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Three examples of Scottish tartan.

Tartan is a pattern consisting of criss-crossed horizontal and vertical bands in multiple colours. Tartans originated in woven cloth, now they are used in many other materials. Tartan is particularly associated with Scotlandmarker. Scottish kilts almost always have tartan patterns. (Tartan is also known as plaid in North America, but in Scotland, a plaid is a tartan cloth slung over the shoulder or a blanket.)

Tartan is made with alternating bands of coloured (pre-dyed) threads woven as both warp and weft at right angles to each other. The weft is woven in a simple twill, two over - two under the warp, advancing one thread each pass. This forms visible diagonal lines where different colours cross, which give the appearance of new colours blended from the original ones. The resulting blocks of colour repeat vertically and horizontally in a distinctive pattern of squares and lines known as a sett.

Until the middle of the nineteenth century, the highland tartans were associated with regions or districts, rather than by any specific clan. This was due to the fact that tartan designs were produced by local weavers for local tastes and would tend to make use of the natural dyes available in that area. The patterns were simply different regional checked-cloth patterns, whereof one chose the tartans most to one's liking - in the same way as people nowadays choose what colours and patterns they prefer in their clothing. Thus, it was not until the mid-nineteenth century that specific tartans became associated with Scottish clans or Scottish families, or simply institutions who are (or wish to be seen as) associated in some way with a Scottish heritage.

It is generally stated that the most popular tartans today are the Black Watch (also known as Campbell, Grant Hunting, Universal, Government) and Royal Stewart. Today tartan is no longer limited to textiles but is used on non-woven mediums, such as paper, plastics, packaging, and wall coverings. - tartan design software

Etymology and terminology

The English word tartan is derived from the French tiretain. This French word is likely derived from the verb tirer in reference to woven cloth (as opposed to knitted cloth). Today tartan usually refers to coloured patterns, though originally a tartan did not have to be made up of any pattern at all. As late as the 1830s tartan was sometimes described as "plain coloured ... without pattern". 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 certain type of pattern on a certain type of cloth. Today tartan is generally used to describe a pattern, and it is not limited to only textiles. Today the term plaid is commonly used to describe what is actually tartan. Both terms however, originally had separate meanings. The word plaid is derived from the Scottish Gaelic plaide, meaning "blanket". Originally plaid was first used to describe the rectangular, blanket-like garment, sometimes made up of tartan, that preceded the modern kilt (see: belted plaid). In time, plaid was used to describe blankets themselves. 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.


Diagram A, the warp
Diagram B, the weft.
Diagram C, the tartan.
The combining of the warp and weft.
Each thread in the warp crosses each thread in the weft at right angles. When a thread in the warp crosses a thread in the weft of the same colour, it produces a solid colour on the tartan. If a thread crosses another of a different colour, it produces a mixture of the two colours in equal proportion. Thus, a sett of two base colours produces one mixture, for a total of three different colours. The total number of colours, including mixtures, increases out of proportion to the number of base colours. So, a sett of six base colours produces fifteen mixtures, for a total of twenty-two different colours. This means that the more stripes and colours used, the more blurred and subdued the tartan's pattern becomes.

The sequence of threads, known as the sett, 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 left illustrate the construction of a "symmetrical" tartan. However, on an "asymmetrical" tartan, the sett does not reverse at the pivots, it just repeats at the pivots. Also, some tartans (very few) do not have the exact same sett for the warp and weft. This means the warp and weft will have alternate thread counts.

Tartan is recorded by counting the threads of each colour that appear in the sett. The thread count not only describes the width of the stripes on a sett, but also the colours used. For example, the thread count "K4 R24 K24 Y4" corresponds to 4 black threads, 24 red threads, 24 black threads, 4 yellow threads. The first and last threads of the thread count are the pivot points. Though thread counts are indeed quite specific, they can to be modified in certain circumstances, depending on the desired size of the tartan. For example, the sett of a tartan (about 6 inches) may be too large to fit upon the face of a neck tie. In this case the thread count has to be reduced in proportion (about 3 inches).

