OF THE TARTAN
Let’s start out by blowing
up a few misconceptions. First of all, though it is commonly used, the term “plaid”
is not synonymous with tartan. A tartan is a specific design, usually, but not
always, made of cloth. Ordinarily it is the same viewed from any direction. That is, if you turn it upside down or sideways, it should look the same. This is not always the case, but it is the norm.
A plaid, or more properly pronounced “plaide”
is a blanket. In times past the Highlander wrapped himself up in his plaide at
night. It was his sleeping bag and it was also his garment during the day. Since it was frequently woven in the form of a tartan, the two terms ultimately became
confused. It is common usage now to call a tartan a plaid.
Second, though you may belong to
a clan, or be descended from someone who does – or be married to someone who does – you are not “entitled”
to wear a specific tartan. You can wear any tartan you like. You may choose to wear a tartan identified with your particular clan or district, but if you do not like
it, or it doesn’t match your favorite sweater, feel free to wear one that does.
There is no official governing body for tartan. Tartan is an industry. Today there are many mills located all over Scotland which produce tartan cloth. There are mills in other countries that produce it as well. They are all legitimately tartans. What they may or may not
be is registered.
The Scottish Tartans Society, for
a fee, will research any new pattern or “sett” and see if it has been registered as belonging to a specific individual,
group, or commercial enterprise. If indeed it has not, it can be recorded by
them under the name specified and those records continue to grow. The Lord Lyon,
may record a Grant of Arms which includes a tartan. Many clan chiefs recognized
as such have had their tartans registered and recorded in the Lyon Court Books. There
are new tartans being recognized and recorded somewhere almost every day. The
last I knew there were over 3000 of them and no one source can possibly claim to have them all listed.
There is no historical basis for the current
fashion of describing certain tartan colors as being used for various fanciful concepts.
“We use the blue for the rivers found flowing musically through our clan land, the green for the verdant pine
forest which surrounds us and which sheltered us in ancient battles, gold for the fields of corn which provide us with our
ancient beverage and sustenance as well…” And so forth. The Irish aren’t the only Celts who employ the blarney.
There is a sort of basis for the so-called
“dress” version of a given tartan. Most tartans really began as what
are now termed “district” tartans. Women of various villages or gathering
areas would weave a cloth of wool, plucked from their sheep and dyed with the various roots and berries to be found on their
land. They took great pride in weaving a pattern which was colorful and attractive
for their men to wear as plaides when out on the hunt or in the field. Because
plants almost always were more common in one area or another, those wearing patterns with these colors could be identified
as belonging to a specific area. Whatever yarn was left over might then be used
to weave material for the woman herself to wear. As she most likely wouldn’t
have enough to weave herself a full plaide, she used the plain, cheaper, undyed wool as a background and wove the extra strands
or pattern of the one she had made for her mate to give it color. Since that
wool was usually the cream colored natural color of the sheep on the hill, the so-called “dress” pattern for women
Speaking of women’s dress.
Many have heard of the so-called
“correct” fashion of a woman wearing her tartan sash over the right shoulder and fastened at the left hip. Supposedly only the chief’s wife is permitted to wear it over the left shoulder. This is balderdash.
The only recorded mention of this
is in one part of the highlands where it was noted that a lady wore her sash over a different shoulder than usual in order
to indicate that the lady concerned was in an “interesting condition.” Even
in this case no specific shoulder was mentioned as being the “usual.”
For those who do country dancing,
or use their right hand on a regular basis, placing the sash over the left shoulder makes more sense and is definitely more
practical. It would be patently unfair for any chief’s wife to demand that
only she have freedom of movement, though I recently heard of one who did. In
this case the group knew full well that her demands were incorrect and unreasonable, but as a matter of courtesy abided by
Now as for the actual history
of the tartan.
Many myths have been put forth in
this respect. The first mention of highland tartan in writing was around 1537
or 1538. That refers to an order for clothing made of “terten” which
may have been the pattern or it may have been a certain kind of cloth.
There are claims made that certain tartans
and patterns have been used by the same family or clan for many centuries and that these claims are proven by the fact that
so-called pattern sticks were used to denote thread counts and colors. The sticks
supposedly were measured and the thread counts were kept by wrapping the correct color a specific number of times around the
stick. None of these tartan pattern sticks have ever been found. It does seem, though, that certain tartans may very well have been used by the same clan for generations
– but those patterns are few in number.
As I mentioned earlier, the first tartans
worn were, by necessity, really the so-called “district” tartans. This
is most likely because certain berries and vegetables were used in the dyeing process and those were available in more abundance
in certain areas. Women used what they had and often had a section of their little
kitchen garden assigned to the plants they would use for the preparation of their yarn.
