From the very earliest times
patterned dress of warlike Scottish highlanders struck fear
into their neighbours, the Ancient Britons who wore
This early cloth was known as 'plaid'. It was coloured with
made from earth and plants which grew
nearby. The colour of the
cloth depended on the plants
So the tradition
arose of different patterns and colours for
each clan, or family group. The oldest surviving piece of
Scottish woollen checked cloth is the Falkirk tartan, which is
thought to be 2,250 years old.
COLOURS AND PATTERNS
The number of colours in the tartan showed the
or position of
• One colour – a servant
• Two colours – a farmer
• Three colours – an officer
• Five colours – a
• Six colours – a poet
• Seven colours – a
There are also variations of the patterns and colours of the
tartans that are used for different occasions. The 'dress tartan'
will be a brightly coloured version for wearing to special
occasions. This is in contrast to the 'hunting tartan' that uses
colours to avoid being seen by the hunted animals. As
well as tartans that show your membership of a clan, there are
others that can be worn by anyone living in a certain district.
There are also two special tartans known as the 'free sett',
which are the 'Royal Stewart' and the 'Black Watch' tartans. These
are allowed to be worn by everyone.
are in fact a modern invention. An Englishman, Thomas
Rawlinson, living in Lochaber around 1725 noticed that his
workers in the iron-works were obstructed by the upper part of
their plaid. He
this upper part, leaving the kilt we
recognize today. For some reason it
caught on, and one of the
first great chieftains to wear one was MacDonnell of Glengarry.
ROYALTY AND TARTAN
In the 18th century,
tartan was used as a symbol of Scottish power by Bonnie Prince
Charlie, a famous Scottish prince, who appeared at a grand ball
in Edinburgh in full Highland dress. After his rebellion against
the English, tartan was
banned in Scotland for 35 years.
By the 19th century, the romance of the tartan was kept alive by
the popular novels of Sir Walter Scott. He organised a tartan
display on the royal visit of the British king, George IV. The
king surprised everybody by wearing a highland tartan himself.
Queen Victoria decorated her castle in Balmoral with tartan and
her husband, Prince Albert, designed the Balmoral tartan.
this day the Royal family are the only ones allowed to wear it.
Queen Victoria herself helped to make tartan popular for ladies
to wear when she changed the red background of the Royal Stewart
tartan to white. Today, Queen Elizabeth, Princess Anne and
Prince Charles are enthusiastic wearers of tartan.
Although you should be descended
from the original clan to wear their tartan, these days most
Scots don't mind if you wear any tartan. It helps if you know
the name of the tartan and a little about it, in case someone
questions your right to wear it. If you wish to respect the
traditions of the tartan, wear one of the free tartans, or have
your very own made for you. New district tartans have been found
as far away from Scotland as Manitoba and Saskatchewan in Canada.
THE TARTAN TOAST
Here’s to it!
The fair have
sighed for it,
sheen of it,
The brave have died for it,
The yellow, the green of it,
sought for it,
The white, the blue of it,
fought for it,
The swing, the
hue of it.
Honour the name of it,
The dark, the red of it,
Drink to the fame of it,
thread of it! The Tartan!