KILBERRY BAGPIPES and THE KILT SHOP, Galashiels present
Scottish Clans and Tartans

Part 1: Clans ANDERSON - FRASER of LOVAT

Part 2: Clans GORDON - MacDONELL of GLENGARRY

Part 3: Clans MacDONELL of KEPPOCH - MacQUARRIE

Part 4: Clans MacQUEEN - WALLACE

A short history of Tartan

The history of tartan is proved by the many references in early Scottish literature and travellers who visited the country hundred of years ago. In those times the tartan was described as "mottled", "striped", "marled" etc. The Gaelic word is "breacan" meaning chequered and is actually very descriptive for the the check-like arrangement of the tartan patterns. These patterns are also called "setts", and the length of a tartan is made up of one sett repeated over and over again until the desired length is completed. 

For many centuries the tartans formed part of the daily life of the Highland people. Of course it was also worn in other parts of Scotland but it was particuarly in the Highlands that the use of the tartan was developed until it became recognized as a symbol of clan kinship. 

The tartan was especially used for belted plaids, the so-called philabegs, kilts and trews which are trousers with tartans. With these were worn shoes of untanned hide and the so-called "cuarans", boots of horse or cow hide reaching almost to the knees and kept in position with leather belts. Beside this it was also common to go bare-legged or bare-footed. 

Generally the Scottish also wore a bonnet of knitted wool with a clan badge on it which often depicted a flower like a thistle. The sporran was worn in front of the kilt to serve either as a purse or as a container for oat meal because the Highlander liked to make his own oat bread after a long walk before he spent the night at the camp-fire. It was usually made of leather and was often ornamented. The Sgian Dhu, the traditional Scottish "black knife", completed the Scottish outfit.

The women wore a kerchief made of linen called "curraichd" which was fastened under the chin. The "tonnag" was a small square of tartan worn over the shoulders, and the "arasaid" was was a long garment of various colours or tartans, reaching from the neck to the ankles, pleated all around and fastened at the breast with a large brooch and at the waist with a belt. 

It is believed that the ancient tartans which were used centuries ago were simple checks of two or three colours which were obtained from the dye-producing plants, roots, berries and fruits found in the districts where the cloth was woven. Therefore these simple tartans were district tartans worn by the people of these districts only. As these people were normally members of the same clan, their district tartan was their clan tartan. The weavers took much care to produce exact patterns of the wanted tartans by using a so-called "maide dalbh" which was a piece of wood with all coloured threats they needed on it.

When chemical dyes came into use weavers were able to enlarge their range of colours and more elaborate patterns were made. It is believed that as time passed by branches of the same clan developed tartans of their own by adding an overstripe or other variations to the basic pattern of their clan.

The earliest known reference for the use of a royal tartan is contained in the accounts of the treasurer of King James III. in 1471, where a purchase of a tartan for the king and his queen is mentioned. King James V. wore tartan when he was hunting in the Highlands in 1538, and King Charles II. wore tartan ribbons on his coat at his marriage in 1662.

In a Crown charter of 1587, granted to Sir Hector MacLean of Duart, the duty payable on the lands of Narrabole on the Isle of Islay was sixty ells of cloth of white, black and green colours. These colours correspond with the colours of the MacLean tartan but it is possible that this old tartan was somewhat different from the today´s pattern of the clan. Nevertheless this tartan is considered to be the first clan tartan

The antiquity of the tartan has never been doubted but some historians believe that the wearing of a particular pattern by all members of a clan as a common clan tartan is a modern custom dating back to the late 18th ct. They also claim that prior to that time there were no definite tartans and that the clansmen wore whatever patterns the weavers supplied.

From old Highland burgh archives we know that in the 16th and 17th ct. Lowland merchants came up to the Highlands to purchase tartans and that the baillies of these burghs fixed maximum prices of them to prevent overcharging. The prices were determined by the number and shades of colours in the cloth. It is also known that, in 1572, a house wife in a Highland burgh gave coloured wool to a weaver to make into cloth. She later sued him before the magistrate in accusing him of making the pattern according his own fashion ignoring her instructions. She won the trial, and the weaver was punished. That proves that Highland house wifes did not accept everything a weaver provided.

