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The Tartan

Tartan is everywhere nowadays, showing up on everything from baseball caps to trainers to skinny jeans. But within the context of this booklet, we’re interested in its role as the most iconic parts of Highland dress (and Scotland itself for that matter).

The exact origins of tartan are lost in time, although it’s well-established that the Celts were accomplished at weaving tartan-like fabrics (some of which have been found as far afield as Salzburg, Austria). The earliest tartan to be found in Great Britain dates from the 3rd century AD in Falkirk, near Stirlingshire.

The idea that tartans were created for specific purposes, such as red tartans to hide bloodstains in battle, is purely a modern invention. At that point, tartans were primarily associated with different regions rather than specific clans. They were usually based on the materials available to the area’s resident weaver, who would devise several different designs for the inhabitants of the region. As a result, there was little uniformity in the design of tartans until the 16th or 17th century. Most notably, the Highland Independent Companies introduced a standardised tartan in 1725 as a way of differentiating themselves from any particular clan, something that was formalised when they became the Black Watch in 1739 (their tartan remains one of the most famous and popular to this day).

Unfortunately, due to the Scottish clans’ support for the Jacobite cause, parliament passed the Dress Act of 1746, making the wearing of Highland dress, including tartan, illegal for anyone except the Highland Regiments. This law was repealed in 1782, but by then the damage was done and Highland dress was no longer a fundamental part of the Scottish national identity. However, a group of Highland aristocrats sought to remedy this and founded the Highland Society of Edinburgh in an attempt to re-popularise full Highland dress.

A major turning point was the visit of King George IV to Scotland in 1822 – the first visit to Scotland by a monarch in 172 years. Sir Walter Scott, chairman of the Celtic Society of Edinburgh, took it upon himself to arrange a lavish pageant, the goal of which was to break Highland dress away from its association with Jacobite rebellion. Despite the King’s appearance in a kilt being mercilessly caricatured, the result was a resurgence of the Scottish national identity, along with a widespread interest in Highland dress.

It was around this period that the concept of clan tartans evolved, particularly due to the publication of several highly romanticised books on Scottish heritage, including Sir Walter’s own novels. Chief among these was the Vestiarium Scoticum, published in 1842 by John Sobieski Stuart and Charles Edward Stuart – two English brothers who claimed descent from Bonnie Prince Charlie. The Sobieski Stuarts (as they came to be known) claimed their book was based on an ancient manuscript laying out the clan tartans of Scottish families. Even at the time, their claims were considered absurd, but their timing was nonetheless perfect.

With the resurgence of interest in Highland dress, further tartan books swiftly followed and clans (including Lowland families who had previously hated the Highlanders!) all proudly claimed tartans for themselves.

But the popularity of tartan only turned into a full-blown craze when Queen Victoria and Prince Albert visited Scotland in 1848 and took up residence in Balmoral. Both Albert and Victoria were enchanted by every aspect of Scottish culture. Albert in particular loved watching the Highland games and upon taking responsibility for the remodelling of Balmoral, made great use of tartan in every aspect of the interior design. The pair even designed their own tartans, the Victoria and the Balmoral (which is still in use today as an official Royal tartan).

Victoria and Albert’s enthusiasm was quickly picked up on by savvy entrepreneurs who added tartan-based designs to everything from snuffboxes to jewellery and tableware. It also became a popular part of women’s fashion, independent of its Highland origins.

Nowadays, tartan is available on all manner of things (most of which lie outside the scope of this booklet) and there are few restrictions on who can wear which tartans. Even the few conventions that some people hold to – such as that the Balmoral tartan may only be worn with the Queen’s permission – are not hard-and-fast rules.

Each major clan generally has two tartans: a hunting tartan (based on muted greens, browns and maroons) and a dress tartan (based on brighter colours, such as red, yellow or blue). Furthermore, many tartans can be produced in ‘modern’, ‘weathered’, or ‘muted’ tones, which creates even more variety.

With such a wide range of available options, it’s almost impossible not to find a tartan that suits you, so ask your kilt-maker for some options!

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