The Tartan

by Donald D. Erwin 



There is no clearer symbol of Scottish identity today than the tartan, especially when worn in the form of a kilt. To quote the Scottish Tartan Society, “It is the tartan that distinguishes the Scot in the eyes of the world.”  A tartan is a plaid pattern, now primarily associated with Scotland, that has come to be regarded as a heraldic device or badge that designates a major Scottish clan, family, or district. The design, or sett, of a Scottish tartan consists of colored bands or lines of specific width and sequence crossing at right angles against a solid ground and usually woven into woolen cloth or wool and silk. Although the tartan may be made in any size, the proportions of the stripes must remain constant. Colors may vary from light to dark within a sett. Traditionally, extra lines have sometimes been added to indicate rank. The early setts were recorded by marking the number and color of each thread on a pattern stick in order to reproduce the design.

The use of checked and striped garments is ancient. The Irish, the Britons, the Caledonians, and the Celts wore them, and they were appropriate for both male and female attire. It seems clear, however, that the early tribes did not utilize any specific pattern. Researchers believe that the colors of the early plaids were the result of whatever dyes happened to be available at the time. The colors might have been the result of staining woolen yarn with clay or from the juices of various plants or berries. Over time, however, the ability to retain specific colors from garment to garment evolved. This, in addition to the probable wish for individuality gradually gave way to more colorful plaids.

The tartan, as we think of it today as being related to a specific clan, began in the Highlands. In Scottish literature the earliest references to tartans date from the 13th century. At first tartans represented districts in Scotland. Later they became the badge of the chief clans or families of an area. A few patterns specify vocations, and different designs are sometimes worn for different occasions such as hunting or formal events. The war dress of the medieval Scot was essentially the leine croich, a long pleated coat that extended down below the knees. This was in common usage up until the early 1600s. It was about this time that the belted plaid, or tartan, forerunner of today’s kilt, came into common usage.

Scottish Highlanders originally wore tartans as a single, large, rectangular cloth folded lengthwise and belted at the waist. The bottom portion fell in loose pleats, sometimes sewn, and the upper and longer section was worn draped about the shoulders and pinned. During inclement weather it served as a protective cloak. When its wearer slept outdoors, it functioned as a blanket. The smaller kilt (knee-length pleated skirt) and plaid (rectangular length of tartan cloth placed over the left shoulder), now separate, were apparently derived from this costume sometime during the early 17th century.

After the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745, and the crushing defeat of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s forces at the Battle of Culloden on April 18, 1746 by the Duke of Cumberland’s forces, the wearing of Highland dress and the tartan were prohibited. This edict was formalized by the Dress Act of 1747. At the same time the Disarming Act demanded that all weapons in Scotland be surrendered, including the bagpipes which were considered “weapons of war.” It was not until 1782 that the ban against the wearing of tartans was lifted. Some old setts were lost in the intervening period, but many new ones were invented when the government subsequently approved military tartans for the Scottish regiments then serving in the British Army. Much of the present interest in tartan dress can be attributed to this official usage, as well as to the pride inspired by the honors won by Scottish Highland regiments while fighting for the British Empire.

Lowlanders and Highlanders alike now wear the kilt, although not very long ago the former recoiled in disgust from what they considered a primitive form of dress. Some Scottish historians believe that the kilt style of dress was that of the Picts, and was adopted later by the incoming Scots from Ireland. At any rate, over a period of one thousand years or so, the bare-legs form of dress gradually evolved into the “little kilt.” Sometime during the middle 1700s the kilt, as we know it today, emerged and became increasingly popular. The modern kilt is now used as military dress as well as for “special occasion” dress for civilians.

The tracing of specific tartans is difficult because references in the past have been meager, inconsistent, or both. More recently, portraits of chieftains, their pipers, and other household officers have been important sources for determining the history and genealogical relationships of clans and tartans. These portraits have proved more reliable than the tartan books that began to appear in the 19th century. Another source, although limited, is the Public Register of All Arms and Bearings in Scotland. Today tartans are authorized and registered at Lyon Court in consultation with the Standing Council of Scottish Chiefs. As a result commercial manufacture of tartans has become relatively standardized. In the mid-1960s the Scottish Tartan Center was founded at Stirling for tartan research.Irvine family tartan


Gentlemen – the Tartan!

Here’s to it!

The fighting sheen of it,

The yellow, the green of it,

The white, the blue of it,

The swing, the hue of it,

The dark, the red of it,

Every thread of it!

The fair have sighed for it,

The brave have died for it,

Foemen sought for it,

Heroes fought for it,

Honor the name of it,

Drink to the fame of it –

The Tartan!

                   Murdoch MacLean






At the Erwin Family Reunion in Wichita in June 2001 Scott Patrick Erwin, my youngest son, wore the Ancient Irvine tartan.