademark.[377]
  61. ^ For example, the Clan Cameron Association website states that the Cameron of Lochiel tartan "is the personal tartan of the Chief and his immediate family; as a rule it should not be worn by clansfolk".[398]
  62. ^ The only non-royal permitted by the royal family to wear the Balmoral tartan is the queen's (now king's, since 2022) personal piper.[392] The official website of the monarchy of the United Kingdom claims the tartan is not available for purchase.[400]
  63. ^ Oyange-Ngando (2018): "the intentional and specific arrangement of colour where each bears a certain meaning, for example a colour arrangement could represent age, clan or marital status of an individual." Oyange-Ngando's paper cites many sources, but cites none at all for this claim. Modern photos of Maasai show members of the same tribe/clan wearing a wide variety of shúkà patterns, seemingly to taste.



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  143. ^ Stewart, D. W. (1893), at "Brodie" and "Huntley".
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