It was stated in 1703 that it was possible to tell a man’s residence by the pattern of his tartan.
Most of those familiar with Scottish
history are aware that the Scots were forbidden to wear tartan after their defeat at Culloden in 1746. It was to be 37 years before the ban was lifted. In 1782 that
the Marquess of Graham, acting as a spokesperson for the Highland Society of London, got the ban overturned. This coincided with a Romantic Movement in Europe, which traveled to Britain, and ultimately the whole idea of the romanticism of the Celt and the highland
way of dress. The writings of Sir Walter Scott further contributed to this change
in attitude and resulted in the state visit to Scotland of George the IV who appeared in highland dress although underneath
his kilt wore pink tights. Though the visit is pictured in paintings of the time,
the tights are not, but they are documented. When Queen Victoria
visited the highlands with her beloved Albert, she became much enamoured of the whole idea of Scotland and Scottish dress and popularized it even more.
At the close of the 18th Century,
the opportunities for commerce involved in the development of tartan cloth was not lost on the border weaving industry. As with all industries, it was necessary to maintain a steady flow of new products. The idea of individual tartans providing an identity for a clan or family was an attractive
one – not just to the weaving trade, but to the potential wearers as well. Chiefs
and clansmen were soon asking for “their” tartan. The weavers were
most enthusiastic about meeting their wishes.
This sudden demand for clan tartan led
to a great deal of confusion. Many clans claimed the same tartan, and some do
to this day. Some have included minute differences, almost impossible to detect
at any distance, others added a recognizable stripe or shading.
In 1815, the Highland Society of London
began its collection of tartans, with a number of them signed and sealed by the chiefs of concerned clans. The first book of tartans appeared in 1831. It was entitled “The Scottish Gael” and
was written by John Logan a one-time secretary of the Highland Society. At the
same time, some of the chiefs were asked about their clan tartan and were puzzled and embarrassed. They had no idea what pattern was “theirs” and were totally confused by a declaration then
encouraged that clans and setts had been used to designate family ties from the dawn of civilization. Needless to say, this was far from the case.
Add to all this confusion the contribution
of two brothers* who claimed to have been directly descended from Charles Edward Stuart, known more popularly as Bonnie Prince
Charlie. Although there is some confusion about their real name, they eventually
settled upon the name “Sobieski Stuart.” They claimed to have
possession of an old manuscript dating from the 16th century, which supposedly gave details of upwards of seventy
five early clan tartans. The language used was also supposedly an archaic one,
and only the Stuart Brothers could understand it. Thus they alone were able to
produce a book entitled the “Vestiarum Scoticum” which is often cited as a reliable source to this day. It is not. The original document has
never been seen by any but the Stuart Brothers and the whole thing was very likely little more than a figment of the brothers’
rather fertile imagination.
Thanks to the spirit of commerce, identifiable
tartans have grown from the few at first, to a real flood of patterns and there are more added each day. There are lots of names distinguished by a tartan of their own and lots of variations on the patterns themselves…such
as “old” or “ancient” colors meant to replicate fabric made of yarns dyed with native plants, “hunting”
tartans meant to replicate tartan worn when out hunting the stag while knee deep in heather, “modern” colors which
are supposed to be the basic clan or district tartan using modern dyes, and so on.
That the tartan is a national symbol
of Scottish dress is undeniable. However, there are no rules at all about who
can wear what tartan or what a given tartan should be named or used for. Nor are there even rules or regulations about the
shades or tints of the colors used within the tartan pattern itself. But there are conventions and traditions and they have been around for well over 200 years now.
It is a good way to show your loyalty to
a given clan if you wish, but no one is going to slap your hand (or any other part of your anatomy) for wearing something
simply because it pleases you. It is considered bad taste to wear more than one
tartan at a time, though perhaps different versions of the same tartan might work. Use
discretion here, please.
Tartan, as it exists today, does not come
down to us as inherited from our forbearers yea these many centuries ago. Cave
men did not wear tartan. Even in Scotland’s
early formation, it was most likely worn in a haphazard fashion, if at all. But
it has existed, it has become a registered, if not regulated industry, and we can hardly deny that it is an established custom
10th July 2007 - The Scotsman.com
Checking up on a tartan tradition
JOHN ROSS (email@example.com)
TARTAN is renowned across the world as a symbol of Scotland and is of huge value both to the economy and tourism.
Rangers and Celtic football clubs both have one, as does the Los Angeles Police Department and the iconic cartoon character
You can find it on every high street in Scotland and even on the moon.
