A tartan is simply a cloth which features a pattern of interlocking stripes of various colours, which alongside the kilt, tartan has become one of the main symbols of Scotland and Scottish Culture. The word tartan itself comes from the Middle English 'tartane', which is probably derived in turn from the Old French ‘tiretaine’, for a cloth of a wool-linen blend, which itself comes from the Latin 'tyrius', for a type of cloth from the city of Tyrus or Tyre. However the Gaelic speaking Scots would have referred to tartan as 'breacan' themselves and modern Americans refer to tartan as 'plaid' with a silent 'i'.
The earliest example of 'Scottish' tartan known is the Falkirk Tartan, also known as the shepherd’s plaid, a small scrap of material showing a simple dark and light check, and dated to around 250 to 325 AD; although the oldest tartan ever found was in China.
(Of course the purists will point out that the location and dating of the Falkirk Tartan find means that it was of Pictish rather than Scottish origin.)
Unfortunately the exact origins of Scottish tartan are somewhat obscure. There are some sixteenth century references to a 'Heland Tartan' and references to the wearing of 'variegated garments, especially stripes' by the Gaelic inhabitants of the extreme north of Britain but dissapointibly little in the way of hard evidence. Indeed in 1581, George Buchanan in his History of Scotland was to write that "the majority now in their dress prefer a dark brown" as if to suggest that the fashion for colorful garments had long since past.
If tartan was indeed unfashionable in the sixteenth century it appears to have returned to favour in later years as records show. Of course, all fabric at that time was hand woven and lacked the consistency and uniformity of pattern made possible by machine weaving, but it is clear that there were regional variations in tartans with certain colours or pattern schemes being more common in one area than another, so that it was possible to hazard an educated guess as to where a Scotsman hailed from by reference to his dress.
There is nothing however, to suggest that there was any particular tartan being specifically identified with any one family or clan. This conclusion is of course, contrary to the 'received wisdom' that there are such things as clan tartans which represent the actual patterns worn by the Scottish clans throughout history as some kind of tribal uniform.
The notion of a 'clan tartan' is an entirely modern notion, whose origins are explained by the requirements of the British Army, the energetic marketing of a Strirlingshire weaver a pair of conmen, the imagination of Walter Scott and the enthusiasm of Queen Victoria.
The Disarming Act 1746
The Disarming Act of 1746, also known as the Dress Act or, to give the full title, ‘An Act for the more effectual disarming of the Highlands in Scotland and for more effectual securing of peace of the said Highlands; and for restraining the Use of the Highland Dress’ (and technically 19 Geo. II c.39) was passed in response to the Second Jacobite rebellion of 1745. The logic of the legislation was that, since the rebellion had been largely supported by highland Scots wearing kilts and tartan, forbidding anyone to ‘wear or put on Highland clothes including; the kilt, plaid and no tartan or party-coloured Plaid or stuff was to be use for Great Coats or for Upper Coats’, would strike a blow against the culture that supported such seditious concepts as Jacobitism.
There are suggestions that Charles Edward Stuart, the Bonnie Prince Charlie, who led and inspired the The '45 may well have encouraged the adoption of highland dress as a uniform for his army, which may well have been the inspiration behind the later proscription. Although it is not clear to what extent this is an accurate contemporary account or simply the product of later Jacobite romanticism.
As it happens the Act was somewhat limited in its operation and only affected "that part of North Britain called Scotland" and as far as the Hanoverian legislators were concerned Scotland lay to the north of a line from Dumbarton in the west to Perth in the east.
Nor did it apply to recruits serving in the British Army to the gentry or indeed to women in general, and these limitations were to have important consquences to the history of tartan.
William Wilson & Sons
Around the year 1765 one William Wilson set up a weaving business at Bannockburn, near Stirling. Fortunately for William Wilson his business was located in that 'part of North Britain' that was not Scotland as defined by the law, and therefore had no need to worry about the restrictions of the Disarming Act and was free to manufacture tartan cloth as he saw fit.
