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History of Tartan and Highland Dress

Tartan belongs to Scottish culture and is not only one of Scotland’s greatest icons but also one of the world’s leading national marks of identification.

Scotland is privileged to have such a strong and immediately recognisable image to proclaim the geographical or cultural roots of many who live in many other distant parts of the world. There are some 30 million people worldwide of Scots descent of which 11 million are in the United States, 4½ million in Canada and nearly 6 million in Australia and New Zealand.

There are believed to be over 5,000 tartans in existence and the number is increasing at the rate of about 135 per annum. It was in the early 19th century that the available range of tartans mushroomed from a handful of clan tartans to many hundreds of clan, district and fashion tartans.

The popularity of tartan continued to grow with Queen Victoria adding to the romantic adoration of all things Scottish. Since 1900 the production of tartan fabric has shown steady growth and the economic value of tartan and related Highland Dress is now something in excess of £300 million per annum to Scottish business and tourism.

Tartan is not and has never been an exact science and the precise date and origination of tartan remains debatable. Originally check cloths or plaids were loosely associated with clans. Clans were groups of people, predominantly in the Highlands and Islands (hence the name Highland Dress) under the control of a chief whose name was adopted by those who were under his jurisdiction. The powers of the clan chief over his clansmen were immense, for which in return protection was offered.

Old descriptions of tartan use words like 'mottled', 'striped', 'sundrie coloured' and 'marled'. The word itself actually derives from the French word 'tartaine' which referred to a particular kind of checked cloth.

The Gaelic word for tartan is ‘Breacan’ meaning chequered, and the men of the clans wore as their everyday garment a ‘Breacan an Philead’ more usually referred to as the Philead Mhor which means a belted plaid - about 12 yards of material worn round the waist, then passed obliquely over the breast and over the left shoulder and secured with a belt. The garment was also used as a blanket - a kind of sleeping bag when sleeping outdoors. Some of the cloth was even used as protection for the head in bad weather.

The original tartans were simple checks of one or two colours, and the dyes came from plants, roots, berries and trees found locally where the cloth was woven. People in the same area would wear the same tartan and so in effect they became clan tartans.

Some interesting early information dates for tartan are as follows:

  • Purchase of tartan for King James III and His Queen in the accounts of the King’s Treasurer in 1471.
  • James V in 1535 wore tartan when hunting in the Highlands
  • In 1587 crown documents that show Hector MacLean of Duart paid the duties owed on his land not with money but with sixty ells of cloth of white, black and green, the colours of the MacLean Hunting tartan.
  • Carles II wore tartan ribbons on his coat at his marriage in 1692.

In the early 18th century the original kilt, the Philead Mhor, was divided into two halves, one of which become the Philead Beg or the small kilt and the other became the plaid. This was the early stage of the modern kilt and plaid of today.

Around this time too, regiments adopted tartan for their uniforms. The Royal Company of Archers (the present Queen’s bodyguard in Scotland) adopted tartan for their livery, and in 1739 the Black Watch were the first Highland regiment to appear in tartan. The Army began to use uniform tartans as a useful means of identification.

Tartan was first woven on a commercial basis in the 18th century by Wilson of Bannockburn. Tartan is formed by offsetting lines and checks into various patterns and can be woven in unlimited colour combinations. The pattern is made with alternating bands of coloured threads woven as warp and weft at right angles to each other. The resulting blocks of colour repeat vertically and horizontally in a distinctive pattern of squares and lines known as a sett.

Unfortunately early tartan records have largely been lost and patterns woven on wooden “setts” have rotted away. However, some tartan patterns were recovered through old paintings and in more recent years many scraps of older clan and district designs have been found and accurately copied.

After the defeat of the Jacobites and Bonnie Prince Charlie at Culloden in 1746, the British Government was determined to put an end to any further trouble from the Highlands (the centre of the Jacobite cause). They sent up thousands of troops whose business was to disarm the Highlanders and stamp out the ‘clan’ way of life.

