Of Plaids And Tartans

Editor’s Note: Hank Grant is one of those people who offered to step up when my family’s health went down. THANK YOU

The textile known as Scottish tartan has long been associated with the traditional style of dress. Tartan sports coats, vests, and trousers are frequently worn to Christmas parties. Tartan ties and scarfs are popular accessory items. Tartan blankets are often seen at football games and other outdoor events. Flannel shirts in tartan patterns are mainstays in the catalogs of casual clothing outfitters.  

Generally speaking, tartan is defined as a woolen fabric in a twill weave whose weft is the same as its warp. Of course, tartan can be made of linen, cotton, silk, or even polyester, but the original tartans were woven in finely spun, vegetable dyed wool yarn. There is no question that tartan is a handsome, colorful, evocative, historical fabric known throughout the world as the national textile of Scotland.

There is a distinction which must be drawn between the words ‘plaid’ and tartan. In its modern context, a plaid generally refers to a square-checked fabric often used in clothing. The word ‘plaid’ describes the pattern of the cloth.

In former times, however, a plaid (plaide, playde) was a garment. It was a long single or double width of cloth, which could be pleated and secured around a man’s waist with a belt to resemble a kilt, with the excess yardage cast over the shoulders for warmth or to protect the wearer from inclement weather. The plaid could be used as a blanket at night. Plaids varied in size, but a typical utilitarian garment would have been about 48-52” wide by 5 yards long.  

Colonel William Gordon (1736–1816) | Art UK

Romanticized portrait of Col. William Gordon of Fyvie

(1736-1816), by Pompeo Batoni, circa 1766, Fyvie Castle

The earliest known sample of fabric unearthed in Scotland can be dated to the 3rd or 4th century AD, but it was not until the post-medieval period that some fabrics resembling what we know today as tartan can be identified. 

Many myths are associated with tartan.

Myth #1 – Women wove tartan cloth for their family and for sale or trade. Not true. Most weavers were men. The women mostly spun the yarn and dyed it using locally available dyestuffs.  

Myth #2 – Each clan or family had its own distinct tartan from earliest times. Not true. Before the industrial revolution, most tartans were hand-woven by rural, artisan weavers in the highlands and islands of Scotland. It is possible that individual weavers produced similar-looking tartans, but there was no large-scale proliferation of identical tartan plaids of the same colors and pattern or sett within a clan. It was not until the formation of Scottish military regiments in the 18th century that any degree of uniformity in the colors and patterns was required.

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Tartan of the 1st Strathspey Fencible Regiment of Sir James Grant, Baronet,

1793, documented in The Key Pattern Book (1819) of Wm. Wilson & Sons 

of Bannockburn [Tartan plaid hand-woven by the author, 2013]

Myth #3 – Each clan had its own tartan so combatants could distinguish friend from foe in battle. Not true. The last conflict fought on Scottish soil was the Battle of Culloden Moor in April 1746. It was not until the end of that century that the concept of ‘clan tartans’ gained currency. Most of the clan tartans we know today were adopted from military regiments or independent companies formed by the chiefs and chieftains of the various clans. In fact, most of the tartans known today as ‘clan tartans’ were designed in the merchandising and marketing departments of lowland textile mills in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. And the reason for that was – you guessed it – so the mills could SELL MORE TARTAN.

Myth #4 – The Scottish aristocracy always wore their clan or family’s tartan. Not true. It was not until King George IV visited Edinburgh in 1822 – an extravaganza stage-managed by Sir Walter Scott – that the ‘clan tartans’ concept became popular among the Scottish gentry. And it was not until Queen Victoria and Prince Albert purchased their estate at Balmoral and built a castle there in the mid-19th century that tartan came into its own and enjoyed great commercial success.

The Weaving of the Grant Kilt Tartan, documented in the Key Pattern Book of 

Wm. Wilson & Sons of Bannockburn, 1819 [Hand-woven by the author, 2015]

There is nothing harmful in the preservation of these old myths.  Folklorists will ensure that they are sustained in perpetuity, or at least as long as men and women wear tartans. However, it is the province of the historian to research, write about, and promote verifiable history and there is certainly no harm in that either.     

James H. Grant 

Bibliography: 

Logan, James, The Scotish Gael, or Celtic Manners as Preserved Among the Highlanders &c., Edinburgh, 1831 

MacDonald, Lt. Col. Peter E., The 1819 Key Pattern Book (Wm. Wilson & Sons of Bannockburn), Perth, 1996 

MacWilliam, H.D., The Black Watch Tartan, Inverness, 1932 

National Records of Scotland, Edinburgh, GD248/38/2/2 and GD248/1541   

15 Comments on "Of Plaids And Tartans"

  1. From the above, it suggests that anyone can wear a tartan pattern without fear of offending a native Scotsman, such as might happen to wear a school tie because you like the colors and are surprised if a stranger in a bar accosts you of improper use of their tie.

