Tartan is a colourful woven wool cloth which consists of bold colours and criss-crossing horizontal and vertical stripes. It is iconic to Scotland and we doubt there is anyone who would not recognise the heritage fabric, especially when the kilt is such a talking point for visitors to the country, and men in kilts, in particular, are a topic of interest! Regularly seen on Highland dancers, bagpipe players, the Queen's Guard and Scottish grooms on their wedding day, tartan is a symbol of Scotland and proudly worn to celebrate the history of our amazing culture.
Here we bring you a short lesson in Scottish tartan, where we will touch on the history of the cloth and how it is used today. Read on to discover everything about tartan…
A bit of tartan history
Tartan originated in the Highlands, dating back to the 15th century, where the tartan cloth was part of the everyday garb of the Highlander. What we know to be a kilt today, was a 5-metre length of cloth which they draped around themselves and tied with a belt – not as complex as the modern kilt. Men mainly wore their tartan this way, whilst the woman would wear a square of cloth draped over their shoulders, or a bonnet tied under the chin. Early tartans were a lot simpler than the more complex patterns we see today, quite often featuring two or three colours. The locals to each area would use local plants, berries and mosses to dye the wool, thus creating unique patterns, and these would then become their clan tartan – relative to each area. Clans would form their identity around their tartan, and to this day Scottish people still honour their ancestors by wearing their family tartan, some of the oldest being Clan MacLeod, Clan Campbell and Clan MacGregor.
Over time, weavers were able to introduce more elaborate patterns due to the evolution of chemical dyes, and as knowledge, skills and equipment improved, production of the cloth became quicker. As generations went on and clans grew through marriage and birth, the newer clans would create tartans of their own which usually meant they added an extra stripe or colour into the parent tartan. It all changed in 1745, after the battle of Culloden, when an Act of Parliament was passed which made the carrying of weapons and the wearing of tartan a penal offence, and by 1785 tartan was a thing of the past and many Scots had lost their enthusiasm and love for their clan creations!
But tartan was rescued when George IV visited Edinburgh and suggested that people attending the official functions should wear their respective tartans. As most of the original patterns had been lost, this required clan tartans to be re-created by the tailors of that day. Since then, tartan made a strong comeback and to this day is celebrated as a Scottish heirloom and is used in traditional ceremonies such as weddings, regimental and royal celebrations, and cultural events. Many Scots, as well as other nationalities, bring tartan into their everyday lives too, whether that is in fashion, interior design or homeware.
Examples of Scottish clans and clan tartan
Many people wonder if Scottish clans still exist, and the answer is yes, they do! In Scotland, a clan is still a legally recognised group with an official clan chief. The chief's Seal of Arms, incorporated by the Lord Lyon's letters patent, is the seal of the corporation and only the chief has the legal right to use the seal on behalf of his clan.
The 13 most famous clans are Clan Campbell, Clan MacDonald, Clan Mackenzie, Clan Macleod, Clan Mackintosh, Clan Douglas, Clan MacDougal, Clan Robertson, Clan Cameron, Clan Buchanan, Clan Fraser, Clan Gordon and Clan Grant. Clan MacDonald of Clanranald is the largest clan in Scotland!
Here are some examples of Scottish clan tartans…
William de Douglas was the first documented Douglas, and the family name has been one of the most powerful in Scotland, originating in Morayshire in the 12th century. In 1330, 'Good Sir James Douglas' was killed in Spain attempting to take Robert the Bruce’s heart on a crusade to the Holy Land. They had a turbulent existence with many heirs dying along the way, and James Douglas, the 4th Earl of Morton, even joined forces against Mary Queen of Scots and was later beheaded in 1581. Their family motto is ‘Jamais Arriere’ which means ‘never behind’.
Tradition tells that this powerful clan was descended from Gilleain-nan-Tuagh (Gillian of the Battle Axe), a descendant of the Kings of Dalriada. Gillian fought against King Haakon of Norway at the Battle of Largs in 1263. The Isle of Mull off Scotland’s north-west coast was the principal home of the clan, with the MacDonald dowry supplying the funds to purchase substantial parcels of the island. The family saw devastation when Sir Hector Ruadh Maclean and five hundred of his clansmen were slain at the Battle of Inverkeithing in 1651 by Cromwell’s New Model Army. Their family motto is ‘Virtue Mine Honour’ which means ‘virtue is the mark of my honour’.
The Wallace family originates from the Scottish Lowland area of Strathclyde, near to Glasgow. Family members can also be traced across Ayrshire and Renfrewshire. The most famous son of the family is, of course, Scotland’s patriotic and romantic leader, Sir William Wallace, 'the Hero of Scotland', who was born at Elderslie in 1274. In 1297, he led the Scots patriotic forces against King Edward I of England. He won the Battle of Stirling Bridge and drove the English garrisons out of Scotland, but was defeated at Falkirk in 1298. Their family motto is ‘Pro Libertate’ which means ‘for liberty’.