As previously noted, the Disarming Act also did not apply to the Army and with the creation of a number of Highland Regiments, there was a lucrative opportunity to supply the army with the necessary tartan cloth in the required standard colours and patterns. William Wilson & Sons as the first commercial, industrial producer of tartan material and so in the best position to capitalise on this market and indeed was to become the main supplier of military tartan and enjoyed a virtual monopoly for many years.
Although intially recruits were kitted out in what was then known as the 'Government Tartan', (what is now referred to as the Black Watch tartan), each regiment soon adopted its own specific tartan which William Wilson & Sons was only to happy to design and supply. As regiments tended to be recruited from one particular locality they tended to be associated with specific clans who were later to adopt the regimental tartan as their own. (Opinion does seem to be on the side of the idea that specific regimental tartans became clan or family tartans and not vice-versa.)
The Disarming Act was in any case repealed in 1782 and during the Napoleonic Wars in which the various Highland regiments featured prominently the wearing of tartan became a fashionable manner in which civilians could demonstrate their support for the armed forces. Naturally William Wilson was at hand to supply the demand and began designing new tartans, launching new patterns each year and as a marketing device began naming these patterns after various towns and districts or even the private individuals who had commissioned them, which were later gathered together in their in house reference manual known as the 1819 Key Pattern Book. There is however no evidence that any of the tartans produced by William Wilson & Sons had anything whatsoever to do with any ancient patterns or designs and simply represented whatever the company though they could sell at a particular point in time.
The Highland Society of London
The Highland Society of London was formed in 1778 as a gentleman's club for Scottish expatriates in the capital. Around the year 1815 one Colonel Alasdair MacDonnell decided that the Society should make a collection of tartans and wrote to the various clan chiefs urging them to submit a piece of their clan tartan.
Conceivably MacDonnell had just read Walter Scott's Waverley, published in 1814. In the novel, subtitled "'Tis Sixty Years Since", an historical romance loosely based on the events of the '45, the main character Waverley is decked-out in one point in what is referred to as "Mac-Ivor tartan" and later sternly reminded, "remember you have worn their tartan, and are an adopted son of their race"; indicating that Mr Scott, at least was of the opinion that each clan had its own tartan.
But whatever his inspiration MacDonnell, was clearly of the belief that each clan had a specific tartan and his intention was to somehow preserve the ‘original clan tartan’. As it happens most of the clan chiefs hadn't the faintest idea what he was talking about, if there ever had been a clan tartan they had long forgotten what it was. As it was many of them made an effort to satisfy Colonel MacDonnell's requirements; the head of the Robertson clan ran round Atholl trying to find someone who knew what the clan tartan looked like and received so many conflicting answers that he simply picked the tartan worn as a uniform by the local militia.
In fact most of the tartans submitted and registered with the Society turned out to be the designs of the aforementioned William Wilson & Sons and directly traceable back to their 1819 Key Pattern Book; for example the 'MacPherson Tartan' is in fact Wilsons ‘No.43, Kidd or Caledonia’ tartan. But at least this meant that when George IV made his royal visit to Edinburgh in 1822 and the various chiefs found themselves urged by Walter Scott to appear before the king wearing their 'true tartans' this meant that they had something to wear.
Even at the time this was recognised as being not quite historically accurate as one James Logan was to remark of the royal visit, that it was "combined to excite much curiosity among all classes, to ascertain the particular tartans and badges they were entitled to wear. This creditable feeling undoubtedly led to a result different from what might have been expected: fanciful varieties of tartan and badges were passed off as genuine".
This James Logan who published his The Scottish Gael or Celtic Manners, as Preserved among the Highlanders in 1831 which made the first serious attempt to record the history of Highland dress. However even Mr Logan's patient research did nothing more than record which of the patterns of the firm of William Wilson & Sons had now been adopted by which particular clan or locality, but by then of course, many such associations had been around for a generation or two and had acquired the sanctity of age.
