One of the most distinctive and recognizable elements of Scottish culture is the wearing of clan tartans: displaying your individual family heritage with a specific plaid pattern. But people are often surprised to learn that this tradition is a relatively recent one, which came into its own in the Victorian era. Let’s take a look at the colorful history of tartan!
Today, Clan MacEwen claims a tartan of blue, green, and black plaid with accents of red and yellow, and it’s this stately and colorful pattern with which Argyll solicitor Hector Macewan has bedecked his office, and is the plaid sported by Myrtle and Miss Judson on the cover of Myrtle Means, and Opportunity.
Despite its venerable name, the Scottish Register of Tartans is a very young entity, indeed, established in 2009. Before that, some tartan information was collected and codified by the office of the Lord Lyon King of Arms, the chief heraldic officer of Scotland (in charge of coats of arms for noble families, etc). But clan tartan affiliation is largely a matter of informal tradition—and a fairly modern practice, at that.
Tartan itself—meaning the design of criss-crossed multicolored threads (aka plaid)—is undeniably ancient. It is one of the earliest forms of color patterns in woven cloth, and probably originated in China around 3000 years ago, although weavers throughout the world invented the notion independently. The word tartan comes from medieval French and referred simply to a type of woolen fabric, not the pattern. The word plaid, however, is Scottish, and referred to the garment worn by medieval Scots, not the fabric.
As local weavers across Scotland established their own styles, regional variations gradually emerged, based on the colors of wool and dyes available and popular in the area. But it was not until much, much later that clans—the term means “family”—became affiliated with specific, codified tartan patterns. One of the first groups readily identified by their tartan was not, in fact, a clan at all.
During the Jacobite conflicts of the early 1700s, the British army mustered soldiers from clans loyal to the British to suppress further rebellion in Scotland. Officially termed the Highland Regiment, they came to be known as the Black Watch from their uniforms of dark green and black kilts, and from their duty to watch out for discontented Jacobites.
After the final Jacobite defeat in 1745, the British buckled down on quashing any signs of Scottish discontent—which meant attempting to eliminate unique aspects of Scottish culture, especially traditional Scottish Highland dress. The wearing of kilts, plaids, and tartan (among other things) was outlawed in 1746 by the Act of Proscription, leaving the Black Watch soldiers the only Scots permitted to dress in tartan.
That from and after the first day of August, One thousand, seven hundred and forty-seven, no man or boy within that part of Britain called Scotland, other than such as shall be employed as Officers and Soldiers in His Majesty’s Forces, shall, on any pretext whatever, wear or put on the clothes commonly called Highland clothes… and that no tartan or party-coloured plaid… shall be used… For the first offence, shall be liable to be imprisoned for 6 months, and on the second offence, to be transported to any of His Majesty’s plantations beyond the seas, there to remain for the space of seven years.
Despite protests from Scots both powerful and ordinary, for an entire generation in the 18th century, tartan went into hiding. But when it returned, it came back in a big, big way! And it shows no signs of going underground again. The Act of Proscription (which wasn’t terribly effective, anyway), was repealed in 1782. The Black Watch’s military exploits expanded well beyond Scotland, fighting for the Empire around the world. Their reputation for bravery helped ignite British enthusiasm for Scotland in general and tartan in particular.
What really brought tartan back into mainstream life, ironically, was a visit from the British monarch. When George IV visited Scotland in 1822, he was the first reigning British monarch in nearly 200 years to set foot on Scottish soil. To drum up local enthusiasm, Scottish author Sir Walter Scott organized a celebratory pageant to welcome the king, reimagining a heroic Old Scotland for everyone—Scottish, English, Highland, and Lowland—to take pride in. To that end, His Majesty commissioned an ensemble worthy of a true Scottish Monarch.
The 60-year-old George was a little uneasy with Highland Dress, however; baring his knees to his subjects was unthinkable, so he quite famously wore a pair of pink tights with his kilt. (Sadly not included in the portrait above.)
As is the way of all great social events throughout time, people wanted to know what to wear to meet their king—and Sir Walter, and all kinds of clothiers, had the answer: plaid, plaid, plaid and plaid. And a little more plaid. In the wake of the years of Proscription, this must have been overwhelming, and Scots worldwide suddenly embraced anything and everything tartan.
By now, the notion that Scots had always proclaimed their clan affiliation through the wearing of specific tartans was starting to take root—and merchants did nothing to dissuade this. The Highland Society of London had begun collecting and categorizing tartans a few years earlier, further entrenching the notion.
The tartan trend took over 19th century fashion, well beyond Scotland. Since exclusivity sells, this helped inspire Scottish manufacturers to establish the “true” Scottish plaids. With their cultural heritage suddenly in vogue, people of Scottish descent all over the world embraced the idea of having their very own clan tartans—whether it was strictly accurate or not.
This atmosphere fostered one of the oddest moments in tartan history. In 1829, two brothers from Argyll claimed they were the grandsons of Bonnie Prince Charlie, and that they had a 16th century document establishing the origins of clan tartans—making it by far the oldest such account on record. Although many expert antiquarians of the time dismissed the work as a forgery, the Stuart Hay brothers nonetheless published their account in 1842’s Vestiarium Scotticum (Scottish Dress), displaying the supposed “official” tartans of some 75 Scottish clans. Many of these tartans were previously unheard-of, and are now largely considered to be the inventions of the illustrator. Scientific examination eventually revealed that the document had been chemically aged and was almost certainly a fabrication (no more authentic than the brothers’ claim to royal blood).
Despite this—and the efforts of textile historians ever since to debunk the book—many of these tartans are still accepted as “true” clan tartans today. (You can see the included tartans reproduced at the Wikipedia link above.)
The Vestiarium Scottium was just too appealing—not just to people eager to claim and proclaim their Scottishness, but to merchants eager to exploit the explosive 19th century popularity in tartan everything. It allowed people of Scottish descent to set themselves off from “ordinary plaids” filling the Victorian marketplace, and to identify themselves and each other as True Scots.
Thanks in part to rigid 19th century rules dictating every aspect of fashion etiquette, a sense that there is a “Proper Highland Dress”—correct or incorrect ways to wear your clan’s tartan and elements of clothing—emerged, and has stuck fast in some circles today. But former Lord Lyon King of Arms Sir Malcom Innes of Edingight dismissed this:
There are no specific laws governing the wearing or usage of tartan other than those of courtesy and respect for a national institution. Purists will argue angrily on topics such as kilt lengths and quote a number of rather extraordinary theories derived from patently eccentric Victorian sources. Be that as it may, the fact remains that tartan is one of the most brilliant decorative concepts, and [I] entirely endorse its use in all kinds of situations. —Scottish Clan and Family Names, 1987
As for Mr. Macewan’s beloved MacEwen tartan in Myrtle, Means, and Opportunity? Edinburgh clothier Kinloch Anderson, experts in Highland Dress since 1850, tell us the tartan dates from around 1880—just in time to furnish his office in the beautiful blue plaid.
Myrtle, Means, and Opportunity will be here—tartans and all—next week, and I encourage everyone to don your favorite plaids to celebrate!