The History of Tartan – Gaelic Themes

Tartan Cloth


When people think of the tartan today most think of the colourful pattern of the cloth as worn by Scottish clan members. Many of the current clan tartans are, however, of quite recent design many dating from just the 19th century. Prior to this tartan was certainly worn by the Scots- the earliest recorded tartan was found buried in the ground near Falkirk and dates back over seventeen hundred years. Although there is much evidenceĀ of tartans been worn prior to the eighteenth century – the wearing of tartan was banned after 1745 – by no means every clan wore tartan. Tartan was a distinctive form of identity enabling friend or foe to be recognized but other forms of identity – flags, standards, shields, feathers and plants were often employed. The majority of the early tartans were quite muted in colour – often using undyed wool – and of simple design in comparison with recent patterns. It was only with development of dying processes in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that the vibrant colouring of many modern tartans became possible.It was during the early part of the nineteenth century that some of the larger mills in Scotland developed the commercial potential of tartan. Pattern books of many different designs were put together by the mills and tartans were sold to many regiments, clans, companies, organizations and individuals during this period. It has even been told that brightly coloured tartans were sold to tea plantation owners to enable them to dress slave workers in an immediately identifiable uniform.

Highland dress became fashionable after King George IV wore a kilt during a visit to Scotland in 1822 and it is reported that a number of clan chiefs selected a tartan for their clan when told that they should wear their clan tartan during an audience with the king. Much romantic writing on Scotland, the clans, and tartans was composed during this period – many of the illustrations in this site were painted by R R McIan and published in the book The Clans of the Scottish Highlands in 1845..

Tartan today, although used internationally on everything from fabrics to packaging, is immediately identified with Scotland. It is unique in that the smallest scrap of tartan material – which very possibly is different from any tartan the viewer has seen before – can immediately identify a nation.