Tartan History 101 ~
Where Did It Come From,
Where Did It Go?


Summary of Tartan History
  • Defining Scottish tartan
  • Sept vs. Sett
  • Early Tartan Weavers
  • Fancy Tartans
  • Dyes and Patterns with Samples
  • Culloden’s Clan Badges vs. Tartans
  • The Disarming Act
  • Highland Regimental Dress
  • Weaving Tartans for the Regiments
  • The Proscription Act Repealed
  • Waterloo ~ Where the Regiments Are Distinguished
  • Clans Claim Their Own Tartans
  • King George Visits Edinburgh
  • A Celtic Hallucination
~~~~~
From the beginning of tartan history, there has been one separate and recognizable distinction between the Highlanders of Scotland and all other people.

The basis of this distinction is the tartan fabric worn by the Highlanders and the clothing sewn from the fabric. From ancient times, through the Regiments and The Disarming Act, continuing with the reigns of King George and Queen Victoria, a “Highland Love Affair” had developed.

Defining what is “Scottish” is elusive. Defining what determines ownership of a clan tartan is a controversy that goes back through the centuries of tartan history.

The clans of the Highlands were separate and distinct from everyone else in Great Britain ~ and the tartan simply emphasized that distinction.

Sept vs. Sett in Tartan History

The tartan pattern is called the sept. This is the weaving pattern of the colored yarns, which creates the unique patterns of tartan history.

Tartan Weavers Didn’t Weave Patterns for Specific Clans

Prior to the Battle of Culloden and the rise of Highland Regiments within the British Army, tartans were not named and the patterns and colors were not consistent.

The various clans did not claim their “own” clan tartans. Put simply, the Highlanders of old selected their tartans as we select our clothing today ~ if they took a fancy to a certain color or design, they chose it.

Nor did they limit themselves to wearing only one sept at a time. In old portraits, many of the Highlanders were wearing as many different tartans as they could pile on at one time.

Over the last three centuries, tartans have begun to be associated with specific clans and families. Within a clan or family, they often claim more than one clan tartan. Most clans have a modern tartan, an ancient tartan, a hunting tartan, and a reproduction tartan in tartan history..

Many also have a special clan tartan for their women. These tartans use the clan tartan colors and weaving patterns, but with more white. These are usually reserved for the women in the clan. The exceptions are men wearing these for competitive dancing or evening wear.

Specific surnames within a clan can also have their own separate tartan from the rest of the clan.

Fancy Tartans of Tartan History

Non-family or non-clan groups also have tartans. These are called ‘fancy tartans’. These have been designed for a district, which means a province, a state, or country. Many organizations and corporations have their own tartans.

A tartan can be designed for an event, even a wedding. In 1999, Lochcarron of Scotland designed MacIllineum for the turn of the century New Year’s Eve celebrations.

They also created New York City for the 2002 Tartan Day Celebration in New York. It was to commemorate the tragedy on 9/11 and celebrate other aspects of living in the Big Apple.

Other tartans have been created by the fashion industry for clothing and home furnishings.

Dyes & Patterns in Tartan History

Originally, the fabric was woven in the homes on handlooms. As the Highland society developed, the dying and weaving of tartan became a trade practiced by artisans.

When a weaver began a new piece of cloth, the dyes on hand determined the colors to be woven. The dyes were from plants and varied from one batch to the next. There was no consistency.

The patterns were the weaver’s choice. The mood, the artistry, and the ability of the weaver determined the intricacy of the sett.

Like any other art form, there were artisans as well as strictly utilitarian weavers. The septs ranged from simple two color weaves to elaborate pattern and color combinations.

Two fairly plain tartans are Moncrieffe Clan Tartan #WR963 and Raeburn Clan Tartan #WR1275. The weavers chose fairly plain patterns and colors. Either they sought a strictly utilitarian fabric or they weren’t terribly creative in their designs.

Moncrieffe Clan Tartan #WR963


Tartan History Raeburn WR1275


Campbell Clan Tartan #WR1 shows a more complicated weaving pattern, but still only using three colors. This was worn by the Black Watch, as early as 1725, and by the Campbell Highlander Regiment, formed after the Disarming Act.

