Tag Archives: Tartan

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.



The Modern Clan is a Modern Asset

Almost accidentally Scotland has ended up with a unique asset in the form of the modern clan.

Tartan, the kilt and bagpipes have given the country an instantly recognisable identity around the globe. It’s an astonishing change of fortune for the Highland culture, once despised as being barbaric across the rest of a nation that applauded its destruction in the 1740s. Today it is so seductive that pipe bands play Scottish music in virtually every country in the world, and registered tartans include Sikh, Singh, California Highway Patrol, Jewish, Lady Boys of Bangkok and even the Law Society of Scotland.

Several factors coalesced in the late 18th and early 19th centuries to bring about this transformation. The publication of the poems of Ossian, supposedly the work of a great Gaelic poet, the equivalent of Homer to ancient Greece, took Europe by storm. It fitted into the fashionable concept of the Noble Savage. Then came the heroism and effectiveness of the Highland regiments in the British army that impressed the world. A few years later, the works of Walter Scott cemented the whole concept into place and he turned his words into vivid spectacle during the famous visit in 1822 by George IV to Edinburgh.

But the clan culture is more than just image. Scots have been emigrating for centuries and the numbers departing accelerated after the ’45 and through the 19th century. In Gaeldom ancestry and family was very important. Ask in Gaelic from where someone comes, and the question is, literally, from what family or line he comes. Kinship defined one’s place in that society and every Highlander could once reel off his ancestors and collaterals back through the generations. In new worlds the old kinship links within Scotland were irrelevant and this knowledge was soon forgotten – to the immense frustration of those of Scots stock today who research their forebears. But the modern clan – and today this includes Lowland names whose family origins were never Gaelic or Highland – allows virtually every descendant of Scots emigrants an instant family with whom to explore their Scottish roots. With the bonus of a shared language, no other nation can provide such a powerful draw or such a strong bond to its diaspora.

Most Scots are oblivious to this. More people and younger people are wearing kilts, particularly as badges of identity at national sporting events or weddings, but they don’t feel the need to associate with a particular clan except, perhaps, to choose the tartan of their surname. Only the tiniest minority take their interest in their clan origins much further. Being natives most feel they have no need to establish a Scottish identity.

This leads to a catastrophic wasted opportunity. There are estimated to be some 41 million people of Scots descent in the English-speaking world. In North America and the antipodes, Highland Games can attract scores of thousands. Unlike their equivalents over here, perhaps 120 Clan Associations will have tents, pulling in new members and creating a welcome for any who claim a Scots ancestry. The centrepiece of these games will be the march of the clans. Many clan associations will have branches throughout North America. All of them look to Scotland as their spiritual home and all want to discover their family and their families’ history here.

And this is where they are so often let down. Some thriving transatlantic clan associations have no equivalent over here. As a result they have no points of reference in the home country. For those that have, too often the Scots clan societies are old-fashioned, inward-looking, unadventurous and prone to internal squabbles. Few look with any great enthusiasm at their North American counterparts and too many feel superior. They feel they are the real Scots and they can find the tiggerish enthusiasm of the diaspora hard to handle. As a result the opportunity to harness the immense good will that the descendants of the emigrants feel towards Scotland, their country of origin, is sometimes rebuffed and dissipated.

A cultural bond can be used to create an economic bond. $10.4 billion was invested by the US in Ireland in 2004, only $3b less than investment in the whole UK. Of course Ireland is independent but the entire nation woos its diaspora and has copied Highland clans and tartans, knowing full well the advantages these can bring.

‘I have attended a number of meetings in Canada and the USA where some Scottish Minister was doing the rounds or other Scottish organisations wanting to talk to local people. Never have they come up with plans on what we can do to help. They tell us a tiny amount about their organisations or what is happening in Scotland and expect us to read their minds about why they have come or what we might be able to do to help…The local Scots seem to want business handed to them on a plate. ‘Do you mean we have to do some work to get the business? Unless there is a grant I’m not interested!’ That’s from Alastair MacIntyre who hosts the Electric Scotland website in Ontario with 35,000 pages and 1.5 million downloads a month.

We could change this by embracing our diaspora this summer. The Gathering will be the first International Clan event in this country since 1977. The last was great fun, well attended and left no legacy. This time we should use it for the benefit of this country.

First published in the Scotsman newspaper in March 2008