Tartans: A Woven History

Tartan Scarves

Contrary to what might be your first guess, a tartan scarf has nothing to do with tarts or with food. Instead, a tartan scarf is a woven material, generally of wool, having stripes of different colors and varying in breadth. While that sounds simple, their history is not, and it is one that intertwines with culture, politics, and even Scottish nationalism.

While all tartans are plaid, but, not all plaids are tartan. On tartans, the pattern on the stripes running vertically is exactly duplicated on the horizontal axis… Basically, this matching pattern in both directions will create a grid, on tartans, but on plaids it does not. Tartans come in many colors, often symbolizing things such as a Scottish clan or district. While tartans have been around for much longer, it is now generally accepted that clan tartans were established and named towards the end of the 18th century. Currently it is believed that the introduction of this form of weaving came to the West of Northern Britain with the Iron age Celtic Scoti(Scots) from Ireland in the 5 – 6th c. BC. The Ancient Romans described the Brits wearing striped cloth as well, but it is not confirmed it was tartan. These cloths’ colors were determined by local plants and their dye, so colors were more muted than they are today.

John A. Duncan wrote that, one of the first recorded mentions of Tartan was in 1538 when King James V purchased ‘three ells of Heland Tartans’ for his wife to wear. The first image of a tartan was in a German woodcut of about 1631 which is thought to show Highland soldiers – no doubt mercenaries – in the army of Gustavus Adolphus and wearing a clearly identified tartan philamhor – the great kilt. Clan tartans did not really develop until the 1800s, but there is evidence to suggest that tartans and districts went hand in hand prior to then. After the Battle of Culloden during the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745, clan tartans were actually banned to try and promote unity in Scotland. According to the House of Tartans, efforts to restore the spirit and culture of the Highlands after this lengthy period of repression, were encouraged by the newly formed Highland Societies in London (1778) and Edinburgh (1780). These societies helped build what the tartan is today. Now there are many different types of colorful tartans which can be viewed on House of Tartan and you can even search to see if your family has a clan tartan.