My mother bought me my first kilt when I was about seven. I loved it and wore it everywhere. My kilt was patterned in the rich scarlet, blue, gold and green of the Royal Stewart tartan. My mother explained to me that anyone who was a subject of the Queen was allowed to wear this tartan, but apart from that the only other tartan I could wear was the Gordon tartan, because we were Gordons through her grandmother’s side of the family.
When I later received a kilt in the Gordon tartan for Christmas to wear at a Hogmanay party, I was a little disgruntled by the dullness of the pattern; dark blues, green and black, relieved only by a faint yellow stripe. I resented my great-grandmother for being a Gordon. Why couldn’t she have been a Scott? They had a lovely red and green tartan! Or a Fraser, whose tartan is bright red, green and blue? I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life having to wear a tartan I hated.
As I grew older I realised that there was no law in place forbidding a Gordon to wear any other tartan, and that no one would accost me in the street if I was wearing, for example the MacDonald tartan, to ask for proof that I belonged to that clan! From then on I wore whatever patterns I liked, but I still own a Gordon dress tartan kilt, which I wear from time to time.
The origins of tartan are lost in the mists of time – even the origin of the word ‘tartan’ is disputed. Some say it comes from the Gaelic tuar (colour) and tan (district), therefore proving that the first tartans denoted the home of the wearer rather than the clan; others say it’s derived from the French tiretaine (a fabric that’s a blend of linen and wool). But whatever the origin of the word, evidence from as far back as the Roman occupation of Britain confirm that the Celts loved brightly coloured clothes and were very skilled weavers.
There is strong evidence dating back to the sixteenth century that Highlanders wore tartan clothes.
However, anyone who has read my books and has taken the time to look up the MacGregor tartan will be perhaps wonder how they came to be called ‘the Children of the Mist’ if they were attempting to blend in with the environment whilst wearing vivid scarlet and black kilts! Whilst the Highlanders love of bright colours may well have led them to wear brightly coloured tartans for special occasions, wearing colours that would render you instantly visible at a distance was not advisable when you were trying to steal your neighbour’s cattle.
A description of tartan from 1582 illustrates this. George Buchanan states that the Highlanders love: ‘to wear marled cloaths, specially that have long stripes of divers colours, sundry-ways divided; and amongst some the same custom is observed to this day; but for the most part now they are brown, most near to the colour of the hadder [heather], to the effect when they lie among the hadder the bright colours of their plaids shall not bewray them’.
This makes sense. Later it was claimed that the wearing of the tartan denoted the district a man came from, and that the colours therein depended on the availability of dyeing plants in that area, although this has been contested, because the plants used for dyeing wool were widely available. However, it is possible that there were regional colour preferences.
In A Description of the Western Islands of Scotland, (1703) Martin writes: ‘Every Isle differs from each other in their fancy of making plaids, as to stripes in breadths and colours. This Humour is as different thro’ the Main Land of the Highlands in so far as they who have seen these places are able at first view of a man’s plaid to guess the place of his residence.’
It is really difficult to know now how established clan setts were in the days before the ’45. The Disarming Act of 1746, which forbade the wearing of any tartan clothing at all, caused a break in continuity which makes it difficult to reach a conclusion about this. So whilst it is certain that tartans were commonly worn by Highlanders, the tartans that are attributed to particular clans today are a later innovation.
In 1815 the Highland Society of London undertook a survey of tartan. They asked the chief of each clan for a sample of their traditional sett. The chiefs were asked to authenticate this by adding their seal and signature. By the following year 74 samples had been collected, and these are some of the earliest examples of clan tartans to be identified. However, a lot of chiefs replied to say that they didn’t know what their clan tartan was, and asked for help in identifying it!
As I stated in my previous blog (Highland Dress, the garments) the visit of George IV to Edinburgh in 1822 caused all things Scottish, including tartans, to become hugely fashionable.
The first book to include a list of clan tartans was published in 1831, and whilst the tartan craze continued during the nineteenth century, new patterns appeared all the time, many of them being claiming to be traditional designs. Incidentally, whether a tartan is listed as ‘ancient’ or ‘modern’ does not necessarily denote the age of the pattern, but rather the dyes used. ‘Ancient’ refers to the colours made by vegetable dyes, or by newer colours that imitate those produced by natural dyes. ‘Modern’ colours are those made by chemical dyes, which first became available in the 1860s.
Nowadays, as well as the various clan tartans that we’re familiar with, and the regimental tartans such as Black Watch, which was known as ‘the Government tartan’ for most of the eighteenth century, there are numerous other tartans, including Scottish district, sporting, international, and even commercial tartans such as those used by Irn Bru and American Express on their merchandise. Outlander fans will no doubt know that you can now buy ‘Outlander tartan’ items, based on the tartan worn by Jamie Fraser in the popular TV series based on Diana Gabaldon’s time-slip novels.
One of my own favourite tartans, (now I know that I can wear any pattern I choose,) is the Heritage of Scotland tartan, a beautiful royal blue and purple pattern.
So, if you want to wear tartan, and don’t like your clan colours, or if in fact you don’t belong to a clan, go ahead and choose your favourite from among the many hundreds of choices available!