A Short History of the Tartan



The Scottish manner of dress has long been a matter of much discussion as to its origin and development, and in the midst of all it has been the tartan. The subject seems to have caught the attention of historians in their early description of Celtic Tribes B.C. Later, in Scotland, it became the subject of customs of the clergy and principals of the Church who were admonished against the wearing of bright red, green, and blue colors during the Middle-ages (13th century). Much attention was given to the subject of tartan colors, patterns, etc. in general, but little of a specific nature is to be found in early literature to indicate which pattern and their colors related to which Clan.

Early literature makes frequent use of the words "strypt" and "striped." If it is to be understood that the term means stripes in both the warp and the weft of the cloth, then we have a description of plaid or tartan material. Houses of the upper class often had a special "strypt room." More than one historian used plaid and tartan synonymously. Highlanders in 1582 are said to have continued the custom of their ancestors who had long worn plaids of many colors. Nevertheless, authors of recent articles and books on the subject refuse to accept the "one tartan, one clan" tradition.

This attitude seems entirely out of keeping with the well recognized tendency of the Scot to place a high value on his own clan, his heraldry, his ancestry, and whatnot. Why not then, on his own pattern and colors of plaid? It is especially odd that with the wide popularity of plaids, that he would not design his own. It is further difficult to explain why the government in London, in its effort to break up the solidarity of the clans, banned its use in Scotland if it were only a popular item of dress without some special significance.

The earliest bit of evidence that specific colors were assoc­iated with a particular clan was in 1587. When Hector McLean received a charter for lands in Islay, the feu duty was payable in the form of "sixty ells of cloth of white, black, and green colors," which describes the hunting tartan of the Clan McLean of Duart. Thirty years later, when the lands were granted to McKenzie of Coigeach, the cloth is described as white, black, and grey. When the lands were restored to the McLeans, the cloth was again described as white, black, and green.

The popularity of tartans has waxed and waned as Royalty has made use of it. In 1538 three ells of tartan for trews (trou­sers) for King James V was purchased, presumably of the Stu­art tartan. By the time of the union of the Scottish and the English Crowns in 1707, many different tartans were being shipped to London for the English market.

The Jacobite uprising in 1743, ending with the Battle of Culloden in 1746, was reason enough for the Hanoverian Government to ban the use of all tartans in Scotland (1747). Of course the ban was not able to crush the use of the tartan entirely, but it did interrupt the continuity of its history until the ban was lifted in 1782. After that there was a rebound of interest in the manufacture and use of the custom.

The Royal visit of King George IV in 1822 to Edinburgh was the occasion of a great uplift of Scottish spirits and the generation of a tremendous increase of interest in tartans. All of the Clan chiefs were on hand and, as suggested by Sir Walter Scott, they wore their individual clan tartans.

Following this was the question of "What are the tartans of the many separate clans?" After considerable travel about Scotland, preparatory to the publication of his book, The Scottish Gael, James Logan found fifty three tartans associated with specific clans (1831). He found a few others, but for lack of proof did not list them. He reported that there was "…much curiosity among all classes, to ascertain the particular tartans and badges they were entitled to wear. This creditable feeling, unfortunately, led to a result different from what might have been expected; fanciful variations and varieties of tartan and badges were passed off as genuine, and to set the public right on these matters is likely to meet the objections of many.”

Logan was entirely correct in his appraisal of the upsurge of interest, for two brothers, John and Charles Allen, appeared in Scotland with the answers to many of the urgent questions, but with largely spurious information. At the urging of many notables, the brothers, posing as Royal Family descendants, published (in 1841) a handsome volume entitled Vestiarium Scoticum.

There were about seventy-five tartans they described as coming from an earlier manuscript belonging to the 16th century. Sir Walter Scott, upon examination of the source of the volume, declared it to be spurious both in language end content. In spite of the debate over the unreliability of the tartan information, some of the modern tartans of ancient clans are based on the book in question. They may, in fact, be as ancient as the clan itself.

Nevertheless, Vestiarium Scoticum was a genuine stimulant to the tartan industry. In the wake of' this episode, Queen Victoria of England made an historic visit to Balmoral Castle. It is reported that while there she indulged her interest in the tartan and decided to use the Balmoral Tartan, designed by the Prince Consort, for general purposes in the Royal household, such as carpets, curtains, etc. Well suited to such, it has a background of grey with stripes of red and black in a very dignified pattern. It is now manufactured for the exclusive use of the Royal family.

The word "tar-tan" originated as the word "tar-taine" in France, the meaning of which was a kind of cloth. The Gaelic word "breacan," meaning "checkered," describes such garments as were used as early as 400 B.C. by the Celtic people. Reference to such garments appears in The Aneid, Book VIII. The number of colors in their designs showed rank, ranging from one color for servants, to five for chieftains, six for Druid priests, and seven for the Chief.

Originally worn in the Highlands of Scotland, the wearing of plaids or tartans developed slowly in the Lowlands where habits were affected somewhat by contact with the English, the Europeans, and the rest of the world. However, the Lowlands and Border area eventually produced much more tartan material than the Highlands.

Drum Castle, being on the fringe of the Highlands, was responsible for the commissioning of the Irvine tartan about a century ago, and is now known as the “Ancient Irvine pattern. It is not as well known as many of the others, but it is available from sources as a hand woven product. A variation is used by the Irvings of Bonshaw.

To quote the Scottish Tartan Society, "It is the Tartan that distinguishes the Scot in the eyes of the world." Accordingly, the Lord Lyon of Scotland saw the need for such an organization, and so established one in 1963. Started as a non­profit, non-commercial organization, the Society currently houses a museum of tartan specimens, books, pictures, and information relating to tartans and clans. The origin of the Irvine tartan is a matter of record in the files of the Society, and a copy is avail­able to members of the Society on request and payment of a small fee. However, the information regarding the origin of Clan Irvin/Irving/Eryvine or the Border leaves much to be desired.


The foregoing article appeared in the 1981 fourth-quarter edition of the Holly Leaf Chronicle newsletter. No author was shown, and it was not copyrighted.   -Ed.