It is associated with the height of fashion and tourism tat and it was also once outlawed. More recently, it took centre-stage
at the Scissor Sisters' tartan-clad appearance at T in the Park.
Yet despite its significance, there is no official register of the thousands of tartans in existence. However, by next
spring, that will change.
Jim Mather, the enterprise minister, yesterday gave official backing to the idea to "protect, promote and preserve one
of Scotland's most iconic and valuable assets".
"Tartan's importance to Scotland cannot be overestimated," he said. "It is deeply embedded in Scottish culture and is an
internationally recognised symbol of Scotland.
"So it is only right that the Scottish government protects, promotes and preserves one of our most valuable assets for
generations to come."
He said the Court of the Lord Lyon, the heraldic authority for Scotland, and the National Archives of Scotland will play
a crucial role in setting up, operating, maintaining and facilitating access to a register.
"I hope the work on a register will continue to be backed by industry and political consensus. And I hope the register
will become a focus for authenticating all the superb varieties of tartan we design and produce."
Jamie McGrigor, a Highlands and Islands Conservative MSP, put forward the idea for a register of tartans in a private member's
bill in the last parliament and received cross-party support.
Described by the MSP as a "trademark" for Scotland, he said a register would preserve the thousands of designs currently
in existence. "It is vital that we keep Scotland as the mecca for tartan worldwide and this national register will go a long
way in helping to achieve this," he said.
Details of how the project will work have still to be finalised, although it is thought a panel will be formed and will
register only official tartans.
The international tartan index of the Crieff-based Scottish Tartans Authority (STA) is seen as the "register in waiting",
with over 4,500 tartans listed, although a smaller list also exists in Dunkeld.
Although registration would not be compulsory, it is seen as a way of ensuring tartans are unique and authentic.
The STA advises designers of new tartans to go through the process so that a dated record of their tartan is kept. This
can be legally significant if someone were to copy a design, produce a tartan of confusing similarity or try to record a tartan
of the same name.
Brian Wilton, the STA's director of operations, said: "There is a huge amount of confusion at present. When a new tartan
comes in we compare it to all others in our database to ensure it is unique.
"If there are some that have slipped through the net one can run into problems as someone could register a tartan which
is far too close to an existing one."
He said the register will not be an "arbiter of taste", but will record genuine tartans which have fulfilled the recording
criteria: "That is, that the design is unique and they are not making a claim in their name that cannot be substantiated."
He added: "I think what the new register will try to do is do away with tartans that make false claims and hoodwink the
"There has been a spate over the last few years of Irish surname tartans, almost the case of 'have you got an O'Flaherty
tartan?', 'Not at the moment but come back after lunch'.
"In these cases, either deliberately or inadvertently, the tartan gets sold to all the O'Flaherties in the world and they
are under the impression that the design is as ancient as [king of Ireland] King Brian Boru. It gives the industry such a
Blair Urquhart, an expert on tartan who runs an online design company, said the new register will effectively allow a tartan
design to be copyrighted.
He said the industry has changed from even a decade ago.
"If you thought then of inventing a new tartan you would have Rob Roy turning in his grave," he said.
"There was a feeling that there were the clan tartans and that was it, and tradition was sacrosanct.
"There are now ones coming all the time and you want to make sure it's not the same as everyone else's."
IN WAR AND PEACE
THE word "tartan" refers to the way the thread is woven to make the cloth: each thread passed over two threads then under
two threads, and so on. The use of different coloured yarns crossing each other distinguishes tartans from checkered pattern
The oldest piece of tartan dates back to the 3rd century AD, found near Falkirk in an earthenware pot covering Roman coins.
After the Battle of Culloden in 1746, tartan was outlawed for 36 years, but its use was re-established by a later romantic
movement concerned with reviving Scotland's past.
Sir Walter Scott urged all Highland chiefs to attend dressed in tartan finery.
A further boost was given by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert who liberally decorated Balmoral Castle with tartan.
There are thought to be more than 4,500 unique tartans and about 150 new designs come forward each year. Football teams,
the mobile phone firm 02, the Hilton Hotel in Hong Kong and a number of whiskies all have their own tartan.
Alan Bean, the Apollo 12 pilot, left a piece of MacBean tartan on the moon in 1969. In 1942 Walt Disney designed the MacDuck
tartan for Scrooge MacDuck, Donald's Scottish uncle.
*According to several sources, the claims by these two nineteenth century charlatans, Charles and John Allen alias
John Sobieski Stuart and Charles Edward Stuart, that their father Thomas Allen was a legitimate son of Charles and Louise are without foundation.