Colour: shades and meaning

The shades of colour in tartan can be altered to produce variations of the same tartan. The resulting variations are termed: modern, ancient, and muted. These terms refer to colour only. Modern represents a tartan that is coloured using chemical dye, as opposed to natural dye. In the mid-19th century natural dyes began to be replaced by chemical dyes which were easier to use and were more economic for the booming tartan industry. Chemical dyes tended to produce a very strong, dark colour compared to the natural dyes. In modern colours, setts made up of blue, black and green tend be obscured. Ancient refers to a lighter shade of tartan. This shade is supposed to represent the colours that would be obtained by using natural dyes. Muted refers to tartan which is shade between modern and ancient. This type of tartan is very modern, dating only from the early 1970s. This shade is said to be the closest match to the shades attained by natural dyes used before the mid-19th century.

The idea that the various colours used in tartan have a specific meaning is purely a modern one. One such myth is that red tartans were "battle tartans", designed so they would not show blood. Many recently created tartans, such as Canadian provincial and territorial tartans and American state tartans, are designed with certain symbolic meaning for the colours used. For example the colour green sometimes symbolises prairies or forests, blue can symbolise lakes and rivers, and the colour yellow is sometimes used to symbolise various crops.


The earliest image of Scottish soldiers wearing tartan, from a woodcut dating from 1631.


Today tartan may be mostly associated with Scotland, however the earliest evidence of tartan is found far afield from the British Isles. According to the textile historian E. J. W. Barber, the Hallstatt culture, which is linked with ancient Celtic populations and flourished between 100 BC to 400 BC, produced tartan-like textiles. Some of them were recently discovered, remarkably preserved in Salzburgmarker, Austria. Also, textile analysis of fabric from Indo-European Tocharian graves in Western China has shown it to be similar to the Iron Age Hallstatt culture of central Europe. Tartan-like leggings were found on the "Cherchen Man", a 3, 000 year-old mummy, found in the Taklamakan Desertmarker in western China (see Tarim mummies). Similar finds have been found in central Europe and Scandinavia. The earliest documented tartan in Britain, known as the Falkirk tartan, dates from the 3rd century AD. It was uncovered at Falkirkmarker in Stirlingshiremarker, Scotland, about 400 metres north-west of the Antonine Wallmarker. The fragment was stuffed into the mouth of the earthenware pot containing almost 2, 000 Roman coins. The Falkirk tartan is simple check design, of natural light and dark wool. Early forms of tartan such as this are thought to have been invented in pre-Roman times, and would have been popular among the inhabitants of the northern Roman provinces.
Tartan, as we know it today, is not thought to have existed in Scotland before the 16th century. By the late 16th century there are numerous references to striped or checkered plaids. It isn't until the late 17th or early 18th century that any kind uniformity in tartan is thought to have occurred. Martin Martin, in his A Description of the Western Islands of Scotland published in 1703, wrote that Scottish tartans could be used to distinguish the inhabitants of different regions. He expressly wrote that the inhabitants of various islands and the mainland of the highlands were not all dressed alike, but that the setts and colours of the various tartans varied from isle to isle. As he does not mention the use of a special pattern by each family, it would appear that such a distinction is a modern one, and taken from the ancient custom of a tartan for each district, the family or clan in each district originally the most numerous in each part, eventually adopting as their distinctive clan tartan, the tartan of such district.

For many centuries, the patterns were loosely associated with the weavers of a particular area, though it was common for highlanders to wear a number of different tartans at the same time. A 1587 charter granted to Hector Maclean of Duartmarker requires feu duty on land paid as 60 ells of cloth of white, black and green colours. A witness of the 1689 Battle of Killiecrankiemarker describes "McDonnell's men in their triple stripes". From 1725 the government force of the Highland Independent Companies introduced a standardised tartan chosen to avoid association with any particular clan, and this was formalised when they became the Black Watch regiment in 1739.
The most effective fighters for Jacobitism were the supporting Scottish clans, leading to an association of tartans with the Jacobite cause. Efforts to pacify the Highlands led to the 1746 Dress Act banning tartans with exemptions for the military and the gentry. Soon after the Act was repealed in 1782 Highland Societies of landowners were promoting "the general use of the ancient Highland dress". William Wilson & Sons of Bannockburnmarker became the foremost weaving manufacturer around 1770 as suppliers of tartan to the military. Wilson corresponded with his agents in the highlands to get information and samples of cloth from the clan districts to enable him to reproduce "perfectly genuine patterns" and recorded over 200 setts by 1822, many of which were tentatively named. The Cockburn Collection of named samples made by Wilsons was put together between 1810 and 1820 and is now in the Mitchell Librarymarker in Glasgowmarker. At this time many setts were simply numbered, or given fanciful names such as the "Robin Hood" tartan.