Tartan History Campbell WR1


The Munro Ancient Artifact Tartan #WR458, found on the battlefield after Culloden, also has only three colors, but is a much more colorful weave.

Tartan History Munro WR458


The oldest known tartan is the Lennox District Tartan #WR935. It’s quite a complicated weaving pattern and the colors are beautiful.

Tartan History Lennox WR935


In 1893, D. W. Stewart reproduced this tartan from a portrait of the Countess of Lennox, dating from the 16th century. The Countess of Lennox was the mother of Lord Darnley, Henry Stuart. He was the cousin and second husband of Mary Queen of Scots.

Another tartan with a unique tartan history is Barbie's Plaid #2695. When I first saw the listing, I thought, “Oh my, Mattel has created a tartan for Barbie. Wouldn’t you know it? I wonder what Ken wears?”

Then I went to the tartan and did I get a surprise. I was expecting a ‘Malibu Barbie’ in pink and turquoise. The tartan is very colorful ~ both in it’s sett and it’s history. The tartan was from The Napoleonic Wars, c. 1799-1815. It was used as a funeral shroud and was found with the body in a peat bog.

Barbies Plaid #2695


Tartans had been in Scotland since the 1400’s, but no individual clan tartan had ever been claimed by any one clan prior to 1822. The Highlanders simply didn’t use their tartans to identify clan affiliation as the clans do today.

Another reason to question the use of clan tartans before the Proscription Act, is the feuding and hostilities between clans. “Remembering the continuous clan feuds and the consequent state of more or less perpetual hostilities, a recognizable clan plaid would have been a positive danger to the wearer when outside his own territory.”

John Telfer Dunbar, History of Highland Dress, 1962 edition, quoting Dr. A.E. Haswell Miller, the Keeper of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, November 1947, Scotland’s Magazine, “The Truth About the Tartan”.

Clan Identification
By Plants & Cockades

At the Battle of Culloden in 1746, there are recorded situations showing that clan identification was by means of plants, not clan tartans. Clansmen wore a specific plant on their bonnet (hat) to readily showed their clan affiliation.

Many of the Campbells were loyal to the King of England. There were also Campbells among the Jacobite rebels. One report states the English soldiers could tell which were Campbells because they all had a sprig of Bog Myrtle on their bonnets. No mention was made about the men wearing clan tartans.

The only distinguishing difference was the insignia on their bonnets. The Jacobites wore a white cockade, emulating Prince Charlie. Those loyal to the king wore red or yellow crosses.

emulating Prince Charlie. Those loyal to the king wore red or yellow crosses.

After the battle, the English were bayoneting the wounded. As they prepared to impale one soldier, he said, “I’m a Campbell.” Their reply was, “We couldn’t tell. You’d lost your bonnet.”

He had to have been wearing a tartan or they would not have been bayoneting him for a Highlander. But he wasn’t wearing a clan tartan. Without his bonnet, they couldn’t see his sprig of bog myrtle to identify him as a Campbell. Nor could they see whether he had a cross or cockade on his bonnet.

The Disarming Act and Tartan History

The clan tartans as we see them today developed after the Battle of Culloden. The Act of Parliament of 1746, was an attempt to bring the Highland Clans under subjection to the King of England.

It was also called the Disarming Act, with its official description being

“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.”

While in effect, men and boys could not wear or put on Highland clothing, including the kilt, plaid cloth, or tartan [Tartan being defined as party-coloured Plaid] or stuff for great coats or upper coats. Nor could they play the bagpipes, which were classified as a Weapon of War. Even wearing white ribbons or a white cockade like Prince Charlie had worn was forbidden.

The act only applied to “that part of North Britain called Scotland”, which had been defined in an earlier Act after the 1715 Rising. This line ran from Perth to Dumbarton and did not affect the Lowlands or Border areas.

This line was not only geographical, it was also cultural. North of the line were the Gaelic Highlanders. South of the line were the Scots Lowlanders.

England viewed the Lowlanders as supportive of their government and civilized. The Highlanders were viewed as rebellious, wild, and in need of taming.

The act did not apply to men serving the King of England in Highland Regiments, the gentry, the sons of gentry, or women.

