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History of Scottish Tartans


There is great debate on the origin of the word "tartan." It could have come from the Irish "tarsna", which meant crosswise, or the Scottish Gaelic "tarsuinn", meaning across. Or it could simply mean cloth, from the old French "tartaine".

What we know is, long before there were individual Scottish clans and tartans, the Celts loved bright colors and patterned cloth. Later the Scots incorporated this love for color into a unique plaid cloth. Only in recent history have particular patterns been associated with particular districts, army regiments, and, of course, Scottish clans.

Prior to around 1700, there is no historical reason to associate particular patterns with particular people or places, but it is clear that plaid cloth was made and worn throughout the Highlands and had been for hundreds of years.

By 1746, clan tartans were so closely associated with Highlanders and clan loyalty that their wearing was banned by the English after the Scots' defeat at Culloden until 1782. Interestingly, this was the time when many of the famous Highland Regiments were being formed, and they were allowed to select and wear a regimental tartan (for example, Black Watch).

The idea may have been to wean loyalty away from the clan and towards the British empire. Some of these regimental tartans later became family tartans.

When the wearing of the tartan was again permitted, there developed a keen interest in reestablishing or reinventing family tartans, beginning with the Highlanders and later spreading to all of Scotland.

King George IV and Queen Victoria both fell in love with the Highlander image as popularized by Sir Walter Scott, and greatly encouraged the adoption of this cultural symbol. Today, there are around 2800 tartans listed in the Scottish Heritage World Register - including ones for football clubs, individual towns, clans, and military regiments.

Sometimes, when we discover that Scottish tartans are not ancient, it "takes the shine off" our interest. In this case, it really shouldn't. The wearing of the tartan and linking the patterns (called setts) to particular families has done so much to unite Scottish culture world-wide and to reestablish our connections with our ancestors and with our fellow "Scots of the diaspora."

It is good to care about the past and to connect with our cultural roots and traditions. And there is no doubt at all that the Highlanders invented these wonderful plaids. Find your tartan and wear it with pride!

April 6 is National Tartan Day in the United States - a perfect opportunity to show off your Scottish heritage.

About the Author

Jeri Ballast is a work-at-home mom, using her degree is history to create the Heart o' Scotland website in honor of her Scottish ancestors.


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