By the 19th century the Highland romantic revival inspired by James Macpherson's Ossian poems and the writings of Walter Scott led to wider interest, with clubs like the Celtic Society of Edinburgh welcoming Lowlanders. The pageantry invented for the 1822 visit of King George IV to Scotland brought a sudden demand for tartan cloth and made it the national dress of the whole of Scotland rather than just the highlands and islands, with the invention of many new clan-specific tartans to suit.

Royal patronage and the tartan craze

The popularity of tartan was greatly increased by the royal visit of George IV to Edinburgh in 1822. George IV was the first reigning monarch to visit Scotland in 171 years. The festivities surrounding the event were originated by Sir Walter Scott who founded the Celtic Society of Edinburgh in 1820. Scott and Celtic Society members urged Scots to attend festivities "all plaided and plumed in their tartan array". One contemporary writer sarcastically described the pomp that surrounded the celebrations as "Sir Walter's Celtified Pagentry".

Following the Royal visit several books which documented tartans added to the craze. James Logan's romanticised work The Scottish Gael, published in 1831, was one such publication which led the Scottish tartan industry to invent clan tartans. The first publication showing plates of clan tartans was the Vestiarium Scoticum published in 1842. The Vestiarium was the work of two brothers: John Sobieski and Charles Allen Hay. The brothers, who called themselves John Sobieski Stolberg Stuart and Charles Edward Stuart, first appeared in Scotland in 1822. The two claimed to be grandsons of Prince Charles Edward Stuart and his wife Princess Louise of Stolberg, and consequence later became known as the "Sobieski Stuarts". The Sobieski Stuarts claimed that the Vestiarium was based upon a copy of an ancient manuscript on clan tartans—a manuscript which they never managed to produce. The Vestiarium was followed by equally dubious The Costume of the Clans, two years later. The romantic enthusiasm that Logan and the Sobieski Stuarts generated with their publications led the way other tartan books in the 19th century.

Just twenty years after her uncle's visit to Scotland, Queen Victoria and her husband Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha made their first trip to the Scottish Highlands. The queen and prince bought Balmoral Castlemarker in 1848 and hired a local architect to re-model the estate in "Scots Baronial" style. Prince Albert personally took care of the interior design, where he made great use of tartan. He utilised the red Royal Stewart and the green Hunting Stewart tartans for carpets, while using the Dress Stewart for curtains and upholstery. The queen designed the Victoria, and the prince was the designer of the Balmoral tartan which still is used today as a royal tartan. Victoria and Albert spent a considerable amount of time at their estate, and in doing so hosted many "Highland" activities. Victoria was attended by pipers and her children were attired in Highland dress. Prince Albert himself loved watching the Highland games. Ironically as the craze swept over Scotland, the Highland population suffered grievously from the Highland Clearances, when thousands of Gaelic speaking Scots from the Highlands and Isles were evicted by landlords (in many cases the very men who would have been their own clan chiefs) to make room for sheep.

Clan tartans

It is generally regarded that "clan tartans" date no earlier than the beginning of the 19th century. It is maintained by many that clan tartans were not in use at the time of the Battle of Culloden in 1746. The method of identifying friend from foe was not through tartans but by the colour of ribbon worn upon the bonnet. David Morier's well-known painting of the Highland charge at the Battle of Cullodenmarker shows the clansman wearing various tartans. The setts painted all differ from one another and very few of the those painted show any resemblance to today's clan tartans. Contemporary portraits show that although tartan is of an early date, the pattern worn depended not on the wearer's clan, but upon his or her location, or personal taste. The idea of groups of men wearing the same tartan is thought to originate from the military units in the 18th century. Evidence suggests that in 1725 the Independent Highland Companies may have worn a uniform tartan.
The naming and registration of official clan tartans began on April 8, 1815, when the Highland Society of London (founded 1778) resolved that all 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." Many had no idea of what their tartan might be, but were keen to comply and to provide authentic signed and sealed samples. Alexander Macdonald, 2nd Baron Macdonald of Sleat was so far removed from his Highland heritage that he wrote 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."