An Act of Proscription was passed which banned the wearing of tartan, the playing of the bagpipes and the speaking of Gaelic. It was rigorously enforced by the troops. By the time the Act was repealed in 1785, those Highlanders that were left had become accustomed to wearing ‘Lowland’ type dress and tartan had almost become something of the past.

However in 1822, King George IV made a State visit to Scotland. Sir Walter Scott orchestrated the arrangements and demanded that all citizens should deck themselves in their own tartan if they had one (or any tartan if not). That occasion was the catalyst for the re-birth of the tartan industry today. Everyone responded with enormous enthusiasm to be kitted out in kilts and plaids. Even the King himself appeared in a Royal Stuart kilt with flesh-coloured tights! The tartan industry had been reborn and from that day on, it has never looked back.

It was with the return of enthusiasm for kiltwear in the 19th century that the kilt ceased to be an everyday garment and became a dress item. All kinds of conventions sprang up about the correct dress, Bonnie Prince Charlie jackets, Sgian Dubhs, flashes, Sporrans etc and the military also introduced strict guidelines of acceptability.

A further transformation in the history of tartan came with the use of chemical dyes introducing vivid colours which are known today as ‘Modern’ tartan colours. Tartan colours formerly produced using vegetable dyes became known as ‘Ancient’ tartan colours and a third colourway emerged called ‘Weathered’ or ‘Reproduction’ tartans which were colours literally reproduced from pieces of fabric found on battlefields or homesteads which were weathered from exposure to the elements.

To add to the complexity different categories of tartans also began to emerge. There were Dress tartans which were thought to be originally worn by women of the Clan who preferred lighter coloured patterns with a white background. Nowadays dress tartans are particularly popular for more formal wear. Hunting tartans were worn for sport and outdoor activities so brown or other dark colours predominated and to this day many tartans are linked to sporting associations like football or rugby.

Apart from the clan tartans there were District tartans which related to a particular geographical area and mention has already been made of Military tartans for Scottish Regiments. In recent years we have seen the growth of Corporate tartans. These are specially designed for companies or institutions and are often used for uniforms, staffwear, corporate gifts and display.

Kinloch Anderson have a Corporate Division which fulfils the needs of companies and organisations who wish to recognise the value of their brand image and identity with a specially designed tartan (or tweed). Sometimes Corporate tartans commemorate an important occasion or event and these are called Commemorative tartans.

Whatever the category, tartan is inextricably linked to the kilt and the National Dress of Scotland. Kinloch Anderson are renowned as foremost experts in tartan and Highland Dress since 1868 and are privileged to hold Royal Warrants as Tailors and Kiltmakers to Her Majesty The Queen, His Royal Highness The Duke of Edinburgh and His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales.

The most exclusive tartan of all remains the personal and private tartan of Her Majesty The Queen. This is the Balmoral tartan which is exclusive to Her Majesty and her immediate family and worn only with Her Majesty’s permission. Kinloch Anderson are proud to hold this tartan in stock for Her Majesty’s use. The only person outside the Royal Family who may wear this tartan is the Queen’s Piper.

The cultural evolution of tartan continues today and the number of tartans is increasing by about 100 a year. It is worn by all ages at Weddings, Dinners, parties and celebrations of all kinds such as Hogmanay and Burns Night. It is increasingly popular with young men who also enjoy wearing the kilt in an informal way as an everyday garment.

Tartan essentially belongs to woven fabric but its original use was not confined to clothing. One of the first principal uses was for home furnishings and this remains popular today. Tartan has always been versatile with a wide variety of uses ranging from china to bags to toys to umbrellas, the scope is endless. Tartan has been taken into space and buried in time capsules and most importantly tartan is glamorous and tartan is fashionable.

Today the National Dress of Scotland reflects the pride and glory of our Country and we believe it to be the finest National Dress in the world.

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