A True Tale of Tartan

A six letter word often invoking the scene of a kilt waring, muscle bound highlander with wild red hair and rugged features, striding across the high pass of a remote highland glen, surrounded by atmospheric mist, with dramatic mountain scenery in the background.  A Braveheart.

But what is Tartan, and is it Scottish?

Tartan is the name given to a pattern of criss-cross horizontal and vertical stripes in a multitude of colours.  However tartans can be one colour,  and although tartans are now recognised as being Scottish, that has not always been the case. The first appearance of tartan arises in the Celtic populations of Europe between 8 -6 BC.  Tartan like leggings were found on the ‘Cherchen Man’ a 3000 year old mummy found in Western

China. Tartan, like the Scots race is widely travelled. The first recorded finding of a Scottish tartan occurred in the 3rd century AD with the discovery of the ‘Falkirk tartan’ which was a simple check design in natural light and dark wool.

Tartan in Scotland, in modern times is closely associated with Clans or families and any visitor to Scotland will find a range of products from postcards to tea-towels detailing the tartans attributable to each family name and its history.   However evidence would suggest that this development is relatively recent.  In1703 Martin Martin in his book ‘ A Description of the Western Isles of Scotland’ notes that the colours and patterns of the tartans was linked to location , with separate islands having different tartans. His observations relate to, at that time remote archipelago of islands on the West Coast were the development of distinctive patterns forming tartans was not related to family names or clans.

In 1725 the Government Force of the Highland Independent Companies introduced a standardised tartan for their soldiers. This situation was recognised when the regiment became the Black Watch in 1737 and the regimental tartan worn by all the soldiers of the regiment the distinctive Black Watch tartan.  It would appear likely that it was this development which inspired individual clans  to desiring their own tartan so that members could be identified.

Following the failure of the Jacobite Rebellion in 1745, rigorous measures were introduced in order to prevent a further attempt to reinstate the Stewart line to the throne of England, Scotland and Wales.  One of these was the banning of tartan by virtue of the Dress Act of 1746.  Thus tartan became an illegal substance, with the exception of the Highland Regiments of the British Army who were still allowed to wear the tartan as part of their uniforms.  The Act was finally repealed and after thirty seven years of notoriety tartan became legal garb again.  The effect of the act served as a catalyst to motivate Scottish families to trace and celebrate their history.  Discover their original clans, location and related tartan. So despite the ban, tartan remerged with force.  Particular patterns of tartan began to be associated with particular clans.

When George the IV made a royal visit to Scotland in 1822, this increased interest in Scotland as did the novels of Sir Walter Scot.  On eight April 1815 the Lord Lyon King of Arms began to record, and register, at the request of the Clan Chief, tartans relating to particular clans.  However it is not only Clan Chiefs who can apply to have their own tartan. Individuals, families, corporations and events can create and apply to have their own tartan.  Football teams, airlines, hotels, individuals who recognise the versatility and heritage of this unique product have obtained and patented their own unique designs. ‘The Burberry Check’ was first designed in the early 1920’s and is known around the world.  Whilst anyone can wear the tartan it is protected by trademark law and only the trademark holder can prevent others selling the tartan.   Tartan, in no way restricted to clothing is infinitely versatile as a distinctive identification on endless amounts of product.

Tartan went through a rebellious phase at the end of the 1970’s forming an integral part of the punk fashion.  Famous designers such as Vivienne  Westwood, Alexander McQueen and Thom Browne have embraced tartan in dramatic checks and vibrant colours on the catwalks. As fashions develop and change, tartan has remained a constant.

Over the centuries, tartan has developed from the subtle patterns, created from natural  dyes seen on checked garments worn by  Highland crofters  during the day converting to warm blankets to provide

covers  to sleep at night. Worn by kings. Gracing soldiers uniforms and catwalk models.  Punks and aristocrats, we can only look forward to seeing what the future holds for tartan.




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