In other literary sources one can read of clansmen dressed in the livery of their chiefs, and it is reasonable to infer that this livery was a tartan. One of the best known instances was the accusation of Lady Grange, who claimed in 1742 that her abductors were dressed in Lord Lovat´s livery. It is known that the clans were organized in military lines and that there were clan regiments. In 1704 the fencible men of Clan Grant in Strathspey were ordered to meet and to wear Highland coats, trews and shorthose of red and green tartan. This company men were therefore all dressed in the same tartan, and there is reason to believe that other clan regiments were dressed in the tartan or livery of their chief too.

After the Battle of Culloden in 1746, the government in London, in an endeavour to purge the Highlands of all rebels, passed an Act of Parliament whereby the Highlanders were disarmed and the wearing of the tartan was a penal offence. This Act was rigorously enforced and the anxiety of the government to abolish tartans and the Highland dress suggests that they doubtlessly were afraid of another rising with help of this sign of solidarity. 

This Act was repealed in 1785 when it was clear that the Highlanders had become accustomed to wearing the same type of dress as Lowlanders, and they actually showed no great enthusiasm that they now were allowed to wear their old tartans. As many of the old weavers had died without giving their knowledge of the old tartans to their successors tartan has become a thing of the past. The wooden pattern sticks had rotted away and the few old tartans that had survived up to now were to worn and perished to give a clear survey of the tartans worn before 1745. 

The first great tartan revival took place in 1822. King George III., when visiting Edinburgh in that year, suggested that the people should wear their old tartans. Unfortunately this resulted in many "original" tartans being made, since those who had no tartan could always find a tailor to invent one for them. It was the publication "Vestiarium Scoticum" of the brothers Sobieski Stuart that helped to augment the numbers of spurious tartans, and indeed many tartans existing today owe their existence to this disputed book. Other publications of the 19th ct. added to this confusion but they made no claim to antiquity regarding the tartans they showed.

Today the confusion is being regulated into some semblance of order, and patterns are being standardized into recognized settings. The registration of tartans in the Registers at Lyon Court should do much to avoid confusion in the future. 

Tartans are described according to the purpose for which they are named. Clan tartans are patterns for general use by clansmen. It is not uncommon to find a clan tartan of recent origin described as "ancient tartan clan". The use of the word "ancient" is most misleading as it is merely an indication the the tartan has been woven in lighter-coloured shades. 

Dress tartans were originally worn by the women of the clan who preferred lighter colours. They had a white background and were variations of the clan pattern. In recent years there has been a tendency to refer to clan tartans woven in light-weight materials as "dress tartans". This causes confusion and should be avoided. Clan who do not possess a dress tartan usually wear the clan pattern, in light-weight material, for evening wear, but this does not justify the description of a clan tartan as a "dress tartan".

Mouring tartans at one time were worn at funerals. They were generally made of black and white colours. Hunting tartans are worn for sport and outdoor activities. Brown or dark blue is the predominant colour. When a clan possessed a brightly coloured tartan it was unsuitable for hunting purposes. Hunting setts were devised to make the wearer less conspicious. When concealed in the heather the tartan blended with the surroundings.

Chief´s tartans are the personal tartans of the clan chiefs and should never be worn except by the chief and his immediate family.

While tartans continues to excite the admiration of people everywhere, it is impossible to lay down fast rules regarding the choice of tartans. In all probability the would-be wearer of tartan will select the "tartan of his fancy". But one caution should be told. The royal tartans are for the use of the royal family only and should not be worn by anyone outside the royal family! 

Part 1: Clans ANDERSON - FRASER of LOVAT

Part 2: Clans GORDON - MacDONELL of GLENGARRY

Part 3: Clans MacDONELL of KEPPOCH - MacQUARRIE

Part 4: Clans MacQUEEN - WALLACE


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