Today tartan and "clan tartan" is an important part of a Scottish clan. Almost all Scottish clans have several tartans attributed to their name. Several clans have "official" tartans. Although it is possible for anyone to create a tartan and name it any name they wish, the only person with the authority to make a clan's tartan "official" is the chief. In some cases, following such recognition from the clan chief, the clan tartan is recorded and registered by the Lord Lyon King of Arms. 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. In at least one instance a clan tartan appears in the heraldry of a clan chief and is considered by the Lord Lyon as the "proper" tartan of the clan.

Other tartans

In addition to clan tartans, there are many tartans created especially for individuals, families, districts, institutions, and corporations. There are even specific commemorative tartans for various events and certain ethnic groups. Tartan has had a long history with the military and today many military units—particularly those within the Commonwealth—utilise tartan in their dress uniforms.

There are many regional tartans, officially recognised by governments bodies. In Canadamarker most provinces and territories have an official tartan. Canada, itself has an unofficial national tartan. Several Canadian counties and municipalities also have official tartans. Many of the states of the United States of Americamarker also have official tartans. In Scotland at least two local government councils have official tartans.

Tartan is sometimes differentiated from another with the same name by the label dress or hunting. Dress tartans are based on the earasaid tartans worn by Highland women in the 17th and 18th centuries. Dress tartans tend to be made by replacing a prominent colour with the colour white. They are commonly used today in Highland dancing. Hunting tartans are also a Victorian conception. 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. Mourning tartans, though quite rare, are associated with death and funerals. They are usually designed using combinations of black and white.

Tartan has also been used by corporations in advertising campaigns. British Airways used a tartan design as part of its ethnic tailfin re-branding. This design, Benyhone (from Scottish Gaelic: "Mountain of the birds") was one of the most widely used designs, being applied to 27 aircraft of the BA fleet. The "Burberry Check", first designed in early 1920s, is an instantly recognisable tartan, known around the world.

Clever Victorian entrepreneurs not only created new tartans, but new tartan objects called tartanware. Tartan was incorporated into an assortment of common household objects such as snuffboxes, jewellery cases, tableware, sewing accessories, and desk items. Tourists visiting the Scottish Highlands came home with it, and Scottish-based businesses sent tartanware out as gifts to customers. Some of the more popular tartans were the Stewart, McDonald, McGregor, McDuff, MacBeth and Prince Charlie. Today tartanware is widely collected in England and Scotland.

Tartan in fashion

In the Victorian and Edwardian eras, tartan-clad garments featured in fashion catalogues. By then, tartan had shifted from being mainly a component of men's clothing to become an important part of women's fashion. In consequence of its association with the British aristocracy and military, tartan developed an air of dignity and exclusivity. Because of this, tartan has made reappearances in the world of fashion several times. For instance, tartan made a resurgence in its use in Punk fashion. In the late 1970s punk music was a way for youth in the British Isles to voice their discontent with the ruling class. The unorthodox use of tartan, which had long been associated with authority and gentility, was then seen as the expression of discontent against modern society. In this way tartan, worn unconventionally, became an anti-establishment symbol.

Not always a fashion symbol signifying rebellion or anti-authoritarianism, plaid has been more recently adopted by members of the hipster fashion scene. While not used as a statement of any specific belief or idea like others who have adopted the pattern, plaid has become undeniably linked with the subculture's fashion. This mainly stems from the motif in the hipster scene of thrift store shopping, where plaid shirts are often in abundance.

Tartan registration

It has been estimated that there are about 7,000 different tartans with around 150 new designs being created every year. Up until recently there had been no central, or "official" tartan registry. In the absence of an official register, several un-authoritative groups located in Scotland, Canada and the USA documented and recorded tartan. In the 1960s, a Scottish society called the Scottish Tartans Society was created to record and preserve all known tartan designs. The society's register, the Register of All Publicly Known Tartans, contains about 2,700 different designs of tartan. The society however ran into financial troubles in about the year 2000, and is now defunct. Former members of the society then formed two new Scottish-based organisations—the Scottish Tartans Authority and the Scottish Tartans World Register . Both of these societies based their database upon the Register of All Publicly Known Tartans. The STA's database consists of about 3,500 tartans, while the STWR's is made up of about 3,000 different designs. Both organisations are registered Scottish charities and record new tartans (for a fee) on request.

