Tartan – The Fabric King of the Highlands

Tartan, or plaid as it is known by the Americans, is a patterned fabric cloth associated with Scotland. Though famous for being part of the traditional Scottish Highland dress, tartan has a much longer history. Read on to find out more about this famous cloth…


Tartan, though associated with Scotland has roots that aren’t very Scottish. The fabric we now know as tartan, a cloth with various colours of thread set against each other at 90° angles was first known of in Celtic populations in the 6th -7th century BCE. The fabrics are believed to have been contrasting only in light and dark and weren’t thought to be dyed colours. This innovation is first documented in 16th-17h Century CE, but these accounts are only documentation, it doesn’t mean they didn’t exist in Scotland before this.

The oldest evidence found of tartan is found in China. The Tarim Mummies, found in Xinjiang in north-western China were found to be wearing tartan clothing. The Cherchen Man who died in 1000 BCE, also found at Xinjiang in China is described as a Celtic-looking Caucasian man wearing a red twill tunic and leggings in a pattern resembling tartan. He also had a tattooed face, which is very similar to the description given to the Picts by the Romans when they invaded Britain nearly 1000 years later. Similar finds have been made in Scandinavia and central Europe.


The first earliest image of Scottish soldiers wearing tartan was made in a woodcut from 1631. Tartan was produced locally, and tartans were mixed with some people wearing multiple different tartans in the Battle of Killiekrankie. Standardised tartans came about in 1739 when the Black Watch regiment was given its own tartan. This was between the two Jacobite rebellions and the Black Watch was a regiment “employed in disarming the Highlanders, preventing depredations, bringing criminals to justice, and hindering rebels and attainted persons from inhabiting that part of the kingdom” Following the Jacobite rebellion of 1745 the British Government brought in The Dress Act 1746, banning all tartan apart from those worn by British Army Regiments.

This attempt to suppress highland culture was successful until the highland romantic novel revival, led by the likes of Sir Walter Scott. The Dress act 1746 was repealed in 1782 after political pressure from the Highland Society of London. By this time cultural colonialism was in full swing with the clearances and attempted the destruction of the Gaelic language. By this time Highlanders were not wearing kilts but had been anglicised and were wearing trousers.

Sir Walter Scott was essential in restoring tartan as part of Scotland’s heritage. When King George IV visited Scotland in 1822 he was convinced by Scott that he was a Stewart of Jacobite descent and convinced him to wear a highland outfit wearing a brand new red tartan – The Royal Stewart. This is the most recognisable tartan today. The visit was the first visit by a monarch to Scotland in 171 years. Nobles attended an event in his honour and were tasked with wearing Highland dress. It is from this event that Highland dress became the national dress of Scotland. From 1831 clan tartans became standardised and the family system of wearing your clan’s tartan became established.

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