Tartan in Scotland


Tartans -  a brief guide - how they came about, how they are made. They are a lot more "modern" than you might think.

What is it

Originating in Scotland, it is a plaid that was unique to a particular clan. Originally  "tartan" designated  how the woollen
thread was woven into cloth. Each individual thread went over two threads then under two threads, and so on..This means that  there is always a square where two colours cross, giving that speckled effect.

The Gaelic word for it is Breacan, meaning partially colored or speckled, and every one today features a multi-colored
arrangement of stripes and checks. These patterns, or Sett's, are used to identify the Clan, Family or Regiment with which the wearer is associated.

Strangely enough clan patterns were not something that have evolved out of the mists of time in Scotland. The first documented reference dates from 1703.

Earlier examples do exist - for example a two colour check pattern cloth was found near the Roman Anonine Wall, dating from around 300 AD. But it is a long way from what we know as a plaid today.

It is now generally recognised that clan plaids were established in the late 18th century. Before that individual patterns had existed, but not the concept of a distinctive clan pattern


History cloth in Scotland

Although individuals may well have worn tartan earlier, the first attempt at a clan pattern was in 1618, when Sir Gordon of Gordonstoun wrote requesting that the plaids worn by his men were in "harmony with that of his other Septs."

It was probably only after the Act of Union in 1707, that tartan became a symbol of active nationalism. Both highlanders and lowlanders, opposed to the Act, spread the wearing of   it. It was seen by the government as  the "uniform of rebels".

After the 1715 Jacobite rising, the Government felt the need to take more control in the Scottish Highlands. A number of  independent companies were formed, who became known as the Black Watch because the cloth they wore was very dark. By 1740 these various groups were merged into a regiment, and a new Black Watch pattern was developed especially for them, so that they were not associated with a particular clan. This is the first to have a documented pedigree

Following the battle of Culloden,  there was a complete ban on Highland dress   from 1746 until its repeal in 1782. Newly formed Highland Societies in London and Edinburgh then made great efforts to restore the Scottish Highland culture.

And indeed the Scottish Highland regiments in the British army exploited the aura of the warlike highlander in his kilt. Although  tartan was banned by law, the Government or Black Watch pattern was the only legally one. Therefore Black Watch was used as the basis for other Scottish regiments

Up until this point in time, the highlander had worn not a kilt, but a belted plaid. This was a one-piece six-yard long cloth, belted about the waist with the remainder being worn thrown over the shoulder. A new kilt was developed, probably by city tailors. It as the traditional plaid with the pleats permanently sewn in.

In 1822, by the time of the first Royal visit to Scotland since the Jacobite rebellion, there were around 200 different patterns on record. George IV himself wore the newly fashionable kilt on this visit. Today that number  has risen to over 2,000 registered patterns representing not just clans but also countries, corporations and events.Commercialism appears to have taken hold of the plaid

There is much evidence that most of the recognizable patterns seen today are in fact creations of Scottish and English Tailors during the reign of Queen Victoria(1831-1901).

Today the wearing of the kilt has become once again associated with Scottish Nationalism, with its wearing making a statement of nationality. It is perhaps surprising that today's traditions centred on the kilt were developed in the 19th century by the English and Scottish gentry, not the Scottish Highlanders.

Different types

District patterns
It is generally accepted that many evolved from local weavers producing patterns unique to that district. These patterns have continued in District patterns.
Examples would be The Old Lochaber or The Lennox District .
Hunting patterns
Based on darker colours, these tartans were developed to blend into the countryside for hunting. The hunting patterns are also worn on more informal occasions.
The Black Watch, and variations on it, is used as the hunting vatieation of a number of clans

Dress patterns
One of the background colours is changed to white, and kilts made from dress patterns are used for dancing
Making the cloth
From the sheep to the finished cloth the process is as follows
choose the wool
Prepare the wool for spinning
Spin the wool into yarn
Dye of the wool
Weave the thread into cloth
Waulk or stretch the cloth

choosing the wool
Up to the 18th century, Scottish sheep were very different to today's breeds. The now extinct Highland Sheep had a loose wool that was pulled from the animal rather than shorn. The cloth produced was much coarser than today's material

preparing the wool for spinning
The wool is prepared for spinning by "carding", pulling the wool between two surfaces covered with small hooks. The wool can be made into a hard fabric by pointing all the fibres in the same direction (combing the fibres in the same direction) or a soft fabric (fluffing the fibres up by carding them at right angles)

Originally the "drop spindle" was used to hand spin wool. This was a very laborious process that took a lot of time

The spinning wheel replaced the drop spindle in the Highlands in the early part of the 18th century.

The spinning wheel itself then evolved through such types as the "muckle wheel' and the "saxony wheel'.


The earliest varieties, such as the Falkirk, used only the natural colours of the wool. Soon coloured dyes allowed the sort of colours we now know to be produced

The dyes were traditionally produced from plants - for example  the roots. leaves or berries of plants or lichen or tree bark The chosen plant material would be boiled in water for a long period to release the dye. The the dye "fixed" to stop it running, by adding a chemical, usually a metal salt, to the water
The wool had to be washed to remove the natural oils, and then soaked in an alkaline solution (soda ash)  The prepared wool is then dyed

The preparation of a dye was an art rather than a science. The colour produced by say a particular plant's leaves can depend on the soil, climate and ripeness of the leaves In addition the chemical fixer used can also alter the colour. For example dock leaves can produces colours ranging from red to yellow, to green or red

Today the old dyes have been universally replaced by modern chemical dyes


The old traditional "vertical' hand looms were replaced in by "horizontal' looms in the 19th century. These used a treadle and foot pedals. These were used until the mid-nineteenth century, when power-looms took over.

waulking the cloth
The woven cloth was waulked or pulled into shape by stretching it across a frame

scottish kilt fabric


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