    • Elder: You should not have a problem wearing any tartan you wish in the USA. In Britain, and Scotland in particular, it is a bit of a slippery slope. I once heard of a Scottish laird who dressed down an American tourist for wearing a tartan to which he was not entitled, and he did it on a train platform in from of several dozen onlookers. Use your own judgment.

  2. A succinct and informative article Mr. Grant. Thank you.

  3. Darrell Godfrey | January 22, 2023 at 11:47 pm | Reply

    Nevertheless, in American English tartan and plaid are used interchangeably, and this is not considered to be an error.

  4. I can’t get enough of tartans.

    The Brooks Brothers, Barbour, and Burberry patterns are some of my favorites.

    Apparently, Barbour and Burberry hide their tartan patterns in the lining of their coats for fear of offending an angry Scotsman. “Hey you, yes you, you’re wearing my clan’s tartan!”

  5. Great article Mr. Grant. Could you provide us the story behind Black Watch? Why are Black Watch and Stuart regarded as “universal” tartans and does that really matter? And, in your opinion, what retailer offers the best tartan ties, pocket squares, etc.?

    Also, please pardon the e in whisky. Alcohol was involved in my original spelling.

    • Thanks. The military units known as Black Watch go back to circa 1725 when General Wade authorized the recruitment of six independent companies (militia) to patrol the highlands and maintain law and order. Although not one tiny swatch of the plaids worn by these troops exists today, it was said to be black, blue, and green – a sett similar to what we know today as Black Watch. The real 43rd (later 42nd) Black Watch Regiment was formed in 1739 and they supposedly wore the same dark tartan. The Black Watch and Royal Stewart tartans have become more or less generic tartans for tourists and other non-Brits who want to wear tartan but have no known clan affiliations. The Edinburgh Woolen Mill is a large chain retailer that sells all sorts of Scottish goods and accessories, including ties. I bought a tartan tie from their store in Windsor, Berkshire, England, in 2019, but they have quite a few stores in other locations, particularly in Scotland.

  6. Appreciate that you’ve kept up to date, and dispel the whole “clan tartan” myth manufactured by 19th century industry. Agree with Elder Prep that any tartan pattern can be safely worn by anyone.

    • DCLaw: Although I did attempt to debunk the antiquity of some ‘clan tartans,’ many are still over two centuries old, and considering the age of our country, that is pretty old. Yes, it is probably OK to wear any tartan in the USA, but in the UK, wearing someone else’s tie or tartan can be a ‘sticky wicket.’ The good news is that most Americans, if they go back in their genealogy far enough, can find a Scottish ancestor whose tartan they can wear with pride. In my own mind, being a stickler in matters such as this, any alleged ‘tartan’ invented after Queen Victoria’s death (1901) is just cloth. Believe it or not, there is actually a late 20th century tartan in the Scottish government’s official Registry of Tartans entitled Lady Boys of Bangkok #7142, which in my view, is absolutely ridiculous. A classic case of ‘Follow the money.’

  7. Thanks for the great article, Mr. Grant! I have always worn a lot of plaid and a few tartans. My favorite knit tie is a Gordon tartan (like Black Watch with a yellow overcheck) my sister bought in Scotland for my late father who always went by J. Gordon Todd (Scotch family name). A stretch, as is my handsome “Fauxberry” Scottish cashmere tartan scarf, a rip off of the famed Burberry pattern with four rather than three crossing black bars. No one has noticed the sartorial joke–eBay! Td

    • Oldair: Here is an interesting bit of history. First, look closely at the tartan image above of the 1st Strathspey Fencible Regiment of Sir James Grant (1793). In 1794, Alexander, 4th Duke of Gordon, raised the Gordon Highlanders, a regiment whose tartan was, as you say, like the Black Watch with a yellow stripe. It was a carry-over from his previous fencible regiment disbanded in 1783. When Sir James Grant ordered the tartan for his Strathspey Fencibles, his quartermaster specified a tartan “with the red stripes” to distinguish it from Gordon’s tartan which had a yellow stripe. The Gordon Clan territory was located just to the east of Strathspey which was held by the Clan Grant.

  8. Thank you! I’m inspired to pick out a tartan for today’s luncheon meet–at the Auction Yard Cafe. We’re oregon cattlemen (grown up cowboys) who wear Ivy and tartan with boots, jeans and Stetsons.

    • Oldair: Sounds like fun. I once had a customer who was a latter-day cowboy in Montana. He claimed that all cowboys wear Wrangler jeans. Said he had a pair in his closet with a crease that he wore to church. What brand of jeans do you prefer?

  9. You sort of touched on it in the comments but the article is pretty misleading… One to three hundred year old traditions are old enough to label the myths true in my book…

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