Early Tartan

Pictures and early travelers’ descriptions show that tartan was the garb of Highland Scots at least as early as the 1500’s.


What were tartans like before the Proscription? Pictures and early travelers’ descriptions show that tartan was the garb of Highland Scots at least as early as the 1500’s.  This knowledge is due because this is the earliest century that visitors were able to get their travel memoires printed and illustrated. Such early references and illustrations depict “Scottish peasants” but tartan was not limited to the poor. The Countess of Lennox had her portrait painted about 1575 wearing what has become the oldest tartan still woven today, the “Lennox District.”

Pre-1745 tartans were varied in colour and design. Daniel Defoe, an early war correspondent, thought that the Scottish army resembled a crowd of “Merry Andrews” – translation, “clowns.” A number of early 18th century tartans are preserved both in cloth and in portraits.

The majority of the east coast tartans use bright red due to the proximity to the continent. The dye came from the cochineal bug from Persia. The “Ulster Tartan”, discovered in Antrim in 1956 and dated 1600-1625, is today woven in two versions – yellow and brown as found stained by the long burial in soil and in a bright red and green, believed to have been the original colours. The majority of Scottish north and west coast tartans are more blue, black, and green from available natural dyes. However, few of the colours match the so-called “Ancient” palates in use today. 

Many of these Pre-1745 tartans are dissimilar in warp and weft, the “up and down”. Many are also asymmetrical, running from left to right and then simply picking up the pattern and starting over rather than the modern technique of centering a stripe and weaving symmetrically outward in all directions. A modern example of an asymmetric tartan is the “Buchanan.” 

In 1704 the Laird of Grant was able to order his tenants, including MacDonalds, to wear tartan in broad stripes of red and green but no specific design was given. J. Telfer Dunbar was able to count twenty-two tartans in the famous painting of the battle of Culloden.

None of these is worn today. However, some of the pre-1745 tartans are being hand woven today. The tartan of the portrait of the “Piper to the Laird of Grant” has been resurrected. The tartan in the portrait of James Moray of Abercairney has been hand woven and worn by T. Col. Peter MacDonald, TD. 

The most controversial pre-1745 tartan was that of the original Independent Highland “Watch” Companies. The material was woven on Speyside . It was uniform but no design has been preserved other than that it was dark. The late James Scarlett, MBE, believed the original was not the same as the “Government Tartan” of today. After it was regimented in 1740 the “Black Watch” was issued two different tartans, one for the “great kilt” with a red stripe and another for the “little kilt.” The present sett is post-1745 but is not originally a “Campbell” tartan.

Philip D. Smith, Jr. PhD, GTS, FSA Scot

Professor Smith is the President of the American branch of The Scottish Tartans Authority, based in Crieff, Perthshire. As such, he serves on the Board of Governors. He is a member of the Guild of Tartan Scholars (one of seven Internationally) and a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. He teaches Gaelic and lectures internationally on tartan.

This article was first published on Panalba.