- It's a piece of woven cloth made up of horizontal and vertical stripes in different colours, on a coloured background
- The interwoven stripes are known as a “sett”
- Originally, clanspeople used local plants, mosses and berries to dye the wool
- There are over 7,000 unique tartans on record – even the Obamas and Hello Kitty have their own tartan!
What are kilts?
Historically known as the feileadh-mòr in Gaelic (pronounced philamore), a kilt is a piece of tartan, worn around the waist, however, a 'proper' kilt is usually accompanied by:
- Sporran - a small bag worn around the waist, over the kilt. Sporran is the Gaelic word for purse
- Kilt pin - a heavy pin affixed to the outer flap of the kilt
- Sgian dubh (pronounced skee-an doo) - a small dagger which sits in the sock
What's the history of tartan?
Where did tartan come from?
Despite its close association with Scotland, the earliest sample of tartan was actually found in China from around 3000 BC. Its Scottish roots run deep though, dating back to the 3rd or 4th century. We’ve been using it to make kilts, bagpipes, rebellions and fashion-statements ever since.
The Jacobite Rebellion
Fast forward a few centuries and we start to see tartan really exploding on the scene. Picture windswept romantics in the Highland countryside swathed in glorious Scottish tartan from head to toe. This is a popular conception of Scottish clans and their tartan, but it was the result of some clever Jacobite propaganda that’s added to myth and legend over the years.
Bonnie Prince Charlie, Scotland’s roguish Jacobite hero, arrived on Scottish soil fully clad in tartan in 1745, using fashion to draw together the ancient strength of the Scottish clans to fight for the throne. Although the Jacobite rebellion was ultimately unsuccessful, tartan became so powerfully interwoven with the idea of Scottish identity and rebellion that it was banned by the British Government following the Battle of Culloden in 1746.
Tartan, clans and revival
It wasn’t until the mid-1800s that tartan saw revival with another epic branding campaign by none other than Sir Walter Scott. Sir Walter wanted Clan chiefs to wear their clan tartans and full Highland dress when greeting King George IV during his hotly anticipated visit to Edinburgh in 1822. A great idea that had only one wee flaw: most of the chiefs were only just learning they were supposed to have clan-specific tartan. They rose to the occasion though, submitting their 'official' clan tartans and cementing the link between clans and tartans firmly into history.
The campaign was a major success; King George was so taken with the fabric he had a portrait painted of him as a Stuart prince, with a tartan kilt, socks, cape and all. He passed this fascination and royal connection on to his niece, Queen Victoria, who made tartan the fashion statement it continues to be to this day.
But tartan isn’t just about the past; it continues to weave its story across Scotland and the globe.
It has always been at the forefront of modernity – the first ever colour photo was of a tartan ribbon and it’s even travelled to space!
Tartan is just as easily found on a high fashion runway as part of school uniforms. In more recent years, some of the world’s biggest names in fashion have gravitated towards this fabric for its bold look and history of rebellion, from Chanel and Dior to Vivienne Westwood and Alexander McQueen.
Its uncanny ability to express tradition or undermine it – sometimes even at the same time – means it’s been powerfully adopted by causes and groups to represent their values and social conscience. It has connected LGBTQ+ communities with a shared identity, a tartan design was registered to represent the climate change summit COP26, and it’s been used to raise awareness of MND in honour of the legendary rugby player, Doddie Weir. There’s even a Homeless tartan – 20% of all sales of this fabric go to the charity Shelter Scotland.
From the poor to the rich, the franchised to the disenfranchised, tartan is a fabulously diverse, playful and complex material for everybody.
What tartan can I wear?
Tartan is for everyone, whether you’re Scottish by blood or just in your heart!
For most people, a key factor when choosing their tartan is having a connection with the tartan they wear. One of the most obvious ways to find that connection is by doing a bit of research to discover if you belong to a Scottish clan.
It’s also perfectly acceptable to pick a tartan simply because you like the colours and the sett. There are no specific rules governing which tartan you can wear, just traditions. The most important thing is it makes you feel proud to wear it.
What types of tartan are there?
When choosing your kilt or tartan, there are a few different options to consider:
- Ancient – vegetable dyes are used to give softer colours. This mimics the way tartan used to be produced (using natural dyes) before chemical dyes were invented.
- Modern – modern chemical dyes are used to give darker colours.
- Reproduction/weathered – colours are reproduced from weathered tartan historically found in homes or on battlefields.
- Dress – replacing one of the original under check colours with white
- Hunting – replacing one of the original under check colours with brown, blue or green
Found your tartan? Got your outfit sorted? Find places in Scotland you can wear it to, from weddings to ceilidhs to Highland Games. Make sure to share your pictures of Scotland with us using #OnlyinScotland!
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