Highland Regimental Dress
and Tartan History

The uniform of the Highland Regiments is the link between the Highlands before the Battle of Culloden and the years after the Proscription Act was repealed in 1782.

During those years, no one wore tartan in the Highlands. Some men did wear plain colored kilts. Being caught in either could be penalized with fines, imprisonment, deportation to the colonies, or death.

The only exception was the Highland Regiments. These companies had carried out the duties of military police from 1667.

Sheep, then deer were displacing the Highlanders. They were so restricted there was limited means of securing a living. Many left willingly for the colonies. Others joined the Regiments as a means of legally wearing their tartans and playing the bagpipes.

Between 1757 and 1763, nine Highland Regiments were raised. From 1740 to 1815, over one hundred battalions were raised in the Highlands.

In 1766, William Pitt spoke before Parliament, defending the men in the Highland Regiments. He said, “I sought for merit wherever it was to be found…and found it in the mountains of the north…. These men were brought to combat on your side; they served with fidelity as they fought with valour and conquered for you in every part of the world.”

John Telfer Dunbar, History of Highland Dress, 1962 edition.

Weaving Tartan for the Regiments
in Tartan History

There were not enough weavers to make the cloth needed for the legal military Highland Regiments.The market for tartan was expanding in the Lowlands.

One weaver, a William Wilson, started a family weaving business in Bannockburn, near Stirling. This was south of the boundary line.

The military needed large quantities of tartan with standardized colors and patterns. William Wilson understood this need and sought to fill it. He devised a set of standard colors and patterns, which grew over the years as the popularity of tartans grew.

As he collected tartan patterns, he gave them names and after 1750 began using towns and districts for pattern names. Around 1800, clan names began to be applied to clan tartans.

In 1819, using their in-house reference system, the Wilson’s compiled a manual, 1819 Key Pattern Book.

The Proscription Act Repealed
and Tartan History

In 1782, when the Proscription Act was repealed, the Highlander was no longer bound to the unmanly dress of the Lowlander.
  • In 1782, a Hampshire innkeeper brought this complaint before a Justice of the Peace. He reported that four Highland officers were quartered with him. “…being brawny, handsome fellows, he began to be jealous of his wife, who was not very old, and fearful for the virtue of his daughters; the Highlanders being in their own country dress, the females could not keep their eyes off them.”
    John Telfer Dunbar, History of Highland Dress, 1962 edition.
  • In the 1790’s, wives and daughters adapted the regimental uniforms of their husband’s and father’s. On into the 1800’s, civilian fashion was based largely on military dress.
  • One example was a dress cut in the fashion of the day, with a gathered short ruffle just below the calf, and a pleated tartan to the hemline.

Waterloo ~
Where the Regiments Are Distinguished

After 1815 and The Battle of Waterloo, the victories and heroism of the Highland Regiments did much to popularize Highland dress. From Paris, Sir Walter Scott wrote home stating that the French were enamored with the dress of the Highlanders.

At the request of the Czar of Russia, nine men of the 42nd, 79th, and 92nd Regiments paraded before him in the Elyseé Palace. He was fascinated with the hose, gaiters and legs of one sergeant. After pinching the sergeant’s skin, “…thinking I wore something under my kilt…” the sergeant lifted up his kilt for the Czar, “…so that he might not be deceived.”

John Telfer Dunbar, History of Highland Dress, 1962 edition.
People today are still fascinated by what’s under that kilt!

Clans Claim Their Own Tartans
as Part of Tartan History

The Highland Society of London was formed about the time the Disarming Act was repealed in 1782. The society was for Highlanders living in London. They hoped to promote and preserve Highland traditions.

Around 1815, the Highland Society began urging the various Clan Chiefs to submit a piece of their clan tartan to the society’s collection. The society hoped to preserve the tartan information before it was lost in history.

Many of the Clan Chiefs had no idea what the society meant by ‘Clan Tartan’. In most cases, they simply selected a piece of tartan they owned, added their seal of authentication, and submitted it to the society.

Most of the clan tartans submitted had been woven and designed by the Wilson Company. Therefore, they could not have existed before Wilson began weaving around 1765.

