In many countries today, the pattern of interlocking stripes called a tartan is often mistakenly known as “plaid.”
Plaide actually comes from the Gaelic word for a blanket, and is specifically used in the context of Highland dress to refer to a large length of material. The original kilt was known as the “belted plaid” and consisted of a length of cloth (basically a large blanket) that was gathered and belted at the waist. The plaids were most often made from a tartan cloth, and so the confusion between the two terms is understandable.
Tartan refers to the pattern of interlocking stripes, running in both the warp and weft in the cloth (horizontal and vertical), or any representation of such a woven design in other media (printed, painted, or otherwise rendered). Typically today one thinks of “clan tartans” — that is, tartan designs that represent certain Scottish clans and families. While this is typical, it was not always so.
Tartan has an ancient history. The earliest known tartan in Scotland can be dated to the third or fourth century AD. In other parts of the world, tartan cloth has been found dating to approximately 3000 BC. Virtually everywhere there was woven cloth, people created tartan designs. Yet only in Scotland have they been given such cultural significance. Why?
Originally, tartan designs had no names, and no symbolic meaning. All tartan cloth was hand woven, and usually supplied locally. While it may have been true that certain colors or pattern motifs were more common in some areas than others, no regulated or defined “clan tartan” system ever existed. Tartan, in general, however came to be extremely popular in Scottish Highland culture. So much so that by the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, tartan clothing is seen to be characteristic of Highland dress.
Tartan was so identified with the Highland Gael that after the Battle of Culloden in 1746, the British government, in the Act of Proscription, forbade the wearing of tartan (among other things) in the Highlands, in an attempt to suppress the rebellious Scottish culture.
By the end of the eighteenth century, large scale commercial weavers had taken up the production of tartan. The most notable of these is the firm of William Wilson & Sons of Bannockburn. This firm was begun sometime around 1765 and became quite successful, being the sole supplier of tartan cloth to the Highland Regiments. Because they were producing cloth in such large quantities, they developed standard colors and patterns early on. At first they assigned numbers to identify the patterns, but soon began to give them names. These not only included names of Highland clans, but also town names, and some fancy names to boot. The names were not meant to be representative in any way — they were there as a sales tool, to identify one tartan pattern from another.
In Wilsons’ Key Pattern Book of 1819, some 250 tartans are included, about 100 of which were given names. These were not only tartans of Wilsons’ designs, but patterns that they had collected from all over Scotland.
In the early nineteenth century, the idea began to gel that the names borne by the tartans represented actual connections to these clans. Scots expatriates who grew up outside of the Highland line began to get interested in preserving Highland culture. It was assumed that tartans had always been named and these represented actual affiliations. In 1815 the Highland Society of London wrote to the clan chiefs asking them to submit samples of their clan tartans. Many chiefs had no idea what “their clan tartan” was supposed to be and so either wrote to tartan suppliers such as Wilsons, or asked the older men of their clan if they recalled any particular tartan being worn.
In 1822 King George IV visited Edinburgh, in a veritable “tartan fest” partly organized by Sir Walter Scot. All the clan chiefs were asked to come out to greet the King in their “proper clan tartan.” Again, many did not have a clan tartan. Many new tartans were no doubt created, or renamed for the occasion. From this point on, however, the idea was firmly established that in order to even be a proper tartan, it had to be a named tartan.
The story of the development of tartan lore over the course of the nineteenth century is long and complicated, and beyond the scope of this brief introduction. But with the blessing of the clan chiefs, the tradition evolved by the end of the nineteenth century that tartan was representative.
Though clan tartans are the most well known, tartans can represent many different things. Some tartans represent families, towns, district, corporations, individuals, events — you name it! What makes a tartan “official” or “authentic” is not age or antiquity, but whether it has the approval of the governing body of what that tartan represents. If a clan chief, or a state’s legislature, or the CEO of a company says this is the official tartan, it is so, whether the tartan is two or two hundred years old.
A clan tartan is one that represents your clan. It is not necessarily the tartan that your ancestors would have worn hundreds of years ago. Highlanders traditionally would have selected any tartan they likes from the available sources. You are still free to do the same! However, it is a fact that tartans today have meaning, and when you wear a tartan you are identifying yourself with what that tartan represents, be it a clan, district, or what have you. Most today would of course select a tartan that they feel identifies with some part of your heritage. While if there is a tartan for your surname, that would be an obvious choice, there is nothing wrong with wearing a tartan for another branch of your family.
Commercial suppliers today typically produce a range of some 500 – 700 tartan designs, enough to satisfy most of the requests for tartan patterns. However, there are well over 7000 unique tartans on record.