The Vestiarum Scoticum and the Sobieski Stuarts
In the early 1840s two brothers appeared in Scotland calling themselves 'John Sobieski Stolberg Stuart' and 'Charles Edward Stuart'. They claimed to be the descendants of the Jacobite pretender Charles III, that is the Young Pretender or Bonnie Prince Charlie. They came up with the story that Charles's wife Louise of Stolberg had indeed given birth to a son, who had been brought up in secret for fear of assassination. The name of a Polish Countess called Maria Sobieska cropped up along the way and they were thus dubbed the Sobieski Stuarts.
It does not seem that there was any truth in this tale; their real names were John and Charles Hay Allan, and they were essentially a pair of con men who were sufficiently convincing to be able to fool a number of the Scottish gentry in particular one Lord Lovat, who set them up in a hunting lodge on his estate whilst they conducted their so-called research into Highland history.
Taking their cue from the enthusiasm generated by the Tartan Extravagnaza of 1822, in 1842 the Sobieski Stuarts published the results of their research in a book entitled Vestiarium Scoticum or 'Scottish Dress', the first book to be published with plates depicting tartan designs. The brothers claimed that the book was a copy of a medieval manuscript that had come into their hands, and that this manuscript detailed some seventy otherwise 'lost' clan tartans.
The book and the manuscript were as phoney as the brothers and the majority of the tartans included therein were entirely of their own invention. This did not stop the named clans from adopting and wearing the tartans ascribed to them and the very success of the book and led to a rash of similar publications which made similarly dubious associations between specific tartans and specific families.
The Tartan Business
At the time the Sobieski Stuarts published their fictitous volume, the English throne was occupied by Queen Victoria. Victoria, who most certainly had read Waverley together with the rest of Scott's ouevre, devloped a taste for things Scottish, or at least the romanticised vision of Scotland peddled by Mr Scott.
Victoria spent her honeymoon in Scotland and holidayed there most summers at Balmoral and is reputed to have insisted that every Scottish gentleman admitted to her presence wore his clan tartan. Which of course meant that every Scottish gentleman ensured that he possessed a 'clan tartan' even if it meant that it needed to be specially commissioned for the occasion.
This resulting 'cult of Balmorality' did much to promote the concept of tartan and its association with Scotland, particularly amongst the many descendants of expatriate Scots throughout North America and elsewhere who enthusiastically adopted tartan as a symbol of pride in their national origins. Consequently tartan is now big business in Scotland and widely recognised as being something almost uniquely Scottish, in the same league as shortbread and the Loch Ness monster.
There is both a Scottish Tartans Society which claims to be "the principal authority in the world on tartans" as well as a Scottish Tartans Authority which "the world's leading academic authority and promotional body for tartan". The former organisation arose from the office of the Lord Lyon, King of Arms, who regulates heraldry in Scotland and is concerned with the 'correct' association of clan and tartan, whilst the later is really a trade association representing the Scottish woollen mills that manufacture the fabric. Both organisations maintain competing registers of tartan patterns, respectively the Scottish Tartans World Register and the International Tartan Index.
The International Tartan Index for example, contains almost 4,000 entries, although a great number of these are of modern invention and include many examples of what are known as corporate tartans. It is perhaps understandable that British Airways Plc has its own corporate tartan, somewhat more surprising to discover that both the Suffolk County Police and the Devon Rural Skills Trust (whatever that is) feel compelled to do the same.
But to the disappointment of many tartan is simply a fabric pattern; there is no statutory regulation or protection of its 'Scottishness' at either the international or national level. There are no legal restrictions on the manufacture or wearing of any specific pattern; with the exception I believe, of the Balmoral tartan which belongs to the British royal family and which can only be worn with the monarch's permission. (Although what the penalty would be for transgressing this prohibition is unclear.)
Indeed the Irish have since got in on the act as well and have their own Irish County Tartansand the Irish National Tartan, there are Cornish and Manx tartans, and to cap it all, although it pains me to say so, there are even people who promote the concept of Welsh tartan so that the Evanses and the Davies' of this world indeed have their own family tartan.
Etymology of tartan from the The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition Copyright (Houghton Mifflin Company 2000)
Lady Catriona Fergusson Tartan History And Terminology
A Short History of Tartan
A Short History of Tartan
History of Scottish Tartan
Articles by Matthew Newsome on The Scottish Tartans Museum website