Traditional Highland dress
Highland dress is the traditional, regional dress of the Highlands and islands of Scotland. This is most characterised in the kilt – a knee-length, skirt-like garment that is worn by men. This is a length of woven wool that is tailored into a wraparound garment with a fabulous, pleated section at the back. This mass of pleats is made up of around 7 meters of fabric, which creates an impressive swaying movement which many men love to show off, especially at a good old ‘knees up’!
If you look at photos dating back to the 17th century, you will see the kilt is less tailored, being wrapped around and held with a belt. There was also a large bit of fabric which draped over one shoulder, which is now known as a plaid – a separate cloth garment that can be pinned to a kilt jacket with a broach of choice. The plaid and kilt form the only national costume in the British Isles that is worn for ordinary purposes, rather than merely for special occasions. Highland dress is also the uniform of Scottish regiments in the British army, and kilts have been worn in battle as recently as World War II.
Women are more likely to be found in full-length tartan skirts and are rarely seen in knee-length kilts. However, kilts are the performance costume of our skilled Highland dancers and you will find them showing off their skills whilst donning colour coordinated outfits consisting of a kilt, knee-length socks, a blouse and a waistcoat.
Nowadays most Scottish men will choose to wear a kilt on their wedding day. If they have strong historical clan connections, they will likely choose to wear their family tartan, however this is not essential and many men will pick out a tartan they find visually pleasing and dress their groomsmen in the same. It is said there is nothing more handsome than a man in a kilt, but we will let you decide that for yourself! The alternative to the tartan kilt are the tartan troos (trousers) which also look really smart with a waistcoat and jacket.
Where can you buy or hire a kilt?
There are many shops across Scotland that hire out kilts and jackets, along with all the accessories for one-off events like weddings, ceremonies, and balls. This usually costs anywhere between £80-£120/day which is not a hefty cost to scrub up for a posh event! However, many men opt to get a kilt specially made for them, and this is very popular amongst those who have a strong historical interest in their family history and clan. There are not a lot of kiltmakers who train by the traditional methods of the fully handmade kilt, but there are a handful that will be able to create you a one-off kilt which will turn into your next family heirloom. A bespoke handmade kilt can range between £600 and £1200 – a lifelong piece that can be handed down through the generations.
Other uses for tartan
Whilst tartan originated in woven wools, it is now made in many other fabrics used to produce popular products from beauty packaging and wrapping paper to wall coverings and suitcases! It is also used widely across the world in homeware, upholstery and furnishings and couture fashion - Vivienne Westwood made history when she designed a collection of couture fashion garments using tartan in the 1990s!
Tartan is also used heavily in interior design throughout Scottish establishments, hotels, restaurants, and holiday homes too where tartan wallpaper, tartan curtains and tartan carperts have become really popular. A lovely example can be seen in one of our very own holiday cottages – Marchurn in Angus. Throughout the house, you will find flashes of tartan in the curtains, furniture, cushions and bedrooms, mixing it tastefully with muted tones and fun artwork.
Where can you buy tartan?
Tartan can be purchased in many shapes and forms, from basic lengths of fabric to tartan scarves and accessories, so depending on what you want, there are lots of options when it comes to buying tartans. If you are looking for lengths of tartan, your best bet is to look up local fabric shops and see what they have in stock. Most specific tartan suppliers will stock each tartan in three different weights – lightweight, medium weight and heavyweight. The heavier fabric is traditionally used for hand-sewn kilts but is suitable for lots of other uses from coatings to upholstery.
Mandors in Glasgow usually has a great selection of tartan cloth, as well as tweeds and a great array of dress fabrics. Edinburgh Fabrics also has a good selection. But if it is hard to get to these places there are Scottish companies that sell online too. Here are some to keep in mind:
- Scotland Shop – Selling quality fabrics woven in Scotland. Prices ranging between £45 and £55/meter.
- House of Tartan – A database linking you to tartan suppliers, kilt makers and haberdashery suppliers.
- Lochcarron of Scotland – Selling fabric by the metre made from 100% pure new wool.
Larger luxury establishments like the House of Bruar in Perthshire and Johnstons of Elgin in Moray are good examples of places to go to pick up luxury tartan items like scarves, bags, gloves and hats, as well as cashmere rugs and homeware products.
These make charming gifts to take back to loved ones and also make nice souvenirs to remind you of your trip to Scotland. These places mix retail with food and both have charming restaurants where you can pick up a bite to eat or coffee and cake, which makes for a nice break between shopping spells.
We hope you have enjoyed this short lesson in Scottish tartan! Hopefully it has inspired you to come and learn more about our Scottish culture. If you want to find out more about Scottish culture, make sure you check out our guide to unique Scottish customs.
Stay in a self-catering cottage in Scotland
We have lots of lovely holiday homes which are full of tradition and character, where many of the owners pull in Scottish textile influences to enhance your experience. From family-holiday homes to romantic retreats, we will have something to suit you. View the collection today.
Disclaimer: Whilst every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of the information at the time of writing,
please ensure you check carefully before making any decisions based on the contents within this article.