King George Visits Edinburgh
and Tartan History

In 1822, King George IV of England announced a royal visit to Edinburgh and wrote a whole new chapter of tartan history. No English king had visited Scotland for 150 years. A gala event was staged, prompting the second upsurge of interest in Highland clothing. Tartan was seen everywhere during the visit.

Sir Walter Scott had written romantic novels, such as Ivanhoe and Rob Roy, where he told of a picturesque people in the Highlands. Scott had also popularized the Highlander Regiments in the reports sent back from Paris during The Napoleon Wars.

Scott was chosen to manage the event and urged the Scots to turn out, in their ‘true’ tartans to honour their king. His challenges were many ~

  • First, he had to fulfill the King’s expectations of viewing his subjects of the Highlands, in their native dress.

  • At the same time, the Highland Chiefs required a great deal of diplomacy and tact as Scott sought their co-operation.

  • “Butcher” Cumberland was despised for his actions after the Battle of Culloden. He was the uncle of King George. The Highlanders were being asked to parade before his nephew.

  • The chiefs were being asked to dress their men in their clan tartans, all ‘plaided and plumed’. No such tartans existed, except on the registers of the Highland Society of London.

  • Added to this, the chiefs were then expected to train their men to ‘perform’ as the picturesque Highland clans of old as portrayed in Scott’s novels.

Young people wishing to emulate the Highlanders of Scott’s novels formed Celtic Clubs. Acting under Scott, they promoted the revival of Highland costumes and traditions and establishing tartan history.

Similar to the response to the Highland Society of London’s request for clan tartans, the Clan Chiefs and the people of Scotland complied. Each chief chose a tartan, claiming it as belonging to his clan, with many new designs being passed off as ‘authentic’. Once adopted, they simply became the ‘authentic’ tartans and badges of the clans ~ thus tartan history.

A Celtic Hallucination in Tartan History

One observer of the event described the result as a “motley array” and a Celtic “hallucination”.

This is King George, donning Highland attire to appear before his subjects in Edinburgh. The caricature shows the exaggeration. The portrait was toned down.

Images courtesy wikipedia.com


Today, dressing in such a manner is called brigadoonery. Tartans designed with a complete lack of taste, no sense of history, and incorrect weaving patterns are called bumbee and should have no place in tartan history.

With this event, a Highland frenzy began. The Highland Tartan became the Scottish National Dress. And the Highlanders were no longer thought of as barbaric clansmen ~ they were the Scottish nation they were the Scottish nation with a tartan history.

Humbug Tartans?

Sir Francis J. Grant, Lord Lyon King of Arms, speaking in 1948, called the assigning of clan names to the tartans “humbug”. He stated that present day tartans were not old, but only went back to the reign of George IV and his royal visit to Edinburgh.
  • The relics of tartan found on the battlefield at Culloden bear no resemblance to any known modern tartan.
  • When you review the poetry and songs prior to 1747, there are no references to clan tartans or clan setts.
  • “To claim special entitlement to a tartan in the same manner as heraldic arms is certainly absurd…previous to the end of the eighteenth century there are no suggestions or documentation of the 'labeling' of clan tartans as family badges. "
John Telfer Dunbar, History of Highland Dress, 1962 edition.

If we consider 150 years as a sufficient time to create a tradition, the tartan registrations that took place, prior to King George’s visit, are a done deal ~ they’re tartan history. Their appeal to the clan and national pride has made the clan tartans “THE” clan tartans.

Victoria & Albert’s Love Affair with
Scotland Spreads Around the World

The next big impetus in ‘clannishness’ was the coronation of Queen Victoria and her love of all things Scottish. She and Prince Albert spent a lot of time at their Balmoral castle. There was tartan displayed everywhere, including draping the ceilings.

This love affair with “things Scottish” has continued on through today, spreading around the world. You can find Scottish Societies from Hawaii to Africa. Many countries have designed their own tartans. Highland Games abound from Hong Kong and Germany.

And the official Tartan Register in Scotland has over 2800 registered tartans, with more being added each year. A few of the latest to be added are Amnesty International, and the Diana Princess of Wales Memorial Commemorative Tartan #WR2515.

As the old saying goes, “The skies the limit.” There is only a future for the tartan industry as it continues to evolve, just as it has for these hundreds of years.


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