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Tartan History

Scottish Tartan Traditions

According to the Scottish Register of Tartans, a tartan is a design which is capable of being woven consisting of two or more alternating coloured stripes which combine vertically and horizontally to form a repeated checkered pattern. This pattern is known as the sett.

Tartan is traditionally woven using wool, but nowadays there are many other materials that are being used in the process of making a kilt, such as poly-viscose, leather or even denim. The word tartan did not refer to the pattern or the notion of kinship initially, but rather to the type of cloth which Highlanders were wearing, in the kilt form as well.

Tartan is recognised as a symbol of the Scottish people and their culture. It's a constantly evolving part of Scottish history, as well as a worldwide known piece of fashion.

One of the first recorded mentions of Tartan was in 1538 when King James V purchased "three ells of Heland Tartans" for his wife to wear. And in 1587, Hector Maclean (heir of Duart) paid feu duty with sixty ells of cloth "white, black and green"- the tradition colours of the Maclean hunting tartan. An eyewitness account of the Battle of Killecrankie in 1689 describes "McDonells men in their triple stripe” but the first positive proof of the existence of what we now call ‘Tartan’, was in a German woodcut of about 1631 which is thought to show Highland soldiers - no doubt mercenaries - in the army of Gustavus Adolphus and wearing a clearly identified tartan philamhor - the great kilt.

The next important milestone in the history of tartan was the 1745 rebellion ending with the Battle of Culloden in 1746 and the following genocide in the highlands. The romantic Young Pretender, Charles Edward Stuart - Bonnie Prince Charlie - ranged his inferior Jacobite forces of Highlanders against the Duke of Cumberland's Government forces. The Jacobite army was organised into Clan regiments and as historian Jamie Scarlett explains "here we have the first hint of the use of tartan as a clan uniform." To understand how this battle proved to be the catalyst for the great Clan Tartan myth, we must look at the lifestyle and the terrain in which many of Scotland's major families or clans lived at that time.

Tartan Weavers, olden day artisans

Each area or community grouping would doubtless have, as one of its artisans, a weaver. He - they were invariably men - would no doubt produce the same tartan for those around him and that tartan would initially become what we now call a District Tartan - one worn by individuals living in close geographical proximity such as glen or strath. By its very nature, that community would be one huge extended family that soon became identified by its tartan which it wore, not to differentiate it from its neighbours in the next glen - but because that is what its community weaver produced! It was one short step from there to connect that tartan to the name of the wearers.

All weavers depended very much on local plants for their dyes so the locality of the weaver might well have some bearing on the colours of the tartan that he produced. If he lived on the west coast of Scotland, Gipsywort would give him lettuce green, seaweeds would give him flesh colour and seashore whelks might provide purple. If he lived inland, then he would undoubtedly look to the moors for his colours: heather treated in different ways would give him yellow, deep green and brownish orange; blaeberries (the favourite food of the grouse) would provide purples, browns and blues; over 20 different lichens would give him a wide range of subtle shades. If he was affluent or dyeing and weaving for a customer of some substance, then he would seek more exotic imported colours of madder, cochineal, woad and indigo.

If the concept of clan tartans was born at Culloden it wasn't universally known - in that battle, there was frequently no way of differentiating friend from foe by the tartan he wore. The only reliable method was to see with what colour ribbon - sprig – a bit of plant - each combatant had adorned his bonnet which, would differ to show the affiliation to ones Clan. This represented in Scottish Heraldry today as a ‘Plant Badge’ that would be worn by a follower to show loyalty to ones Chief. There is a contrary view that this was caused, not by the lack of clan tartans, but by the Highlander's propensity for discarding his cumbersome philamhor (belted plaid) before charging into the fray.

After Culloden and the following genocide that occurred throughout the Highlands, the Government was determined to destroy the Clan System and raised an Act of Parliament known as the “The Disarming Act” one of these laws was to make the wearing of tartan a penal offence for the next 36 years until 1782. This proscription however applied only to common Highland men - not the upper echelons of Highland society, not to Lowland Scots and not to women. But most importantly, it did not apply to the Highland regiments that were being formed in the Government army.

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