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.
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.
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
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