The Scottish Register of Tartans is Scotland's official tartan register. The Register is maintained and administrated by the National Archives of Scotlandmarker based in Edinburghmarker. The aim of the Register is to provide a definitive and accessible resource to promote and preserve tartan. It also aims to be the definitive source for the registration of new tartans. The register itself is made up of the existing registers of the STA and the STWR and new registrations from February 5, 2009, and on. On the Register's website users can register new tartans, search for and request the threadcounts of existing tartans and receive notifications of newly registered tartans.

The 'right' or 'entitlement' to tartan

Many people only own tartan with which they feel associated, be it through a clan, family, surname, or military unit. Others choose their tartan only out of personal taste. Since the Victorian era, 'authorities' on tartan have claimed that there is an etiquette to wearing tartan, specifically tartan attributed to clans or families. This concept of the 'entitlement' to certain tartans has led to the term of universal tartan, or free tartan, which describes tartan which, in the opinion of some, can be worn by anyone. Traditional examples of such are the Black Watch (also known as Government, Universal, and Campbell), Caledonian, Hunting Stewart, and Jacobite tartans. In the same line of opinion, some tartan attributed to the British Royal Family are claimed by some to be 'off limits' to non-royals. Even so, there are no rules on who can, or cannot, wear a particular tartan. Note that some modern tartans are patented and protected by trademark, and cannot be sold or appropriated. An example of one such tartan is the Burberry Check.

Many books on Scottish clans list such rules and guidelines. 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. This opinion is enforced 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). Also, the Lord Lyon states that a clan tartan should only be worn by those who profess allegiance to that clan's chief. Some clan societies even claim that certain tartans are the personal property of a chief or chieftain, and in some cases they allow their clansfolk 'permission' to wear a tartan. According to the Scottish Tartans Authority—which is closely associated with 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 Kingdommarker 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. Generally though, a more liberal attitude is taken by those in the business of selling tartan, stressing that anyone may wear any tartan they like (besides the Balmoral of course). In the end though, there are no rules on who can or can not wear a certain tartan.

See also



  1. M.A. Newsome, 'The Scottish Tartans Museum': The Scottish Tartans Museum
  2. MacBain 1911: p. 277. See also: Merriam-Webster 2003: p. 947.
  3. Banks; de la Chapelle 2007: p. 61.
  4. Fortson 2004: p. 352.
  5. Banks; de la Chapelle 2007: pp. 66-67.
  6. Jacobson et al. 2000: p. 228.
  7. Moncreiffe of that Ilk 1967: p. 24.
  8. Magnusson 2003: pp. 653-654.
  9. Duncan 2007: pp. 7-8.
  10. Banks; de la Chapelle 2007: pp. 106-108.
  11. Banks; de la Chapelle 2007: pp. 108-109.
  12. Banks; de la Chapelle 2007: 84.
  13. Stewart; Thompson 1980: pp. 26-27
  14. Campbell of Airds (2000), pp. 259-261.
  15. , Retrieved on August 11, 2007
  16. Haig 2004: p. 143.
  17. Banks; de la Chapelle 2007: pp. 21-22.
  18. Banks; de la Chapelle 2007: p. 26-27.
  19. Ash; Wright 1988: p. 63.
  20. MacDonald 1995: p. 48.
  21. The Scottish Clans and Their Tartans 2005: p. 14.


  • (originally published by: W. & A. K. Johnston Ltd., Edinburgh and London, 1944).

  • Tartans, ed. Blair Urquhart, The Apple Press, London, 1994, ISBN 1-85076-499-9
  • Clans and Tartans—Collins Pocket Reference, George Way of Plean and Romilly Squire, Harper Collins, Glasgow 1995, ISBN 0-00-470810-5
  • "The Invention of Tradition: The Highland Tradition of Scotland", Hugh Trevor-Roper, in The Invention of Tradition, ed. Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger, 1983, ISBN 0-521-24645-8.
  • History of highland dress: A definitive study of the history of Scottish costume and tartan, both civil and military, including weapons, John Telfer Dunbar, ISBN 0-7134-1894-X.

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