The Significance of Tartan

December 30, 2015

The Significance of Tartan

Today, we associate tartan with Scotland, but most historians agree that it originated from the Scoti tribe from Ireland, which arrived in Scotland in the fifth century. The patterns, which at first were fairly simple, evolved over time to represent various clans and ranks. By the 15th and 16th centuries, tartan fabric was a distinctively woven
cloth produced in the Highlands.

The Middle French word tiretaine referred to a quality of material, and the Old Spanish word tartana referred to a very fine cloth. Although originally the word “tartan” referred to the type of cloth rather than the pattern, that changed by the 18th century. In 1746, after the Battle of Culloden, the British government banned the Scottish clans from wearing tartan; at the same time, though, they formed loyal Highland regiments in which tartan kilts and trousers were permitted.

Lambswool tartansThe “Black Watch” became the first government tartan, and other regiments adopted their clan patterns, as well. These days, popular tartans throughout the United Kingdom and beyond include not only the Black Watch but also the Dress Stewart, the Hunting Stewart, and the Royal Stewart. Of course, there are also numerous tartans associated with clan names, such as Fraser, Macdonald, Gordon, Thompson, and others. Many of these plaids have been adopted by independent schools as uniforms, as well.

Many areas settled by Scots have local tartans. For example, all of Canada’s provinces have their own regional plaids, although Nova Scotia was the first to officially adopt one in 1956. The official tartan of the country of Canada is the Maple Leaf tartan. The recent popularity of the Outlander series (books by Diana Gabaldon, television series on Starz) has also led to a rise in interest in the Fraser and Mackenzie tartans.

Today, the word “tartan” usually refers to a fabric woven in bands of colored yarn that repeat in sequence along both the width and the length of the cloth. Regardless of your reasons for choosing a particular tartan – because of family history, a connection to your school days, or just because you like the pattern – we hope that you enjoy knowing that you are continuing a centuries-old tradition!

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